Nathan Kahn  

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

Nathan Kahn
May 9, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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

19th century engraving from 'Music - A pictorial Archive of Woodcuts & Engravings', selected by Jim Harter, 841 Copyright-free illustrations It takes multiple players to properly prepare musicians for a symphonic career. (click to enlarge)

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:

  • Knowledge, skill, and experience:how to design and effectively present a wide variety of outreach programs

  • Advocates for the arts:include some training in public relations, media, and public speaking

  • Communication and leadership skills: how to effectively serve on negotiation committees, orchestra committees, long range planning committees, etc.

  • Debating skills: how to most effectively put forth the musicians’ positions and debate those who would have differing views

  • Knowledge about the musicians’ union and the labor movement in general: what and how it can and cannot do

  • Knowledge of basic labor law, contract law, federal laws and other legislation:how that might affect the symphonic workplace

  • Workplace safety and occupational health: how to avoid performance-related injury

  • Political skills:how to successfully lobby on behalf of orchestras, the arts, etc.

  • Basics of arts administration and arts management

  • Orchestra management:how to start and manage your own orchestra temporarily, if necessary

  • 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.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Nathan - I applaud not only your analysis of current music school training programs, but also your boldness in putting forward a prospective curriculum.

I strongly second the idea of having a required minor. I actually pursued a second degree in college, and the skills I obtained as an English major are of significantly more use to be in my orchestral work than several of my undergraduate music courses.
msiu on May 15, 2019 at 10:10 AM
I hope conservatories are paying attention: Peabody, New England, Mannes? Hello, anyone home? I only wish they would have had these things on tap when I was a college student. Oh, the things we could have learned back then, and the pain and suffering we could have avoided now.
gregoryrichards on June 9, 2019 at 9:15 AM
I am a student at the Manhattan School of Music, and this article could not be more true, if not sadly realistic. I find that my peers are uninterested in learning how to become practical musicians, failing to participate in the little opportunities the school offers to help them build real careers. From neglecting to sign up for the limited number of music-business related classes and counselling sessions on entering the job world, my peers make me think that they are either lazy or overly optimistic about their chances of finding work. Unfortunately, the lack of interest prevents the school from being able to run such programs, which means that concerned students have limited ways to gain the very skills which could help them keep their careers in music.
Horn101 on June 22, 2019 at 1:56 PM
A college degree, such as Bachelor of Music, offered at most universities and conservatories, is essentially a degree in philosophy. It is a degree that, at its essence, is offered to those who demonstrate skills necessary to egage in critical thought, and understanding of theoretical concepts and ability to implement them.

What the author proposes is that conservatories offer a degree in craftsmanship. I am all for it, but let's not mistake (or equate) a Diploma (which is what it would become) with a Bachelors or Masters degree. In fact, students of other subjects are NOT taught how to perform their jobs after graduation, but are imparted abilities to critically assess and implement theoretical knowledge. Ability to negotiate contracts, survival in work politics, and the like, are skills learned on the job.

I am especially offended by the author's comment regarding uselessness of music analytical skills. If conservatories are to produce little machines, one after another, that can survive playing in an orchestra, under someone else's guidance and without ever having to employ their musical (and I don't mean performance) brain, then let us not offer BMs and MMs at that level. Let us simply offer Diplomas, or Certificates of Completion. Otherwise, it is downright insulting that someone whose higher education consisted of only learning "on the job" skills would have a degree equivalent to a physicist or a mathematician.
mkozak on August 24, 2019 at 6:46 PM
If in fact, as the author of the foregoing comment states, conservatories and universities offer the Bachelor of Music degree as "...a degree in philosophy," and for "those who demonstrate skills necessary to engage in critical thought, and understanding of theoretical concepts and ability to implement them," then I should have entitled my article "The Bachelor of Music Degree-The Untold Story of What Universities and Conservatories Don't Want You To Know."

I went to the conservatory that I attended to get prepared to get a job, as did most of my classmates. When I taught music courses on the collegiate level, my students felt likewise. If what the author states is universal truth (which I do not believe it is), I know a lot of professional musicians, including myself, my classmates, and my students, who were mislead and cheated in their education.

Skills in negotiating contracts, survival in work politics, and all the other items I listed in my article, can and should be taught in the classroom to those seeking to enter the professional symphonic performance field. To the extent that we have been allowed to do so, staff and leadership of the AFM Symphonic Services Division have been doing so for orchestra musicians for over twenty years. The problem remains that the lack of such university/conservatory training has and is creating serious problems for professionals in this industry.

In my article I did not propose a systemic trashing of music analysis courses, but to me it is an issue of priorities. Perhaps the solution is to offer more elective courses, and with the help of career counseling, allow students to custom design their curriculum to fit their needs and interests. I found music analysis of symphonic works to be quite important and useful, but as a string bassist the analysis of a Bartok String Quartet was not at the top of my list. My issue was and remains what I was not taught in my conservatory.

What I find particularly offensive is the paternalistic attitude of "we know what is best for our students," and dismissal of feedback from field professionals and the students themselves. It seems to me that the key is in offering course options. Whether this comment author likes it or not, conservatories and universities are in the business of career preparation, and there is a real world out there.
nathankahn on August 24, 2019 at 9:57 PM
Perhaps Mr. Kahn misunderstood my complaints. The issue that I take up is not that the proposed curriculum should not be offered at a conservatory level. As a matter of fact, I think that conservatories would be the best place to offer such courses (I myself received both conservatory and university education). They are, after all (and I'm not arguing with that) places to "attend to get prepared to get a job." A very specific kind of job, if one is a performer.

What I have a problem with, as well as many other musicians and academics with whom I've spoken regarding this very matter, is to call such a degree "Bachelors of Music." As an orchestra player, I understand the frustrations resulting from feeling unprepared for the "real world." But as an academic, I find it degrading that someone who goes through 4 years of essentially nothing but job preparation would receive the same degree as someone like a physicist or a biologist, who spend their undergraduate years engrossed in theoretical and critical mindwork.

Yes, someone who wants to be an orchestral musician should have the option of taking classes that will directly impact their success in the field. Absolutely. But let's call it what it is: a trade, not an academic endeavor. And as such, let us reconsider equating such work with that of academics. I don't oppose the curriculum changes proposed by Mr. Kahn; I merely ask that we don't include them under the umbrella of a Bachelors degree. Offering Diplomas or Certificates will not diminish the level of instruction one can receive from a conservatory. If anything, it will prevent students from feeling "mislead and cheated" in their education.
mkozak on August 25, 2019 at 12:05 AM
Perhaps, perhaps not. My alma mater (which is a major conservatory) did not offer the Artist's Diploma or equivalent, so orchestral performance majors had only one choice; the Bachelor of Music Degree.

I do not believe we are in disagreement on one issue. The university/conservatory environment should be broad enough to address the needs of those who want career preparation, academic study and enrichment, scholarly research, and all the variations thereof. But at present, how many conservatories/universities distinguish curriculums as you have suggested? Yes, some major schools offer the Artist's Diploma or similar, but I am unaware of Artist Diploma curriculums that includes complete courses as I have suggested in my article.

Speaking for myself, during my undergraduate days the emphasis was clearly get the degree, get a job. In later years as a professional I would have been very receptive to enrichment course work that would have revisited and emphasized the "art" and structure, because if one's sole musical outlet is being a cog in the orchestra machine it can and does dampen or even eradicate creativity. As we all know, in an orchestra we follow someone else's creativity, not our own, and that can be yet another source of much frustration for musicians, if ignored.

Prior to medical school, some may get an undergraduate degree in Biology. But because he/she may thereafter pursue a career as a physician, surgeon, etc., does that therefore "degrade" those
who wanted the Biology degree in and of itself for solely academic reasons? I don't think so. Then I fail to understand why the future symphonic performers who seeks solely career preparation in the Bachelor of Music program or whatever it is called, is degrading those who only want academic pursuit? I would argue that there is not only room for both, but others as well, through the process of elective course options.
nathankahn on August 25, 2019 at 1:22 AM
I see that Mr. Kahn and I are both night owls.

I agree that, to a point, universities and conservatories should offer more variety in coursework, including these you suggest in your article. As a matter of fact, I applaud your idea of requiring music majors to have a minor outside of their field. If I'm not mistaken, many universities already have such a requirement. However, there are still some problems that I see.

First, your comparison of music degrees to Biology is somewhat misleading. While it is true that students with such a degree can go on to pursue diverse sub-fields, undergraduate education is the same regardless of whether they want to be doctors (like my wife) or researchers (like my parents) or whatever. And such undergraduate education consists mainly of learning a broad spectrum of skills and subjects. While some "on the job" skills are taught, emphasis is placed on enabling students to choose from a variety of fields after graduation. In music, I find that seldom do university students really embark on career paths that they chose in their undergrad, and in my opinion it is our duty as educators to impart on them a broad understanding of musicianship in order to keep their options open. On the other hand, conservatory students are generally more likely to continue in directions they've chosen at the onset of their education. Therefore it seems more feasable to include your proposed curriculum in conservatories but not in universities.

Secondly, compared to university undergraduate curricula, conservatory students are required to take only a minimal amount of courses outside of their field. This can also pave a way for conservatories to create greater diversity in courses such as leadership and management skills, contracts, copyright law, etc. etc. But at the same time, a greater division should be created between those who receive conservatory training and those from universities. I mean that in terms of the type of degree received, and the type of work such a degree entitles its recepient to pursue. In general, I think that there should be a distinction between those who receive broad, humanistic education (universities) and those whose education is focused (conservatories).

For some time now I have been a proponent of a separation between the performance and the academic sides of music (as seen at Yale, for example). It does seem pointless for a violinist to be studying cellular biology when all she wants to do is play in an orchestra. Why not give her ample time to practice excerpts, play in high quality orchestras, and take real-life-based courses in orchestral management, for example? I'm all for it. But such education should not exist in a university setting, where the philosophy is to foster all-encompassing education, where ability to think critically and process theoretical information has traditionally received more emphasis than acquiring job training.

If somewhat cynical and dark, my last point is that such a separation of degrees will further focus the overall mission of conservatories, creating better skilled players, which might in turn lead to a decrease in the number of people who are seriously fighting for jobs. Let's not fool ourselves: good orchestra gigs are few and far between, and only the best players get them. Perhaps orchestras should require that newly-arrived players hold "orchestral performance" degrees from conservatories. With a dwindling number of orchestras, and diminishing audience support for the ones that still exist, this reduction in the number of people able to win auditions will force students to think twice before embarking on a career as orchestral musicians. Okay, that was a bitter digression, so I leave that discussion for another day.
mkozak on August 25, 2019 at 3:36 PM
I would just like to comment on mkozak's ideas concerning the separation of curriculm for conservatories vs. universities. The main problem I see is that there aren't enough conservatories to go around for the number of talented and dedicated musicians to get into. Also, a number of the bigger universities have Schools of Music large enough and with the highest quality of applied instructors as to rival conservatories for quality of instruction and ensembles. It is also incorrect to imply that it is always only the best students who get into conservatories, while universities are filled with the also-rans. Just like orchestral auditions, school auditions are based on subjective factors as well as objective. To separate university degrees and conservatory degrees to the extent proposed would eliminate many deserving, talented and hard-working musicians from consideration. mkozak also does not take into consideration that universities are also usually more able to offer financial aide to the students who need it. Do we really want to exclude musicians from consideration because they couldn't afford to go to a conservatory? Music ability and acheivement is mostly based on hard work, dedication and talent, no matter where you received your degree or training. What Mr. Kahn proposes is, unfortunately, necessary for the financial well-being of musicians today. I belive it can be done with minimal impact on traditional music major curriculums, as the concepts and specifics really aren't that complicated. I think some of the topics can be covered in one semester (or quarter), or even half a semester. It is essential that we be concerned about all our hard-working music students and to offer all of them what they need to suceed. The last thing we need is to discourage them from becoming orchestral musicians. The fault of good orchestral gigs being few and far between is not that there are too many musicians, but that there are too few ensembles and not enough money flowing into the arts. Working on more community involvement and better arts education for all children, adults, and politicians, putting pressure on state and federal governments for more arts funding to ensembles, venues and schools, all with the goal of elevating music and the arts from being "cultural arm candy" for the rich to being a vibrant and necessary part of the American culture which enriches both mind and soul for everyone, will go a long way towards alleviating the financial burdens and problems that beset music professionals today. The last thing we need now is internal elitism.
lafgreen on September 11, 2019 at 1:20 PM
I find this discussion very interesting. Way back when, I was "looked down" on by the music program at the university, not permitted to audition for the better musical organizations (they were ONLY for straight music majors), and treated like music was only an avocation for me when I chose to study in an academic area as well as music.

By the way, I went this route for several reasons; my parents insisted that I be able to hold a "real job" besides music so I could support myself; I enjoyed studying areas other than music and liked getting a break from the music if you will; I had to maintain a high grade point average to keep scholarships that I HAD to have to attend and often the BEST grades given in the music program were C+'s (!); since the school had a graduate program undergrads got the last of the last as far as performance opportunities; etc etc. I can tell you, at the time, it was a struggle to try to do both. Mostly due to walls put up by the music faculty. When I ultimately found the best teacher for me in the area; he made up for some lacking things by suggesting and recommending me for community groups and pick up groups that played at a high level and were certainly more real world. I have never been in the situation where I personally could afford anything unless I earned the money for it. I mention this because many college students had wealthy parents subsidizing them through school, and YES those kids had an advantage even if their playing was not up to snuff! So, I learned economic lessons early on and I am not sure how someone would be in the position to not face such realities as a music student; IF they were paying their way through. I did work study, and I took out loans. Due to these responsibilities, I HAD to get some job after college that paid the bills. Since I play a wind instrument, that has meant doing non-music work to make a living and playing in groups on the side. Fact is, I couldn't AFFORD to fly all over and go to auditions. I also needed to audition ONLY for the orchestras that would pay enough for me to live...that makes it even more competitive. I was very close to ranking high at the auditions I did do after college. However, I could only afford to go to about 5; at that time. All for major orchestras. I got in finals for two. Not TOO bad for a 23 year old female on a wind instrument I would say; someone that also studied science in school. I graduated undergrad in 1981; I went on to professional school to become a doctor, I practiced for 15 years AND played my instrument. I ultimately went on and did additional graduate work; and this time I could pay for it right then! I continued to play. NOW; I have at age 47 taken an early retirement from my practicing and would like to get back into full time music now that I CAN afford to do so. Something I couldn't do in my 20-30's. Now, I find it interesting that my method of education is being recommended to students!! When I went through so much grief and frankly discrimination for going the route I went! My personal opinion is that young people beginning advanced training, who don't already have an established career (as a soloist for example) OR who don't have a parent or other connection that assures a position or hearing on graduation; should study and get the BROADEST and education possible so that they have a foundation to move into many fields. When I have gone back recently and met with muscian peers, who have done nothing else; I generally notice some very "negative" and unhappy types with a lot of complaints. A group of people who feel they have little control over their destiny. People who WANT the ability to do something else but who feel that they are ill prepared and educated to do anything else. Many times, they sound just like someone who has only had a high school education!! (I hear things like, "how could I do something else, this is the only thing I know, OR I can't really do math because I had 'math for musicians'") I am NOT saying ALLLLL full-time musicians feel this way, but I have run into MANY in many locations that say this same type of thing. They REGRET their educations, or feel that they didn't get what they paid for as you describe:-) On the other hand, I very much feel that I got what I paid for and that I gained knowledge that I could rely on for years to come. Now, having said this, I have some questions I would like to ask back, OK?

Since I have been "isolated" to my own community goings on, and I have not been around music schools recently; I was really quite shocked when I went back to hear some of the current crop of students. While there are a FEW very talented folks; the good majority have a very bland method, play rhythms inaccurately, play faster and higher but intonation and tome quality is lacking, do not have the BASICS that I was required to demonstrate quite frankly. So, I wonder if some of the schools are admitting folks that really are could not make it in 4 years, or even 6 after grad school; and the schools KNOW that. There ARE fewer opportunities and fewer financially stable orchestras. There are more situations where the musicians have to run the show in order to have an orchestra to play in. Even community orchestra opportunities have become rare. So, maybe the schools are just plain admitting too many? Maybe to pay the bills?

So, given that, I find that my "style" is now "old fashioned" since it is what was demanded 20 years ago rather than the bland and rote style that prevails today. (I again am referring to a wind instrument.) So, while I actually have far more experience than when I first grduated, have demonstrated leadership and outreach skills (even grant writing!!!); feel that I play circles around how I played back then by virtue of all of this and the fact that I have NOT slacked off all of this time; yet now I have trouble even getting considered. Why do you think this is the case now? Have the desired skills changed? Is it age-discrimination? Is it that the orchestral techniques of those that brought the expertise to this country or students of those people been lost or gone by the wayside?

Since I play well,lessons are not helpful other than for another pair of ears because I can do what is required with no problem. What does one do when one produces a tape based on the tempi at which a piece is usually played only to be told that it should be played faster? Play everything fast? Submit it at two different tempi to prove that I can do it many ways? What is the comment is something like, "You need to spend more time listening to more recordings..." Let me tell you, I can and have sent in demos where I literally played right over a recording from a top orchestra; in order to play everything JUST as they pay it; note for note...yet...interestingly, that is not what is wanted. I have been trying to figure out what is "different" now from the way I was taught. There has been some sort of change that has occurred, not to change the topic completely, but I wouold be very interested to hear what is going on now vs. 15-20 years ago. Like I said, keep in mind that I have kept up and I have not rested on my lurels during this time. I have continued to work and improve well beyond. So, one would think a committee would be overwhelmed with enthusiasm to get someone that uses the technique of the people that have literally written the book on orchestral playing for thir instrument. Do I now emphasise faster, higher, louder above all else?

Since I HAVE done it the way it is now suggested; and I have many good skills besides just playing that would be of use to an orchestra or life :-) I am at a loss as to what to do now that I can work towards something I couldn't afford way back??? I am not that old relatively but I am beginning to feel like a dinosaur!!! Or some musical misfit :-)

ClaireAnnette on November 26, 2019 at 7:20 AM

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