For musicians, job market hits sour note

At the Undergraduate Career Services building Monday night, about 25 students gathered as they would for most other career panels, grabbing bags of chips on their way in, some with notebooks and pens in hand.

The few students donning suits were dressed to impress — not in typical Brooks Brothers ensembles — but formal a cappella-style tailcoats.

The panelists, after all, were not investment bankers or consultants but rather a motley musical quartet: an organist, a flautist, a singer and one musical jack-of-all trades — all alumni speaking at UCS’s “Careers in Music” panel.

Yale’s UCS is well known on campus for its advising resources in professional fields such as law, medicine and, most notably, finance. But what about students who prefer eighth notes to bank notes or orchestration to litigation?

For undergraduate music majors, career choices are diverse but by no means easy grabs. Whether it is performing, composing or conducting, classical musicians at Yale hoping to pursue careers in music said UCS and the Department of Music could do more to help students get jobs out of college. While the music industry, with its emphasis on academia, does not always lend itself to career counseling, students agreed that opportunities for networking and internships — beyond a Yale degree on which to fall back — are key for musical success.

carnegie hall, not wall street

Even though student demand for careers in music is smaller than for other careers, Assistant Dean of Yale College and UCS Director Philip Jones said in an e-mail it is “extremely important” for UCS to provide music-related services, such as Monday’s panel, at which the four alumni discussed how they had arrived at their careers and offered students advice on finding similar success in music. UCS offers summer internships in music, for example, and has an adviser specifically for careers in the arts, he said.

Nonetheless, in an unpredictable industry and amid a struggling national economy, students said they could use more help from UCS as well as the Music Department as they consider life after college.

Music major Wen Yu Ho ’10, a conductor for the Jonathan Edwards Chamber Players, acknowledged UCS’ efforts to advise music majors, saying Jones had met with Ho and other music majors earlier this year.

Still, he said UCS could expand its options for music internships, particularly for conductors. Ho said he hopes UCS will increase its summer offerings by adding such options as internships with community orchestras or music education programs for kids.

Ryan Harper ’10 — a pianist, guitar player and music major who composes both classical and indie-rock music — said he is “definitely getting support from Yale,” especially from the Music Department, which he said offers help with portfolio and audition preparation. Although Harper participated in a music internship through UCS’s Bulldogs by the Bay program in San Francisco, he said career counseling for music-based professions after college could be improved.

“I would see the one gap being UCS, in terms of jobs that you can get straight out of undergraduate without going into masters,” Harper said.

UCS could also invite representatives from music schools or orchestras just as it brings corporate representatives for students interested in consulting or investment banking, suggested violinist Kensho Watanabe ’09, who is a music and biology double major.

But the Music Department too could enhance its career advising, acknowledged professor Craig Wright, who teaches the popular lecture “Listening to Music.” Wright said he thinks the Department of Music, while successful in helping to prepare students for graduate programs in music, could do a better job of trying to help senior music majors who want to find jobs right after graduation.

“The Music Department should probably use its contacts out in the music profession to develop contacts for these young people coming on the job market,” he said.


Perhaps the nature of musical professions simply does not lend itself to typical career advising, said composer, pianist and music major Stephen Feigenbaum ’11, who said he plans “100 percent” on a career in music.

For one thing, Feigenbaum said, a graduate degree in music is all but required for a serious music career. Indeed, three of the four panelists Monday night had master’s degrees in music. Many music majors, then, plan to stay in academia after graduation, rather than immediately jumping into the workforce.

But even after graduate school, getting a job in some fields of music is not so much based on paper resumes but on the merits of playing, practice and networking, Feigenbaum explained.

Watanabe put it succinctly: “You have to do it yourself.”

Panel members on Monday night echoed this idea, stressing persistence, networking, marketing and diversifying employment options.

Students stressed the importance of having a back-up career plan since professional musical gigs are often short-term and difficult to nab.

For one, Jones said in an e-mail, careers in music need not be limited to performance, composition and conducting. He offered, as examples, production and recording, concert promotion, organizing tours and festivals, marketing and advertising, and music journalism. Helping students to see beyond the most obvious options, he said, is central to the role UCS plays for music students.

Mulling over career prospects — and the prospect of a career itself — music major Dan Schlosberg ’10 said six-hour listening lists for music classes are a joy for the pianist, composer and conductor. But securing a career doing what he loves is more difficult to do. Especially with a stumbling economy, Schlosberg said, performance, composition and conducting are nearly impossible as exclusive careers.

“For composers, it’s almost a given that you’re going to have to teach at some point,” he said, adding, “The age is past where you can just be a performer.”

This alternate career path is sometimes an entirely different discipline. Many music students at Yale choose to double major, said Department of Music professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Kathryn Alexander in an e-mail.

“I have a classic musician’s dilemma,” said Ho, a double major in music and international studies, regarding the choice between getting a high-paying job or pursuing his passion at the risk of becoming a “starving musician.”

This interdisciplinary approach to music and education in general is the precise reason several music majors said they had chosen to come to Yale, rather than a music conservatory.

“Having a liberal arts degree definitely doesn’t hurt,” Schlosberg said. “If something were to happen and my hands were to be chopped off …” The pianist trailed off, laughing.


  • Claire

    I plan to have a musical career in the future. I'll be taking up a course in music and plan to belong in an orchestra. But I guess it's quite hard to have a job in music especially if you're not lucky enough to be one of the best out there. I wonder. .Well for no, my focus is on building my online presence. I did start at a student resume network at It's a place where you can create your free online resume and post the jobs you want. Well, this one's pretty helpful for students like me.

  • yale10

    great/interesting article!

  • Doug

    Claire has got the right idea. The work - and the money - is in orchestra-level playing, whether that means a symphony or a studio orchestra somewhere. You have to be a very, very fine musician to play in one of these ensembles, something many schools with music departments do not stress enough. Networking will get you nowhere without true skill and talent.

    As far as the other "music" jobs go, rock star, record producer, music company executive, there is one of these jobs for every 100,000 or so applicants, so if that's your goal, get another major.

  • Anonymous

    Doug, are you kidding? You think that the job prospects in music administration are so forbidding as to turn one away, but that ORCHESTRAL job prospects are worth sticking around for?!

    Making a living as a musician means picking up as many jobs as possible, because no single one is going to be enough to live on.

  • David P. McKnight

    Eine Kleine Volkmusik

    Unless you envision sticking strictly to a classical music or music education career in your area of instrumental or vocal specialization, it would be helpful in the contemporary music marketplace to add a "general" folk/pop instrument to your musical studies, such as guitar or piano, if you do not already play one of these instruments.

    I have always enjoyed playing strings in folk, rock, country and jazz groups, with violin and viola having been my principal instruments, then mandolin having later become a most pleasing and musically satisfying sidelight.

    So even though I would probably rather play violin for another singer or perhaps hold down a fiddle-mandolin spot in a larger country rock band, I have found that a dash of solo piano or acoustic guitar work in such venues as restaurants and coffee houses can go a long way toward "running cover" for my other, more thoroughly practiced instrumental applications.

    Indeed, a course which I wish I could teach sometime for orchestra violin and viola students who wish to keep the door open to occasional excursions into contemporary, traditional, folk and jazz musical styles would be along the lines of:

    "Non-Classical Applications of Violin and Viola Performance."

    This way players in my favorite section of the orchestra can pick up an occasional folk, rock or jazz gig every now and then while still honing all their Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich symphony parts. They can enjoy the diversity of these muscial excursion while also helping make ends meet financially, "measure to measure."

    Good luck to all of Yale's musicians!

    David P. McKnight
    Durham, NC

    Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight