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The Natural Cycle Of Things

Yale School of Music’s free tuition neither hurts nor helps classical music’s future.

by Drew McManus
December 5, 2005

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The Natural Cycle Of Things
Ever since the Yale School of Music announced they were receiving $100 million over the next five years, resulting in free tuition for graduate students, there's been a great deal of discussion about whether or not this is really a good thing for classical music. Some people hail the move as the next step in controlling the rapidly escalating costs of professional music training (which can reach upwards of $50,000 per year at the top conservatories when you factor in living expenses) while others claim it's a terrible waste of money when the classical music business is in such bad overall shape right now.
 
In fact, the reality of the Yale gift is that it won't have much impact on the business one way or another. Here's a breakdown of what the gift will afford to Yale:
  • The Curits Institute of Music is no longer the Shangri-la of tuition free conservatory training. As such, the Yale School of Music will have more resources to direct toward professor compensation, thus improving the level of teachers they employ.
     
  • Yale students will have more resources they can direct toward purchasing professional level instruments, this will allow the Yale graduates an edge over their peers from other institutions who own inferior instruments when auditioning for better paying jobs.
     
  • Yale students will have slightly more flexibility with the type of auditions they can take when leaving school. Without hefty student loans to pay back, they can be less discriminating when joining the audition circuit and they will have more time to devote to the auditioning process through reduced needs to begin earning a certain level of income right away.
That's about it and although those issues certainly aren't negatives, they aren't going to change the universal constant within the classical music world. Furthermore, it's not as though conservatories and schools of music are hurting for students right now. Two recent articles about Yale's recent gift, one from Reuters and the other from the New York Times, cite statistics from national collegiate educational organizations which report that the number of students applying as music performance majors has been increasing over the past several years. The articles also report that during the same period, the number of professional positions which pay a living wage in the country has either held steady or decreased.
 
So why are more students applying for spots in conservatories and schools of music when there are fewer positions available? It's the result of simple business cycle: more students of higher quality graduate from college which creates increased competition for fewer positions; in turn, this produces a need for more musicians to find other outlets to generate income. What do you suppose a musician does to earn a living wage if that need isn't filled by a full time performance opportunity? They either get non performance related jobs which slowly pull them out of the music business or they do what more and more performance graduates have done in recent years; establish private teaching studios.
 
Of all the music related commercial endeavors younger players can dive into, establishing a private teaching studio is one of the most useful. Compared to public school teaching, it allows much greater flexibility with time management so the individual can continue to take auditions and perform ad hoc performance work. With low overhead expenses and the ability to earn anywhere from $20 to $75 per hour, it also provides an opportunity to earn a living wage.
 
Unfortunately, the natural result of having an increase in higher quality private music teachers is an increase in the number of high school age students who decide to pursue a career in music performance. It doesn't take much to see that this will this become a sort of vicious cycle, feeding on itself and running a real risk of collapse once it becomes widely known that performance positions are in short supply.
 
Nevertheless, there's also a distinct possibility that the overall increase in the amount of direct exposure to classical music via private instruction will create a wave of increased participation in live professional concert events. This increased participation will provide amplified financial support allowing more performing arts organizations to increase their artistic expenditures, thus increasing the number of performance positions which pay a living wage.
 
In the end, it becomes easily to realize that the Yale gift is fairly inconsequential in the overall picture for the world of classical music and the above business cycle. The number of students they can contribute to the overall pool in the coming decades isn't enough to impact the larger issues mentioned above. All the same, I'm very happy to see Yale receive this gift. Regardless of how they use those funds, it will allow the organization to dedicate more of its resources toward a wide variety of special projects (which have nothing to do with student tuition) that have the potential to positively impact classical music for generations to come; consequently that's the bona fide story behind Yale's recent gift.

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