music student holding woodwind instrument over her eyes“How in good conscience can we continue to graduate thousands of students a year who have no hope of getting a job in the field they were trained for?”
–Michael Drapkin, clarinetist, March 28, 2007

Amid the tumult in the music industry, music conservatories continue to enroll vast numbers of students.

Are conservatories equipping these students to succeed in today’s music scene?

First, to clarify terminology, I use the label “conservatory” to refer to degree-granting schools that provide classical musicians with professional preparation.

Such institutions, whether they function independently or as entities within universities, promise in their mission statements to train students for “professional careers” (UNC School of the Arts, where I teach*) or to “be leaders in the world of music” (University of Miami; I’m an alum).

So, do conservatories deliver on this pledge?

Educational Outcomes and Innovations

At present, we don’t know how effectively conservatories prepare graduates to succeed. But that should change soon, thanks to SNAAP, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, which is gathering information about how arts graduates fare.

Selected data now appear on the SNAAP website, but more figures are forthcoming.

Aside from SNAAP, we can see that conservatories are transforming, and, as a result, students have more opportunities than ever to pick up the entrepreneurial skills they need to forge 21st-century careers.

Two examples of conservatory transformations are the School of Music at the University of South Carolina and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music.

Through these sorts of developments, conservatories are advancing away from primarily training students for unlikely careers in major orchestras or as touring virtuosi and toward arming graduates with the know-how they need to be independent professionals.

Such empowered graduates can more readily assemble portfolio careers that incorporate performing, teaching, contracting, publishing, recording, and more.

Or they can specialize, as my former student Marty Fort did in creating the Columbia Arts Academy and the Music Academy Success training program.

Necessary but Insufficient?

In sum, many conservatories now offer resources aimed at outfitting students with broad professional preparation (of course, music degrees also come with countless less-tangible benefits).

Unfortunately, the majority of students appear not to be taking advantage of those offerings.

Hoverman, et al (2010) report that 61% of the music students they surveyed who had access to on-campus entrepreneurship resources and knew that they were available didn’t access them. A finding that matches what I’ve observed during my 30 years in higher education.

As I see it, entrepreneurship and career centers are necessary, but, in and of themselves, aren’t sufficient.

Conservatory cultures also need to evolve such that students can acquire expertise as independent artists via standard curricular activities.

As I wrote in my post, “Music Education and Entrepreneurship,” such comprehensive expertise encompasses, along with entrepreneurial know-how, greater understanding of arts economies as well as collaborative, creative, occupational health, and technology skills.

Students won’t gain proficiency in these subjects without multi-year opportunities to study them and apply what they learn beyond the insular contexts of school-sponsored lessons, ensembles, and recitals.

Speaking of technology, let me dispel the myth that today’s students are tech-savvy simply because they’re digital natives.

Although they voraciously consume web culture, students don’t automatically have the wherewithal to use new software, write compelling prose, and be creators of high-quality online content.

Yet creators of online content they must become, which necessitates that they benefit from continuing chances to build up the tech and writing chops that web-smart artists possess.

The Musical Temperament

Along with the complexities of renovating conservatory cultures comes the intricacy of tailoring new programs to musicians’ personalities and the rigors of practice and performance.

Which leads me to a central reason why I believe that only a minority of students access on-campus entrepreneurship resources: Young musicians characteristically display high levels of introversion, sensitivity, and anxiety (see Kemp, 2000).

Students’ anxieties intensify when they have to deal with career issues, and that triggers avoidant behaviors.

I also suspect that plenty of music faculty and administrators contend with comparable traits, which probably compounds the difficulties they face when attempting to confront contemporary issues.

Choosing a Conservatory

With all this in mind, I hope that young musicians who aspire to attend conservatories and go on to professional careers will draft artistic visions, research schools thoroughly, and then, when they enroll, tap on-campus resources and speak up when resources are lacking.

Such students and their families should also remember that although many schools such as the one where I teach continue to update their offerings, numerous others lag, so a conservatory’s historical reputation might not say much regarding whether their programs are keeping pace with ongoing changes in the music industry.

What about those conservatories that, despite the dearth of traditional jobs, still primarily groom graduates for careers as orchestral players or solo virtuosi?The Musician's Way book cover

They’ll be at the forefront if the mid twentieth century ever comes back.

See my book The Musician’s Way for strategies that equip musicians with inclusive skills; visit the Music Careers page at for online resources.

*Update: In the spring of 2012, I left UNCSA to take on the role of Director of the Music Entrepreneurship & Career Center at the Peabody Institute.

Related posts
The art-career tango
Career strategies that drive creativity
Music education and entrepreneurship
Music: The practical career?
What makes an entrepreneurial musician?

© 2011 Gerald Klickstein