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Gee, All I Ever Wanted to Do Was Play My Instrument…

0 Nathan Kahn
music_cartoon Editor's Abstract

Mild-mannered bassist by day and labor negotiator by night, Nathan Kahn, contributes an article which could easily serve as the definitive “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” for orchestra musicians. Nathan touches on just about every aspect of the issues and events which shape today’s professional orchestra musicians.

Not being content with merely identifying the problem, Nathan goes on to suggest a regimen of solutions, not the least of which is presenting an entire undergraduate curriculum he feels would “best prepare [future] musicians for the broad demands a symphonic musician will face.”

Drew McManus


It takes multiple players to properly prepare musicians for a symphonic career.

There have been countless occasions in the course of some meeting I have had with a negotiating committee, an orchestra committee, or an entire orchestra that some musician(s) have engaged me in private conversation about the terrible situation occurring with their orchestra, and the conversation concluded with the foregoing phrase. I have thought a lot about that phrase and what it means. To me, this phrase is symptomatic of grossly inadequate and unrealistic training at the conservatory level that has for too long been adversely affecting professional musicians and therefore our industry.

So why shouldn’t a highly skilled conservatory graduate want to “just play my instrument?” Isn’t that all that is expected of a musician in the professional symphonic workplace? No way! It is my view that in today’s symphony orchestras successful musicians must not only be skilled performers and ensemble players, but also be trained in, and not limited to, the following areas:

  • 1. Knowledge, skill, and experience:how to design and effectively present a wide variety of outreach programs
  • 2. Advocates for the arts:include some training in public relations, media, and public speaking
  • 3. Communication and leadership skills: how to effectively serve on negotiation committees, orchestra committees, long range planning committees, etc.
  • 4. Debating skills: how to most effectively put forth the musicians’ positions and debate those who would have differing views
  • 5. Knowledge about the musicians’ union and the labor movement in general: what and how it can and cannot do
  • 6. Knowledge of basic labor law, contract law, federal laws and other legislation:how that might affect the symphonic workplace
  • 7. Workplace safety and occupational health: how to avoid performance-related injury
  • 8. Political skills:how to successfully lobby on behalf of orchestras, the arts, etc.
  • 9. Basics of arts administration and arts management
  • 10. Orchestra management:how to start and manage your own orchestra temporarily, if necessary
  • 11. Additional skills: how to prepare the musician to adapt and move into some other field (either related to music or not) in the event of the demise of his/her orchestra or a cutback such that the orchestra no longer provided a living

Whether conservatories want to admit it or not, it is much more realistic and necessary for today’s symphony musician to have working knowledge of the National Labor Relations Act, Chapters 11 and 7 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code and Equal Employment Opportunity laws, than Jacques Moderne and 14th century music notation, the difference between a polyphonic conductus and an isorhythmic motet, or similar music history trivia that was emphasized in my training.

Yet, in too many music schools across the country, that is the emphasis in non-performance related conservatory training. Although interesting, my training on how to analyze a Bartok String Quartet has never been of any practical use to me in my thirty five years as a professional performer. Yet, if I had had some training and experience in labor law and negotiating while attending my alma mater, I might not have gotten screwed out of approximately five thousand dollars in salary when I won my first symphonic position.

So why is this additional training necessary? Ask yourself, “Has there ever been any period of time in the history of North American symphonic orchestras when there was not some sort of strife or financial difficulty or other significant problems for some or many orchestra(s)?” No. Not in my years in this business, nor is such indicated in books and accounts I have read of North American orchestral history.

Despite all of our strongest wishes and actions to the contrary, throughout our history, symphony orchestras, and for that matter all of the arts, have always existed on the edge. It is not likely that will change. As a result, too many musicians have experienced significant wage cuts, strikes, lockouts, shutdowns, layoffs, bankruptcies, and orchestra dissolutions. Were these musicians prepared to deal with these unfortunate actions? In most cases, no.

What does a musician, who has spent his/her entire lifetime preparing for and maintaining a high level performance career, do when that career is diminished greatly or, worse, comes to a sudden end through no fault of the musician? They either adapt or they don’t survive. What have the conservatories done to prepare their students for this future possibility? In most cases, nothing. So why aren’t the conservatories preparing their students for the realities of professional symphonic life?

Of course, all university music faculty don’t fit into this category but I can hear certain members muttering right now, to the tune of “if one wants those kinds of courses they should go to law school or seek other training”. But if conservatories seek to meet the realistic career needs of their students, then no student should have to take special courses in order to have the necessary skills to survive as a professional symphonic musician.

Notwithstanding, there is a far deeper ramification of conservatory emphasis on irrelevant course work for aspiring professional symphonic musicians. The lack of relevant training and the emphasis on musical fantasyland training sets up a delusional expectation for symphonic career graduates of what they can expect as professionals. That expectation usually goes something like, “If I practice hard, take my auditions, get a job, follow my conductor, and get tenure, then everything in my musical life will be OK thereafter.”

As we have come to learn, that is certainly not the case. Lack of realistic preparation by symphony musicians is breeding ground for an inordinate amount of fear and hysteria in their future careers. We in the AFM Symphonic Services Division have encountered this time and time again. Musicians are human beings, and humans in fear or terror mode often take actions and make decisions that they will later come to regret. In my view the root of this terror and fear lies in the absence of realistic training in the conservatories, and the resulting delusional expectations.

Let us suppose for a moment that there existed an orchestra whose musicians were educated in the kinds of training mentioned previously, particularly in the ability to move to an alternative career if necessary. How would that affect the musicians’ ability to withstand unjustified bankruptcy threats, major financial concessions, and in the worse case, dissolution of the orchestra? In my opinion it would make a substantial difference.

In such situations, musicians would be prepared to carry out a public relations campaign in order to help convince audience members, public, and legislators to come to the aid of the symphony. If all of those efforts failed, then musicians would have a “Plan B” to fall back on, perhaps starting their own orchestra as a temporary measure. And if all else fails, they would have a “Plan C”, which would allow the musician to develop a part-time career in music performance, while pursuing other careers/ventures that would sustain the musician and his/her family.

The following is an example of curriculum that would best prepare musicians for the broad demands a symphonic musician will face:

  • 1. Primary instrument private instruction, master classes, orchestra repertoire classes
  • 2. Symphony orchestra audition-mock auditions
  • 3. Instrument pedagogy classes
  • 4. School orchestra
  • 5. Chamber music
  • 6. Music theory and ear training classes
  • 7. Recruiting, developing, and maintaining a successful private studio
  • 8. Marketing yourself to build a successful free-lance musical career
  • 9. Designing and presenting effective outreach programs
  • 10. Public speaking and debating
  • 11. Public relations and the mass media
  • 12. The American labor movement, the American Federation of Musicians, their history, and their impact and function in today’s symphony orchestra
  • 13. Basic labor law, contract law, and other Federal state and local laws applicable to symphony orchestras.
  • 14. The collective bargaining process
  • 15. Problem solving in the union workplace
  • 16. Contract administration in the symphony orchestra
  • 17. Symphonic workplace safety and music medicine issues:maintaining playing health and avoiding overuse problems
  • 18. Building political relationships and lobbying
  • 19. Fundamentals of arts management
  • 20. Resurrecting a symphony orchestra in a community
  • 21. A required minor outside the field of music, and alternative music careers to supplement and replace as needed.

The preceding curriculum would, in my opinion go a long way in giving today’s symphony musicians the necessary tools for survival in a most uncertain world for the arts.

The Eastman School of Music seems to be the leader in innovative course as described herein. Notwithstanding, while there may be other music schools who have started similar programs, most are still more concerned with immersing their students in music history and other musical trivia than in relevant professional preparation.

What will it take to get music schools to change? Awareness, publicity, lobbying, and ultimately economics. The American Federation of Musicians, along with all of its symphonic player conferences (ICSOM, OCSM, & ROPA) should take a leadership role and sit down with the leadership of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) to discuss this issue. Further, alumni should express to their alma maters what inadequacies they deemed in their own training, and then propose changes in the school’s curriculum. And finally, private instrumental teachers should make it known that curriculum will greatly influence decisions as to what music schools their talented students will seek to attend.

It is long overdue that the musical schools of this country carry out the mission they are supposed to fulfill: preparing their graduates for the real world workplace. Through our collective efforts we can make this happen.

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