One-track Career, Two-class Musicianship

This article is about misdevelopments in professional musical education in Germany. I was born and educated in the so-called ›land of poets and thinkers‹, a country famous for its cultural and musical heritage. Even in times of decreasing public funding and interest in classical music, we still have 131 professional orchestras and 24 music universities that offer free studies and highly coveted degrees. But something goes very wrong—students are trained to become virtuoso performers, but very few of them will make a living from playing and recording music. Orchestras and theatres can only employ a small group of graduates, which means that the vast majority of musicians in Germany subsists on teaching. Many haven’t learned how to give lessons, but have to do it anyway. Essential features of contemporary musicianship—establishing a freelance existence, and being an inspiring and successful educator—are hardly taught at institutions. Here, I intend to share some observations and concerns, and to give readers from other countries an impression of the current situation. Your remarks and opinions will be much appreciated.

In Germany, studying classical music is suffering from severe prejudice. While the instrumental and vocal majors are enjoying the focus of interest, other programmes remain very much in the background of public attention. There is a widespread notion at universities and conservatories that somebody majoring in an instrument or voice, focusing exclusively on his / her subject, should be more appreciated than students of the pedagogical programmes, school music or church music. Professors won’t have students with a compulsory subject play in the same concerts as their majors. Studying music means locking yourself up in the rehearsal room, and your reputation mainly depends on the quality of your performance—that is, how much you practice. Minor subjects are less accepted or even regarded as a time-consuming distraction from the essential. I feel that staff and students tend to disdain teaching, sticking to the paradigm that successful performers won’t have to work in education. Teachers are, openly or implicitly, seen as mere service providers who failed making a career as soloists or orchestral players. This fatal view perpetuates an unsound hierarchy and two-class musicianship at institutions.

Reality tells graduates another story, exposing the aforementioned conditions as a completely surreal and self-referential system. A bit of statistics may illustrate the desolate situation at the employment market. In 2013, 42% of students at German music universities graduated in an instrumental or vocal major—a quantity of 2,610 persons. This is an increase of 58% compared to 2002, when we had 1,648 graduates. In the same period, the number of permanent positions in orchestras significantly decreased by 5% to approx. 9,800. Even if no reliable information is available on how many vacancies are advertised and filled per year, and even if we neglect the pianists who cannot get employed in orchestras, this data suggests that there is a dramatic oversupply of professional musicians. Universities have not yet reacted to this fact. Instead, administrations tend to ignore the precarious prospects for their graduates, insisting on their independence and cultural policy to form an artistic elite. In this respect, professional music education does not at all prepare for working life. Since universities and conservatories are widely insensitive to career and employment issues, freelance musicianship is currently anything but an attractive option.

For the cultural welfare of society we require competent instructors and advocates in music, not an overproduction of top-level performers. But as long as faculties, students, and audiences are generally more supportive of virtuoso performances while music education is drastically underrated and underpaid, applicants will be discouraged to choose the profession of teaching music. We need to support prospective teachers and music school staff because these occupations are more relevant for society than the maintenance of a questionable one-track elite education. Universities should offer far more places for music educators than for the performance majors; and they will need to enhance curricula in the fields of personality development, stage presence, music management, promotion, and marketing. I can well imagine to completely abandon the soloist programmes in favour of a new masters’ degree that prepares for artistic and pedagogic entrepreneurship, in accordance with the changing requirements and challenges of music business. This is not a general solution, but it’s about time something changes—at least in the heads.

Wendelin Bitzan is a musician, composer, and researcher in music. He teaches music theory and digital media at German universities, occasionally performs in public as a pianist, passionately talks and writes about music, and distributes his compositions and writings via the internet. Wendelin resides in Berlin with his family.

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Author: Wendelin Bitzan
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