The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: As the beginning of a new school year approaches, a parent makes the case for letting students study and major in music and then pursue a musical career – no matter how difficult it seems in the bad job market today. | August 11, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

As the beginning of another new school year approaches, a good and loyal friend of this blog wrote in to say that others should read this essay that she found on-line. It defends students who want to study and even major in music and then go on to pursue a professional career in music. (Below is a photo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber Orchestra.)

UW Symphony Orchestra 9-2012

This comes at a welcome moment, especially in the wake of the two stories I recently posted by Paul Solman (below), the longtime and prize-winning economics reporter for PBS’ “The Newshour” and a Distinguished Fellow now teaching journalism at Yale University.

Paul Solman hat

In one story Solman explored how difficult it is to pursue music as a career in such a difficult job market as we have today.

Here is a link to that post and story with sources that included gifted student at the Juilliard School and professional musicians:

And then Solman followed it up with a story, using some of the sources, about how young musicians should develop entrepreneurial skills.

Here is a link to that story:

And here is the blog essay by a parent who works in music making the case that young students should indeed be allowed to pursue their dreams of a musical m career and not dissuaded towards a “real” career.

It makes for good reading and perhaps sage advice. So here is a link:

Along similar lines, here is a story about the famous Berklee College of Music (below) in Boston that is linking up with a business program:

Berklee College of Music

How does the blog essay defending musical careers compare with the realities, the fears and the rewards that you, your children and others you know have experienced?

The Ear – -who likes and favors a flexible liberal arts education education and who thinks we often end up making a living and having a career in a field we never expected to enter — wants to hear.


  1. The parental essay is a good one. When my daughter and I went to visit the BFA-Acting program at UW-Stevens Point, a career counselor (during the assembly for all prospective university students and parents) asked, “Which parents among you have a child whose choice of major makes you nervous?” My daughter raised my hand. She said, “Admit it, Dad. You’ll have two starving artists. That has to make you nervous.” (My son is a musician.)
    Frankly, I’d be more nervous if my kids chose majors based on making money or trying to please their parents.
    I see my job as a parent as supporting my kids in their choices, not making their choices. (Oversimplified, of course.)

    Comment by Steve Rankin — August 11, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  2. The people who study music beyond high school are the ones for whom there is simply no choice. They MUST do it. These are the ONLY people for whom this life makes sense. If one is compelled to be a musician, one will succeed, and this entrepreneurial model is key. You will be a salesperson, and your product is You, and The Music you Make.
    The Denver blogger was spot on with her story. The post-employment economy is here to stay. There are few jobs LESS vulnerable to exportation than a spot in an orchestra, playing in a road band, or even being a film scoring composer. Music for every kind of film, for high school bands, for ads, has never been more in demand. Any media will need its accompaniment.
    Frankly, the only way one could stand waking up in the morning, and being at work already, as I do every day, is to be Madly in Love with your work, as Duke Ellington said. This man woke up at noon, prepared for the evening’s performance, did the show, then wrote new music most nights while traveling to the next gig, and then did it again the next night, and the next.
    I always tell young people who are my students not to make the decision to major in music. There should be no decision to make. You either GOTTA do it, or you shouldn’t do it. If you have to mull it over, you don’t NEED to do it badly enough, and you should remain an amateur. And that is a good place to be, as well. The audience for professional music is largely composed of amateur musicians.

    Comment by Michael BB — August 11, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    • Hi Michael,
      As usually happens with you, you argue your case eloquently.
      I suspect most of what you say is spot on.
      But there are some people who feel that same drive toward music but may not have the talent, temperament or luck to make it a success as a profession or career.
      Their future too has to be considered, no?

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 11, 2013 @ 9:43 am

      • Hi, Jake. Temperment,Talent and luck. Let’s take each of these in turn.
        Temperment. I assume that means being able to be rejected a LOT, and withstand regular travel, and the social isolation that comes with a solitary pursuit like being audition-ready or composition. it could also mean that one is NOT the best salesperson for one’s own musical efforts.
        So, if you cannot travel well, and be alone with yourself and music, you’ll be unhappy. Van Cliburn retired early, as did Josef Hoffmann, for these reasons. Van never needed the money, and Hoffmann went on to sit behind his desk at Curtis, and drink and administer the place.
        If you cannot sell yourself, get an Agent. They are really good at that sort of thing, usually annoyingly so.
        No one likes rejection, but if one really has the necessary ego and charisma to follow Music to the Top, you’ll be able to keep plugging your Song, and know that others like you are doing the same.
        Talent. Yikes, what an amorphous and ineffable characteristic. It is kind of like the old Supreme Court definition of pornography. One Knows when one Sees/Hears it. Yeah, right..
        Have you ever noticed that in small musical groups the person organizing the group has the LEAST musical skill of anyone in it? This happens a LOT. It is the entrepreneurial spirit manifesting itself in the Arts.
        An example. I was in the Julliard Jazz Ensemble for a semester when Wynton Marsalis was still in school there. The School did not sanction nor give academic credit for this essentially extra-curricular activity. it was organized by a student, the 2nd alto player. He was the Weakest cat in the band, but the Biggest cheerleader for it! All the clarinet majors who were really jazz saxophone players in disguise were on the band, even though this kid was barely able to play the parts, let alone improvise.Yet, he got into Julliard somehow…
        Luck. We make our own luck in two ways. One is by putting ourselves in the path of the experiences we want to have. If one seeks out like-minded souls, one will do the networking that being an independent musical entrepreneur/practitioner will require.
        The other is by possessing an individual charisma that draws people to you in such a way that whatever you do, be it music or bacteriology, people in the Know will Want to be Doing it with You!
        Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma have this quality. Pincas Zuckerman does not. Leonard Bernstein was an outstanding example of charisma in action!
        Emmanuel Ax is a lumpy, quiet, middle-aged guy, yet has had a long and distinguished career. Garrick Olhsson and Jean-ives Thibeaudet are colourful people who know how to make their musical message appear on the cultural radar screen. Leonidas Kavakos is a better violinist than Bell, but no one knows him, because he looks like Manny Ax! It’s a shame, but “that’s ShowBiz!”
        Ivo Pogerelich, one of my Big Fav players, had such a personal aura, yet his life circumstances, the death of his wife/teacher, his withdrawal from music, and his poorly-received comeback attempt were the Bad luck that ruined the career of a Real Star. No one would have said to Ivo, ” Don’t go into music, even with all your incomparable talent, screaming good looks, and starpower, Bad Luck is gonna git ya!”
        Life is a crapshoot, and we all get our turn at the dice. Yes, the world needs engineers and welders. My whole family are engineers, and my nephew is a welder. But, my niece is a talented artist with pastels and watercolors, like her engineer/artist mother, as well as being a violinist. So, what did she do? She became a hydrologist, and is making 60 grand a year. Will she last at that tech job, or will she feel the Pull of the Arts, as her mother did, and bail out to find her real self? Only time, temperment, talent and luck will tell.

        Comment by Michael BB — August 11, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  3. I just watched the video piece by the Yale economist. It’s clear that serious professional musicians/dancers are increasingly required to work on economic factors as much or even more than on practicing their instruments or choreography. I didn’t recall until completion of 3 degrees that my own family thought I was nuts when I said that, as the 1st in my family to go to college, I was going to major in music. My elder brother was aghast. His response was “Why don’t you major in engineering or at least something in which you may realistically expect to be financially solvent?”
    Of course, he was right. I’ve played in some very minor professional symphonies like the Palos Verde (CA) Peninsula Symphony, but it didn’t take me long to understand that the competition for membership in the major professional symphonies was & is getting more & more brutal. No matter how much I practice, there are others working even harder as well as those with more inherent talent that are going to win the auditions.

    I can’t cite numbers but the principal string bass position in the San Francisco Symphony was open several years ago & the amount of applicants as well as the time required for the auditions was inordinate almost beyond reason. I was delighted to learn that that position was won by the son of a student in my music major class @ WI State College–Eau Claire.

    I ended up working 3 jobs as a security guard, a night room service worker at the Marriott Madison W, and a substitute teacher. Consequently, non-musical employment pays the bills, keeps the wolf from the door. But I’m still playing in community bands in Waunakee & Omro. When a person gets bitten by the love of serious music, that individual will almost always find a way to play, no matter what, because s/he loves the musical life. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — August 11, 2013 @ 1:40 am

    • Hi Larry,
      Thank you for providing your own life as a case study in what Paul Solman is talking about. It is always more convincing to hear proof in the form of life stories from someone close by. Good luck to you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 11, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  4. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I have had to study music in school, starting in the fourth grade through my undergrad, and I would never counsel another student to give it up. The realization of what it takes to succeed as a performer – more hours of practice than you thought there were in a day, for starters – is a tough one, and maybe it won’t be for me in the end. But for now, it’s what I love, and it’s worth the risk to be able to do it. And if I do decide I don’t want the life of a performer, I know I will have the skills I need to find a new one. For me, that would be teaching. For someone else, maybe it’s computer science, or sociology – and whatever it is, the things you learn as a musician are universal. So let the kid study music! My parents did, and I promise they won’t regret it.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — August 11, 2013 @ 12:16 am

    • Hi Mikko.,
      Eloquently put.
      You seem very clear-headed about music as a profession and also about alternative careers.
      I think, as you do too, that music will help one do not only music nut whatever else one decides to do.
      The discipline and drive and cooperation and other values all matter on so many fields for so very long.
      And all bode well for success. however it finds you or you find it.
      Continued good luck and thank you for bringing music to us.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 11, 2013 @ 9:48 am

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