It is undeniable that post-secondary music education in the United States finds itself today at a crossroads. While the number of full-time jobs in music performance is steadily shrinking (consider that a typical bassoon has two to four times as many keys as there are living-wage bassoon openings across the country in a given year), institutions of higher learning continue to produce ever-growing numbers of qualified graduates.
Of course, this problem does not pertain only to bassoonists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not even maintain a wages category for musicians because of an insufficient number of persons in the industry holding salaried positions. Meanwhile, three of the largest post-secondary music programs in the U.S. enroll more than 4000 students annually, and about 8000 music performance degrees are granted around the country in a given year.*
Some music educators and administrators seem to act oblivious to this reality, believing that a student’s talent and hard work will lead to professional success, which all too often is understood in the traditional sense of securing an orchestral position. This approach is increasingly questionable given that even prior to the onset of COVID-19, AFM and ROPA reported the existence of fewer than sixty symphony orchestras in the U.S. paying their musicians a living wage.* Naturally, not every performance major playing an orchestral instrument dreams of a job as a member of a symphony orchestra, but it is probably a safe assumption that most do.
Thankfully, a slowly-growing number of educators and decision-makers appear to be committed to making at least incremental changes within our broader industry. Thus far such initiatives are limited to only a handful of music programs which recently began to look beyond last-century’s go-to model of a symphony job as the most desirable destination for their graduates. Interestingly, my research in this area indicates that music schools that embrace innovation are more attractive to prospective students, which in turn allows them to be more selective, and thus to provide the highest possible level of musical training. This, in turn, impacts alumni outcomes, and therefore helps attract top talent in the future. Indeed, if the innovative approach to classical music performance training were to gain real traction, institutions that find themselves at the forefront of this shift might well be poised to become the new leaders in tomorrow’s music performance educational landscape.
Undoubtedly, the time for innovation within the music performance training sector is now. As the College Music Symposium aptly observes, performance curricula have not seen substantive change in the span of the past century.* Needless to say, much has changed in the interim, and as such, beyond the necessary shift in mentality that needs to occur on the part of music students and their parents as well as private teachers, universities too ought to recognize this new reality and look for a modern-day approach to music education. Overhauling music performance curricula in order to better reflect the actual conditions that depict the job market is an important step in the direction of aligning professional music programs with the demands of the evolving profession.
In my own journey as an educator, I have sought ways to help equip students with the tools which they need to face the demands of today’s music profession. Following my successful management of SMU's chamber music program, in the Spring semester of 2018 I launched what had proven to be an innovative and highly-praised new course on the secrets of wind playing. Organized around the vicarious pedagogical model that takes advantage of the many benefits of group instruction, the course included a robust lecture component which, in addition to covering standard aspects of wind performance, also addressed topics such as: entrepreneurial career planning, musical talent and musical intelligence, performance anxiety, and more. Due to popular demand, I also established a mechanism whereby I taught individual lessons to advanced students from virtually all of the Meadows School of the Arts woodwind studios, which focused primarily on topics such as phrasing and interpretation, early music ornamentation, orchestral audition/competition preparation, and extended techniques. The enthusiasm with which SMU woodwind students responded to these new curricular offerings reinforces my belief in the need for a new approach to training tomorrow’s performers and educators.
The legal maxim Eius est interpretare legem cuius condere states: whoever is authorized to establish the law is authorized to interpret it. Individual faculty may feel powerless when it comes to enacting curricular changes. And yet, as we establish the laws governing our own courses, we have a degree of freedom to steer instructional methods and content in the direction of reflecting as much as possible the current realities of the music profession in order to prepare students for attainable and satisfying careers in music performance.
*If you wish to see references supporting claims made in this post, please contact me directly.