‘ We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians’

‘ We are graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians’


norman lebrecht

April 15, 2015

Robert Freeman, former head of Eastman School of Music, has written a book titled The Crisis of Classical Music in America. In a local newspaper interview, he makes some knowing, telling points:


crisis of classical music

– When you’re in school, you’re hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified.

– We keep increasing the number of music schools and thus annual music graduates. Well over 30,000 a year. Orchestras are going in the other direction. We’re graduating too many, too narrowly trained musicians.

You can’t make productivity gains in the performing arts. It still takes 85 players to play a Beethoven symphony and you don’t get anywhere trying to play it twice as fast with half as many players. At the same time, the musicians need to be paid more.

– If you’re part of the the society that thinks I’m not much good with words so I play the oboe, you’re digging your own grave. In addition to those, business skills, computer literacy. The kind of thing any leading citizen in the United States needs. If you learn while you’re a student at a music school something about music and how to play your instrument, you also come to the conclusion the world of orchestras is failing and if you’re a part of that you have to be a part of the solution or get into another field.

– In the history of music, before the French Revolution, musicians were generalists. (Then) musicians turned toward specialization — ‘I’m a violist, I don’t play the violin and I certainly don’t play the piano.’ What I’ve been pushing is in the other direction.

h/t: Keith McCarthy

UPDATE: See here for a response by San Francisco Conservatory Dean, Robert Fitzpatrick.


  • william osborne says:

    There have been many productivity gains in the performing arts. Twenty-member big bands were replaced by five-piece rock combos. Orchestras were replaced by synths in in most television and film music. Recordings, radio, and the Internet allow a handful of orchestras to reach millions. Modern transportation allows orchestras like Cleveland, Vienna, and New York establish multi-continental residencies that serve multiple cities thus eliminating the need for expensive local orchestras. Hard disk recording and DV video allow for high quality productions in home studios that create a glut of recordings that can be widely distributed on the Web, thus giving them almost no market value. The increased efficiency is overwhelming.

    Freeman’s claims are part of the fraudulent, neo-con entrepreneurship-in-the-arts argument that deeply misleads students. So they need to be given verbal skills, eh? As if 30,000 music grads a year were going to jaw bone their way into classcial music’s almost non-existent marketplace given virtually no support by a public funding system. Glad to see Eastman students are getting such American wisdom for their $20,000+ tuition payments.

  • Alexandra Ivanoff says:

    As a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, I concur – in general – with his premise, but I think it’s too limited. Having lived abroad since 2007, I’ve gained new perspectives on why the American classical music system is slitting its own throat. Other countries, even Turkey, offer basic music training and exposure to school kids that’s a mixture of their own musical heritage, the classical European legacy, and Western pop/jazz/blues/folk. They grow up with a broad spectrum of musical sounds that includes non-Western scales, instruments, and stylistic norms. The result of this is an appreciation of what Western classical music offers, but above all, a respect for the degree of training it takes to become a master.

    Most Americans grow up only hearing the three-chord pop-rock spectrum that xeroxes itself over and over, due to the astounding money machine that promotes it. The U.S. government only gives a pathetically tiny fraction of its budget to funding musical arts, unlike other countries who believe supporting and rewarding the fine arts is essential to civilization.

    But this is one disturbing blind spot in America: they don’t OWN their native composers the way European countries do. If the U.S. honored Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Barber, Ives, Glass, Reich, Riley, Adams, et al, in the way the commercial entertainment field deifies pop stars and rock bands, it would be a different picture entirely. If that were to happen, Freeman’s book would be a different read.

    • william osborne says:

      You summarize the problem well. They want to blame the students for presumed short-comings like a lack of verbal skills, when the problems are actually a lack of public funding for the arts, music education, and cultural self-respect. Neo-con philosophies about entrepreneurship thus mislead the students about the actual problems and their solutions. (One example, Istanbul has more opera performances per year than Seattle.)

      • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

        Finally a commentary I can agree with Mr. Osborne. However, what solution do you offer? The education system (not only for music, but as a whole) in the US is a business, and thus needs customers, STUDENTS. As a former classical guitarist, no where is this more evident than in the exponential growth that the education of my instrument has experienced over the last 15 years. This in spite of actually LESS opportunities available in the classical music industry since most of our artists (Williams, Bream, Segovia, The Romeros) either retired or slowly faded away without leaving behind artists to take their place. The response of the community? EDUCATION!! Its like trying to put off a fire with gasoline, yet everybody loves it. That of course, until the bubble bursts.

  • T-ARAFANBOY says:

    “the world of orchestras is failing”… because ‘the world …. is failing’ ?

  • 2K says:

    It’s not about the gig, it’s about a pathway to a creative life.

  • Jonathan Ellis says:

    What the world really needs is not necessarily more musicians but more audiences – which means more people with the time and money to spare on going to concerts. When you go to a concert, how many people under 50 do you see in the audience? For what used to be the popular music of the day?

  • Johann S says:

    If schools didn’t accept so many low level music students to offset tuition costs, you wouldn’t be graduating so many unqualified musicians.

    NO FALSE HOPES! That’s my motto as a professor.

    Higher education and professional schools should not neighborhood conservatory substitutes.

  • Michael Spudic says:

    A question to William Osborne. Would you please elaborate further upon your use of the term “neo-con”? It comes up twice in your above replies and I don’t believe it’s merited in evaluating the merits of Freeman’s thinking.

    • william osborne says:

      The terminology is very confusing in English. The concept of entrepreneurship in the arts was formulated by neo-conservatives as a market-oriented riposte to Europe’s public funding systems. Confusingly, it is part of an economic philosophy called “neo-liberalism,” or laissez-faire economic liberalism . Economic neo-liberalism derives from historic concepts of liberalism as formulated by Adam Smith in the 18th century. In short, a reduction of government involvement in economies is defined a form of liberalization.

      Neo-liberal economics became a mainstay of neo-conservative philosophy in the 1970s as advocated by economists like Milton Friedman and others at the University of Chicago. The philosophy expanded to a rather totalizing concept of capitalism that goes far beyond Adam Smith, and insists that the marketplace should be the sole arbiter of almost all human endeavor. As Dick Cheney put it, “government should be reduced to the smallest size possible and then drowned in a bathtub.”

      Neo-conservatives thus insist that better business practices and improved entrepreneurship serve the arts better than public funding. The USA is the only developed country in the world that follows this philosophy. Cross-national comparisons for the number of arts institutions and funding per capita show that America’s neo-liberal concepts do not work as well as public funding systems. Advocates of entrepreneurship in the arts thus seldom offer empirical evidence to support their claims.

      Most of the people advocating musical entrepreneurship do not know the origins of the philosophy or its relationships to neo-liberalism. In addition to increased verbal and business skills, ideas such as alternative venues, casual attire, applauding between movements, and the aesthetic leveling of so-called high and low art forms are additional aspects of the entrepreneurial philosophy in classical music. They philosophy has been around for about 30 years, but has not solved the problems created by America’s lack of a public funding system.

      • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

        Mr. Osborne, if your solution is to expect authorities to at some point ‘see the light’ and realize they have to fund the arts, I suggest you find a comfortable place to sit down and wait, especially after seeing how the ‘model’ that they are supposed to emulate – the European one – crumbles just as much as the american one. If you follow this blog, you might have heard of the Netherlands, of Paris, of the SWR orchestra in Germany, of Greece.

        With macroeconomic pressures mounting over developing and developed societies, I reached the conclusion that you outlined in an earlier comment above: there have been productivity gains, and that has the potential to make the outliers – the truly extraordinary orchestras – relevant to society once again. Anybody that actually likes music would much rather listen to Karajan with the BSO in youtube or a DVD than to go see a mediocre orchestra with pissed off/unpaid/overworked/unrehearsed musicians in my locality, as they will probably play some blasphemous program of “Beethoven meets the Macarena”, some “POPS” programming, or any of these ‘Innovative’ outreach activities which -as you mentioned – have been tried for YEARS and have not solved anything.

        With less supply, there can actually be a concerted effort to position classical music as the high-value activity that it is, so that others can also appreciate and cherish the top ensembles that continue the art form. What’s preventing it? The devils circle created by a failed education system destined to create debt as a form of modern-day slavery for students with the hope of a ‘career’. Teachers and administrators know it, but their livelihoods are also attached to the system.

        I dont have a solution, but the problem I think is pretty clear.

        • william osborne says:

          Thank you for these very interesting ideas. I follow cultural funding trends in Europe fairly closely. Europeans still hold strongly too it. The only exceptions out of about 30 countries would probably be Italy and Holland, but even there reductions have not been too great because political resistance has been strong and effective. Greece, Spain, and Ireland have cut arts funding, but the causes are economic. The cuts have been across the board in all areas of government. The UK is alone in Europe in using a hybrid system of private and public funding.

          The SWR was an anomaly. Baden-Wurttemberg was the only state in Germany that had a second radio orchestra outside its capital – a legacy of the occupation of the region after the war which was divided between the French and Americans. The loss is serious, but does not define a norm. The reduction of orchestras in East Germany after unification was also an exceptional circumstance and was not based on changes in funding philosophy.

          The numbers collected by the Council of Europe show that arts funding has held steady throughout Europe and that the fluctuations have been minimal in almost every European country. See their findings here:


          Note the numbers for the sums spent per capita for the arts in Western Europe and that they average around ten to 15 times higher than the USA.

          False impressions are created because artists rightly howl to the heavens every time something is cut. Neo-conservatives then use this as deceptive propaganda and claim that Europe is abandoning its public arts funding because the system doesn’t work. In reality, it works extremely well and remains stable – much to the chagrin of rightwing Americans. America’s attempts to build funding and publics with Beethoven-Meets-Macarena concerts only shows how naïve and misguided they are – which is why we should expect better from Mr. Freeman.

          These problems are made vastly more complex because it is difficult to sensibly fund art forms that are anachronistic like orchestras and dying as a result. How do we curate our wonderful musical legacy while moving toward the future? America can’t even begin with these questions, because it doesn’t have an effective funding system in the first place.

          It might be sensible to phase out orchestras and have a few serve multiple communities, but only if serious art forms are created to take their place. Until we have those new forms, we should maintain orchestras because they are an essential part of the transition. We don’t want to end up in a situation where there is no substantial musical culture at all following in classical traditions.

          Culture is by nature inherently local. It must be deeply embedded in communities, a part of their daily lives, something they feel expresses their unique identities, and something in which they take great pride. This cannot be accomplished if we have roving arts institutions serving multiple cities. The loss of communal culture is a formula for the death of art and human identity – something already happening in the USA. As orchestras die, we must ask how we can evolve our own unique, modern art forms and firmly base them in every city in America. One of the first steps is to build a funding system that actually works.

      • Jules says:

        Quibble it may be, but it was Grover Norquist who said, “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

  • Steve Woganan says:

    A copy of this book needs to get into the hands of the parents of.musically gifted high school seniors. Anything less is fraud.

  • Geoff Radnor: says:

    I am not a millionaire, far from it, but say I am for this. I want to help the thousands of graduates from music schools get good jobs in an orchestra. So let’s initiate auditions for all positions including conductor, if that is possible or get a new young firebrand to give her or his time. Then I would have the brand New Radnor Orchestra of my own, I would pay a living wage and let the orchestra members (maybe like the BPO, they would vote for the conductor, maybe another recent gradute) run the show. At least we could have 85 new musicians employed, they wouldn’t necessarily play only Beethoven symphonies though.

    Any millionaires around looking to do something worthwhile?

  • Doug says:

    So what do we do, turn back the clock on the enormous gains we have made in musical and artistic standards? You realize back in those days Haydn fought tooth and nail to get the violists who could not read music out of his orchestra at Esterhazy?

    • william osborne says:

      Haydn’s musicians were servants, part of the household help. That’s why male orchestra musicians still dress like butlers to this day.

      • Doug says:

        You only bolstered my point. Do we move down the path where musicians are providing something practical like a commodity or do we want them to be artists and uphold a high artistic standard?

      • Halldor says:

        They’re not dressed like butlers. Thery’re wearing what was fairly widespread formal evening wear amongst the classical music-listening demographic prior to World War 2.

        • william osborne says:

          Which also stems from court dress. Part of the formalities of the court required that butlers be refined and formal but not upstage the nobles.

    • MWnyc says:

      So that’s where all the viola jokes come from …

  • Michael S Horwood says:

    I look forward to reading Mr. Freeman’s book. But I don’t think my comments today will change. In fact I’m guessing they will be strengthened. Books like this (and Lebrecht’s included) point to what most of us think is an obvious bottom line. That is, that classical concert music is in big trouble be it from education, or lack thereof, economics, funding, greying of the concert population, etc. But what I am wanting and waiting to read about is a book that address the other major overlooked area of this apparent demise: the contemporary composer. The charade of this career path needs examination in detail. I know I’d be pleased to give input. How can we keep pretending that this profession is alive and healthy. OK, sure, Glass, Zwilich and the two Adams’ make big bucks, CD’s, notoriety end even get published. But if you look at the quantitative side of this besides the qualitative, the notion of the composer as an obsolete profession makes perfect sense, sad though it is. It is just maybe one rung above the ice man. I realize this discussion could go in 100’s of tangents, which is precisely why it needs a book.

    • william osborne says:

      This is an important topic. (I just wrote about it on another AJ blog from a few days ago, but I hope I can place some of the thoughts here.) Think of early 20th century composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Puccini, Prokofiev, and Copland. They were all very active and widely performed between 1910 and 1940 (as influenced by their age variations.) Think of the best known composers of the last 30 years (or any 30 year post war period) and compare them to the above composers asking these questions:

      How often will they be performed during their life? How many different ensembles will perform them? How much money will they make? What percentage of society will hear them? How wide is the consensus in the field about the quality of their work? What was the average date of compositions performed by classical musicians during their lives?

      Even the most known composers today compare poorly on most every question. The trend has spiraled down fairly continuously for close to a century and will almost certainly continue until the concept of classical music and the classical composer will no longer exist as a living art form.

      The idea of the composer as someone who will have a place in posterity, as a part of a literary canon, and as a symbol of the nation-state has already more-or-less ceased to exist. Classical music, which is largely an instrument of cultural nationalism and the embodiment of a national literature, is dying along with the rise of the global village.

      Classical music is a literary art form in the sense that it is centered around a written literature. This concept of music-making is also fading, in part because there is no accepted definition of what classical music is. It will continue to become something so amorphous that it cannot be a printed product, nor coherently define the literature of a genre.

      Technology is allowing the manufacture of music, its composition, notation, publication, performance, recording, and distribution to become so democratized and wide-spread that the idea of the composer as a rare, transcendental genius will disappear. As the concept of the composer as a specialized profession fades, so too will classical music.

      Classical music developed during an age when labor was cheap. Modern economic concepts do not allow for the expense of classical music. Classical music will die as an economic anachronism.

      As I said, these trends have existed for a century and there is nothing to indicate that the downward spiral will stop. Something will remain, and its heritage will be related to classical music, but it will not be classical music.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Robert Freeman Predicts Many Future Oboe Hobos.

  • Laura Claycomb says:

    I couldn’t agree more – there are way too many mediocre hopefuls out there, having their heads filled with ridiculous, unattainable dreams. Thinking they will make a big career in a huge orchestra or on the grand stages of an opera, they mortgage their lives in exchange for an impossibility. Studying music is great, but the fact that every university seems to have a music department and is handing out PERFORMANCE degrees like candy is absolutely ridiculous. Expectations are not realistic, and tomorrow’s music teachers should not be “performers who just couldn’t make it,” but should be EDUCATORS. There should also be a concerted effort to include pedagogy in every step of a music education, as even the greatest of performers should have the skills to pass on the knowledge they garner over a career. Teaching is a skill and an art in and of itself. You are not born knowing how to teach just because you know how to perform…

    But of course, looking at the state of education in the U.S. and the state of music education as well, we can see why kids don’t want to mortgage their future on a music ed degree, and prefer to pipe-dream they’ll be the next Lang Lang instead. As long as a university degree is so ridiculously expensive in the U.S., this will remain a problem, as the scholarship students with talent are being bankrolled by the “filler” students the professors know will never make a career. The part of “talent” that is actually measurable is the joy a student gets out of the actual work it takes to improve technique and musicality. Without this one major factor, you CAN feasibly say “this person will never make a career…”

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      Who is Lang Lang? I think I heard someone mention this name last year during the Grammy’s but I was too focused watching the remnants of an old favorite band of mine, Metallica. The Grammy presenter didnt know who he was, nor did he seem to matter at all to the audience that was there…..
      And he is THE biggest act in the world for instrumental classical music. Also, I just came back from Shanghai, China, and nowhere could I find a reference to his name – ANYWHERE. Not in the concert hall, not in the streets, nowhere.

      Some say that great compositions age like fine wine. The classical music industry however, ages like milk.

  • Laura Claycomb says:

    Sorry to be so frank and so seemingly harsh, but students are taught at every school to dream of only the big jobs, and nobody is told there any other options to make music. A more practical and straightforward approach from the get-go would help students evaluate whether the path they’re following will be worth the time and money they’re putting into it and whether they really have the passion, drive and most of all, the tools at their disposal to work towards a realistic goal. It seems like so many schools are just giving an opportunity for bad teachers to have a job, unfortunately.

    • william osborne says:

      Why discourage the weaker students when even the best ones seldom get good jobs? Is it acceptable to consider learning an end in itself even if it doesn’t lead to a job?

      • Angelina says:

        Well when students have $60,000+ in debt, yeah, it’s kind of a problem.

        • william osborne says:

          In continental Europe, private universities are almost entirely forbidden by law, and university education is free. The idea of education as an end in itself is one other reason why European societies tend to be more cultured. Unfortunately, the EU is changing to an American model of education that might destroy this ethos.

  • Andrew Balio says:

    Young composers ought to be compelled to conduct and actively perform at a very high level on an instrument or two as a precondition of being in a music school in the first place. First of all, that would make them much better composers and give them much isight in to what it means to actually play music. While that is often stated as such in music schools,that might be where the disconnect is happening. My sense as a performer is that the modern composer has often lost touch with the realities of performing. It would also give them a path to stay in the musical work force while working out their compositions on a parallel track, without financial pressures on their writing. I have known a number of performers who also composed that quit their performing careers once it became clear that their talents in writing could sustain them. All that said, it isn’t the music school’s responsibility to guarantee anyone that they could actually find gainful employment. An education is always for the sake of itself. Buyer beware!

  • Sam Schlosser says:

    Well said!!!! Thank you.

  • william osborne says:

    Interesting how people say there are too many musicians, but do not mention that the USA offers about one-tenth as many orchestra jobs per capita as European countries. People like Freeman thus overlook one of the most important problems. Why?

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    If musicians were generalists before the French Revolution, and would become specialists after those events, could we point to the founding of the Paris Conservatory around 1795 as the beginning of the current dilemma about which Robert Freeman polemicizes? Leaving that argument aside for the moment, there are ongoing issues in the USA that have led to a decline in the quality of education in general, and an abandoning of the arts and arts education in particular. Federal, state, and local governments bear the brunt of the responsibility for this downtrend.

    Public school music programs in large cities flourished in the period after World War II until at least the late 1960s. In most large east coast cities, every public senior high school and most junior high schools had a symphony orchestra, a band, and a chorus. Primary schools were lively incubators of artistic efforts serving a large and diverse population of students, some of whom were the first in their family born in the USA and educated throughout their teenage years. Each school had a staff of performing and visual arts teachers who made effective use of limited rehearsal and studio space. Most of these public schools also had the equipment, especially musical instruments, necessary for curricular and extra-curricular activities in the performing arts. In most current urban situations, the arts teachers are gone except for a few part-time travelling instructors who serve many schools, and the instruments have been vandalized, lost, stolen, abandoned in closets or warehouses, or simply sold. Fortunately, there are still pockets of resistance in some smaller cities and affluent suburbs, a situation which varies widely according to local resources.

    A vicious cycle exists in American musical higher education that began between the world wars and continues today. The National Association of School of Music (NASM) was formed in 1924 by visionaries such as Howard Hanson, one of Robert Freeman’s predecessors at Eastman, to accredit and govern the education of musicians who would become the music educators of the future, especially in primary and secondary schools throughout America. NASM currently counts over 650 member schools, (too) many of whom offer a Bachelor of Music degree in performance which prepares students for a career on stage. Freeman may have a point: too many schools, too many graduates, too much specialization. Howard Hanson and his NASM co-founders expected the conservatories like Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, Peabody, New England Conservatory and others, to provide the specialized “training” (I’m not a fan of the word) to talented music students destined for careers as professional performing musicians. Other schools would educate and form the teachers; I remember when many post-secondary schools were called “teachers’ colleges” and had excellent music education curricula. Today, some conservatories offer music education tracks and many of the former “teachers’ colleges” offer a Bachelor of Music in performance. Most encourage graduate education for a Master of Music degree (in performance or education).

    Perhaps the greatest aberration of all was the creation of the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in order to perpetuate and extend the educational model. This would allow students to get tenured university positions in performance so that they could teach future B.Mus, M.Mus, and DMA candidates who would then seek positions to create more performers and teachers for non-existent orchestra positions, and dwindling opportunities in primary and secondary arts education in the USA.

    Instead of adding to the polemic, I propose that NASM re-examine its current mission which should include lobbying local, state, and federal governments to adequately fund public education in general and to enable the arts, including music, through better financial support.

    Freeman’s book is interesting but hardly sufficient to change the direction of the descent of arts education in the USA. When 625 music schools speak with one voice and profess their faith in arts education, someone might listen.