Norges musikkhøgskole Norwegian Academy of Music
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Forging New Roles for Musicians

The working lives of musicians are changing. The future will see fewer permanent positions, and more musicians will have to create their own jobs. Tanja Orning is looking to explore which qualifications are required for musicians to survive in an ever-changing, globalised labour market.

In the autumn of 2015 Orning started her postdoc project linked to the focus area Independent Music Careers at the Centre of Excellence in Music Performance Education (CEMPE). CEMPE wants to provide students with a knowledge base to prepare them for a freelance career. The aim is to help them establish networks and encourage innovation and projects to allow them to reach out to new audiences in new arenas.

“The musician of the future will require knowledge and skills that professionals of previous generations often lack”, claims Orning, pointing to the balance between the autonomy of the art and the need to make a living as a newly qualified musician that many musicians now need to tread.

A new role for musicians

“The traditional career paths have changed greatly in recent years. There is a fierce international competition for orchestral jobs and generally speaking fewer permanent positions. A job market is emerging where musicians have to be increasingly flexible and mobile, taking on multiple part-time jobs and perhaps creating their own projects.

This fragmented form of employment is in many ways a return to that of musicians past before the “musical work” concept emerged and roles became increasingly separated. However, the contemporary context is a new one: we have to relate to a range of complex phenomena such as the digital revolution and a shift towards a more individualised industry as well as a growing need for alternative funding to supplement that from the public sector.

Many people get off to a good start as freelancers before children, mortgages and other factors begin to make freelancing more challenging.

Tanja Orning Post Doctor

Orning points out that musicians are increasingly having to create their own roles.

“You have to be more proactive, and you must be able to create your own projects. You need to be familiar with the workings of the art world and be aware of structures, funding applications and processes because it is you who have to make these applications and navigate the field. Being able to work with others, often across genres and specialisms, is also a key skill”.

Driving ambition

It is undeniably challenging for musicians to have to manage their own careers on top of having to learn everything associated with playing an instrument. The distinction between work and personal life is blurred.

“What drives musicians is often a strong urge,” says Orning. “People who choose this kind of profession obviously have an urge to be their own master. Self-realisation is important, in most cases far more so than the desire for financial gain. Almost every survey carried out has found that there is an artistic and personal driving force at the heart of it; that these people want to do something that is meaningful to them.”

A sustainable career

Orning wants to investigate the demands placed on today’s musicians by interviewing people who have established successful musical practices in the new market. One of the things she will be asking is what they learnt from their music studies that has been of value and what they think was lacking in their training.

“Sustainability is important”, Orning stresses.

“Many people get off to a good start as freelancers before children, mortgages and other factors begin to make freelancing more challenging. It is therefore important that we create an economic model that allows people to make a living from music over time”.

Thinking new

So what does it take? Orning believes that much of it is down to our way of thinking. She takes the view that we can learn a great deal from other art forms.

“The visual arts have always been way ahead of the music world in terms of thinking conceptually and contemporary. Classical music in particular has in many ways existed in a kind of vacuum. Many of our current performance formats are the same as in the 1800s with traditional concerts in concert halls with musicians dressed in black. Many aspects of this tradition have the potential for an overhaul”.

We’re not living in a vacuum. Carving out a career as a musician in a contemporary context means actively engaging with the present.

Tanja Orning Post Doctor

Orning believes we should think new and more openly about what a concert is and what a musician could be.

“Music is an abstract art form, but it always exists in the here and now. The difference between the era when the music was written and the present day is vast. We can no longer listen with a fresh pair of ears because we’ve heard everything before. How, then, can we really listen to this old, and in many ways played out, music so that it gives meaning to new audiences?” asks Orning.

Classical music in crisis

The backdrop to this discussion is the fact that classical music is facing a crisis, Orning claims. Audience figures are falling, record sales are on the slide, and music is getting significantly less public attention in newspapers, on the radio and on TV.

The pressing question is therefore how we can bring this brilliant music to the contemporary public in new ways. She believes that music education still has some way to go in this respect.

“For that reason, one of the most important skills for a musician today is to be able to think critically and ask critical questions of the traditions and of celebrated works of music without compromising artistic quality and integrity. We’re not living in a vacuum. Carving out a career as a musician in a contemporary context means actively engaging with the present”.