Antique image of formally dressed teacher instructing piano student“For music and service to become your way of life, you must confront economic realities.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 299

Aspiring classical musicians commonly study in a context resembling the ancient “master-apprentice” model.

That is, they take lessons from one individual over a span of years and depend on that person to cultivate their artistic, technical, and career skills.

Does that educational arrangement make sense for contemporary music students?

Apprenticeship in the Pre-Industrial World

When cultures and technologies changed little from one generation to the next, apprentices could reasonably expect that the knowledge that masters conveyed would remain relevant.

In the 18th century, let’s say, blacksmith apprentices could gain the ability to make horseshoes under the assumption that horseshoes would be in demand throughout their lifetimes.

Career Preparation in the 21st Century

In our rapidly-changing world, the knowledge bases of people who built careers a generation ago remain pertinent in many ways. But the cultural, technological, and economic transformations of the preceding two decades mean that aspiring 21st-century professionals require knowledge and skills that experts of earlier generations often lack.

Case in point, emerging 21st-century musicians need to understand contemporary arts cultures, economies and technologies, which differ markedly from those of the 20th century.

For instance, many of the large late-20th century music employers are shrinking or disappearing (e.g., orchestras, pit bands), yet there are more music graduates than ever pursuing those dwindling jobs. Emerging artists, therefore, have to acquire diverse artistic, entrepreneurial, communications, teaching and tech skills to build new sorts of careers in which they tap multiple income streams. and otherwise equip themselves to succeed going forward.

Music Schools: Stuck in the Past?

As the music industry has transformed, many music schools have continued training students as they did in the last century.

A typical example: Conservatory students might apprentice under active or retired orchestra musicians who are masters of the orchestral repertoire, and those teachers often don’t guide nor encourage their students to acquire 21st-century knowledge and skills.

All the while, the large-ensemble industry contracts, and full-time orchestra jobs are so scarce and sought-after that it borders on irrational for students to enroll in costly degree programs with the sole aim of winning such jobs (e.g., I’m told that the recent 3rd horn opening in the Nashville Symphony attracted hundreds of applicants).

In fact, I’ve observed that many conservatory students hold so called “lottery mentalities,” ignoring the long odds of winning orchestra jobs and, as a result, shirking chances to become more comprehensively educated musicians.

So, even though orchestral music represents some of the greatest art ever created, and the skills that veteran orchestra players possess are of immense value to students, those skills aren’t sufficient for today’s graduates.

New-century musicians need an educational model that supplies broad, up-to-date artistic and professional know-how such that they not only become capable ensemble players but also educators, concert producers and arts leaders in their communities.

The Mentors-Apprentice Model

As an alternative to the antiquated master-apprentice scheme, I propose a structure in which students receive artistic and career coaching from multiple mentors and not primarily from one applied teacher.

Under such a mentors-apprentice system, students would still benefit from studying under masters in their genres, but those masters wouldn’t be the exclusive source of students’ artistic, technical, and professional education.

Instead, as I outline in “Music Education and Entrepreneurship,” students would concurrently enroll in courses, workshops, and project-based intensives that would encourage them to think independently and enable them to target their artistic interests along contemporary career trajectories.

They’d receive individual career advising from dedicated professionals, and there would also be curricular integration such that academic courses would promote creative thinking and communication skills as opposed to rote learning and multiple-choice testing.

In sum, established masters offer priceless knowledge to young people, but when it comes to professional arts education in the 21st century, the master-apprentice model is dead.

See my book The Musician’s Way, for strategies that enable rising musicians to acquire inclusive artistic, collaborative, and career skills.

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© 2013 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Everett Collection, licensed from