We need to bang the drum for music degrees

Music degrees aren’t as valued as they should be. Universities can do much more to make them attractive to students and parents, argues Sam Walton

Sam Walton's avatar
Royal Academy of Music,Royal College of Music
28 Sep 2023
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To teach in a creative discipline in the UK at the moment can be a dispiriting experience. Not only do academics have to deal with the inclement headwinds battering all universities, but they also have to contend with a widespread feeling that arts degrees are not as worthwhile.

This is especially true of music. The decline in the number of sixth formers taking the subject at A level isn’t entirely surprising given the narrowing of the curriculum in recent years and the difficulty of recruiting music teachers. But that and the constant negativity in the press towards creative degrees has left many who teach the subject at UK universities fearful about the future of their disciplines.

Those fears are understandable, especially as music academics are hardly responsible for policy or in a position to do much about long-term funding decisions. Whatever the political complexion of the government, they will of course pray it will be sympathetic to their interests and ambitions.

But is it wise to place all our hopes about the future security of university music on the fickle nature of politics, or should we perhaps start prosecuting our case more robustly regardless? Because there is a case to be made for music as a valuable and worthwhile degree – and I think universities could do more to make it.

The first drum we should bang is the outsize role the creative industries in general and music in particular play in the UK economy. Students and their parents need to be reassured that the creative industries are not a fringe sector but a major wealth creator and employer. Not only do they make up almost 12 per cent of the entire economy, in recent years they have grown twice as fast as the rest of it.

Pre-pandemic, the music business’ finances were growing particularly strongly – up by 11 per cent in 2019 from the year before. Covid was a hammer blow to live music performance and employment, but the sector is moving in the right direction and there is no reason to believe its growth trajectory won’t return to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s important, too, to explain exactly what we mean when we talk about music and the opportunities it offers. It’s not just about classical recitals or indeed live performances of any kind. How many parents and students would know that my orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded the soundtrack for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Harry Potter films, as well as the music for blockbuster video games such as Candy Crush, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy? Most of the entertainment industry relies on the skills and creativity of musicians for part of its output, and the opportunities for them, particularly in popular areas such as video games, are growing.

A related area universities should do more to highlight is the business end of music – distribution, royalties and how content can be monetised generally. I appreciate that some university departments offer work experience in these areas, but more need to offer meaningful placements that run for extended periods, not just a few days. The greater the understanding students have about the industry, the more successful they will be over the long term.

Universities could also do more to inform parents and careers advisers about the transferable skills students learn doing music degrees. The talents honed studying music are not confined to performance – invaluable though that is. Endurance is essential, as are resilience, creativity, patience, teamworking and problem solving. I have a friend who works in the IT industry who always rates job applicants who have studied an instrument highly because, as he says, anyone who is prepared to spend hours practising to perfect their playing ability despite the inevitable setbacks can usually be relied on to bring an equal dedication to work. The same skills are just as valuable in law, finance and many other professions.

One thing universities should be wary of is making too much of any superstar alumni. Not everyone wants to be the next Nigel Kennedy or Lady Gaga – and most of them won’t be. Some students will want to study music to hone their craft and become performers, but music departments shouldn’t neglect highlighting the range of opportunities in associated careers. Universities need to celebrate alumni who are successful stage managers, music publishers, music therapists, talent managers and music lawyers – rather than just those who are standout performers.

The final thing music departments could do if they aren’t already is help graduates with grant and bursary applications, such as the London Symphony Orchestra Conservatoire Scholarships. For those students who do decide to pursue performance careers, financing further study is often an insurmountable barrier – and making those who lack the connections or background aware of the scholarships and funding available can really help.

Sam Walton is co-principal percussion at the London Symphony Orchestra and professor of percussion at the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music.

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