Introduction to Careers in Music

 Steven Ledbetter 
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Steven Ledbetter: Program Notes and Musicological Services

The discussion of helping music students “face facts” in the “real world” is a very interesting one, but it overlooks one aspect that I have found significant over the years: the number of people who study music as undergraduates because they love it, but don’t actually anticipate going on in the field, and the number of graduates who find a job in which their experience in music has a tangential (but important) connection to whatever they end up doing.

I should probably explain that all of my teaching (and learning!) experience has been in music departments of liberal arts colleges, so there is already a qualitative difference from the students of conservatories, though a good number of the students I had (at Dartmouth, for example, or my classmates from Pomona College, my undergraduate school) went on to conservatories for advanced study if performance was their main goal.

At both Pomona and Dartmouth, a rather large—perhaps surprisingly large—percentage of music majors were also pre-meds, planning to become doctors. I’m sure you know how many “doctor’s orchestras” there are around the country and what a high percentage of the medical profession is very musical. At both colleges the orchestra rehearsals could not be scheduled at a time when biology labs were held!

But there are those who do plan to go on as performers but find the competition too great for them to succeed in that line. So what do they do?

On a number of occasions, I have been asked to speak to students at the New England Conservatory on musical careers outside of performance. I supposed they asked me so that I could explain about the life of the symphony orchestra program annotator, but there are so few of those (and many orchestras who have had full-time annotators are now outsourcing, to independent contractors) that I don’t think it deserves greater emphasis than many other possibilities.

I’ve pointed out that there are many areas in which competence as a performer and knowledge about the theory and history of music are important, even vital, adjuncts to a fulfilling career in a related area. Some of these include:

Work in the technical areas of recording or broadcasting. [I once watched an experienced NPR editor at work putting together a piece focusing on the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. The piece involved an appearance by the then-governor of Vermont narrating the “Lincoln Portrait,” and it included clips from Copland’s music as a near-constant background to the interviews about the orchestra. I was absolutely amazed at the ear of this editor (who was a horn-player) and his ability to pick, unerringly, the point at which he could edit the clips together in order to provide a seamless background, without a noticeble break between sections of the piece.]

Publishing music, and also publishing books or magazines about music; editorial skills and a sharp eye for editorial or typographical inconsistencies are important here, but equally so is knowledge of music.

Working on the staff of a musical organization (I was well aware of the number of conservatory graduates and performers or former performers who were on the staff of the Boston Symphony, in areas ranging from concert production to educational outreach to fundraising.)

Musical scholarship and librarianship. This requires further study toward a degree (the Ph.D. in the one case, and the Master of Library Science in the other). For a person with the right skills and interests, both of these can lead to satisfying and stimulating work that remains closely tied to music. As a grand, but generally useful, stereotype, let me point out the following difference between musicologists and music librarians: musicologists are primarily interested in their own work; librarians share a code of helpfulness and love helping others find and develop what they need. One’s personal attitudes might be a guide in choosing one or the other of these areas (which actually overlap, because many of the most important music librarians are also substantial scholars in music, and vice versa).
And then there are the people who, like the pre-meds of my experience, studied music passionately in college because they loved it, but never expected to make a living from it. They wanted to devote at least some part of their lives to a particular passion, but then moved on to become doctors, lawyers, business people of all kinds. They are extraordinarily valuable, because they will help form the core of support for our musical institutions—as donors, board members, and as parents who will encourage their children to study music.

Of this latter group, I can’t resist mentioning one of the best ideas I’ve ever seen a college offer to new or current students (and especially to their parents!) about choosing a major. When my daughter attended Ithaca College, we naturally visited the place with her. Each department of the college had prepared a handout for students and parents that discussed some of the career possibilities that directly grew out of that major (philosophy, English, history, music, etc), but—more important, I think—they added a list of perhaps 25-50 recent graduates from that department with a note about what kind of work they were doing now. This was very eye-opening: the majority of students in all majors were working in fields that were unrelated, or only tangentially related, to their college major. Either they had changed interests or, more likely, had pursued what the really enjoyed in college, got a good education, and then turned that into the work force in a variety of ways.

In other words, parents did not need to worry that their offspring who chose to major in music, or drama, or philosophy, or classics, or any other “impractical” major would not be able to find work after college. Employers are happy to find well-rounded, interesting, well-educated people with the ability to focus on what needed to be done. And music is certainly a field that teaches that kind of focus!

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Last updated: 1 July 2005.
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Ledbetter & Gordon J. Callon. All rights reserved.

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