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Do As I Say: Music Conservatory Culture and its Contribution to Discontentment Among Professional Orchestral Musicians

3 Sloan Hoffmann
Music_Lesson Editor's Abstract

Orchestras have institutional cultures that can vary from one another, but there are some issues that seem to be universal. In this article Sloan Hoffmann looks down the orchestral food chain to music schools and their conductors and applied music teachers. She posits that attitudes are shaped in music conservatories and are then carried forward into the profession. For those of us who teach this article will have us looking inward.

Ramon Ricker

In the discussions that have involved the many issues affecting musician morale in American orchestras, the culture of the American music school and its contribution to the problems in professional orchestras remains an unexplored subject. Those musicians who choose a career in orchestral performance come from a variety of schools, which despite their differences all harbor similar cultures and traditions that instill, percolate and foster the very concerns raised by musicians in today’s orchestras. I wonder if discussion at the professional level addresses problems that have become ingrained in music culture well before students hit the audition circuit, thus providing band-aids for sores opened too long ago to become fully healed even by administrative gestures that extend beyond the tokenism and temporary appeasement often provided by orchestra administrations and boards.

Musicians cite lack of creative control, inadequate compensation, unacknowledged education and talent and monotony among other frustrations that lead to career malaise. In their article, “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestral Workplace,” Seymour and Robert Levine bring up the idea that orchestral musicians suffer from infantilization and marginalization by orchestra conductors, administration and board members, and that the issues listed above stem from this treatment of musicians as child-figures. I suggest that the problem of infantilization begins in the music conservatory creating young musicians who lack control over their career satisfaction and who lack the ability to assess their successes as performing artists.

In the article that follows I will address the following core issues that I perceive have the power to make or break a musician’s potential for career fulfillment: the dynamics between students and their mentors, specifically studio teachers and conductors; the pressures levied on music faculty by their governing institutions and how these pressures affect the development of the students; and the level of realistic expectations students have for their future career, and the role of the studio teacher in guiding students in directions that will lead to career fulfillment.

In American music schools students face a number of individuals whose omnipotence takes away their developmental freedom, starting the culture of the musician as the child who must take direction without challenging the reasons or the results, even if their intuition and experience tells them they should challenge the directions they have been served.

I see two figures in the music school who foster the idea of musician as child, the same two individuals who have the power to help mold confident, able and satisfied young musicians: the studio teacher and the conductor. I understand that any teacher-student dynamic, by necessity, includes one who has experience and knowledge that surpasses the other and that the student must remain open minded and flexible in order to learn. I see a flaw in this dynamic, however, in that many teacher-student relationships do not allow room for questioning the reasons why or how. An element of “do as I say” exists in music education that may serve as the precursor to the lack of control orchestral musicians have over their careers.

For many students with whom I have discussed lessons, in this I include my experiences, the gauge for the success of a lesson rests in students’ perception as to whether or not they pleased their teacher. Did they succeed in drawing accolades? If not, did they in turn disappoint their teacher? Like a child hoping to draw affirmation from a parent, students set aside their personal gauges for success placing total control in the reaction of a single individual. Is it possible that this relationship fosters the cultivation of a performer who does not have the skills to derive happiness and satisfaction from within the self? If so, could this factor into the unhappiness that plagues so many orchestral musicians?

To compound this issue, many students do not feel comfortable suggesting to their teachers their ideas for musical expression or technical proficiency. They feel out of place and awkward having a hand in their own education, seeing it as a lack of respect for the individual who must know best. Only in the tail end of my MM degree at Eastman did I come to recognize the value of expressing myself honestly with my teacher. When done so in earnest and with respect, I found that my relationship with my teacher took on a new positive dynamic and by owning a portion of my development my playing became more confident and professional. There existed room for me to teach myself and in this process I also found that playing to satisfy my goals and my expectations resulted in a higher level of value and pleasure in creating music, even at the technical level.

Unfortunately, instead of broaching questions and concerns with teachers, many students deal with the resulting feeling of inequity by venting to peers, many of whom have had the same experience. This process of venting, while a natural human reaction, results in the building of negativity. Perhaps, here too we have a situation that does not prepare student musicians with the skills necessary to negotiate their emotions in a way that is healthy to themselves as well as to the organization to which they belong. If studio teachers built a relationship with their students in which open, yet respectful communication was fostered, and for some students, taught, perhaps as professionals these same students could avoid, or at least navigate the negative aspects of an orchestral career via effective means, rather than reverting to the unhealthy, sneaky, grievance-ridden union-charged explosions that pervade orchestral life in the United States.

In addition to the studio teacher, conductors in music schools are in a position to foster the culture of infantilization and marginalization. From the start, students encounter conductors who make demands without explanation or consideration of the negative student-mentor dynamic they create. They demand that students not talk during rehearsal, even if they know how to work out a problem on their own, a process that allows students to exercise their expertise and experience. Students must show remorse for mistakes, yet go unnoticed when they play well.

In most student orchestras or wind ensembles the conductor gives little feed back in ratio to the immense output of the student musicians involved. Of course there exists a time factor in which a large amount of repertoire must be worked on in a short amount of time, both in the scope of one rehearsal and in the scope of concert preparation, however in most music schools the amount of feed back appears tragically limited. The larger issue may be the way in which feedback is delivered. Orders are barked, often without clarity and without pause in the music, stereotypes become perpetuated, and often instead of addressing students directly, conductors make sarcastic and demeaning side commentary. Even worse, many conservatory conductors circumvent speaking to students about their difficulties and instead relay their disappointment to the studio teacher who must in turn act as messenger. That conductors avoid the opportunity to educate struggling students on a one-on-one basis seems at odds with the values of music education.

In addition, music conservatory conductors often pass these negative behaviors on to their protégés as part of the conducting pedagogy, thus perpetuating a culture of conductors who remain disconnected and unable to communicate effectively with orchestral musicians. Professional musicians cite an imbalance in power and in perceived expertise between themselves and conductors, an imbalance that contributes to discontent in American orchestras. Could music schools, by hiring conductors who take time to educate in the rehearsal setting and who invest in the students as individuals, set in motion an industry-wide change in how conductors and musicians work together?

To be fair, I must factor in the immense pressures under which music faculty must do their jobs. Both studio teachers and conductors teeter on a precarious precipice on which their value to the institution rests in the performance of those they teach. Much like a college football coach, for whom a losing season likely means the end of a job position, while a national championship equates job security, music faculty must “produce” results via their students. A sort of win-lose culture exists in the American music schools, and somewhere in the extremes for gauging success, the well-being and individual successes of each student becomes muddled. If the bottom line, while essential to the future of any institution, infects the mission of educating, then again we have a situation in which goals that should work together oppose each other.

How many studio doors and faculty bios include stats on where their students, previous and present, win jobs and competitions? How many conductors take accolades from administration following a concert and likely receive private notice when ensembles have not performed up to standard? How schools and their faculty gauge success is a topic for exploration as the students bear the brunt of mistreated goals. The culture of the orchestral performer as a cog in the wheel, a machine that produces correct notes at the right time at the right dynamic in the right way without freedom starts in the music school not in the professional orchestra. Students perform as much to benefit the career success and ego of their mentors and to advertise for their school as they do to benefit themselves. Do student musicians not have enough pressure on their performing life without taking on the added burden of earning prestige for the larger institution and its faculty?

I also wonder why the accomplishments of students who gain admittance to graduate programs, who start careers in arts administration or who win appointment to teaching positions do not receive the same recognition and acclaim as those who succeed in performance. If the ultimate goal of music education is to foster the vitality of classical music in the United States, should not all students who contribute to this end gain recognition for their outstanding work?

Another factor that affects the ultimate career happiness of a musician is the sense of entitlement that affects many music students, especially undergraduates. Without a doubt, musicians have a talent that few others have, and thus they have reason to view themselves as unique. A problem occurs when students, especially those enrolled in top conservatories, view themselves as having talent beyond that of their colleagues, and thus harbor a feeling of entitlement to the limited opportunities in the professional world. Music faculty must walk a tenuous line that requires they bring reality into the expectations of their students while taking care not to dash their dreams and ambitions.

Unfortunately, many teachers and music schools do not talk frankly to their students, and discussions about the realities that face professional musicians happen outside of the performance realm. A large percentage of students spanning all instrument and vocal groups have unrealistic career goals. This is not to say that they lack talent or the perseverance necessary to become successful professional musicians, instead it means that for most string players and pianists to believe that they will have solo careers, for brass players to believe that they will be one of the few in a famous quintet, or for musicians to have the expectation that they will have studio gigs, when such gigs go to a small cross section of the best players in the United States, in of itself harms the vitality with which many students pursue orchestral careers. Is there a way for teachers to impress upon students their career limitations without causing distress? Would they be doing a student a favor by urging them towards orchestral careers instead of phantom solo careers? Musicians who choose the orchestral life as a fallback plan will inevitably harbor resentment that will negatively affect how they approach their job. What a shame that classical music and the American orchestra should suffer due to the misplaced expectations of the musicians.

There is no doubt that American music schools do an excellent job of nurturing young musicians, but as is the case with many long-standing institutions I see a need for a hard appraisal of how the traditional culture of music education affects classical music as a profession. The discontent of orchestral musicians affects the overall health of classical music in the United States, and given the paltry success rate of addressing the issues that cause problems at the professional level, I feel strongly that change from the root, the music conservatory, will have a positive impact on the industry as a whole. Let us create a culture in which musicians feel privileged to produce orchestral music in an environment that acknowledges the tremendous effort and education necessary for an individual to do so.

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3 comments feed top ↑

  1. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - The Orchestra Musician Forum - Another take on job satisfaction
    May 28, 2019 at 1:12 AM

    [...] in our field has long been an interest of mine, both for obvious personal reasons and because the sources of much dissatisfaction lie in an area of research - stress - I heard lots about over family dinners. So I  [...]

  2. Comment by Ramon Ricker
    October 20, 2019 at 9:20 AM

    I recommend the Cutler book too. It’s very good, but I’ll be extremely self-serving and also recommend my book, “Lessons From A Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn At Most Music Schools.” It was an Award-Winning Finalist in the Business: Entrepreneurship and Small Business category of The USA “Best Books 2011″ Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. It’s available at Amazon and elsewhere as is getting noticed. Visit rayricker.com for more info.

  3. maestro58 Comment by maestro58
    October 19, 2019 at 8:55 PM

    I am a composer with 2 degrees in the subject. In my sophomore year I had a vision of the music I wanted to write and my education went to hell in a handbasket. It was like I had enrolled in a school that had only programs in woodworking. Everyone was trying make the best desks, tables, chairs, and shelves they could. One day I brought in a lamp. The instructor’s reaction was “That’s a terrible piece of furniture - the materials are non-organic and you could kill yourself if you sat on it.” After getting my Master’s I decided the education system was not for me - and I went for four years writing pop songs, until my Master’s Thesis won 4000 dollars in a competition. There is a wonderful book called “The Savvy Musician” by David Cutler. This book shows other career options that many schools don’t begin to address because they don’t know how.

    Good luck to the players, writers, and singers reading this who are still in school. You will need it, unless you are the next Leontyne Price…