College Music Performance Majors—A Bridge to Nowhere?

Music educators have been doing a fantastic job. The level of musicianship of college-age music majors continues to rise each year. Jazz players are entering as freshmen at skill levels equal to graduate students of years past, and “classical” musicians always seem to raise the bar with their technical prowess. Of course, one can always debate musicianship. Are there really more great musicians today than in the recent past, or are they just more technically proficient? That conversation is for another blog, but what I think most musicians, teachers and performers alike, would agree upon is that, on the whole, students entering college today are playing at a very high level and there are more of them than 20-30 years ago.

Music students get hooked. It’s almost like a drug. We want to replicate the successes that come from our own hard work. We are always trying to surpass our personal best. When working on technical passages we keep track of our progress by using a metronome. If we can play a passage perfectly at “quarter note equals 120 beats per minute,” we move it up to “quarter equals 124” and so on. When we get something right, we do it again, and again, and again just to see how many times we can play it perfectly. Music is very much like sports in this respect. How many free-throw baskets can I make in a row? How many three-pointers? What’s my batting average? How fast can I swim 100 yards? Did I better my last time? Music students are often gifted in academic areas, but the high they get from performing or composing often gives them something that excelling in math does not or cannot give them.

Then there’s the thrill one gets from playing a solo, hearing an original composition performed, or playing as a member of an ensemble. Along with striving for one’s personal best, a musician is intimately collegial, combining his best with that of others. These unique channels of gratification that music offers, has led to increased numbers of individuals who want to devote their lives to music. That translates to more music majors in higher education, which translates to more graduates entering the field as professionals. We certainly have the supply side of the equation covered, but what about demand?

It is difficult to compare apples to apples when collecting music student statistics, but here are some numbers to help put things in perspective. There are over 1,700 degree granting music schools, departments and conservatories, and nearly 40,000 music faculty in the U.S. and Canada. The National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) is the accrediting organization for higher-education music schools. It has approximately 615 institutional members, or about 1/3 of the total number of music programs. Among other things, NASM establishes national standards for music degrees and other credentials. As such they have statistical information that they gather and share with their members.

In the latest information that is available, they report that in the fall semester of 2007 there were 110,778 music majors of all degrees, both undergraduate and graduate, enrolled in U.S. music schools. They also report that the total number of degrees awarded from July 1, 2006 through June 30, 2007 was 20,015. But remember, these are figures from only the 615 schools on the member books of NASM. According to the College Music Society, a much more inclusive organization, there were 330,534 persons enrolled in music programs in 2006-2007.

These statistics include all majors and all degrees. They run the gamut of musical interests to include a music industry major at a two-year community college to an Ivy League PhD musicology student. But, no matter how you look at it, there are a lot of mouths to feed. Let’s look at a small sub-set of that 330,000+ group—orchestra musicians.

In any given year there are only about 150 orchestra jobs (on all instruments) that open up in the top 50 orchestras in the U.S.! Unlike many occupations in which people change jobs every two to three years, orchestra musicians tend to stay in a position for a long time. I teach a class at Eastman—Entrepreneurship in Music. And when I talk about orchestral job opportunities, I often start by going through the wind section of the Rochester Philharmonic, an orchestra in which I have played for 36 years. I give the number of different players, (not counting subs or temporary replacements), who have occupied each position during that time period.

Flute 1            4                       Clarinet 1              2
Flute 2            2                      Clarinet 2              2
Flute 3/picc   2                      Clarinet 3/bass    1
Oboe 1             4                      Bassoon 1             1
Oboe 2            2                      Bassoon 2             2
Oboe 3            4                      Bassoon 3             1

I apologize if the message you are getting thus far is negative and a little demoralizing, but it’s really not that bad. Based on the high level of talent, dedication and drive that I have witnessed as an Eastman School of Music professor, I’m actually optimistic for the profession. If you go into music with your eyes wide open, realizing that it will take more than just stellar playing for you to have a comfortable and fulfilling life, you will not be disappointed in your career choice. The same sense of gratification that “hooked” you in the first place will continue to do so year after year.

Music has always been a field where individuals create their careers. In the vernacular of the 1970’s we would say, “Make your own scene.” We also used to say, “Where can you do your own thing, and get paid for it too?” That was 40 years ago. Those two statements sound dated today, but they still hold true.

The bottom line is this: to be a successful music professional today you have to be pro-active. Don’t waste time waiting for something to come to you. The supply side of the equation is definitely covered—you’re part of it. It’s the demand side that we have to work on. Make something happen. In other words—be entrepreneurial.

If you want to play in an orchestra, that dream will probably come true. Now, making a living at it is another story. Performance opportunities abound in regional and community orchestras, so you will more than likely be able to find something there.

My advice to young musicians is to be flexible, have some options and build a career around your strengths and interests. If you do that, you can create a comfortable living doing exactly what you want to do, and as an added bonus you will never get bored.

About the author

Ramon Ricker

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