College athletes with the sole goal in life of playing in the NFL or the NBA are probably setting themselves up for failure. However, athletes that are prepared to play several sports, coach, train teams, and run sports-related businesses are equipped to succeed in their careers, regardless of the circumstances. Thousands of music students every year enter the best universities and conservatories with a similarly improbable goal in mind: to join one of the top orchestras or to become a famous soloist, yet the odds of attaining a full-time position in a good orchestra or being able to make a career of touring and playing concerts exclusively are astronomical.
There is a demand for musicians and music educators in today’s economy. A well-prepared musician can make a decent living and the idea of the “starving artist” is a myth, perpetuated by unrealistic expectations and inadequate preparation. As with any other career, an adequate preparation is essential. It’s not enough to attain a suitable level of skill in performance and teaching abilities but one has to engage in multiple aspects of musical life.
I believe that even today, in most institutions, the skills most critical to a successful musical career are grossly neglected, if not outright ignored. Many instrument teachers’ approach can be reduced to “learn this piece and eventually play it very well, then learn a harder piece and eventually play it very well…” repeated from the moment a student enters school until they graduate. They’ll even actively discourage students from getting too involved in other courses lest it take away valuable practice time — especially common with pianists, who don’t have the time in the orchestra to balance out the many hours spent as a shut-in. The result of this teaching approach is a student that can play a handful of works but with no guarantee that the student understands the process involved in learning them. The student can’t communicate the process to others and ultimately will not have the means to find an audience for that handful of works. In the real world, this is close to useless.
When I know a student is going to pursue a career in music, it makes an enormous difference in my teaching approach. It becomes my responsibility not only to help those students learn a handful of pieces, but to give them the other necessary tools for a career in music. Most of the time, this results in a greater emphasis on often neglected aspects of a pianist’s education, such as sight-reading and singing, harmonic analysis, improvisation and accompaniment. This will necessarily take time away from the “learn a handful of pieces very well by drilling them repeatedly” aspect of traditional piano teaching.
I propose that, to build a career in music, musicians should strive to be as diverse in their knowledge as possible. They should be able to read music fluently, improvise, arrange and have at least a functional knowledge of conducting, composition and performance in more than one style; every musician should have at least elementary keyboard abilities and every pianist knowledge of vocal technique. More important than “playing a handful of pieces very well” is learning to learn, so one can pick up any piece of music quickly and perform it confidently on stage — in real life, you seldom get a semester to learn your repertoire. Every musician should be a competent teacher and be familiar with diverse pedagogical methods and the appropriate material for different age groups and types of students. They should be able to work with other people, as part of a team in smaller ensembles or under a director in bigger groups. Musicians should be able to express themselves in writing, speak in front of an audience, and use the Internet, notation software, and recording software competently.
My own musical education was of the traditional kind. Although I was lucky to have very good teachers, my instruction was always limited to playing the works I was assigned, and then learning some new ones. I was lucky in one sense: I had to support myself through school. That meant that I played trumpet in several orchestras, salsa bands, mariachi ensembles and on the street; I played piano in a dance studio, pretended to play jazz in restaurants, and accompanied church services; I directed ensembles and taught students of all ages; I had to take every job I could get, regardless of the time I had to learn the music, and adapt for each situation and audience. Looking back, every single one of those experiences has been as useful, if not more, than the handful of pieces I learned in school.