I read an article this weekend that detailed the discussions of a panel at the Royal Academy of Music on music in higher education in the United Kingdom. Though the panelists specifically had the future of the UK’s school system in mind, I think the subject is relevant to many developed nations with music programs in higher education.
The panelists put music’s value in our culture under a magnifying glass. On the one hand, everyone agrees that music enhances lives and contributes to the larger culture and arts. On the other, it is generally accepted that those choosing a degree in music as their main subject of study in universities are not seen to be as employable in a wide range of career paths, as opposed to less specialized but still lower-earning degrees.
The contributors at the round-table discussion contended that music’s value in higher education is valid because it “…equips students with a spectrum of transferable skills that are of inestimable value in the workplace…” and that the value of music should not continue to be judged in terms of its relevancy to subjects outside of the arts.
I agree with the former statement to a point. The panel says that these transferable skills include “… collaboration, analysis, work ethic, empathy, innovation and performing well under pressure.” Although I think that many music students can bring these skills to the workplace, I do not think that most interviewers will see these positive traits. In today’s economy, it seems that the most valued skill in the job market is practical experience. Instead of implying that a person has good work ethic and might be a good collaborator, the interviewer only sees that music has nothing to do with accounting/business/customer service, etc. Therefore, the candidate’s amount of experience and aptitude for the field is probably little to none. Sometimes I wonder whether this is a case of bad marketing on the university’s part. If graduates in music were lauded by their schools for these positive workplace traits instead of focusing on the few that have made it big, would employers have a different idea of the value of a music degree? Or is this more a case of personality, in which music students in general are not very excited or motivated by the concept of a 9-5 office job, and therefore fail to cultivate “successful” careers?
The latter statement is more contentious. I believe that music, like the other arts, cannot escape value judgment by those parties not involved in the arts. Music is entertainment for those who already have money, and most of those who already have money are not professional musicians. Whether this should or should not be the case, to change the capitalist mindset of our western culture would be much harder and would take far longer than simply tweaking the way we view music’s value in higher education. What makes money is good, and what doesn’t make money might be nice or entertaining, but it is not essential. I received very little help in career guidance from my undergraduate institution. Maybe music in higher education could use a few changes itself in terms of giving students the tools to survive in a world that does not value their skills enough to earn a living. And perhaps we, as musicians, can attempt to change this negative mindset, one work of art at a time.