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Lining up for the job market

April 09, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

"There are now too many musicians in San Francisco, more than enough to fill all the 'jobs.' What we need is work, not musicians. Stay away from San Francisco. You will find it cheaper in the end." Notice signed "By order, Board of Directors, Local #6, San Francisco" and posted in the American Musician in 1898.


ANYONE who supposes that American musicians have a tough time finding jobs compared with their forebears obviously hasn't looked into the matter. The advisory at left shows just how little times have changed.

Yet in at least one respect, the situation for musicians at the beginning of the 21st century differs markedly from the one that prevailed a hundred years ago: In those innocent days, there were just a handful of American music schools.

USC had opened its music department in 1884, four years after the university was founded, and upgraded it to a college of music only in 1893. The Institute of Musical Art -- precursor of the lofty Juilliard School in New York -- started 12 years later. But even then, USC's music enrollment was a mere 100.

Things began to accelerate in 1924, the year that Douglas Fairbanks soared through "The Thief of Bagdad" and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered. Meeting in Cincinnati, representatives of six American music schools decided they needed to band together to work out problems and curriculum concerns. In short order, the National Assn. of Schools of Music and Allied Arts was formed, with an initial membership of 16 institutions. USC joined in 1925. Within three more years, there were 32 member schools. In three decades, there were more than 200. Today, the figure tops 600.

In the 1980-81 season, according to one study, more than 1,100 members of the American Federation of Musicians competed for 47 full-time positions. Now, an estimated 2,700 music performance majors graduate from American centers of higher learning every year. The usual number of jobs available: 160 or fewer.

There's always room at the top for the very gifted, of course, in any profession. Even in academia, Yale announced last fall that, beginning in 2006-07, it will join the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in providing free tuition to all its advanced music students. But keeping a music school healthy requires something more than the cream of the crop -- it takes a steady stream of hopefuls. As one music school recruiter bluntly put it: "If you want a circus, then you've got to have animals."


No easy answer

STILL, that raises the question: Does he mean a nurturing playland or lambs about to be slaughtered? What are the real prospects for music students today?

The answer depends on which side of the academic fence you're standing on.

"We have too many outstanding music colleges turning out too many graduates for whom there will be no work in music," says maverick British critic Norman Lebrecht.

"It's close to false trading. You take the kids into schools, fire them up with the idea of making careers, knowing from the outset there will not be opportunities for most of them. Very few conservatories are giving students any kind of alternative programs or a sense of the reality ahead for them."

Nonsense, counters Derek Mithaug, director of career development at Juilliard.

"That's the vocational prism that people use in their evaluation of music colleges," he says. " 'What is the placement rate?' That model is disturbing. The idea behind a college or conservatory training goes way beyond being a performing musician."

Juilliard graduates enter many fields, says Mithaug. "Performing is just one of them. Education is another." Others include producing, consulting, directing, journalism, publicity, marketing, advocacy and community outreach. "In these areas, you'll find a wide range of our graduates."

Robert Cutietta, dean of USC's Thornton School of Music, agrees.

"Our students get a full college education that prepares them for all kinds of things," he says. "So many of them are involved with teaching, playing, recording, almost running a small business -- and they are the business."

Cutietta is happy to report that 74% of USC's music alums over the last 10 years earn their primary income from music.

"I'm surrounded by people who make a living at music," he says. "It's a very lively profession, especially in a city like Los Angeles."

Such issues were more recently brought to the fore in freelance oboist Blair Tindall's book, "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music," which details Tindall's and other musicians' successes and failures in securing livelihoods. But most critics focused only on Tindall's kiss-and-tell adventures, dismissing her analysis of the job situation as sour grapes.

"OK, maybe I failed," says Tindall, who attended the Manhattan School of Music. "But what about the 99% of the other grads? We can't all be untalented, undisciplined and without goals. There's just not that much work available."

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