The End of the Symphony and How Today's Music Students Should Adapt
September 7, 2012 at 3:00 AMThe era of the symphony orchestra is done. I’ve said this with a heavy heart for the past fifteen years. It has gone the way of dozens of other artistic mediums (portable mp3 players replaced CD players that replaced their tape predecessors; digital photos taken by camera phones replaced film that replaced its predecessors, etc.) It is no longer commonplace for every city to have a professional symphony orchestra, but rather a luxury for certain cities and for those patrons that can afford to keep it going (private and corporate.) Don’t get me wrong – I really hate stating the obvious, especially since I am a lover of classical music. I love playing it, studying it, practicing it, and teaching it. The history of each piece is so unique and representative of the times in which they were written. The great works will always withstand the test of time. However, the number of people who will pay to see them performed live is dwindling. The costs are going up, yet the demand is going down.
On a similar note, the universities are putting out more and more excellent symphonic musicians than there are available jobs. The Supply is LARGE, but the Demand is SMALL. Economics scholars will tell you that when the supply is greater than the demand, the price goes down. Unfortunately, this cannot always be the case when it comes to the supply/demand of the work force. People need paying jobs to live. Housing, food, transportation and other essentials of life cost money, and those costs are only increasing every year, regardless of the number of jobs available.
Then why are the universities sending out thousands of graduates into a field where they can only hope to land a position in a rare, well-funded orchestra? These graduates are not only not finding jobs, but are missing most of the skills necessary to find other work, or more importantly, having the skills to create their own work.
I have a theory.
Universities are slow to change. The bureaucrats and academians (yes, I made up this word) are not as open-minded as one would think. They want to protect their jobs more than they care about the students that merely pass through their halls. It’s self-preservation for them. By creating more graduates, they increase their numbers and tenure. Since only a tiny minority of the music school graduates land the coveted symphony jobs, those that don’t usually end up doing a career not in their chosen field, or end up teaching themselves. Universities expand to meet the demands of the higher population of students going to college, and they expand the departments where people want to major. Since most universities only want professors who have masters or doctoral degrees, those who have these credentials get the jobs. Those who usually have these credentials also were a product of the same university system where the goal is to get and keep their job. Many of the university professors that I have encountered throughout the past twenty-plus years have not had to create their own businesses and make a living as freelance musicians. They have had the regular job of teaching as their “fall-back” and have not been forced to make the same decisions that today’s students face.
It’s a perpetual cycle. I don’t see a change coming, yet. But I’m hoping for it. And this is what I propose:
1. All music students should be required to double major in business. The music program teaches you how to play music, but the business program will teach you how to make a living performing music. Marketing, taxes, accounting, licensing, advertising, legal, etc. are all extremely important subjects to know to be a freelance musician. Most musicians don’t realize what they can and cannot deduct on IRS forms, and have to pay an accountant to deal with it. Most also do not realize that they are offering a service; this service needs to be marketed and advertised.
2. All music students should be required to learn about unions. This is not just the musicians’ union, but all unions in the field of the performing arts. Not all states have the same rules or laws, and many times music graduates hope to work and tour all over the world. These students need to know the policies and procedures, as well as the laws, of every potential performing arts venue.
3. All music students should be required to learn about insurance. This is every type of insurance from instrument to liability to even health insurance.
4. All music students should be required to learn about contracts and the legalese. Even if they are offered a position with a prestigious symphony, it is usually under a contract, and each person needs to be able to read it and understand it. They need to know that everything is negotiable, and they should never sign it without reading it thoroughly. This subject of contracts is even more important when you are freelance, as all work should take place under a contract. Details should be in writing to avoid confusion, and it binds all the parties involved to certain responsibilities.
5. Universities should offer classes in multiple styles and genres, and encourage students to study those other than their chosen major style. Jazz studies will help classical music majors with improvisation, while theory classes will help vocalists understand chord patterns and progressions.
6. All music students should learn about recording arts. I’m not asking that each musician learn every detail of a mixing board, but rather to understand the specific microphone placement and recording of their chosen instrument(s). Most musicians will have some experience with recording during their lifetime, especially if they are submitting a recorded audition for a symphony orchestra.
7. In addition to learning about recording arts, all music students should learn how to play to a click track/pre-recorded track. This is especially helpful to have some experience with this, as many of the jobs that require a symphony are film and television studios.
8. All music students should learn how to amplify their instruments electronically. They should learn the difference between pickups and microphones, wired and wireless, amps and speakers, direct-input boxes and pre-amps, etc. More and more of today’s jobs include specific amplification of instruments for live settings and large venues.
9. All music students should learn the basics on how to clean and care for their instruments, including minor repairs. This seems so obvious, yet I know professional string musicians that still are not sure how to reset the sound post if it falls, or even how to shape a bridge to their liking. Yes, I do leave major work to the professionals, but in a bind, I know how to repair most any problem without doing major damage so the professional luthier can later do a permanent repair.
10. All music students should learn preventative medicine. For this, I am specifically referring to how to stretch and warm-up properly before every practice session, as well as every performance. Diet, exercise, and overall health are essential to being able to perform, regardless of instrument. You have to learn how to stay healthy in order to prolong your career. Professional athletes have a much shorter career than most professional musicians, yet musicians are sometimes required to do more physically every day. Taking care of your body will ensure you have a longer and rewarding music career.
11. Universities need to hire experienced, professional musicians who have been in the field and know how to teach it. Degrees are wonderful, but the experience should weigh more when it comes to wanting students to understand the realities associated with a music career.
12. And finally, as old-fashioned as this sounds, all music students should be required to learn how to act and dress for each role. Musicians must be versatile in appearance in order to fit the jobs. Symphonies prefer traditional appearance (no strange hair colors, no tattoos, neutral fingernail shades, conservative makeup and jewelry, long-sleeved blouses, long dresses, well-fitting tuxes, polished shoes, etc.) Jazz ensembles sometimes prefer a mix between symphonic dress and all black attire with nice suits being an option to the tuxes. Rock ensembles usually prefer nothing traditional where most anything is acceptable. The working musicians I know fit into ALL these styles of appearances, and more. When I need to fit into “rock,” I sometimes wear hairpieces in bright colors, paint my nails, and wear short skirts and fishnets. When I play with a symphony, I wear long black formal attire, conservative makeup, no or clear nail polish, natural hair in a neat style, sheer black hose and closed-toe black heels.
Just as most companies are slow to change, schools and universities are slow to change, too. Today’s society and marketplace seem to adapt quickly to the constant fluctuations and “improvements,” and I simply think that our educational institutions need to adapt, too, by giving us graduates that are actually trained and employable immediately. Perhaps our employment rate would be different overall if the educational system really did recognize what companies want in their graduates, and would only graduate those students that are truly ready for those jobs. Again, it’s just my theory.
I invite you to read more entries at my website: Vinylinist.com
From Timothy JuddThe premise of this post is not true. Most cities have a professional orchestra and many of them are thriving. A few examples are Seattle, St. Louis, Rochester, Buffalo, Kansas City, Nashville.
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 11:27 AM
Look at all the magnificent concert halls that have been built around the country in the last ten years in places like Omaha and Dayton as well as larger cities.
There is simply no evidence that "orchestras are dying."
It is true that musicians need to understand the business and the importance of the union in improving the profession.
From Michelle JonesThank you, Timothy, for taking the time to comment. I respect your differing opinion, and I ask you to respect mine. Symphonies are dying all across the country and the world, as per articles stating facts and statistics referenced in Ms. Niles' later post and other articles throughout other blogs. I have been a victim of this phenomenon in 3 different orchestras, and again with opera and ballet (all folded). Those symphonies that are thriving have understood that the business model needed to change and they adapted. I am very happy that they are still thriving!!! I hope more organizations look to those models and find ways to incorporate those successful changes and implement them into their businesses. It could be the marketing, outreach, educational programs, diversification of concert repertoire, inclusion of other "acts" or soloists...the list goes on and on. The thriving orchestras have found a way to keep the doors open and keep paid musicians on payroll; let's hope they can share their ideas to keep more symphonies in business!
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 3:58 PM
From Kypros MarkouThis is sad. Michelle Jones has not been a member of any professional classical orchestra such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, Boston or any of our great regional orchestras such as Toledo, Grand Rapids etc. Nor is she giving inclusive facts that cover a significant length of time and a broad range of professional orchestras. I agree with Tim that her premise is erroneous. If one looks at the larger picture one can see progress.
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 4:27 PM
A lot of her practical suggestions are good and have practical value. I would not put as much importance on things such as amplifying one's violin or even some of the accounting, legal matters etc. The time at college is best used to become the best artist possible. I would place a lot more value on learning to be a responsible artist, acquiring a broad musical foundation, artistic integrity such as respect for composers and colleagues, creative interpretation, musical cooperation (chamber music) and yes, perfectionism. Incidentally, most colleges if not all do hire "professional musicians" to teach, so I am not sure what Ms. Jones is referring to when she makes a comment to that effect.
As for preserving Symphony Orchestras, there are always challenges, ups and downs, problems to be solved, adjustments to be made. Let's remember that even the New York Philharmonic did not become a 52 week season orchestra until 1957 (please correct me if I have the date wrong) And look at all the wonderful young orchestras such as the Chicago Civic, Detroit Civic, New World Symphony and the repertory they play which includes the Rite of Spring and Mahler symphonies. It's unfortunate that it is fashionable for certain people to present negative news and predict the demise of classical symphony orchestras. Are things working smoothly? No. It has always been a struggle but a struggle worth fighting for. The challenge exists because Symphony Orchestras and all high quality Arts organizations do not produce "bottom line" material profits. They "produce" inspiration, emotions, motivation, faith in humanity; those of us who are active in the Arts need to constantly work to secure appropriate financial support. I am a classical musician, proud to be one and never regretted becoming one; always eager to face new challenges. By the way, back in the 60s and 70s I used to read and hear the same negative view and predictions of the demise of symphony orchestras in England; that we have too many professional orchestras in London, and surely one of them has to go. Not only none of them have gone, there are more terrific ensembles presenting wonderful classical concerts. There are many examples of accomplishments in terms of quality of performance, programming, outreach activities, and on and on, that our symphony orchestras can be proud of. But because of the system of funding we all need to constantly make the case for the true value of what symphony and chamber orchestras contribute to society. Listening to a live performance in a concert hall by a good professional orchestra is not something that can be replaced.
From Michelle JonesExcuse me, Mr, Markou, but you only have knowledge of what I have listed in my biography. Your post and comments seem to be more interested in questioning my credibility to make such statements (which I have clearly said are only MY OPINION) than with actual statements about the thriving orchestras. I have not met you, nor had any other conversation with you other than through these comments. You do not have my full and complete resume of PROFESSIONAL orchestras with whom I have worked or been associated. I actually restricted the amount of information I put in my biography for space. I see you have little to no biography at all, and have not taken the time to write any information about you. Therefore, based on your logic for determining where information is gathered, you are neither a seasoned professional musician nor an international educator and lecturer. However, I do not actually believe that to be true based on your other comments. So why do you judge me so harshly?
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 5:27 PM
I have been a paid symphonic musician for much of my career, and although I have not been in the orchestras you have listed, this does not mean I have not been in professional orchestras. Orlando is considered a "major city" and we have seen orchestras come and go. Fortunately, we do have a symphony, but it is not a 52 week season orchestra. Again, my symphonic experience is not limited to Orlando, but this is where I currently reside. I could move to another city to be a symphonic musician with a well-paid salary, but I choose to stay here. It's my choice. Just as it every musician's choice to decide where they want to live and set their careers. Did you choose where you live? And your career? I hope so. I am very happy with my choices, and I hope you are, too. Life's too short to be unhappy. :-)
And a side note: I NEVER said universities should not teach musicians to be the best artists possible. I believe that the students and professors should know how to make a career out of music without relying only on symphony orchestras. The suggestions are in addition to what is already taught, not replacements.
From Kypros MarkouDear Ms. Jones,
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 5:57 PM
I was about to edit my post in order to focus it in a more positive direction and I saw your response. I am sorry if I upset you but I found the title of your post "The End of the Symphony and How Today's Music Students Should Adapt" quite provocative. If you had presented your suggestions as alternative paths to becoming a professional musician or earning a living as a professional musician I would have found everything you say to be perfectly legitimate even if I disagreed with some of your recommendations.
I did look your bio as you have it in order to understand your perspective better. I just wanted to know if you had been a classical symphony musician or perhaps an administrator. Your posted bio did not include references to your participation in classical symphonic orchestras; I am glad to know that you played in the orchestra in Orlando which was (and possibly still is) a fine orchestra. I did have the opportunity to hear the orchestra when it was conducted by Kenneth Jean and I am familiar with what happened to the Florida Symphony, as I believe it was called in the 80s. I am familiar with similar struggles in other cities. My whole point is that the Symphony Orchestra is not about to end. Some of us continue to believe in the greatness of symphony orchestras and work hard to preserve and help symphony orchestras thrive.
As for preparing students, there are many things they need to learn and do. When someone chooses to pursue studies (I intentionally use the word "studies" and not "career") in music, they should focus on the goal of becoming the best musician they can possibly be. If Bach, Mozart and Beethoven or Schoenberg speak to them then they should devote themselves to this music. When they need to pursue a career and making a living they may have to make adjustments and learn to play other composers or types of music. The degree of adjustment that they can make and/or are willing to make is an individual matter and has to do with one's integrity and taste among other things.
Your suggestions may be useful for some people under certain circumstances. In that context your article is perfectly fine. But if the premise is that Symphony Orchestras are reaching their end, and therefore those pursuing musical studies should direct their main focus on matters other than becoming the best musicians possible, then I cannot agree with you.
And yes, I am both an educator and performer.
From Michelle JonesThank you, Mr. Markou, for your clarification and comments. As I stated, it is a blog post about my opinion of where things are headed. I admire and respect you for taking the time to challenge the specifics I mentioned. I am also very pleased to hear you are a performer and an educator. My blog was meant to be thought-provoking, and it has definitely brought forth some strong opinions on all sides. And you are correct in that I do not want universities to stop creating symphonic players; I simply want the students to understand that there is more to being a professional musician than playing in a symphony and that they should be prepared for that reality. Hopefully maybe you will consider some of my suggestions, make them your own with your style, adaptations, etc., and incorporate them into your teachings. We do share a common goal as we are both educators: shaping and influencing humans to love and appreciate music!
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 7:49 PM
From Kypros MarkouThank you so much for the positive response. i currently live in Detroit where the Symphony went through a very difficult strike. Thankfully they are back on stage. I also read Laurie Niles article which makes reference to yours. I agree very much with what she says except one thing; that the era of taking a symphony orchestra for granted is over. There was never such era. It was and will always be a struggle. Whether it was Bach or Haydn dealing with their employers or today's Governments in Europe or Boards of Directors in the USA. I don't claim to have the answers but I do believe in the value of the Symphony and all classical (as well as non classical) ensembles. Those of us who do believe in this should never give up. Of course not all of us, indeed very few of us will have our dream job. But we do "adapt" as you say so that we can make a living. At the same time we should always listen to our heart and defend what we believe in with passion as well as intelligence.
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 8:08 PM
If you wish, please feel free to communicate with me by e-mail. I would be happy to share my experiences and observations about these challenges.
I wish you much success with your efforts.
From Howard HarknessWhether or not the professional symphony is dying out (I don't think it is, at least not for the next few decades, despite the fact that there are some high-profile symphonies experiencing financial problems), it is quite obvious that most musicians are not going to get a job in a major symphony. Or even in a smaller one such as the excellent Plano, Tx Symphony.
Posted on September 9, 2012 at 11:49 PM
There are a few dozen paid openings each year in all of the symphonies in the world (counting those that pay enough to actually live on). There are a few dozen world-class musicians graduating from UNT in Denton, Texas every year, and there are about 100 other top-notch music schools worldwide that produce similar numbers of excellent instrumentalists.
The numbers just don't work. There are 100's if not 1000's of applicants for every available opening, and you have to jump through unbelievable hoops just to get an audition. If you want to earn a living as a musician, your best best is not going to be with a major symphony.
I make pretty good money just teaching. Fortunately, I enjoy teaching even more than I do performing, although I do find four or five fairly well-paid gigs a year. At my level of performance (which is decidedly mediocre), a knowledge of marketing is more important than my musical ability. That's just the facts of life.
From Lawrence FrankoSomewhat depressing, but an absolutely realistic assessment, Michelle. Even here in Boston, a 'music town,' Demand and Supply for classical music and musicians are FAR out of balance. As a violinist who almost went the Professional route (I was Seji Ozawa's Concertmaster in the Tanglewood Orchestra when he won his Koussevitsky Prize, and played in Pops under Fiedler), but who later went into business and business academe (see my profile), I heartily endorse your point number 1. Some people might even find they really enjoy business, and can find musical fulfillment by being highly proficient amateurs (where you can play what you Want and Love to play, rather than play the shlock that even Pops now demands), and maybe even earn enough money to be a Patron. Your point 8, however, makes me ill. My wife and I dance quite a bit and are increasingly treated to amplified music. We HATE it. If only for the health hazard (do young musicians really want to deaf by age 40?), I would think that a deal killer for a musical career. In the event, I will still advocate for, perform, and sponsor as much classical music as I can, and fortunately can do so on my own terms, thanks to having followed your advice in Point 1.
Posted on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 AM
From Robert KeithI agree with Timothy Judd, and I may add this:
Posted on September 10, 2012 at 1:50 AM
If you are an expert on your instrument, then you can find work by playing teaching, etc...
From Paul DeckI'm fortunate to live in an area that has a really good orchestra (Roanoke Symphony) that seems to be doing well under capable leadership. Both the conductor (David Stewart Wiley) and the concertmaster (Akemi Takayama) are world-class. And this despite the fact that the area is known mostly for bluegrass and old-time fiddle music.
Posted on September 10, 2012 at 2:09 PM
The blog makes the point that the days of the symphony orchestra are over. But there are two alternatives. One is that we never had days of symphony orchestras without struggles (I think this point was made quite sufficiently in a previous posting), and the other is that we're in a down phase of a cyclic economy during which it is normal to expect professional wages and benefits to suffer, especially in the arts which are viewed by many throughout society as less essential than other professions such as medicine or law.
The imbalance between music schools pumping out competent graduates by the hundreds and very few living-wage symphonic jobs available is not new but seems to be getting worse. I think the biggest reason is that over the last 30 years violin pedagogy has improved dramatically such that it is now possible for many more of our young people to reach the skill level that a violinist would need to play in an orchestra. Honestly you don't need the skill of Joshua Bell to play in the Chicago Symphony. Also consider the impact of classical music education blossoming across eastern Asia throughout the last 50 years, and the population of that region of the world. This development has raised the level of competition very sharply.
Violin performance is not the only field in which there are too many young people entering college with only a "hope and a prayer" of eeking out a stable professional career in a traditional context. It is true in virtually every field of the arts and humanities. Even there is concern that law schools graduate too many, and have been for quite some time.
I don't advocate a violin student trying to also become a financier/marketer/accountant, and a luthier, and a computer programmer, etc. The jack-of-all-trades approach is the wrong way. Division of labor is the basis of civilization. A young person should ask himself whether there is anything in common between two important lists: What he enjoys doing, and what he can do well enough that there is a strong likelihood of making a living wage doing it? If he chooses a risky career pathway, there should be a fallback. And it should not ALWAYS be teaching the violin.
From Michelle Jones@Dr. Franko,
Posted on September 10, 2012 at 11:58 PM
Thank you for your comments! I agree with you to an extent regarding volume with your comment on Number 8, but there are other instances where the amplification is used:
"Your point 8, however, makes me ill. My wife and I dance quite a bit and are increasingly treated to amplified music. We HATE it. If only for the health hazard (do young musicians really want to deaf by age 40?), I would think that a deal killer for a musical career."
I play amplified violin for many different things, and it is not to make it louder for me. One specific is for weddings on the beach. With the waves and wind noise, plus the sound of my violin disappearing into the wind, an acoustic pickup allows the music to be heard by all. Another place is for conventions. Usually, only those next to the strings can hear them; when it is amplified, they can feed the sound through the entire ballroom via the sound system, while keeping it a low enough volume so as to allow conversation. Another place is when I am performing at venues where I may be heard acoustically, but I am performing with other electric instruments and the sound has to balance equally. I also use the acoustic pickup when I am recording as it gives a different feed than just the microphones. Sound technicians place microphones over, below and farther away in the room, then also take the feed from the acoustic pickup and blend all four to create that perfect sound they want in their recordings. These are just some examples of where I need to "amplify" my violin without actually making it deafening to the listener. The sound technicians who don't understand louder is not better are the ones to blame if the volume is too high. And yes, I have had some bad experiences with that, too!
Again, Dr. Franko, thank you for your comments!!!
PS - I read your bio - quite impressive! :-)
From Lawrence FrankoHello MIchelle,
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 4:32 AM
Thank you for your kind comments re my remarks. I now better understand your comments re amplification. Yes, there are some circumstances where it might be a good, or at least OK, idea. Everything in moderation. (That goes back to Aristotle, I think..) We just have had some particularly awful experiences of extreme amplification! Hope our paths cross someday. If you ever get to Boston and would like to see the Granddaddy of the BSO, Cecelia and other musical organizations, the HMA, give me a shout! Best wishes. Lawrence Franko
From John BeckWhile I applaud the author for discussing the subject, assuming all music schools are the same and ignoring the business side of the arts is simply not correct. The Career Development Seminar that I teach is required for all music students at the UNC School of the Arts. All the topics mentioned by the author are covered the syllabus. Other schools such as Eastman have been addressing this for more than a decade. Peabody Conservatory just hired Gerald Klickstein (see The Musician's Way.com) to head their program addressing these issues.
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 4:49 AM
My conservatory education did not include courses in this area in the 1970's - 80's however many schools are currently addressing how to be an artist-citizen and entrepreneur in the 21st century.
John R. Beck
From John BeckI am adding the text of a facebook response to this blog post since it has been shared many times in that forum. If the purpose of blogging to to initiate conversation and dialogue I believe this entry has done just that. (John W. Parks IV is a faculty member at Florida State University and is Vice President of the Percussive Arts Society.)
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 4:57 PM
From Kevin HunterMichelle, I don't see anything wrong with your premises - I think you are right on the money. To hold the opinion that professional orchestras are flourishing is to be misinformed (http://247wallst.com/2011/05/01/the-most-cash-strapped-classical-music-organizations/). I live in suburban Chicago - I cannot afford the CSO - their ticket prices are absurd in an effort to offset costs. Our local orchestras are forever holding fund raisers and playing to half-filled venues. America is not spending money on classical recordings or on classical concert venues at a rate sufficient to maintain business as usual. I am a professional artist and educator and we see the same trends in the art business. There is an overabundance of truly wonderful artists trying to sell to an ever shrinking market. I think your comments and suggestions are excellent and fine artists would do well to apply your suggestions to their predicament as well.
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 7:24 PM
From Michelle JonesPlease pardon the briefness of this comment as I am in between recording sessions and students. I do want to address the above comments in more thorough detail, but I wanted to quickly state how absolutely thrilled I am that more music schools are teaching at these levels! This is wonderful news and gives me hope for not only the symphonies, but also for the music graduates. As an employer and contractor of dozens of musicians regularly, I have seen the "products" of many music schools. I am pleased to know that the above-mentioned schools are or have implemented the teaching of those skills in their curricula. Perhaps I should accept the invitations to visit these schools for recruiting musicians to work with me.
Posted on September 12, 2012 at 3:26 PM
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