Inglorious Basterds: A Young Person’s Guide to a Career in Classical Music
This blog is the first in a series I’m writing for young adults considering careers in classical music. It isn’t for the faint of heart. This is the industry as I see it.
I’m not going to analyze every possible career in music. Instead, I hope to promote the discussion and sharing of ideas on how to course correct a flailing industry. It’s my wish that, over time, this remote corner of the internet grows into one where bright ideas are more abundant than the harsh realities troubling professional American musicians today. Realities that, more often than not, end up turning bright careers into something resembling the Showdown at House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill Volume One.
Professionals, please share success stories in the comments below, by all means. Administrators, please share proven solutions. Also, I invite criticism; this isn’t about “being right.” It’s about understanding what young American musicians are up against, and it’s about trying to do right by the legions of young people who are considering entering the workforce.
Let’s get started, but brace yourself. This is going to be rough.
The Bad, the Bad, and the Ugly.
If you are a young person seeking advice about whether or not to make a career in classical music, here’s what too few have the
courage, or confidence, to tell you:
Don’t do it.
Most aspiring young musicians won’t make it. At least, not in the way they want. There are too few jobs and too many musicians on the market. Unless you’re already the very best of the best, your chances of succeeding are remote. Turn back now. Better musicians than you already have. Turn back now, or prepare for the fight of your life.
Further, you don’t owe Beethoven anything. It isn’t up to you to save classical music. It isn’t up to you to convince the world to love classical music—which is just as ridiculous a proposition as trying to catch the eye of a Hollywood star who doesn’t even know you exist, let alone consider loving you.
There’s no shame in turning back, despite the heavy peer pressure you feel to the contrary.
Realism is not pessimism
Fact: There are plenty of musicians in the world today to carry the torch.
Fact: There are scores of conservatories and universities producing future torch bearers in droves.
Fact: As I write this, roughly half the country is living below the poverty line. (UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, unless you’re an economist, it can be tricky to make heads or tails from the census link in supplied here. Talking points today are abuzz with this statistic, here is a New York Times report that supports it.)
This news will strike many as dream shattering. Well, it is. But I’m confident it’s a good idea to suggest to our nation’s most gifted young artists to choose a different, but equally soul-satisfying occupation. Set aside your concern for the future of the arts for a moment, and consider these questions. (You can argue later about the difference between realism and pessimism.)
- How is classical music promoted “better” with a greater or equal number of professionals than are already on the market?
- Will classical music vanish if the number of professional classical musicians dwindles to below “x” million?
- Why can’t the burden of outreach be shared by amateurs?
- Who has greater career freedom, professionals or amateurs?
Look, I, too, love Benjamin Zander’s beautiful talks on classical music. I, too, believe the world is a better place to have beautiful intonation. I, too, love a beautifully rendered phrase. I, too, believe in the importance of Beethoven. I, too, believe in the importance of classical music in our society.
When I ask young people to turn back, I do it in the full knowledge that most won’t. You know it, too. There’s no real danger that we’ll all wake up tomorrow and find no classical musicians in the world, but there is real danger that young musicians are statistically destined for a life in poverty. There is danger that they’re saddled with huge student debt they may never pay off.
Further, can any of us deny that a significant percentage of the young people who find their way into classical music do so for no better reason than because working musicians recruited them in order to pay the bills?
Wikipedia tells us there are roughly 1,200 orchestras in the United States. Now compare 1,200 to a different number: 1,600. This FAQ sheet tells us that’s how many students are enrolled at the IU Jacob School of Music last year. Now, they’re not all orchestral musicians, and that’s not a single graduating class. But that’s the number that keeps IU in business, year in and year out.
And it’s enormous.
In fact, IU boasts that its students will have “ample performance opportunities” with “6 orchestras, 4 jazz bands, 4 bands, 13 choral ensembles, 7 operas a year, etc.” With the promise of all that thrilling stage time, a young person looking at IU with bright-eyed optimism could be forgiven for not asking two critical questions:
- Where will all these musicians go when they graduate?
- What would IU do without them?
In fact, that second question becomes indirectly relevant to future music teachers as they struggle to answer the first question. The two questions together reveal a troubling economic black hole, as any professional musician can report from personal experience:
Musicians need work. Musicians teach musicians. More musicians need work. More musicians teach musicians. Even more musicians need work…etc., until the end of time. This bubble’s got to burst. It’s the definition of unsustainable, and it’s the primary reason there are so many options for where a young person can go to study music.
So, once we agree that more musicians isn’t the answer, we can smartly turn our attention to trying to learn what reasonable number of professional musicians are needed to sustain, promote and present classical music into the future. Crack that, and our problems are solved.
For those still soldiering on, the next post will discuss outreach. I look forward to reader comments.