Like everything I write, this is just a thought. It is not an extensively researched essay but just an argument from a different perspective that I think is worth considering. I am well aware that it is a rather cynical, but it doesn’t come from someone who is completely detached from the subject. I have been through three levels of tertiary music education and am sporadically active as a musician and a music teacher with intentions of continuing to be so. I also apologise if the tone is overly polemic or brash.
Re: It’s time for tertiary music education to change its tune
Thanks to Facebook I clicked through to an article shared by a highly admired musician, educator and former tutor on the theconversation.com
by Peter Tregear. I had absolutely no idea who Peter Tregear was, or is, but among other things he is a music academic and the Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University. The comment attached to the Facebook post suggested that his arguments about the state of music education in Australia could just as easily be applied to the UK; the old country rather than the new one, but having read the article and associated comments on the crisis in university level music education, it was clear that all involved were unaware of the wider systemic problems. It might be that music and humanities are at the sharper end of the squeeze, but the discussion misses a wider point - university education is a business and therefore subject to the market forces of supply and demand, yet in almost all areas of university education these days, and particularly the humanities, there is more supply than demand, which is resulting in a glut of graduates waving degrees. It’s not that tertiary music education needs to change its tune, it needs to change concert halls.
In the music
Let’s keep the discussion in music at least as an illustration, and also take Australia as an example at least to begin with. A quick bit of research gives us a bit of data: there are about nineteen professional Orchestra’s in Australia; a chamber orchestra employs about fifty musicians and the larger symphony orchestra employs about a hundred musicians; in total Australia’s orchestras employ roughly two thousand musicians. There are fifteen music colleges or universities in Australia, of course offering a variety of courses, but with the principle aim of training professional musicians. Making some very broad assumptions we can guess that these universities and colleges graduate enough musicians every few years to essentially re-fill these professional orchestras. The problem is orchestras do not change over their entire personnel every few years. Orchestra’s are like companies and need to build a stable and cohesive ensemble to deliver the best performances. Like any other job professional orchestra musicians want to have a secure job and career; they plan and hope to keep working indefinitely. Of course some people move, retire and so on, so new musicians need to be hired, but it is not replacing the entire orchestra every few years. It can quickly be grasped that there must be more freshly graduated students in any given year than there are available orchestra jobs; an effect that is then compounded year on year.
A music degree… er sorry
Undoubtedly, many musicians don’t join orchestras but join other smaller groups and ensembles. There are, or were, also probably opportunities to start new ensembles and orchestras, while others possibly look for work overseas but this latter point is likely balanced by musicians also coming from overseas to find work. One wonders though, what happens to all those music graduates who don’t go on to become fully professional musicians.
Some students don’t graduate with the intention of having playing careers at all and work in other music related fields or become school music teachers, but what about those who don’t end up working in anything related to music? Well, they become English teachers in Asia, staff in the Mac Store, university teaching assistants, cake bakers, volunteers and a like. All things you basically don’t need a degree in music to do. Moreover a music degree is so specific that it is more or less useless in any other field.
To illustrate this point I’ll tell an anecdote. After completing my undergraduate degree in music (jazz), I attended a graduate fair in London, more out of curiosity than intent, where many well established companies have stands to which you can get information about and apply for jobs. It was a kind of recruitment fair. I wandered around mostly just seeing what it was all about and largely avoiding talking to anyone, but finally a friendly woman wouldn't take my polite “I’m just looking, thanks” for an answer and said, “We can help you. It doesn’t matter what kind of degree you have.” After holding my breath for a moment I finally answered, “Well...I have a degree in music.” The woman looked at me despondently and replied “Oh!…..erm…. sorry… Can’t help you,” and that pretty much ended our exchange. This begs the question, why does the tax payer and government funding need to support institutions that educate people in surplus music degrees which have little value in the general job market? This doesn’t mean that studying music in and of itself is not valuable but economically speaking it’s a waste of resources.
Tregear’s article, or the extract as it was of a bigger essay, suggests that the value of the arts, and music in particular, needs to be defended in the public arena. This is something I’ll come to more specifically later, but this idea of there being a surplus of music graduates also raises questions about how many orchestra’s a country can hold. There is something of an assumption on the part of Tregear and other’s that the demand for music and the arts can just keep growing indefinitely.
As wealth increased in developed countries so, you can reasonably assume, has the demand for the arts; this demand in turn created a demand for more musicians and therefore universities and colleges to train them. However regardless of your belief in the intrinsic value of music and as much as musicians believe themselves higher than the machinations of business and economics, music is just like any other product or commodity. Moreover it should go with out saying that music is a form of entertainment and, especially classical music, a luxury. In times of economic hardship when people have less disposable income, they are not going to spend money on expensive concert tickets, not matter how good it is. Nevertheless, one economy can only support a certain amount of culture, even if it’s growing, and at some point the market will become saturated i.e. there will be more supply than demand, a surplus. If the market for live performance has been saturated and reached it’s maximum point of demand in any economic climate; it either remains in equilibrium serving up as much music as people want to consume, or is even in decline, then there is no need to keep producing musicians at the same rate as during the growth period. The educational curve, however, will always lag behind the market curve of demand for live performances.
The crisis in tertiary music education is not one of budget cuts due to economic conditions, although this might partly be true; it is not even that society at large is loosing sight of the value of music and the arts generally. The crisis is that music education is still thinking in growth era economics. It has failed to realise that the current model of churning out the equivalent of a orchestras worth of students every year is unsustainable. It is argued that the boom and bust cycle is fairly intrinsic to economics; when demand decreases their will be increased competition between those on the supply side, this creates a natural pruning of things that are unnecessary - the excessive - until supply and demand are back in balance. It is likely that tertiary music education will have to go through some form of pruning until the production of musicians is back at a sustainable level. This is inescapable and won’t be changed by music academics and scholars clamouring about the value of music and music education in the press. It is also something Tregear seems to completely miss. He laments budget cuts - “a budgetary pie that seems ever to be shrinking” - but at the very same moment says "more and more need to feed off it”, which makes absolutely no sense! Why are universities hiring more staff when there is less money?
Defence of the Score
From this economic point of view, then, the value that music, the arts and humanities provide to society is not really in question at all, and even if it is, the solution is not in tertiary education but in primary and secondary education. What is possible is to overestimate the value and demand for arts and music. It has to be remembered or realised that no matter how great the works of Mahler, Mozart and a like are, they have always had a fairly limited audience. They are also obviously expensive to put on, when you consider the simple fact of paying the all musicians involved a fair wage, the ticket prices have to be high. You can argue that this is socio-economic snobbery, but high culture and music will never be objectively good for all people. Greatness and beauty in art are subjective and some people, regardless of socio-economic background, simply aren’t interested in it. This makes arguing in the national press that they should be rather redundant as well as counterproductive and amounts to the cultural equivalent of proselytising.
It is also naive - audiences can't keep growing indefinitely. If a country’s largest orchestras are struggling, is it not simply because the market is saturated? Accepting this point is difficult, even painful, but like any business the excess has to be trimmed. Why should musicians, musical academics, and music generally be above the business cycle and bailed out just because of the perceived intrinsic value? The survival of western art music is not in any doubt, but why should it be maintained at economically unsustainable levels? Isn't this just vanity?
The not so X-Factor
For any university course there are two forms of demand that have to be considered. Having discussed the demands for musicians and music in society, the output side of a university, we need to consider the input side, the demand of people wanting to take a music course. This is perhaps more important to a university as this is the source of revenue and profit. On this side there is little doubt that demand remains high, although universities do have to make significant efforts to attract students to their courses.
The demand for music courses is high for a number of reasons but not least because the life of a musician is seen as more or less a glamorous one. This is an idea probably propagated by the broader trend of glorifying celebrities through the media and, as I have tried to discuss in the past, this is not helped by the “X-Factor” effect that spreads a myth of music as a way to fame and fortune. This leads to a hollowing out of music’s innate value, and turns it into a shell that has little value beyond the momentary and monetary. Music has become a commodity to be consumed rather than art to be appreciated and informed by, and it is worth considering whether the value of high culture, classical music and even jazz has been cheapened by such trends in popular culture. This might go some way to support Treger’s thesis, but it is not enough. I digress, however, because in fact at this point it is worth broadening the picture to university education as a whole to discuss the demand for university courses.
Boom Boom Goes the Drum
The last 30 years has seen a huge rise in the number of university students. Continuing to take Australia as an example, and it happens to more marked than the USA or the UK, in the last 30 years (1980 - 2010) the number of University students has tripled, compared to a population that has not quite double over the same period.
In the US it has more or less doubled over the same period with a marked increase from the early part of the 2000s. The UK too has seen more than a doubling in university students numbers. And in both cases the increase in overall population has been much less - a 50% rise in the USA, and just 15% in the UK! It can be concluded that as a percentage of the population far more people are now receiving a university education and it follows that the same is true in university music education. University education is booming.
It is difficult to argue against the fact that household income has generally and significantly increased the last 30 years and therefore more families can afford a university education, although the cost of going to university has also increased - take the increase in fees in the UK for instance. Yet it seems that the real thing supporting students in their quest for a university education is the development of student loans, which, in many cases, are available to students regardless of their parents’s income. It is these student loans that have funded the boom in tertiary education, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, but increasingly it seems like these students are unable to repay them.
After graduating, students are moving back home and working in McDonald’s which offers no hope of earning enough to pay back the tens of thousands they owe. In fact economists, and governments, are starting to get worried that another financial crisis could arise out of the huge and increasing amount of unpaid student loans; currently $1.2 trillion in the US, £46 billion in the UK and a lesser but not insignificant $23 billion in Australia. What exactly is the point of paying for a university education when you can’t get a job that uses your degree to some extent or even pays enough to make repay the loan? The boom in university education is no less an artificial bubble inflated on credit and debt that is increasingly looking unsustainable. One might not worry so much if this was just about tertiary music education, but it seems the problem is becoming fairly systemic; even becoming a lawyer in the US, the country that has the most lawyers per capita, doesn't guarantee a job; in fact some statistics suggest that 25,000 more lawyers pass the bar exam every year than there are jobs for!
Moving back to music, in the early years of this boom in education a lot of the musicians whilst having mildly or even greatly successful performing careers took up teaching posts. As student side demand increased, more courses were created so more teaching posts became available for those who were part of the first glut. The same problem as mentioned with orchestra’s is here too; those now teaching on university courses are not readily replaced, there is little turnover of teaching staff, but one further problem is that the bar for becoming a teacher on a music course likely lowered; a dumbing down if you will. The same as with the best orchestras getting the best musicians, so the best schools get the best teachers and as you progress down the scale by and large the quality of teaching will decline. This is a broad stroke of the brush, but it raises questions about the students now taking those courses at the lower end of the scale who have little hope of becoming professional musicians in the best orchestra’s and so on, and, as already discussed, even those who do graduate from the best music schools will probably have trouble finding regular work. So not only is tertiary (music) education getting more expensive a degree is also becoming less valuable. The whole system is essentially supported by debt.
What’s worse though is the creation of essentially superfluous music courses. Tregear is rightly concerned about and discussing classical music education - this is music with a long and rich cultural heritage and one that has active institutions, namely orchestras, to supply musicians for - but tertiary music education now includes degrees in popular music, undoubtedly fuelled by the “X-Factor” effect, with no such institutions! More than any other form of music, success in pop music is completely random and not in the least bit meritocratic. The thought that a pop music course will make you a pop star is utter nonsense. Not with standing the fact that there might be other jobs in the music industry, most of which are also fickle, it is quite laughable to think that graduating with a degree in pop music will increase your chances of making it. Further to it being completely useless it is sold to you, on credit, for the tidy sum of £27,000! This all ultimately leads to the same question as to whether actually financing students with loans for useless degrees is economically sensible and worthwhile use of resources both human and otherwise, especially when the accumulating of student debt could lead to some sort of financial collapse. If the graduates are unable to pay back the loans, who foots the bill?
As I started to mention, if, and only if, there is a general decline in interest in classical music that is not explainable by natural fluctuations in supply and demand, the failings and therefore the solutions are really in primary and secondary education. If the argument is that people don’t know about the rich culture of classical music then it is exposure to and a fostering of an appreciation for the canon that is lacking in schools. This does not mean we need to indoctrinate children, rather that their education should not merely be about so called serious subjects but should include learning about the importance and value of culture and the arts. This, as other people have mentioned, could involve very cheap or even free concerts for students and children, as well as special performances for younger audiences. Charles Rosen lamented the advent of the record because it meant that less people actually learnt to play the piano, and that limited their ability to appreciate the music, so learning a musical instrument to a reasonable standard, rather than consuming music through Youtube videos and Spotify, would likely also help a great deal. In that regard the American model of music education is better than the British or Australian one.
A further solution or counter weight to this perceived general decline, also involves thinking in a more business minded way. Simply perhaps there needs to be a re-think in the way classical music is marketed and branded; cacophonous noises demanding to be heard don’t work nearly as well as a well thought out plan to encourage an interest in music and show, rather than tell, why it is valuable to society - more people like Bernard Zander
are required. Good marketing and advertising is expensive, but all businesses have to do something to engage a potential audience and ever since composers and musicians escaped the whims of patronage music has been a business. Perhaps Tregear, who in my view has his picture upside down, needs to consider whether he is really playing in the right concert hall at all and rather than lament a lack of patronage, realise that economic variables can't be dismissed and think about how to show that the arts and music have something to give to society. Then let the music speak for itself.
Afterword: Wider Tones
As has been touched on this problem of overproduction of students is not singular to tertiary music education, but is fairly systemic throughout university education in the “Western” world, and by that I also include Japan. This problem actually raises broader questions about the role of university education in society. What is the function of university in the 21st Century? What value does a degree bring to the work place? Should everyone get a university degree? What are the criteria for choosing who should be able to take a degree course (considering that we think it should be available to all regardless of economic background)? Should university education be a business and about making a profit?