Interdisciplinarity and the Symphony

Image: “Untitled” (shows ASO Hall)  CC-licensed by Flickr user beardenb

As a five-year resident of Atlanta, I have been following the news surrounding divisive contract negotiations at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra quite closely. Very briefly, the ASO was unable to agree on a new contract with the Musicians’ Union this year. The old contract expired August 25th and the musicians are currently “locked out.” In this case, “lock out” is not simply a term for the bitter, deadlocked state of negotiations. According to NPR and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the musicians have literally been barred from entering the symphony building and have stopped receiving any salary or benefits.
Today, a friend on Facebook linked to a Violinist.com blog post called “The End of the Symphony Orchestra and How Today’s Music Students Should Adapt.” It lays out twelve detailed and thoughtful ways to prepare music students for the movement away from the symphony orchestra format. Really, even to say that is to back away from the author’s strong premise. Strong, unionized orchestras are not described as dwindling or more competitive…this article responds to the idea that they are basically over. And then focuses on the question of what that means for academic programs that are still preparing students to play for them.

In summary, the recommendations in the article are basically a call for serious interdisciplinarity in music education. Rather than taking the flexibility and applicability of music skills for granted, the article argues that students should be required to take courses in a range of practical skills, from performance etiquette, dress, and health to education about the type of insurance musicians should carry. The first and perhaps most intensive of the recommendations is that all music students should be required to double major in business, preparing them to work independently, market their skills, and correctly file their taxes. Here, in the author’s own words (Violinist.com appears to be a shared blog, and no author is directly credited): Updated 7:45 p.m.: The author’s name is Michelle Jones.

1. All music students should be required to double major in business. The music program teaches you how to play music, but the business program will teach you how to make a living performing music. Marketing, taxes, accounting, licensing, advertising, legal, etc. are all extremely important subjects to know to be a freelance musician. Most musicians don’t realize what they can and cannot deduct on IRS forms, and have to pay an accountant to deal with it. Most also do not realize that they are offering a service; this service needs to be marketed and advertised.

I agree with a lot of what this article says, but I would make what I think is an important change to that first recommendation. On the surface, the idea that students should complete an entire double major seems like a good one. Yes, they might be busy, but they will have the skills necessary to run their musical careers. But I wonder if part of the exhortation towards this “practical” degree is that it should also act as a fall back position, and a better one than academia, which the author has already identified as leading to complacency and the overproduction of music grads (which I can’t exactly argue with, but that’s another post…) The implicit argument appears to be that students with business majors might be able to run a Fortune 500 company as a fallback or secondary career.

I would modify this recommendation and argue that instead, music training in the academy should be consciously and deliberately interdisciplinary. I think that the blanket call for a double major plays in to a frequent misunderstanding of what an interdisciplinary, flexible education should do. Interdisciplinarity can be general and broad. You can get the skills you need to manage a musical career or an arts nonprofit from an entire business degree. Of course you can. But, this misses the opportunity to consider whether a specific interdisciplinary intervention might be more appropriate. Why not encourage the business department to offer a wide range of business classes geared towards students seeking musical careers at the professional level? This could include courses targeted to making their skills work in other domains in the absence of symphony jobs. But it would take a more narrow view of what these students might be interested in. Training of this kind could still be flexible and might vary from student to student, but unless I am missing the author’s point, it would also be quite different from taking on a mandatory business major.

Interdisciplinarity can be highly specific. It doesn’t necessarily mean being able to do everything that someone trained in the fields you are drawing on could do. Sometimes, broad training might get in the way of an interdisciplinary mindset. Training in disciplines, even multiple disciplines, means learning what questions and competencies drive your field and developing the skills to answer these questions and possibly change the discussion. These two things happen at once and inform each other and are framed by the discipline in question. Interdisciplinary training, by contrast, means asking questions and then pursuing the competencies needed to answer them. Very, very similar skills, but the framing is different. A psychology major needs to know statistics because it is part of the language of their discipline. An interdisciplinary student needs to know that statistics is part of the language of psychology, but they might not need to be an expert at it to ask and answer the central questions of their project. The demands are different.

Yes, students can do both. They can be business majors and music majors. But interdisciplinarity in a specific, targeted sense can end up being sidestepped by the exhortation that students HAVE to do both. A music major required to complete a double major in business and music is subject to the traditions and histories of each discipline. A music major in an interdisciplinary program that is organized around the question of “How does music proceed in an era where the symphony orchestra is dead?” would probably look very different.

And let’s say that a graduate of the latter program did choose to pursue a career in business. Well, I think their answers to the questions facing their company might look different from a business/music double major as well. And serious interdisciplinary training also prepares students to identify and seek out training in competencies they might need. Today, those students could learn how to care for their own health as performers and how to manage microphones and recording equipment, both excellent suggestions made by the Violinist.com article. But a student trained in interdisciplinary methods might be better equipped to look out at a continually changing landscape and realize “now I need to know how to create musical iPad apps.” Remember, the iPad was only introduced in 2010. Something else will “change everything” soon. Interdisciplinary students will know how to identify, question, and meet the needs and challenges of a world where the “next thing” exists.

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