I’ve recently heard that many colleges in general and music schools in particular are struggling. They’re struggling with decreased enrollment, higher costs, and decreased interest. Unfortunately, the response to these troubles has been reactive rather than constructive. For instance, some higher ed professionals blame parents who don’t wish to spend a gazillion dollars for their kid to get a degree that won’t lead to financial stability or success. They blame the skyrocketing costs of tuition which forces students to take out unreasonable loans that will take a large portion of their lives to pay off. In short, they blame everyone but themselves.
While there is much to be said about parental priorities and the financial cost of Higher Ed, addressing those concerns won’t change things in the short run and won’t lead to stability in the long run. The education industry is contracting. A storm is already upon the education sector. Ignoring the storm won’t help. Furthermore, it’s easier to blame other people for the problems in your industry rather than face the difficult proposition that you might be part of the problem. If you want to change the world, you need to start with the man in the mirror, to paraphrase a famous song. I firmly believe that schools can at least halt (perhaps alter is a better word) the trend of attrition, but they must change.
The following is my own opinion. Please do with it what you will. If you have questions or concerns, please send me a private message. I would be happy to speak with you.
Since I graduated in 2017 with a master’s in conducting, I decided to take the hard road of being a gigging musician and a creative entrepreneur. This has not been easy. I started with nothing; I pay college loans every month. On top of this, I discovered that a lot of the skills I needed for success were not taught to me. I’ve endeavored to rectify this through self-education through a fancy institution known as the library.
The path for musical success is doable. I’ve become convinced of this through study and through experience. However, in order to succeed, a lot of things need to happen. The musician needs to learn a lot of skills, and not just the skills of musicianship (accurate performance, flexibility, and improvisation) and musicality (artistry, beauty of tone, phrasing, the It Factor, etc.). No, the musician also needs to be skilled in business (money management for self-employment, taxes, incorporation, setting up a studio, etc.), marketing (social media, websites, promoting concerts, contacting other musicians and teachers, etc.), professionalism (the fine art of showing up on time, knowing your music, communicating in a timely fashion, etc.), as well as many others.
Musicians should also have the correct mentality for entrepreneurial success. Namely, that to start your own business is really, stinkin’ hard. You will fail more than you succeed, and you will often not pass the audition (rejection!). You will have months of financial feast and famine. Success takes grit, ingenuity, and hard work.
Schools fail to prepare their students for this in several ways ways: 1) While many music schools touch on these skills, they often do not do so in an organized fashion. Adding a class or two is not going to solve this problem. 2) The faculty they hire to teach skills have no real world experience. They’ve been in the ivory tower for most of their lives, and so they’ve not learned in the school of hard knocks. 3) Faculty teach classes that functionally assume the students already know what is being taught. If half of your class if failing, it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or lazy; it means you are teaching the material incorrectly. 4) Faculty are teaching classes that are in no way applicable to the real world.
Does this mean that faculty should never teach a class on the history of Bach’s violin concertos or on the correlation of philosophy and music aesthetics? As an avid reader and learner, I firmly believe that those have their place (i.e. learning for its own sake). Moreover, these types of classes have helped me create more informed musical performances, so there is a practical advantage. Sometimes I’ve even applied these types of classes to something completely unrelated. However, there is a pedagogical order to things. Kids need to learn to crawl before they can run.
The world has drastically changed, and musicians must change with it. This includes music schools. No longer can they assume that students will come “just cuz.” Those days are gone. Higher Ed types need to assume that they must work hard to attract students with practical, helpful classes that enable students to succeed.
Perhaps some changes are in order.