Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Careers for Pianists, Part I: Expectations and Beginnings

So you want a career in piano . . .

Bugs Bunny Had a Candelabra and a Tux
Common portrayals of classical pianists' careers are pretty lofty, usually including concerts, recordings, masterclasses and elite teaching studios. Orchestras, singers, or cleverly named trios may also be shown. The superior images are so ingrained that some pianists aren't even aware of career options beyond being a concert artist and pedagogue. It shouldn't be a huge secret that the countless hours of Czerny, scales and Beethoven hones practical keyboard skills that transfer nicely into several other music careers. The snag: the skill sets required in diverse environments are left out of many music curriculums. Too often, piano performance majors graduate with virtuosic skill, but are virtually clueless of how to be useful in different venues. So what environments ARE they ready to work in?

Adjunct, Instructor, Staff . . .
Hands down, staying in academia is the simplest way to go for all piano performance graduates. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of secure, full-time positions available. Even with a doctorate in hand, it is startlingly difficult to land a university gig that exceeds the part-time or adjunct level. Here is some info about the present academic job market for pianists. The College Music Society posted 43 jobs between Aug 2008 to the present (discounting positions outside the US, sabbatical replacements and temporary positions).
  • Of the 43 jobs, 31 are tenure track (TT)
  • Of the 31 TT jobs, 24 indicated a doctorate was preferred or required
  • Of the 43 jobs, 6 are repeated ads from the previous year
  • Of the 43 jobs, 5 are for Staff Accompanists (none TT)
A warning on the above information: high turnover rates (repeat ads) may indicate a poisonous position (back-breaking workload, suffocating location, or snake-pit politics). For those encouraged to see the five accompanist positions, consider their locations: Clarksville, TN; Arkadelphia, AR; Nacogdoches and San Angelo, TX and Lake Charles, Louisiana. Previously, in 2007-2008 there were 80 pianist positions posted. I didn't crunch the statistics, but I did count the number of accompanist positions posted: twelve. Several other jobs were listed that held 'collaborative' in the title, but I discounted those as essentially veiled piano teaching jobs saddled with additional accompanying duties. The accompanist jobs' diverse locales: Carbondale, IL; Oxford, MS; Mt Pleasant, MI; Knoxville, TN; Conway, AR; Rome, GA; Los Angeles, CA; Kirksville, MO; Wayne, NE; Moscow, ID and Macomb, IL.

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't in Academia
For some, academia means more than an easy transition: it is an idealized sanctuary of civilization. Spending many years in that environment has deluded some to believe that life outside of academe means failure. An article, Is Grad School a Cult?, talks about the ivory tower seduction of such students, who become convinced a university is the only 'real' option for meaningful employment. When the realistic likelihood of landing a full-time position in a good location with job security (tenure track) is the equivalent of winning the lottery* - it is time to change faiths. Believe that meaningful jobs exist outside academia.

Freelance Nation
Some academics are focusing on preparing pianists for employment beyond teaching. The authors of the article, Keyboard Collaborative Careers, are definitely on the right track, discussing useful piano skills that get you work. Further net-crawling for practical information revealed this article on music employment, Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship), written by a freelance bass player/professor. It calls attention to the ever-growing reality of many classical musicians: full-time work assembled from divergent part-time jobs. This is golden information: pianists who curl their lip concerning that brand of lifestyle need to find another major. Pianists who embrace the kaleidoscopic lifestyle need to investigate the skill sets more relevant to today's employment landscape.

Next Up: Careers for Pianists, Part II: Practically Educational


M. Rose said...

This is absolutely fantastic. I've been searching for some sort of insight on as to what I should do with my life/career after my undergrad. The Keyboard Collaborative Careers link was a great addition to this.

Question: If I want to pursue collaborative, I'm guessing it would be important to go for a masters. Where is the optimal place to receive such a degree. No endorsements, just an opinion. Grad school search websites don't really help with that search.

Billie Whittaker said...

Aspects to consider are teacher compatibility, tuition (less debt the better), opportunities to perform, your own area(s) of interest, and so on. I can't pick an optimal because to me, grad school choice is a personal decision depending on your specific needs. Kind of like buying a car.