Strings to the bow

July 31, 1998

Conservatoires are teaching musicians how to spread their talents between a number of jobs in order to survive in a highly competitive world. Tony Tysome reports

It is a concept with which Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt were only too familiar. Genius, musical inspiration, and instrumental talent are all very well - but you still have to earn a crust.

All the great musicians were forced to spend a proportion of their valuable time teaching, directing or writing about music instead of creating it. This was the beginning of what modern musicians and the music conservatoires, training and preparing them for the world of work, call the "portfolio" career.

Most of today's composers and instrumentalists will have to make their way as freelance musicians. Full-time performing jobs are few and fought over fiercely. So conservatoires are honing a new way of teaching by encouraging students to take control of a confusing employment situation and turn it to their advantage. Instead of taking any old work until that elusive performing slot turns up, today's students are urged to look for several part-time jobs all linked to music.

Jennifer Barnes, director of the professional integration project at the Royal College of Music, which helps students develop the transferable skills needed to survive as a freelance, explains: "We have some of the best musicians in the world, but the market for solo players is very limited, as are top flight orchestral and ensemble places. We want students to realise that a full-time professional performing career may not be within their grasp, but also that the music industry is very big and there are many ways they can slot into it other than being a full-time employee."

A recent Royal Academy of Music survey of conservatoire graduates revealed that nearly half the academy's 1991 cohort had three or more sources of work last year, with only 17 per cent relying on one source of income. Just 37 per cent of graduates surveyed reported that their main job was salaried, and few (13 per cent) listed their main work as performing music. Nearly two-thirds of orchestral members reported that they were teaching, yet only 17 per cent of all respondents put it as their main employment.

A report on music conservatoires from an advisory group chaired by Sir John Tooley, former general director of the Royal Opera House, notes that the music industry is both expanding and diversifying. The number of people recording their occupation as musician in the decennial census increased by 13 per cent between 1981 and 1991, and in the same period the proportion of self-employed musicians rose from 65 per cent to 73 per cent. The report points to new and revived markets for musicians in light music, musicals, film, improvisation, cultural work, cabaret, small-scale music theatre and dance.

According to Tooley's report, in preparing students to find work in this changing world of music, the conservatoires have done well. A new generation of principals have drawn closer to the professional music world, directing courses at their institutions to focus on turning out versatile musicians.

Janet Ritterman, director of the Royal College of Music, says today's musicians have to be alive to new opportunities. "That is one of the reasons the college organises a variety of external engagements for them, so that they can find out about these opportunities while they are training. They need to realise their life as a professional is about getting out there and making work. Those who have become successful have often done so because they have had well-honed communication skills as well as musical talent. We are trying to equip them with a broader range of personal skills," she says.

Edward Gregson, principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, says the conservatoires face the difficult task of broadening their approach to training, while at the same time keeping sight of their original vocation - to develop world-class performing skills.

Sometimes these demands coincide well for students who are prepared to be entrepreneurial. Professor Gregson cites a tuba player who, faced with a dearth of orchestral places, set himself up as a highly successful mobile masterclass called "Travelling by Tuba".

According to George Caird, principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire, jobs like sound-balancing for pop groups, writing "library music" used by film-makers and television and advertising directors to evoke mood, music agency work, and organising musical events, are further examples of the work conservatoire graduates are taking on. The key to the conservatoires' success in preparing them for this has partly been a determination to embed the development of personal skills into the curriculum, rather than seeing them as "add-ons".

"Every student, for instance, should learn as part of their course how to record their performances or compositions and edit the recording for a CD or the Internet. This kind of experience provides them with more ways to build the kind of portfolio career which has more to do with creative development than pure income generation. In this way the portfolio career is seen as desirable rather than a necessary evil, because it fits in with the way modern people work," he says.


Mike Fowles,Trombonist

When Mike Fowles entered the Royal Northern College of Music as a trombone player eight years ago he had no idea he would end up as a resident conductor.

It was towards the end of his performance degree that he developed an interest in conducting, which led him to do a one-year postgraduate conducting diploma course.

At the time, he was playing in brass bands and in a local pit orchestra with a theatre staging musicals. He became a resident conductor for the college brass band, and then won a position as musical director for the Point of Ayr band in North Wales. Some administration work for musical events and work with brass ensembles has broadened his experience still further.

"While there is a lot of work involved, colleges do try to keep students' eyes open to what is required to make a living in music and how varied the opportunities are.

"It is very likely you will have several jobs, which has the advantage that if one disappears you are not left out on a limb."


Karl Lutchmayer, pianist

The opportunities presented by a portfolio career dawned on Karl Lutchmayer during his masters degree at the Royal College of Music. "I had always intended to just be a performer, but my postgraduate experience led me to feel I would probably want to continue some kind of research and lecturing beyond my course," he says.

Nevertheless, his first moves were along conventional lines, taking an extra year to complete a course in advanced performing, and then winning a scholarship to give recitals at music clubs around the country.

But both a desire to teach and shortage of cash soon led him to work in schools, to give "lectures" to concert audiences explaining the history behind pieces of music. He also ran a piano repertoire course at the RCM for students.

Now as Constant and Kit Lambert junior fellow at the college, he is concentrating on working with students and gaining more teaching experience. He has no regrets about taking on various teaching and performing roles. "It gives me a more balanced outlook and a wider view on what is happening in the music world. I am not just going from one performance venue to another, but increasing the size of my audience in a variety of ways, which is more effective and more enjoyable," he said.


Karen Turner,clarinet player

Who you know can be as important as what you know or what you can do in building a career, Karen Turner has found. The ability to maintain a network of contacts in the right places who can tip you off when a desirable work opportunity appears is an essential skill, she believes.

College friends and other professional contacts helped her to a variety of teaching jobs which she needed to survive after completing her performance course at the Royal Northern College of Music.

"The head of music services in Wigan, who used to be my accompanist, heard that I had left college and let me know about jobs in local schools," she said.

Later, a former college student tipped her off about orchestral work, which was harder to come by.

She does not feel that her college experience prepared her fully for a freelance life. But her training and the contacts made on the course helped her swim rather than sink. "When I left college I still had the idea that although it might take a bit of time I would find enough performance work. I had to learn quickly that this was not the case. But at least I am happy now with the mixture of work I have."

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