In a Rough Job Market, More Conservatories Stress Business Skills

Email a Friend

In the current violinist-eat-violinist atmosphere for graduates of conservatories and university music schools, some institutions of higher musical learning are trying to bring academic training closer to the realities of the job market.

"Curricula that might have been relevant in 1890 or 1990 might not be as relevant today,” Richard Kessler, dean of the Mannes College, The New School for Music, explains in this Conducting Business podcast.

Mannes, one of New York’s three big conservatories, is in the process of revamping its entire curriculum, adding required courses in music entrepreneurship along with studies in technology, composition and improvisation. It is aligning itself more closely with its parent institution, the New School, while scaling back traditional music theory and history coursework. The idea: to broaden the range of skills music students have to compete in the real world.

“If you’re really committed to learning, you can assess these programs, no matter how traditional, no matter how long-standing and in some cases no matter how revered,” Kessler added.

New for-profit models are also being explored. The University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and Universal Music Classics, the world’s largest recording label, last month announced a partnership designed to “grow the next generation” of classical music artists and audiences. A new curriculum requires all of the school’s undergraduates, regardless of major, to take classes in music business, technology and entrepreneurship.

Elizabeth Sobol, the president and CEO of Universal Classics, said that the venture "addresses a bigger problem we’re having right now: we’re not training the next generation of industry impresarios and industry business leaders." Conservatories, she said, are also not reflecting a growing desire for nontraditional concert experiences in spaces like bars, clubs and parks.

Performance opportunities for classically-trained musicians have long been limited in a pop culture world. A 2010 study by Indiana University underscored that point, finding that 49 percent of recent music conservatory alumni are doing work “somewhat” or “closely” related to their training, while just 19 percent spend “a majority of their work time as musicians.”

But curricular reform can be difficult for tradition-bound conservatories, where elite private teachers have considerable clout and a business course may seem like a distraction. What's more, young artists may not have an aptitude for formulating marketing plans or booking tour dates. David Cutler, author of The Savvy Musician, and director of music entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina, argues that there are ways to fold entrepreneurial training into an existing school curriculum.

“An example of this might be the traditional degree recital,” he explained. Most undergraduate performance majors are required to do a recital as a requirement for their degrees. "If it’s important for us to attract new audiences, maybe we can use this as a playground for doing actually that. So perhaps part of the recital requirement might be: you need to get 200 people there to get an A, or 150 people there to get a B." Students might also be graded on how they can rethink the presentation to include multimedia or other visual elements.

Cutler added, “There’s some good news here in that more schools are changing their model to include more 21st century skills.”

Listen to the full segment above and tell us what you think in the comments box below: How should conservatories better prepare students for the realities of the job market?