A Classical Music Career?

by Frans de Ruiter. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

It is the brainbreaking moment at the family-dinner-table when the 10 or 14 or 18 years old son or daughter announces that (/media/system/js/s/index.html)he wants to pursue a classical music career. What does it mean: a classical music-career, or a classical-music career?

To cut it short, the first doesn’t exist any more: already over the last two decades the career of most musicians is a portfolio-career wherein the musician has two to three different ‘professions’ at the same time and some seven or eight over a career of 40 years.

This being a fact, the question is whether the professional education system prepares them sufficiently for this situation. In the majority of cases the answer is no, hence the justness of the brainbreaking moment as in the above.

A classical-music career does exist but is not any more the classical music-career as it was till the seventies of the 20th century.

Classically trained musicians do not only play classical music (roughly the period 1700-1950) but play also music from the early baroque, contemporary avant-garde, popular and entertainment music, amplified and improvised music on classical, period and electrified instruments, in smaller and bigger ensembles, and of course they also teach, lead and guide, develop, invent, organize, arrange, as applicable to all music-careers.

Do professional education and training institutions prepare them sufficiently for this situation? In the majority of cases the answer is no, hence – again – that the so-called brainbreaking moment as in the above is – again – totally justified.

The career-changes and – so – the need to be prepared for these careers came from within the sector and from outside. From the inside of the domain of music because of the repertoire and performance practice explosion: all repertoire from ages of music history is – through the development of new technologies – available to all, where and when needed. This means that also the creation of new works, which always relates to the knowledge of what already exists, belongs to the activity-domain within a classical-music career. One retrieves also ‘classical/trained musicians’ in the world of improvisers, in musical orchestras, in suburban creativity centers as well as in research institutions.

It is a pity to see that - for sure in Europe – many of the official publicly funded Conservatoires or Schools/Faculties of Music in fact offer in practice some kind of frozen curricula. If policy-statements, e.g. on websites and in accreditation/assessment procedures, declare that the institution fully reflects the developments in the changing world of arts and culture and offers students up-to-date and state-of-the-art training and education, most of the time this message from the management has not yet reached out into the working floor, or meets there sincere scepticism. Even if the curriculum seems modernized, in the one-to-one teaching one is mostly still in the 19th century, both in a pedagogical sense and as far as aesthetics and taste is concerned. As always: with a few exceptions. However where clearly visible modernized bachelor and especially master programmes have been conceived and implemented, the quantitative interest from students is usually minimal because these programmes are too odd elements in a generally conservative image of the institute in question.

The consequence of all this is that many alumni of the professional music education system discover only in the pedagogical and performance practice what they can (not enough) and what they have missed during their studies (a lot).

Because they also weren’t trained in a mentality of life-long-learning, they have difficulties in accepting that from an early point in their careers, further learning is needed: orientation and acquiring skills in a multifaceted musical world, working with and for unusual audiences, including other strands of repertoire, being part of multi-/interdisciplinary projects, working under differentiated leadership, initiating and ‘leading’ projects in not specifically music-contexts where societal relevance is of greater importance, etc.

Why is this happening? What are the backgrounds of this unfortunate and unfruitful situation?

There are a number of them.

In the first place there is an employment issue.

It is on one side not advantageous that main subject teachers (violin, voice, piano etc.) stay in their positions for 30 or 40 years, repeating what they teach during one decennium after the other. Fixed rules in agreements between management and unions play here a devastating role. On the other side application and selection procedures for new staff show old-fashioned and conservative points of departure. New professors are mostly hired because of their top-level performances in a – in the meantime – small part of the worlds where music plays a role: traditional orchestras, concert-halls and opera-houses. They are by nature and sui generis not the ideal teachers for the large number of broadly-based-musicians-to-be.

In the third place they have themselves been taught in the systems and contexts far back in the previous century and their teaching has its roots in that historically established fashion.

The fourth negative element is the assessment and evaluation procedures. Committees judging progress, intermediary and final examinations consist mainly of internal peers. Out of fear for dissident opinions about deviating alternative skills and practices, students are trained to present themselves as ‘mainstream’, on the basis of principles of the 19th century.

This all does not very much contribute to the preparation of the young musician for the future and even for the state of the art of the musical world of today.

When directors and board members of Conservatoires, Academies of Music, Schools of Art and the like during conferences or in their public relation policies speak about innovations in their establishments in this domain, they are quite often not or insufficiently aware of what actually is happening in the classrooms.

What ought the situation to be?

Music plays an important role in the life of the majority of mankind: they are active or passive amateurs, music lovers, they are confronted with styles and genres as many as there are stars in the sky; music comes live or through loudspeakers in all kind of products of modern technology; music is used in therapy; much of what comes to us in images, on Ipads, Iphones, smartphones, DVDs, television, monitors, in gaming, in advertising, in sports events: music is everywhere, as support act, as contrast, to reinforce, to entertain, to cure, to explain, to amaze, to move, to be researched. Music floods all veins of society.

And where music is, there is the need for musicians, musicians for now and for the future.

The need is for musicians who can truly enter the portfolio-career, every now and then commuting between multitasking (literally on the same day) and (temporarily) very profound specialization.

Professional music training and education should prepare for that. This means that - inclusive of the supporting general subjects such as theory, history, pedagogy, technology which are equally important – the one-to-one-teaching should be totally individualized, not in order to - as in the past and unfortunately also nowadays – arrive at the same unified results with every student, but rather that the outcome for every student is different.

It is not a question that one specialty (e.g. solo violin playing) is better, more important or highly respected than another (e.g. community musician), all should be of equal importance, each in their own right.

This means that for some, individual instrumental/vocal lessons are extremely important, but for others much less; for some, classes in technology, sound recording and editing, contemporary creative composing are vital, for others they can remain as side subjects.

And this for all thinkable curriculum-items one can regard as important for music on its way to the 22nd century.

This not being the case - an individual curriculum in which every ‘subject’ has its appropriate weight given the type of musician in question: is there a solution for this immense problem, if we not only look at the tragedy for the young professional musician but also at the loads of public money in the educational system which should serve a better case.

One solution could be to close ‘the institutions’ and start completely anew with a new kind of institution with (a) radical new format(/media/system/js/s/index.html) in a flexible hierarchy of main subjects, side subjects, free electives and optional extras. Another perhaps more realistic approach is that new legislation forces institutions to implement substantial changes in curriculum construction in one or two years time, so at great speed.

This is not a plea in favour of giving up what is good in existing institutions, but to limit strongly the quantity of classical music-career students, and rather to give free way to a complete other concept of the curricula for the great majority of students who will for their entire life work outside the traditional labour markets: the symphony orchestra and their derivatives.

Although the situation as described relates to the the situation in Europe, I am pretty sure that there is a worldwide problem. Especially in the US one sees the uprise of so-called Career Development Offices, a phenomenon slowly taking over also in Europe. Of course there is nothing against facilities that help students to develop their careers, but I am convinced that career development should happen through the study, in the classroom, in the curriculum during all the years in school in bachelor and masters programmes, and not when confronted with reality after six years of curing in a glass-house.

It is, remains and shall remain a brainbreaking moment when at the family-dinner-table…


Professor Frans de Ruiter is Director of the Leiden University Academy of Creative and Performing Arts and President of the International Music Council. Previously, he was Director of the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, Netherlands.