What Can You Do with a Degree in Music?

January 1, 2003

In a previous article, I wrote that CMS had several initiatives under way that could have a major impact on music in higher education. Perhaps the simplest of these ideas involves focus. In the age of information overload, let’s concentrate our efforts in at least some of the discussion; let’s all talk about the same thing....

This year, the subject for what we might call “national grassroots consideration” centers on our students, and particularly “What you can do with a Degree in Music: Career Options Outside of Music Teaching and Performance.”

During its meetings last fall in Kansas City, the board met with Laura Kuennen-Poper, a violist by instrument, educational consultant by trade, and humanist at heart. Among other things, Laura developed an office of career advising at Oberlin when she served as an assistant dean there, and she spoke convincingly to the board of the need for those of us teaching music in higher education to expand our conceptions of “career” and “preparation.”

There are two widely held, yet unspoken, assumptions: that the study of music prepares one only to be a musician, and that becoming anything else means failure. These and other notions will be under the intense scrutiny of the CMS members who journey to their regional chapter meetings this spring. We’ll also hear more about the subject at the annual meeting in Miami this fall. In the meantime, think with me about the issue.

Following is a short list of skills and abilities developed during a musician’s training:

  1. Self-motivation
  2. Discipline
  3. Able to translate a symbolic language
  4. Ability to concentrate on extremely detailed material for long periods
  5. Ability to construct a whole from many small parts (seeing the big picture)
  6. Ability to sequence activity (organizing tasks, problem solving)
  7. Ability to work in both small and large teams (ensembles)
  8. Leadership (conducting, section leaders, music education)
  9. Technical skills (manual dexterity)
  10. Communication skills (sometimes in front of a large audience)

The personnel officer of a Fortune 500 company would bend over backward to have employees with such a range of talents. Yet every May, our graduates slink out of the university gate, heads hung with a sense of powerlessness in the job market, accepting a day job in fast food while waiting for their big break.

Why not put these skills to full and lucrative use? What is truly amazing is the fact that most music students aren’t even aware they are so employable. The fault could well lie within the culture of the music school, where performing and teaching are the only careers deemed successful.

Are we faculty to blame for this? By dint of hard work and determination, we have managed to eke out careers in what we love. We have performed our concerts, written our books, been appointed to teaching jobs, and succeeded in a field that is challenging, competitive, and all-consuming. Our days are filled with practicing, research, teaching, and service to the profession and the academy. Our students see us as busy, engaged in the art, and productive. They want this for themselves. They do not see us exploring other avenues of employment, nor do they see us stretching our depressed incomes to cover the monthly bills. “Art Above All” is the rallying cry. Laura spoke of institutions that award tenure to piano professors only if they have had students win major competitions. “Publish or perish” is alive and well in universities everywhere; good teachers are sent packing because their resume does not include that esoteric monograph no one will read. Immersed in such a culture, it is no wonder that faculty have little imagination about what lies beyond a music career: we are too busy surviving our own.

Let’s agree to reexamine our premises. A life in music can be glorious, but it’s not the only career available. In the library and the practice room, we spend so much time on specialization (depth), that we seldom consider the wider aspects of our work (breadth). John Dewey wrote that “...no one is just an artist and nothing else, and in so far as one approximates that condition, he is so much the less developed human being.”

Musicians have so much to offer society. Our skills, abilities, and most of all, values, have never been more needed. There is much we can do to encourage our students to think more imaginatively about their career possibilities. I encourage you to join those of us in The College Music Society who have already begun the process.

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