The Bachelor of Music Degree and the Marketplace

October 1, 1988

Higher education in the United States has traditionally encompassed both the idea of the liberal arts and the concept of professional education aimed at preparing individuals for a specific vocation. These somewhat incompatible ideas coexist in many universities in surprising harmony.

In music schools and departments, for example, some students may be pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree, a broad curriculum that is not intended to prepare the student for a specific job. Other students are in the Bachelor of Music Education program where they prepare for a position in the elementary or secondary schools. The Bachelor of Arts students usually understand that their degree does not prepare them for a particular vocation. The music education students, contrariwise, know their preparation is for a particular type of job and that they have a reasonable chance of finding employment in the field as a vocal or instrumental music teacher.

What, then, about the training and expectations of the third category of undergraduate music students, those in the Bachelor of Music curriculum? Their curriculum contains a high percentage of music courses, 65% being the standard of the National Association of Schools of Music. The B.M. degree is considerably narrower than the other two undergraduate music degrees, which generally contain from 33% to 50% music courses. Those students in a B.M./performance degree (as contrasted with other B.M. options such as music theory) are preparing for a career that begins with an audition, or, more realistically, with many auditions. Advanced students are groomed very carefully on solo repertoire and on particular orchestral excerpts (or arias or other standard repertoire in the case of vocalists) in order to do well in the auditions. Their training is thus quite specific to a particular vocation.

This is all as it should be, assuming that the Bachelor of Music student, like the prospective music educator, has a reasonable chance of finding employment. Both, after all, are in professional programs and are not ostensibly in college solely for their enrichment. (A 1977 study by Steven Baxter provides objective evidence that both applied music students and music education students are optimistic about their chances for employment.1) The problem is that B.M. and B.M.E. students do not have equal chances to do that for which they have prepared. Beginning music teachers are certainly not guaranteed a job upon graduation, but compared with the B.M. students, the prospects for teachers are very good indeed. For the present, I shall leave aside the employment opportunities for Bachelor of Music graduates in music theory or other areas and focus on the opportunities for performers.


During a recent year (1 July 1984-30 June 1985) nearly 12,000 music degrees were awarded by member institutions of the National Association of Schools of Music. Of this number, approximately 2,100 were performance degrees earned by instrumentalists who play orchestral instruments.2 In another recent year, 1986, there were fewer than 800 vacancies in professional orchestras, chamber groups, and armed services bands in the U.S. and Canada advertised in the International Musician.3 Sixty-four percent of these positions were part-time. Assuming that the B.M. graduate can compete successfully with musicians with advanced degrees, there is a best-case scenario in which the well-trained instrumentalist with a bachelor's degree has about one chance in three of getting what will probably be a part-time position. More realistically, adding in the non-NASM graduates, those persons with other degrees or nondegree study, and the enormous backlog of surplus musicians from past years, the chances for employment as a performing classical musician are really very poor. The chances for full-time employment, even for the better B.M. graduates, are miniscule.

Considering further the total time and money invested in music study, including four or more years of college, the situation for many graduates must be very frustrating: they find themselves unable to do what they have spent much of their lives preparing to do. As one perceptive Bachelor of Music student stated, "I'll graduate with virtually no place of employment other than a factory job."4


Are things really that bad? Certainly not all positions are advertised nationally, and there are performing opportunities outside the United States and Canada. (There are obviously music schools and aspiring performers in other countries, as well.) In addition, certain B.M. students will qualify to compete for college teaching positions after completing a graduate degree. In college teaching, however, the desirable jobs now attract fifty or more applicants each.

It could also be argued that students graduating from the top conservatories and schools of music have a better chance for success than students trained in "lesser" institutions. There is some truth in that statement, although at the undergraduate level outstanding individual performers can be found in a variety of music schools and departments. All of our major schools of music can point with pride to certain luminaries among their alumni who are very successful as professional performers. A recent survey of music placement offices in six such schools revealed that one school reported 84 alumni who performed with the top five orchestras (New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston).

Only one of the institutions surveyed, however, was able to provide employment statistics for the majority of its graduates. Although the information provided was not very recent (compiled December 1984), it was based on a commendable 85 percent return rate. These data were for the year following graduation and showed that 48 of 87 Bachelor of Music/performance graduates (55%) were attending graduate school or studying privately. Thirteen graduates were listed as "no information" and seven were employed in nonmusic positions. Eleven were employed part-time as performers. Only seven of the 87 B.M. graduates (8%) were employed by full-time orchestras, opera companies, or other performing groups. These figures may or may not be typical of other top schools: the information is simply not available.5

For string players the situation is certainly better than for wind or percussion majors, since comparatively few string players are competing for more jobs: the majority of orchestral openings naturally are for strings. In the United States, students enrolled in high school bands outnumber those in school orchestras by almost 10 to 1.6 The comparatively few string players who are trained in the schools appear to be in demand at the college level, for the ratio of wind and percussion players to strings changes to about 3 to 1 in college.7 If there is a bright spot in the classical musician's employment picture, it is for string players.

What about instrumentalists who free-lance full-time in large cities? There is no doubt that some individuals are quite successful at this, although the common wisdom would suggest that many such persons are involved with the recording industry in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other cities. Such opportunities are thus probably not available to many instrumentalists. It would be difficult to determine how many musicians are full-time free-lance players, but one figure that may be typical is that only 12 percent of the members of the Milwaukee chapter of the American Federation of Musicians were listed as full-time musicians.8

For singers there is no central "bulletin board" of job vacancies comparable to the International Musician. For operatic positions, the New York agencies, apprenticeship programs, and competitions function in place of open auditions that are publicly announced. On the surface it might appear that singers have even fewer performance opportunities than instrumentalists, and this is supported in part by numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent published report (1978) of that agency lists 127,000 persons as being employed as professional musicians, with only 23,000 employed as professional singers.9 These figures, however, include all types of musicians in all types of situations, and are not limited to classical performers.

Looking below the surface, however, many singers, organists, and pianists serve and perform quite professionally in church music situations, albeit on a part-time basis. Many, of course, serve as church choral directors or music "ministers," and some of these positions are full-time. It would be impossible to determine accurately the number of singers and keyboard players employed in church music, but church choirs with paid conductors, singers, organists, and pianists certainly outnumber professional orchestras. I do not suggest that all such performers will find jobs, but a bachelor of music degree seems a reasonable choice for church musicians who will actually be performing regularly and getting paid for their services.

Performers in all areas, but notably pianists, are sometimes able to find enough private students to operate full-time studios in their homes. A typical piano studio operates in the evening hours (after school) and usually serves a young clientele, from perhaps age 5 through high school. A performance degree is not inappropriate as preparation for such teaching, but even more appropriate would be a teaching or pedagogy degree, including the study of child psychology, developmental psychology, learning processes in music, specific pedagogy and materials for the particular instrument, and guided field experiences with young students.

Finally, there is the argument that the Bachelor of Music degree is not really supposed to prepare the performer for the professional world, but merely serves as a foundation for graduate study. According to this position, the candidate will be ready to compete for performance positions or college teaching jobs after completing a master's degree and probably a doctorate. Again, there is some truth in this argument, but there are at least two problems with it.

First, many persons with a doctorate in performance still cannot find full-time employment in music: I know personally several musicians holding a B.M., an M.M., and a doctorate in performance who cannot find a playing position, a college teaching job, or even a high school teaching position—the "last resort" of public school teaching being eliminated because of a lack of teacher certification. I have no objective evidence on how common this situation is, but it is probably not rare. The advanced degrees are necessary when competing for college teaching positions, but additional degrees mean very little in and of themselves when auditioning for a performance position.

Second, many B.M. graduates begin graduate study primarily because they are unable to find work: a graduate assistantship is an alternative to a job. A 1984 study revealed that for 68 percent of performers "unemployment was the primary motivation for doctoral pursuit."10 To say that performers seek the additional study in order to find employment later is toying with the truth, since many of these students have few alternatives but to enroll for more and more schooling. Yes, they will be better prepared after graduate study, but the jobs are still very scarce. For many persons, graduate school only postpones the unemployment problem rather than solves it.


It is axiomatic that the very best and most determined young musicians will succeed as performers, but such persons are a small minority of those who complete a Bachelor of Music degree. The present system does one great disservice not only to the vast majority of B.M. students who will not be able to find work, but also to those who do find work—and to the profession as a whole. The oversupply of labor makes music a buyer's market and means that few musicians will ever be properly compensated for their talent and years of training. In other professions, notably medicine and law, professional organizations see to it that enrollments in professional schools are limited, the quality of physicians and lawyers is kept reasonably high, and (not incidentally) the fees for services are likewise kept high.

By continuing to graduate thousands of excess performers each year, schools of music insure that the few musicians who do find employment will probably be greatly underpaid in comparison to other persons with similar training. This also appears to be true in college teaching: teachers in the arts and humanities are usually paid less than those in science or engineering. This discrepancy may be a reflection of our society's values, but it is also a matter of an oversupply of cheap labor.

Perhaps artists are cursed by the very nature of their field. Although serious musicians and other creative persons are popularly portrayed as suffering for their art, the fact is that we are engaged in an activity that is highly rewarding. Although some of us may become jaded about our profession, we should remember that for most people music is engaging, enriching, and pleasurable. Many young persons are attracted to music and want to study it seriously at the college level.

Comparisons with other disciplines, although useful, are not entirely realistic. Community orchestras or other amateur music groups are numerous, but I am not aware of any amateur dentists or lawyers who practice without compensation for the sheer joy of their craft. Although no one should be blamed for the popularity of our art, those of us who guide young people should make a distinction between the love of music and the vocation of performing it.


What happens to the many potential performers who graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree? It is obvious that they do not all find full-time employment as musicians. In my experience it seems that many B.M. graduates move on to other options both in and outside of music: graduate music study, law school, retail sales, the food-service industry, or music education, for example. Although many corporate employers are willing to train college graduates for various positions, such employers traditionally favor the liberal arts major with a broad background rather than the person with narrow professional training.

Most entering freshmen music students come to college knowing little about music beyond what they learned in their high school performing groups. They certainly are not aware of the employment statistics cited above. Most, it seems to me, love music and want to excel in that field; they are not concerned so much about employment as about being successful in the immediate environment of the music school. A study of music curricula and employment conducted by the Wisconsin College-Conservatory, Milwaukee, in 1976 found that undergraduate music students were indeed "totally engrossed in the day-to-day business of music training" and did not look ahead to life after graduation. The same study called for a course or seminar for music students on job opportunities and alternatives.11 It is clear that students should not be deceived or misled about the possibility of employment, but it seems to me that our responsibility as faculty members goes beyond not deceiving students: we should be concerned enough about their futures to volunteer realistic advice when students are most naive and vulnerable. If freshmen receive frank, accurate, and unsolicited advice from music faculty as to the probability of finding a job and still decide to pursue a B.M. curriculum, fine: everyone can enter the process with eyes open and a clear conscience.

It is impossible to generalize about the counseling students receive at various institutions and about individual students' expectations for employment. What is described below does not occur in all music schools or departments and certainly not in all applied studios.

But what does happen, at least in some cases, is that capable freshmen are flattered into pursuing the B.M. degree ("Your audition was of such high quality that you are being recommended for the Bachelor of Music program!") with very little other career advice being given. Often little is said about jobs by the applied teacher or academic advisors in the course of the next four years. The student, likewise, is content to live from day to day and avoid awkward discussions, at least until he or she is faced with graduation and the possibility of doing something other than attending college. Interestingly, this flattery seems to go on at both small and large institutions. Which students are selected for the prestigious B.M. depends more on their ability relative to their classmates than on their chances of being successful as professional performers. There are almost certainly "chosen" performance majors in some schools who do not perform well enough even to be admitted to other schools of music.

Even where "B.M. flattery" is completely absent, there is always a possible problem with some students who elect the performance curriculum but are badly mistaken about the extent of their talent and their chances for a performance career. As Bernard Dobroski states,

Students shouldn't pursue music degrees just because they love music or have achieved recognition in high school music programs. It's difficult, though, for a 16-year-old student to know what path will lead to personal success.12

Again, the need for good advising seems obvious.

Some students in the Wisconsin study were aware of being used to showcase the school or department.13 This feeling is probably not unique to students in the three music schools that participated in the study, and may be a rather common perception among students who are on music scholarships. Obviously there is a trading of talent for scholarship funds and this is not inherently bad: the students receive an education and the institution secures talented students. It seems, however, that the school gets the better part of the bargain, particularly when the new B.M. graduate discovers that the performance skills that were valued by his Alma Mater do not interest professional orchestras or opera companies.

Certainly many faculty members do care very much about the future of their students and give them realistic and truly helpful advice. Other teachers are concerned about their students' futures, but are understandably more concerned with their own future and job security. Saying nothing seems an innocent way of keeping one's studio and course-load full, particularly in situations where B.M. students earn more credit for lessons than other students and thus help fill up the teacher's load.


It seems clear that there are two different but related problems under discussion. The first is the oversupply/unemployment issue, and the second is the question of good advising for college music students. In other words, the second problem consists of telling our students about the first problem. The relationship between the two is as close to a clear-cut cause and effect situation as we are likely to find in a complex society. The oversupply of musicians will not be changed quickly in any case, but it is likely to become more and more serious if we do not improve the advising process.

But wait: if the music business is a matter of supply and demand, can we somehow increase the demand for performers and put more of them to work? That would not be easy. Although many professional orchestras are thriving, others are facing serious financial problems resulting in strikes, shortened seasons, or bankruptcy.14 The situation for some opera companies is probably not too different: the municipal opera that I have attended for the past five years recently closed down in the middle of the season. Even in commercial music, technological advances such as synthesizers and drum machines enable the local pop musician to perform with fewer sidemen, thereby decreasing performing opportunities.

Given the present state of the business of music, then, it seems rather foolish to think that the number of professional performance opportunities will soon double or triple to accommodate all of our graduates. The idea of increasing the demand for performers' services to solve the unemployment problem is not a realistic short term goal and is not directly under the control of college music teachers. There is also very little we can do about the current surplus of musicians already in the field. My suggestions, therefore, focus on the root of the problem, which is under our control: the advising of students and the relevance of their college curriculum.


I do not suggest that schools of music eliminate the B.M. degree or put themselves out of business. What I propose is reasonable, is within our grasp, and should be helpful to all concerned:

1. Students should receive realistic counseling as freshmen concerning various degree options; they should not be flattered into a B.M. curriculum in which they spend four years preparing to compete for jobs that simply do not exist. If the extraordinarily gifted (or determined) musicians want to pursue the B.M. after knowing the facts, fine. A useful criterion for deciding which students are "extraordinarily gifted" is that in most cases they should show a clear potential to perform better than their applied teacher. The vast majority of full-time college applied teachers—let us be candid—are, by definition, not full-time performers and should not encourage students less capable than they to compete for jobs they themselves did not secure. This does not apply to those faculty members who do perform full-time and teach part-time, or to those who are retired performers. Other exceptions to this rule could be noted among students and teachers in our most. prestigious schools and conservatories, but let us not forget that the vast majority of the thousands of B.M. students in this country are not attending such schools. The exceptions do not negate the rule.

2. Most students deciding rationally to pursue the B.M. degree should get as broad a preparation as possible. This might include options for electronic music, recording technology, music merchandising, arranging, commercial music performance, and other vocations usually subsumed under the heading of "music industry". The Wisconsin report called for just this kind of versatility, rather than teaching students how to play "one kind of music on one instrument."15 Although many traditional schools of music would be slow to adopt such nontraditional curricula, some might be willing to offer elective courses or minors as a part of the traditional B.M., options that would help students find employment. In any case, one wonders how long students will continue to be attracted to schools that manifest an outdated view of professional preparation. Students pursuing computer science degrees expect to use the latest in equipment and techniques so as to be prepared for the available jobs. They do not spend four years studying the slide rule or abacus. I do not equate art and science, but students in a professional curriculum have a right to relevant preparation.

3. Music schools should do away with any provision for granting more credit for applied lessons to undergraduate performance majors than to Bachelor of Arts or music education students—if the policy causes undergraduates to be guided into the performance curriculum for the wrong reason. The usual rationale given for such a policy is that performance majors are expected to practice more and hence they should receive more credit. Although outwardly logical, such an arrangement, in some schools, provides a strong incentive for applied teachers to fill their studios with B.M. students (fewer students equalling a full load in terms of credit hours), thereby aggravating the problems discussed above. B.M. students should study applied music longer (throughout the degree program) and thus will usually cover more advanced literature than B.A. and B.M.E. students, but all should receive the same number of credit hours for private lessons. Students' practice time and the instructor's performance standards are very much an individual matter in each studio and probably do not correlate well with the credit hours assigned.

4. Although music education is not a profession to be entered casually, the bright and talented musicians who express any interest in teaching at any level should be encouraged to pursue the B.M.E. degree. These persons, in many cases, are desperately needed in the schools, where they stand a good chance of being employed in music on a full-time and long-term basis. A generation of talented and dedicated musician-educators would soon provide a better trained freshman class for the school of music that takes the training of music teachers seriously. Many fine departments and schools of music have known for years that we really do reap what we sow!

The myth persisting (in some places) that weak performers or non-musicians make good school music teachers should be laid to rest. The truly successful music teachers are good musicians, and the best teachers are outstanding musicians. (The exception to this usually is an individual who has superlative motivational and organizational skills and thus can partially mask a lack of musicianship.) It is difficult for any teacher to lead others where he has never been in terms of musical style, intonation, phrasing, interpretation, or music literature.

A degree in music education has never prevented the capable musician from performing, perhaps even in the local orchestra that advertises in the International Musician. In contrast, the B.M. degree (and the attending lack of teacher certification) has prevented countless potential teachers from getting full-time positions in the schools where they could share their musicianship with young people. As mentioned previously, this is not only a problem for those with only a B.M., but includes musicians with earned doctorates in performance.

5. Although the old concept of a B.M.E. degree as an "insurance policy" for performers is distasteful to dedicated music educators, there is some merit in considering the music education degree as the most basic and practical degree for undergraduates, who then can specialize in graduate programs in performance, musicology, theory, composition, or music education. Nearly all music professionals do in fact teach in some capacity or another: training as a music teacher seems appropriate for those who will teach music. The Wisconsin study called for teacher training for performance majors, recognizing that those who continued in music after graduation would very probably be teaching.16 Even if the music education graduate decides not to teach music, and not to perform music in any capacity, he or she is still more broadly educated than the B.M. graduate and better prepared to pursue a career outside of music.

College music faculty would serve their students very well by nurturing the concept of teaching and performing not as an either-or question, but as a natural and complementary marriage. Indeed, the combination of teaching and performing music is extremely common, even among many of the world's great artists. The benefits of such a combination are well worth listing.

A teacher who performs regularly can serve as a model for his own students and can use his performance skills as a teaching tool. Playing or singing in a group can help the public school teacher see the rehearsal situation from the performer's perspective. (Observing someone else's rehearsal techniques should stimulate the teacher to examine his own rehearsals.) Performing can be a rewarding outlet for any teacher who spends most of his time giving musical assistance to others.

Likewise, the performer who teaches can benefit greatly from analyzing the performance problems of students and applying the solutions to his or her own musical growth. Teaching has a way of encouraging the teacher to focus, organize, and filter information in order to present it coherently to students. The natural interaction of students and teachers is a two-way street: teachers teach, but they also learn a great deal from students. Finally, the combination of teaching and performing helps the musician financially: many musicians, in fact, depend on the combination in order to achieve a livable income.

Although implementing the above suggestions might not increase college student enrollments or faculty numbers, it should not significantly decrease numbers either, since the recommendation is basically to advise would-be B.M. students to enter the field where they can be employed. Present demographics suggest a teacher shortage within the next decade, and the increased numbers of capable musicians who would be routed into music education will be likely to find jobs. A teacher shortage will also eventually help to increase salaries in the field, alleviating a drawback that now discourages some students from entering music education. Many freshmen will still elect the B.M./performance curriculum after the best possible faculty guidance, and those students will enter the field with their eyes wide open.

How shall we retain present numbers of college music faculty while guiding undergraduate music students in a more realistic direction? The answer lies partly in serving the nonmusic students and redirecting some of our efforts toward the goal of "music in general studies," a recent focus of numerous College Music Symposium articles and College Music Society meetings. For applied teachers and conductors of ensembles this might take the form of recruiting the many fine college musicians who are not music majors into the studios and ensembles. For other faculty it might mean broadening the academic offerings for nonmajors beyond the traditional music appreciation course, perhaps to include music fundamentals, piano, guitar, jazz history, related arts, non-Western musics, or courses involving popular music and culture. Working with nonmajors can help music faculty keep their world in perspective and provide a challenge for their motivational and teaching skills. Perhaps more importantly, such courses take music from a specialist milieu into the educational mainstream.

Such a focus on making the nonmusician more musical might ultimately result in a somewhat more human and aesthetically aware society—one in which the arts would be supported to a greater degree than presently. Broadening our efforts and focusing less on the performer, in other words, might help provide exactly the situation in which the performer could prosper.


Like the child in the fable who shouted that "the Emperor has no clothes," persons who point out the obvious are seldom fully appreciated. I suspect that I may fall into that category, especially since the problem I describe is widespread and the solution potentially threatening. I am keenly aware that faculty in most institutions are desperately seeking more students. Deans and directors everywhere want Growth and Progress, that is, more and better students and faculty. How can anyone seriously suggest doing otherwise? The naiveté of my suggestions, very simply, stems from the consideration that students, even undergraduate students, are not merely grist for the mill or credit hours generated. They are people—not entirely unlike college faculty—who deserve to be treated fairly and advised realistically.

1Steven G. Baxter, "The Relationship of Self Concept and Career Choice Among University Music Students" (D.M.A. diss., University of Kentucky, 1977), abstract.

2Higher Education Arts Data Services, Music Data Summaries, 1984-1985 (Reston, VA: Higher Education Arts Data Services, 1986), Chart 1.

3Based on my own survey of "Help Wanted" ads in International Musician, January-December 1986.

4Stephen Jay and Carol D. Smith, Music Career Curriculum Development Study: A Study of the Relationship of Curriculum to Employment (Washington, D.C.: Office of Education, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1976) (ERIC ED 114596), 23.

5This information is based on a survey conducted in June 1988. Most persons in charge of placement, alumni relations, or public relations offices cited the understandable difficulty of locating graduates and eliciting responses—and consequently had no figures to report. The sample is admittedly small and many fine schools were not included. The six polled, however, are certainly among the best in the world: Boston University, Curtis Institute, Eastman School, Indiana University, Juilliard School, and the University of Michigan.

6Logan C. Osterndorf and Paul J. Horn, Course Offerings, Enrollments, and Curriculum Practices in Public Secondary Schools, 1972-73 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Printing Office, 1976), 236.

7Music Data Summaries, Chart 1.

8Jay and Smith, 14.

9Performing Arts and Entertainment-Related Occupations (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1978) (ERIC ED 158137), 9, 11.

10Alexandria Holloway, "A Descriptive Analysis of Musical Experiences, Employment Patterns, Career Aspirations, Curricular Content, and Attitudes of Doctoral Aspirants in Music" (Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1984), abstract.

11Jay and Smith, 11, 15. (This study was based on data obtained from students and faculty at three music conservatories in the U.S. and from interviews and seminars involving professional musicians in the Milwaukee area. Despite the longstanding discrepancy between college music curricula and the music marketplace, this is the only known institutional investigation of the problem.)

12Bernard J. Dobroski, "Choosing a Music School," The Instrumentalist, October 1986, 82.

13Jay and Smith, 15.

14Symphony orchestras that have recently experienced such troubles include those in Detroit, Honolulu, Nashville, New Orleans, Oakland, Omaha, San Antonio, San Diego, Tulsa, and Columbus, Ohio. Most of these problems were serious enough to be publicized in the International Musician in 1986, 1987, and 1988.

15Jay and Smith, 40.

16Jay and Smith, 44.

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