Music School hires first career strategist

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Photo by James Lu.

This past Saturday, the stage of Morse Recital Hall played host to a conversation instead of a symphony. Three experts in the field of music — a Yale School of Music alumnus, the executive producer of National Public Radio Music and the project architect of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra — spent two hours discussing the opportunities technology creates for young musicians hoping to advance their careers.

Saturday Seminars such as last weekend’s are different this year from before – they’re being administered by the school’s first-ever coordinator of career strategies, Astrid Baumgardner.

The School hired Baumgardner to the position last semester after its summer session, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, had employed her for two years to help guide students’ professional plans, festival director and associate Music School dean Paul Hawkshaw said.

With her appointment, the Music School established its first ever career strategies office. As major orchestras nationwide, such as the bankrupt Philadelphia Orchestra, face funding challenges, the number of young artists securing positions in traditional ensembles is falling. Instead, musicians today need to take a new approach if they want to succeed in the field. Enter Baumgardner.

“It used to be a lot easier to find jobs as a music graduate,” said Baumgardner, who has consulted for arts organizations like the American Composers Orchestra and The Juilliard School. “Now, you have to be more entrepreneurial, more in charge of your job search.”

Music School Dean Robert Blocker said in an email to the News that the school had wanted to initiate a career strategies program for some time, but that this only became possible with the reworking of the 2011-’12 budget to include a part-time faculty position.

Seven months in, as orchestra staffs continue to dwindle, Baumgardner remains focused on helping the Music School’s graduates dschool said. Guiding students toward greater self-knowledge is central to Baumgardner’s approach.

“She helps me re-evaluate where I am in my educational pursuit … and where I want to go with my career,” Alan Pawlowicz MUS ’12 said.

He added that meeting with Baumgardner during her weekly office hours has helped him develop both long-term and short-term visions for his career, leaving him more certain of his trajectory than before.

“I help people build on their successes — that’s what I’m good at,” Baumgardner said.

Baumgardner, now in her late 50’s, practiced as a litigator for over 20 years before realizing law was not her passion. While working for French law firm Gide Loyrette Nouel, Baumgardner, who majored in French at Mount Holyoke College, said she became interested in the arts, especially music. In 2000, she left law altogether and became deputy executive director of the New York branch of Alliance Francaise, a global organization that promotes French culture.

But, in 2003, Baumgardner said, the company downsized, and she started her own business as both a life coach and an independent consultant to arts nonprofits.

Baumgardner has also chaired the board of the American Composers’ Orchestra, an orchestra dedicated to encouraging emerging composers, since 2002. Michael Geller, chief executive of the orchestra, said in an email that her background in various professional fields, ranging from career coaching to legal practice, gives her a “unique” set of experiences to share with artists seeking to establish themselves.

Blocker said the Music School’s decision to hire Baumgardner stemmed in part from her understanding of the current music climate.

In today’s economy, Baumgardner said, she sees that talented, young musicians face greater difficulties in acquiring traditional orchestra jobs, as the number of open spots has fallen while the ranks of aspiring musicians auditioning have swelled. Accordingly, she said, she aims to prepare students for a different kind of market by encouraging them to “tap into their creative, authentic selves.”

Baumgardner has been a “tremendous force” in helping Pawlowicz define his identity as a musician, he said, including his priorities and his problem areas.

Hawkshaw said that he was impressed that Baumgardner goes beyond just preparation for the musical profession to give students individualized perspectives on their place in the modern music scene.

“She’s asking people to think about where they see themselves in the world and where their careers are going and what they have to contribute,” he said.

Baumgardner has helped students see that they can define success in their own ways, Arash Noori MUS ’12 said. This spring, Noori enrolled in Baumgardner’s course “Creating Financially Sustainable Careers in the Arts,” in which she discusses tactics to help working musicians and hosts guests such as successful Music School alumni.

“She made me think about the fact that success is so relative with something like music,” Noori explained. “It’s not just about playing 200 concerts a year — maybe you want to play a smaller number, have a balanced life, teach and arrange.”

But a strong contemporary skill set demands more than an understanding of oneself — another part of Baumgardner’s role involves helping Music School students learn how to build strong connections with others.

Baumgardner said that over the course of her career she has observed changes in the field that require corresponding change in how young talents prepare for careers. The market crash was a turning point, she said.

“It hit home that things were really changing,” she added.

Noori said he and his peers have come to see entrepreneurship, strategizing and seeking guidance as critical parts of their professional training.

“Just being very good at your instrument is not really a guarantee [for a] career,” he added.

The typical music school graduate today, Baumgardner said, “does more than one thing.” Many individuals, she continued, freelance instead of having one steady employer, playing for between four and five ensembles and teaching on the side.

Baumgardner emphasized that this change is not necessarily negative.

“There are way more places to perform music, with young musicians and composers looking for different venues,” Baumgardner said, adding that the mushrooming of new media channels makes it easier to have new music heard.

Noori said that Baumgardner forces students to think in a structured, goal-oriented way. He explained that Baumgardner tells students to outline small goals each semester that will build toward their larger ambitions. She describes the ideal short-term target as SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.

“She forces you to have a plan staring at you,” he said.

Pawlowicz said that these skills are a necessary supplement to a Music School education.

“[Baumgardner] teaches us simple skills that one, as a musician, needs, but that we don’t all have, like learning how to network, create a newsletter,” Pawlowicz said. “It’s all the skills that we’re not actually taught in our other courses, so she’s filling in a gap in the educational system.”

Blocker said the new career strategies program will make Music School students more prepared for auditions, interviews and teaching, as well as better at presenting themselves via digital media.

Under Baumgardner, the office has introduced the Saturday Seminar program, a new alumni mentoring system, an opportunity for each student to develop a digital portfolio on the School’s website and a webpage that serves as a job-search hub.

Similarly, Blocker said, peer institutions in the music world are also making efforts toward developing structured career placement offices.

Baumgardner said that she presents the changes in the music industry as an opportunity rather than a problem.

She recalled one Music School student she met last summer at the Norfolk festival who was unsure about the direction in which to take his career. After speaking with him about his experiences with fellow musicians, she said, she helped him realize that he had a knack for connecting with people. Now, she said, he has a newfound sense of confidence and awareness that the jobs that will suit him best are those in which he can work within a group.

“Our students are super-talented, but some don’t know why they’re great,” Baumgardner said. “I help them discover their brand, what makes them unique.”

Correction: Feb. 9

A previous version of this article stated that Astrid Baumgardner began Saturday Seminars at the School of Music. In fact, the seminars are not a new program, but Baumgardner has joined Music School Associate Dean Michael Yaffe in running them. The article also misstated the year that she left the Alliance Francaise.

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