College Music Society conference

Wild West fort? No, it’s our hotel in Santa Fe.

This week I’m in Santa Fe. I’ve never seen New Mexico before (except through the fictional eyes of Jesse, Walt, Hank, Skylar, Mike etc) and it’s quite beautiful – the view from the hotel is filled with sandstone fort-like buildings and distant mountains. The event is the College Music Society conference, an annual get-together of higher education music schools from across the US. Most of the major conservatories are represented, as are the music departments of many of the universities.

Today’s session is the alarmingly titled The End Of The Conservatory. The CMS is well known for asking the ‘tough questions’ in music education; its Manifesto for Progressive Change (2016) has generated much debate in Music Higher Ed in the US and beyond.

Our presenters are Dr Anastasia Pike, Dr Emily Ondracek-Peterson, Dr. Erik Peterson and Dr Hal Abeles. Each presenter takes a slightly different approach and has used different research methods, but implicitly all are addressing a core question, as summarised by Emily’s presentation “What does a successful career as a 21st century musician look like?”.

Anastastia’s approach is faculty focussed, and she quotes extensively from interviews with an anonymous musicology professor whose views she describes as indicative of some of the less progressive individuals among conservatory music faculty in some of the schools in her research.

Emily’s research is more career-focussed and she asks questions about the relationship between the curriculum and the music careers of alu.

Hal’s presentation relates to big-picture societal questions, particularly music alumni salaries; for a music alum in the US, the average starting salary is $35,700, and the average mid-career starting salary is $51,400;. (Data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project SNAAP survey).

Normally for these conference blog entries I’d summarise what these presenters say in more detail and add commentary, but helpfully three of the presenters (Anastasia, Emily and Hal) have recorded short versions of their presentations in the webinar that is embedded below.

Erik (who does not appear in the webinar) covers the economics of a Conservatory education, and confirms that he is speaking as a conservatory alum. He notes that according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) 167,400 people are currently employed as musicians or singers. The key phrase from their conclusions, he says, is “there will be considerable competition for full-time positions”. He looks at some hard data, and tracks the number of music performance graduates in the US vs the number of orchestral openings 1980-2010. The graph is shown below and is predictably steep, showing a dramatically increased number of graduates and a stable or slightly declining number of jobs. He notes that most music schools do not track alumni career data, and none could supply alumni salary data. He observes that there are only 16 orchestras in the US that can offer what is considered to be full-time, year-round salaried employment for musicians. Based on the salary information Erik has managed to obtain, he calculates various ROI figures on a Conservatory education vs a business school education. He also notes that more alumni data is available from business schools than from music schools, and speculates whether some music schools may not wish to highlight their career path data in marketing materials.

Erik compares data he has gathered from students from Julliard, Columbia and Harvard Business School, and compares their verbal responses, nothing that in their respective fields, the students’ motivation for entering higher education was equally career-based.

IMG_1501 2.jpg

Next we hear a discussion of (scholarship) endowment dollars per enrolled student for various institutions (Juilliard, Curtis etc), and this leads to a discussion of definitions of (financial) alum success; one of his survey questions asked about the monetary level an alumni would consider themselves financially successful. Across all professions, most people define success as an income of $100,000; most musicians define success as an income of $50,000. He notes that of the 16 full-time employing professional orchestras in the US, perhaps only 3 offer extremely high salaries (defined as incomes over $150,000).

Erik is a musician and a teacher, and he notes that success is not purely measured financially as he leads us through a discussion of qualitative measures of success (flexibility, happiness, enjoyment of playing music etc). His research respondents were asked to gauge the following careers in terms of desirability, likelihood and measures of success;  instrumental teacher, chamber musician, soloist, K-12 teaching, higher-ed teacher, freelancer and orchestral musician. Expectations of K-12 music teaching careers tended to dominate in the responses.

He suggests that an interesting next step would be to compare the alumni data with applicant data to see if career expectations change over the course of an undergraduate degree. He cites the famous 2004 NY Times Daniel Wakin article The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later and notes that of his own peers at Juilliard, more than 50% of them are no longer professionally in music, and that many of their career expectations have changed over time after graduation.

Erik ends the presentation optimistically, with a spider chart of many and varied career destinations of the music alumni respondents, and observes that if music schools were to publish these data, there is a positive career employment story to tell – it’s just not all in music performance. Music schools, he says, should be proud of this success.

His conclusion?

Prospective students demand transparency of graduate outcome data, and music schools should provide access to the numbers.


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