Are Musicians Better Than They Were 30 Years Ago?

Jeremy Reynolds on February 8, 2020
Anthony McGill

The level of classical musicianship is going up.

Because the large classical-music institutions are primarily — perhaps unhealthily — focused on old repertory, it’s easy to imagine that skill has remained static. Orchestra auditions still rely on a similar set of excerpts as they did decades ago. Major competitions might include newer music in a special round but are largely determined with the significant concertos and solo vehicles of yore. And certainly, a limited number of orchestral positions or solo paths for nonorchestral instruments has left plenty of talented players out of work, giving rise to a feeling of overcrowding in the industry.

But ask a conservatory teacher. Depending on the instrument, incoming students are undoubtedly getting better for a variety of reasons., The level of pedagogy in neighborhoods and cities has undoubtedly risen thanks to a boom in educational literature and, again, the overcrowding issue. And of course, the internet deserves the lion’s share of the credit, as students’ access to master classes and techniques and different recordings has been largely equalized.

Given the scarcity of work and the fierceness of competition for remaining jobs, what implications does this have for the field? If being very, very good just isn’t enough to win a job anymore — what’s the recourse?

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“There are more and more people that are really, really good at their instruments, and the amount of competition has certainly gone up,” said Anthony McGill, principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic. McGill also teaches at The Juilliard School and serves as the artistic advisor for the Music Advancement Program at the Juilliard School. “It’s getting increasingly challenging to win a job even in a small market orchestra — the level of playing across the board is greater,” he said.

“In a way this has actually improved things across the board. No matter where you go, you can expect a small regional orchestra to play at a very strong level. That used to only be true in big cities, but now even in rural areas there are excellent ensembles.”

On the nonorchestral side of the equation: David Tanenbaum has taught classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for about 28 years. He’s spent decades honing his craft as a teacher and considering how to constantly raise the bar in the guitar world. His take on whether guitarists in general are getting better? “Technique is unequivocally better, there’s just no question,” he said. “The level is higher. Things are cleaner.” Tanenbaum explained that in the 20th-century classical guitar was “coming into its own” and that as it picked up steam, professional and genre pedagogy developed right alongside. “I can absolutely, categorically say that the level of teaching is higher as well,” he said. “I think we have to give a lot of credit to education at lower levels. Music education has shrunk in schools, but with Suzuki and parents and youth music programs and other extracurricular activities, music is stronger than ever.”

David Tanenbaum

“I think they’re much more aware of all the different kinds of players thanks to social media and the internet,” said Richard Hawkins, who has taught hundreds of students at the Oberlin Conservatory and at the Interlochen Academy for a combined 30 years. Hawkins also serves as a judge at clarinet competitions around the world — he said that in China, when he hears the Mozart Clarinet Concerto 75 times in a row with all different ages, some of the younger players make it into the advanced rounds.

“The highest-level students are just more researched,” he added. “They hear things on YouTube that they didn’t have access [to] before, and that’s good. Technically I think things are better than they’ve ever been, as far as clarinet goes specifically.” A simple Google or YouTube search reveals dozens if not hundreds of master classes for all instruments and voice types with some of the world’s greatest instructors. Have a question about how to make a certain kind of articulation? Finger a certain chord? Achieve a specific sort of resonance? The internet has an answer.

Richard Hawkins

Beyond the master classes, there are even more resources for beginners. “I’m pretty sure there are people learning to play instruments off of YouTube, especially more popular instruments,” Hawkins said. “It’s definitely changing the way we do this.” Access to recordings has similarly expanded students’ imaginations — free recordings of most music is readily available online, with numerous interpretations and artists. It’s a student’s market, as young musicians can now identify artists and recordings that specifically resonate with their idea of “good playing” and then find instruction on how to achieve that goal. “The intelligence is different. Even compared to 15 years ago, people ask more questions, the awareness has helped people ask more questions about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind why we play things a certain way.”

Peer Pressure

Then again, technical skill doesn’t necessarily translate into more “musical” playing, or performing with a sense of how to move an audience. Being note perfect never guarantees a successful concert. Tanenbaum remarked that at a recent international competition he judged only a single person made a couple of mistakes in the semifinal round, which consisted of half an hour of repertoire. “It’s just crazy,” he said. “As a teacher though, this frees us up to focus on the good stuff and ask, how do you move someone? Now, this means more people are coming to you with the basics taken care of. What you want to do with a higher-level student is [show them] how to become their own artist.” Tanenbaum attributes the increase in skill to more efficient practicing, based on better teaching and internet access.

McGill said that as the field contracts and the number of jobs shrink, competition for the remaining spots is undoubtedly increasing. “But competition isn’t a deterrent,” he said. “People don’t really go into music because of the numbers. People know that it’s a tough field to go in. They do it because they love it — because they can’t imagine doing something else.” As student debts mount, pressure to be successful after college to “make it worth it” are mounting — McGill said that from talking with his students he has a sense that the stresses of being a student are simply greater than they were several decades ago, never mind the increased competition in the music field. “I feel like [for] people in general — not just music students — it’s more stressful being a student than ever before,” he said. “I talk with my students a lot about staying positive, focusing on a love of music. It’s important that students and professionals remember why they’re doing the things they’re doing.”

Alma Deutscher performed her own violin concerto with Symphony Silicon Valley a the age of 12 | Credit: Ronald Zak

Tanenbaum said he worries about the idea that guitar professors are simply training future teachers, given the low demand for solo instrumental recitals these days. He said that he’s heard anecdotally that some studios around the country are seeing fewer auditions, but at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music admission is up in his studio. “I ask myself if this a futile exercise often,” he said. “Am I now putting people in unmanageable debt where they can’t pay that back? I console myself with the fact that they aren’t stupid. They know the reality. But the numbers are still strong, they still want to do this thing. I want to honor that, even if I don’t have the answers.” Additionally, he said that the skills, creativity, and discipline that musicians develop in their studies are, of course, readily applicable to other jobs. Even students that don’t pursue careers as performers or teachers wind up succeeding with something in their lives.

Along with greater technical pressure, teachers are also facing scrutiny about the sorts of repertory they’re teaching. Classical music as a field is looking to diversify the kinds of music it elevates and to push beyond the traditional canon. Instrumental teachers are working to maintain focus on audition and competition repertory while also broadening their curriculum to be more inclusive. “The stress from the teacher down is more and more, you have to keep up with new repertoire, new ways of doing things,” Hawkins said. “I recently discovered that Alfred Uhl [who wrote a well-known book of clarinet etudes] was a Nazi. I’m, uh, not going to use his etudes anymore. I’m looking at changing my repertoire for auditions next year to involve some different composers ... we need to push beyond the traditional white composers.”

As for the talented students who don’t find luck on the audition circuit or those who realize teaching is their true calling, private instruction remains a thriving industry in the states. “If they don’t land a job, they teach and pass on their knowledge to the neighborhood clarinet players,” McGill said, adding that in general he doesn’t see the level rising as hugely significant in terms of overall quantity. “I think things go in cycles, he said. “But the really great people tend to rise to the top. I think that number at the very top hasn’t changed that much.”