Am I a musician, educator or entrepreneur? The short answer is yes.
by Luke Gilmour Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)
Yes, it is possible to earn a living, even have a career as a freelance school conductor. But Luke Gilmour’s research finds some ways that the situation could be improved – beginning with more relevant undergraduate education.
When deciding what to focus my attention on for my doctoral dissertation[i], I was drawn to investigate the world of freelance school conductors (FSCs) in NSW. My motivation was definitely autobiographical in nature, given that I had spent the last six years as a freelance conductor working in schools. The impetus for this project came from a desire to see if my journey was the same for everyone and an examination of what could be improved and how. What became apparent in the study is the need for peripatetic music educators (in this case conductors) to be multi-skilled in order to cope with the demands of constructing a career. Whilst the success factors of music performance and creative industry graduates have been examined extensively by Dawn Bennett[ii] and Ruth Bridgstock[iii] respectively, I wanted to take a closer look at my own sphere of freelance music education.
Who are they and what do they do
In describing the fragmented nature of freelance school conducting, it appears effective to create a fictitious typical freelance school conductor, Mr John Upbeat, in order to describe the mean demographic results (survey of fifty FSCs and three case-study interviews). Mr Upbeat has an undergraduate music degree and has been working as a FSC for around ten years. He currently works in three schools (most likely public and including primary and secondary), conducts 100-150 students per week, and works around seven hours per week in front of ensembles. At each school, he is engaged by a parent committee and has a monthly committee meeting with each group, which is unpaid and outside of normal business hours.
For his efforts, John earns $90–$100 per hour of rehearsal time and $0–$20 for administrative duties (56% of FSCs indicated $0) with no provision for superannuation contributions. John’s FSC annual income is around $20,000pa, which comprises 25–50% of John’s total income from all sources. During school term and the holidays, he is employed in other music-related activities in order to supplement his FSC income. John operates his FSC endeavours through a self-employed business structure but admits to struggling with financial aspects of freelancing, having had no prior training in small business management. Mr Upbeat recognises that ongoing professional development including training in small business, pedagogy and conducting is important but is unable to justify the time or the expense. He also questions the suitability and relevance of the limited number of available courses.
Whilst John Upbeat represents the mean demographic findings from my study, three broader profiles of FSCs emerged:
- 1.Those who do it ‘on the side’ for a bit of extra income as either part of a broad portfolio career or to supplement household income.
- 2.Those who are trying to make it a career but are struggling. That is, they are intentional and focussed but most likely are finding it difficult to generate adequate remuneration.
- 3.Those who have successfully made it a viable career (financially) and are intentional and focussed on freelance conducting as a significant part of their portfolio musical career.
It is this third category that best represents the FSC situation explored in the three case-study interviews and best reflected my own experience with the industry in Sydney. From here, I would like to focus on the three participants I interviewed – Ruth, Ken and Daniel – and highlight training and professional development concerns which may help other peripatetic music educators and associated stakeholders in constructing a sustainable and worthwhile career.
Training and mentoring
It became apparent throughout the study and in a review of literature that freelance school conductors and, by extension, many peripatetic music tutors are required to function as music performers, educators and business owners. However, most music educators generally have tertiary training in one or two of these three areas. For almost all, the predominant area where training was lacking centred on entrepreneurship and business ownership. More specifically, there are no undergraduate training programs designed to train someone as a freelance school conductor. This perhaps points to the broader issue of training musicians to be able to operate in the music industry more broadly rather than either as a classroom teacher or a performer. That is to develop skills that are not only discipline specific but also cover a range of career management processes, which lead to success in artistic industries.
Ken, Ruth and Daniel all referred to inadequate pre-service training and professional development in the area of business skills and financial management as a cause of stress.
Daniel: …to have training on what you can do, what you should do…even as a performing musician or as someone who wants to work as a conductor, professionally or with school groups, grant applications? Where do you get money from, how to do it? Then ideally you’d come out of an undergrad degree that somehow professionally accredited you to be a conductor working with schoolkids and they would have told you this is the way to do it, this is why.
Ruth: I have money come in from different ways. I have to learn how to manage it and I have to learn how to manage it so I end up on top and not — not knowing that something’s happening without realising it. So I actually did a business course and it was a small business course because really every musician is a small business.
It helped a lot, like a lot. I think all musicians should do it — well I’m 23 — you don’t get taught this stuff during uni and you jump out into the world and all this money’s coming in and you don’t know how to handle it. You don’t know how to ask people for more money too.
Aside from business skills, lack of training in pedagogy provided a degree of stress, particularly for those FSCs without an education degree. Like many music performance majors, these FSCs have found themselves in a situation by necessity or design where they are educating young musicians either in a private lesson or ensemble setting. It seems that the most effective form of training for these non-classroom teachers has been learning from experienced mentors. Ken describes this:
Ken: I’ve had the chance to watch really good people work and see how they do it. I think that would probably be my greatest education there, educationally, pedagogically, was actually having some great teachers myself. Great trombone teachers, some good conducting teachers and then playing under good conductors educationally.
Conversely, Daniel describes the value of going back to do a postgraduate Master of Teaching degree and having a relevant context to directly apply his learning. ‘I was kind of able to bend everything that I was reflecting on into conducting work.’ Anecdotally, I have noticed in my current position that there seems to be an increasing number of peripatetic music tutors undertaking graduate education degrees.
Freelance versus salaried
The freelance school conductor situation in NSW is in stark contrast to many states of the USA and in the neighbouring Australian state of Queensland. In Queensland Government schools, instrumental ensembles are directed by salaried instrumental teacher/conductors. Education Queensland’s Instrumental Music Program has been established for forty years in state schools. The program employs 400 instrumental music instructors (over 300 full-time positions) teaching in excess of 50,000 students annually. These instrumental music instructors are regarded and paid equivalent to a classroom music teacher. There is a formal curriculum framework that exists and as a result the job of the conductor and the course of instruction undertaken by students is considered to be curricular. These Queensland conductors are employed by the state government to service a number of schools in the one area in order to make up a full-time load (where desired by the teacher). This career pathway is then reflected in the training offered at the pre-service level. That is, Queensland universities train teachers to be employed (not freelance) conductors in schools and to operate within the salaried and structured job environment offered by the government and many private schools in the state.
Whilst there is no singular magic bullet to alleviate the concerns expressed by the FSCs in my study, the desire for a salary and its associated benefits is a recurring theme. On the surface the Queensland and American situations would seem appealing for the participants in this study, however further research would need to be taken to identify the benefits and drawbacks of FSCs trading a portfolio career for a more structured, salaried lifestyle. That is, the ability to craft one’s level of involvement as a FSC and the perceived autonomy would need to be traded for a more fixed and collegial working environment. Perhaps instead, stakeholders in the success of school-based instrumental and choral programs in NSW need to look at ways in which remuneration, working environment and training can be enhanced to better enable FSCs to create a more sustainable and expandable portfolio career — if they so choose. For example, Bill Shorten MP, Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, recently canvassed the idea of portable long-service leave for artists and musicians[iv].
The training of musicians to be conductors and educators in schools needs continued investigation. FSCs clearly indicated that they did not achieve sufficient pre-service training or ongoing professional development to equip them to operate in their current capacity. There seems to be an increasing amount of research into the portfolio nature of artists in general. What to include in the crowded curriculum of undergraduate music courses needs closer examination. Likewise, professional development courses need to be tailored to meet the needs of freelance music educators with diverse musical careers. Part of this training needs to include skills beyond the traditional ‘employability’ or technical skills taught by most music institutions[v]. Regardless of the path to finding oneself in front of students, I would recommend all peripatetic music educators to find a way to cover the three functions of their role – musician, educator and entrepreneur.
[i] Gilmour, L. (2012). Job satisfaction among freelance school conductors in New South Wales. (DMA Doctoral dissertation), University of Sydney. Retrieved from
[ii] Bennett, D. (2007). Utopia for music performance graduates. Is it achievable, and how should it be defined? British Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 179-189.
[iii] Bridgstock, R. (2011a). Making it creatively: Building sustainable careers in the arts and creative industries. Australian Career Practitioner Magazine, 22(2), 11-13.
[iv] Westwood, M. (2012, March 9). Is this long-service leave which I see before me?, The Australian, p. 7.
[v] Bridgstock, R. (2011b). Skills for creative industries graduate success. Education and Training, 53(1), 9-26.
Luke Gilmour is Director of Bands at Newington College and recently completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Over the past two years he has also worked in the tertiary sector as Associate Conductor of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Wind Symphony, Guest Conductor of the Conservatorium Orchestra and Modern Music Ensemble and as a casual lecturer in Ensemble Pedagogy.