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Seven ways that modern conservatoires can prepare students for classical music professions

16th September 2015

Are modern conservatoires adequately preparing students for careers in the modern music industry? David Bahanovich is Assistant Director of Music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, which this year recorded a 99.1 per cent graduate employment rate. Here, he offers seven ways that modern conservatoires can prepare students for professions in an increasingly complex classical music scene.

Autumn is here and students are returning from their summer holidays, eager to continue their studies at institutions that they trust will bring them closer to their dreams. But, given the seismic shifts to the music industry landscape, how good are today’s conservatoires at preparing them for the uncharted terrain ahead? Performance excellence is one thing, but do conservatoires fully appreciate all the skill sets that are needed to succeed in today’s professional world – and how good are they at identifying, developing and integrating these skills into their programmes of study?

Given the myriad challenges confronting our industry – unsustainable business models, imbalances between supply (graduates) and demand (performance opportunities), the impact of the digital economy on musicians’ livelihoods, along with critical questions regarding engaging audiences and the relevance of our art form – it is high time that conservatoires become ‘agents of change’. Here are seven initiatives that should become part of every modern conservatoire’s ethos.

1. Train a new generation of artist citizen leaders

Now, more than ever, it is important that conservatoires train not just musicians, but ‘artist citizens’. These are individuals who have a seat at the civic table and, as such, their work is relevant to communities that in turn support the artist in a symbiotic relationship.

There are many fine examples of artist citizens. One of the leading lights was Leonard Bernstein, and a current working example is Yo-Yo Ma. As conservatoires cultivate ‘artist citizens’ within their walls, they simultaneously create leaders that will help revitalise an art form that not too long ago spoke so powerfully to many more people than it does today.

A new generation of young artist citizens may, through their community involvement, attract more conservatoire applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Maybe these leaders will also identify new business models to replace the broken ones of today. We need leadership now, and it should come from our graduates – but we must teach them how to lead.

2. Produce musicians with multiple skill sets

Paradoxically, in order for conservatoires to move forward they must actually move back. The specialisation that occurred during the past century will not serve musicians well in the 21st century. In practice, the skill sets of 19th-century performers – who improvised, arranged, composed, promoted and directed music – are better models going forward.

A re-emergence of musicians with multiple skill sets, along with an appreciation of – and overlap with – non-classical forms, should once again become the norm. Aligned with this movement away from specialisation is the need to expose students to diverse bodies of knowledge. As Apple founder Steve Jobs warned: ‘If they don’t have enough dots to connect… they end up with very linear solutions. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design [or musicians] we will have.’

3. Equip students with a full entrepreneurial toolbox

For the past decade or more, ‘entrepreneurship’ has been a buzzword within conservatoires, used as evidence that they are indeed preparing graduates for a changing world. But few have had the courage to truly integrate entrepreneurship into their programmes.

Typically, entrepreneurship remains a peripheral, elective activity delivered by tutors with neither business qualifications nor proper music industry experience (especially within the digital economy). This has not served students well. Yes, there is no longer a traditional form of employment and graduates must forge their own way, which is both terribly exciting and rewarding (provided that they have been given the tools to do so during their education), but if they haven’t acquired an ‘entrepreneurial toolbox,’ it’s a daunting prospect.

The great composers of the past – Handel, Mozart, Stravinsky – were practical businessmen; let’s disregard irrational arguments by those who think being business savvy is ill advised if you are a serious musician.

4. Develop more effective teaching structures

Is there no better model of transferring knowledge than the master-pupil relationship? Elite athletes are guided by a head coach, but are also surrounded by assistant coaches, performance psychologists, nutritionists and physical therapists. They learn in small groups. Could this model be translated to our profession, so that music students receive a more holistic approach to learning their craft? Our conservatoires are filled with exceptionally inspiring teachers, but surely this sports model can only enhance the learning experience.

And can the ‘academic’ and ‘composition/performance’ silos of professional music education finally collapse so that students fully appreciate that what they learn in the classroom (music history, theory, analysis, etc.) has a powerful impact on their interpretive skills as performer-composers? What about learning theory and analysis with their instruments in hand?

5. Redefine what is meant by ‘success’

Conservatoires must cease their narrow definition of success. We must, of course, continue to applaud graduates who have won major competitions, found places in symphony orchestras and opera companies. But success today has a much broader interpretation, so we must equally celebrate students who have established their own innovative chamber ensembles or guerrilla opera companies, forged careers as artist-teachers, written music for video games or apps, or those who have dedicated themselves to bringing music to disadvantaged communities.

6. Prepare students for a music industry powered by new technologies

Technology is changing every aspect of the way we live today. Because of technological innovation, musicians have 13 new revenue streams that didn’t exist 15 years ago. One of the successful offspring of the marriage of technology and the classical world was the YouTube Symphony. Who could have imagined that 33m viewers would tune in, ranking it 21st on YouTube’s musician’s channel, neck and neck with Beyoncé, Eminem and Coldplay?

Conservatoires must appreciate that technology will continue to be the primary driver of change in the music industry. Their graduates must view technology as a powerful tool in developing audiences, collaborating, making music and generating new revenue streams.

7. Lead by example

Finally, we should endorse a paradigm shift in the role of conservatoires. They must lead, incubate and deliver solutions to the challenges that the classical music industry faces, instead of waiting for the industry to solve them.

One of the reasons why the classical music industry is in its current state is because it has rarely engaged in research and development (R&D). Had orchestras, in particular, embraced R&D even a decade ago they may have already found solutions to what ails them. If conservatoires can encourage themselves and their graduates to embrace R&D in all their creative endeavours, much will be gained both now and for the future.

During this period of great change we should, however, continue to highlight the amazing new opportunities surfacing everywhere for musicians; it is the role of conservatoires to help students identify these. Today, in many ways, is classical music’s golden period. Our graduates are fortunate to be living during these exciting times.

Read more on the Sinfini Music Blog