In the previous two posts (Part 2, Part 3), we talked about how to decide whether a career in performance or teaching might or might not be right for you, with the understanding that before taking a degree in music you should have some idea of the musical fields in which you could see yourself working with success and satisfaction. In this final installment, we’ll walk through a few other possibilities for careers in music.
Yes, most orchestral and choral conductors begin with undergraduate performance degrees, but know what you’re getting into before you set your sights on a conducting career. Jobs with professional ensembles are extremely few and far between. I have known conductors who studied with legends like Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein [below: Leonard Bernstein performs Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – Finale] whose work consists of conducting amateur orchestras. To conduct professional orchestras full-time, you must be fantastically talented and trained to the hilt. Then you typically have to serve as an assistant conductor in multiple places, wherever jobs are open, often well into your adult life. For instance, one very talented friend of mine in his late 30s was recently dividing his time between assistantships in Pittsburgh, Houston, and Paris, while his wife lived and worked in Philadelphia. Know what you’re getting into.
Of course, if conducting the orchestra, wind ensemble, or chorus of a college or public school is appealing to you, then that’s a different matter (which we discussed in the last installment on teaching). Another option in the field of conducting might be directing music at a church, for which at least one music degree is advisable.
Music theory and musicology
Music theory and musicology are disciplines that are generally only supported by academia. If you want to be a professional musicologist or theorist, expect to teach at a college, which in these disciplines requires a doctorate (PhD for musicologists, PhD or DMA for theorists). What that means is this: if you don’t care for the idea of completing a doctorate and teaching full-time at a college, you might not want to take your only undergraduate degree in musicology or music theory.
A few sustain careers as freelance composers. To do so, the credentials of holding a music degree aren’t as important as the quality of the music you’re writing — no one minds that Schubert [below: Schubert: Symphony n.9 C major “La Grande” Andante allegro ma non troppo (part 1)] didn’t have a doctorate from Juilliard. On the other hand, most successful composers today do hold music degrees and have found the training they received through them to be essential to their artistic and professional success. And as in many of the other fields we have mentioned, the opportunities are few by comparison with the number of talented and trained artists in the market.
But even for an artist who is successfully making a living as a composer, living commission to commission is risky, particularly in difficult economic times when people are less likely to commission new projects. Most composers also teach, in which case not merely the training but the credentials of a composition-focused music degree are essential. Private composition teaching is far less popular than private piano lessons, for instance; thus it might be wise to consider a doctorate for college teaching. Or, if that doesn’t appeal to you, let composition be your hobby and get a degree in another field. Martin Luther wasn’t a professional musician, but he composed texts and tunes that remain in the church to this day.
Other music-related disciplines
Those wanting to pursue music therapy, arts administration, or some other music-related field should be aware that an undergraduate degree in music performance would be only a precursor to the necessary graduate study in the field of choice. For those who decide to go that route, the considerations for entering an undergraduate performance major would be a bit different than for aspiring performers: though you should be instrumentally and musically proficient, it is less important that you be a budding Vladmir Horowitz than that you take advantage of opportunities that will prepare you for the line of work you hope to enter. You also want to make sure you’ve got the gifts and temperament for the field you want to pursue. For instance, prospective music therapists should have an especially compassionate heart, and prospective arts administrators should be natural organizers with a good head for business.
If in reading over these considerations you feel that one or several of these fields would be an ideal match for you, wonderful — get the music degree, and may God bless it.
But remember that, whatever the world may seem to tell you, you are more than your career. Even if you decide it is wisest not to pursue a music degree, what is to stop you from continuing your musical pursuits and using them to praise the Lord and bring Him glory?
Benjamin Shute is Visiting Assistant Professor of Violin at Dickinson College. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he studied at the New England Conservatory (Boston) and the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg (Germany). He enjoys sharing the echoes of the gospel in music in a variety of settings, performing frequently as recitalist and chamber musician, serving periodically as concertmaster of the Boston Chamber Orchestra, and teaching at the Csehy Summer School of Music and other festivals in Europe and Asia. He is a regular contributor to the Center for Gospel Culture.