Does Conservatory Really Prepare for Business Success?

Everything I Know about Business, I Learned at the Conservatory is the title of a recently posted article by Brian Pertl.  In it, he argues that his (enormous) successes as an employee with Microsoft were the result of Conservatory training.  Here are 5 attributes Pertl claims are valuable to the business world and developed in music schools:

  1. Focus
  2. Self-motivation
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Creativity

In support of Pertl’s message, Craig Cortello provided a link to an excerpt from his book Everything We Needed to Know about Business We Learned Playing Music.  It identifies “9 common lessons of music education that translate into success”:

  1. Confidence and Self-Esteem (Stepping Up to the Mic)
  2. Collaboration and Teamwork (I’m in the Band)
  3. Leadership (Conducting Your Symphony of Employees)
  4. Salesmanship and Branding (Give the Fans What They Want)
  5. Creativity & Innovation (Improvising From the Charts)
  6. Risk Acceptance (Let’s Just “Jam”)
  7. Discipline and Fundamentals (Learning the “Scales” of Your Profession)
  8. Individuality (Make Your Own Kind of Music)
  9. Passion (Play it With Feeling)

Wow.  These two statements remind us just how many powerful transferrable skills music can foster.  But do we really value and cultivate these characteristics in conservatory settings?  If so, that should allay the fears of many uneasy parents, worried that music degrees won’t translate into a sustainable careers for their children.

I have no doubt that Pertl’s training helped prepare him to excel in the business world.  The same can be said of business leaders referenced in Cortello’s writing.   But much more common are tales of conservatory graduates who are ill-equipped to manage their own music business (i.e. career), let alone thrive within outside sectors.  So which is it? 

To argue that conservatory prepares musicians for business success, we should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative.

 1)      Do traditional conservatories truly emphasize these things?

Trained musicians undoubtedly tend to possess some of the traits noted above.  Focus, self-motivation, discipline, and passion come to mind.  But what about the others?  Let’s consider how traditional conservatory training impacts a few of these points:

  • Creativity.  Most classically trained musicians are terrified to improvise one note, let alone make creative decisions on more consequential matters.  Traditional curricula have little if any room for creativity.  (For more thoughts, click here.)
  • Risk acceptance.  Many musicians come to believe that mistakes and failure are the enemy, rather than badges of honor.  Almost 100% of curricular requirements are tasks where students who work hard can find success every time.  True risk is not part of the equation. (For more thoughts, click here.)
  • Individuality.  In school, budding musicians are traditionally encouraged to be exactly like everyone else, only better.  They play the same old music in the same old halls wearing the same old outfits with the same old conventions.  (For more thoughts, click here.)
  • Communication.  Most students are not required to communicate verbally with the audience during recitals. In ensembles, conductors or coaches often make important musical decisions, rather than allowing participants to communicate, listen, consider, debate, and compromise.
  • Salesmanship & branding. ???  Not at all a part of the typical conservatory experience.

For conservatories to develop the full array of transferable skill sets that music study can absolutely offer, they must emphasize these aspects within curriculum.  (Click here and here for suggestions.)  But the “intrinsic” argument is not sufficient. Music is a powerful tool. But the ways in which it is approached affect the kinds of graduates we build.

2)      Do traditional conservatories genuinely celebrate these things?

View the webpage of any music school.  Somewhere, a passage will describe great professional accomplishments of recent graduates: top grad music school study, orchestra employment, college teaching, lead opera roles. Even when these claims only represent a small minority, they are used as clear evidence of excellence. 

If a desirable outcome of conservatory training is success in non-music fields, this fact should be proudly advertised as well.  “Some of our alumni have become world class business leaders!!!”  A conservatory that markets this fact is one that values it. The opposite is probably true as well.  

More important than Internet statements are attitudes expressed within institutions. The majority of music students are still groomed for “traditional” careers.  When someone opts to pursue non-music options, how do teachers and colleagues view that decision?   If conservatories are indeed powerful breeding grounds for doctors, lawyers, politicians, business people, and other community leaders (in addition to musicians), they should celebrate and encourage a variety of paths, framing music study as a means to a variety of wonderful ends.

3)      Do traditional conservatories actually advocate these things?

Let’s assume for a moment that conservatories are doing everything in their power to prepare students for professional success across discipline.  What then?

There are in fact companies that actively seek to employ creative musicians.  I once heard a Google executive explain “we look to hire musicians. We’d rather employ someone with vast creativity and teach them technical skills than the other way around.  It’s a much easier proposition.” 

But most companies are not so enlightened.  Instead, the majority of business employers immediately discard resumes of musicians.  Without a business degree, they simply aren’t considered.  Which is a shame IF conservatory training truly embodies coveted and necessary skills.

When music students are groomed to succeed in an array of areas, conservatories should become outspoken advocates of this benefit.  Music administrators and faculty members have an opportunity to deliver that message, with clarity and pride, to corporations and other business communities.   


Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, claims that the MFA is the new MBA.  Pertl and Cortello argue that music study cultivates essential traits that help musicians succeed in the business sector.  I desperately want to believe them.   But to tap into the full potential of music study, conservatories must modify both traditional curriculum and their message to students and the world. 

There is some good news.  Many music schools are making exciting changes to their model.  Brian Pertl, for example, is working to modify the approach at the Lawrence Conservatory (where he serves as dean) to better emphasize entrepreneurial success.  Similar trends are occurring elsewhere.  Perhaps there will be a time when conservatories prioritize professional success for their students—whether in or outside music—as much as artistic excellence.  When that happens, both students and society will be better served. 

If you know about a music school or faculty member who is challenging conventions along these lines, please let me know about it: cutler@savvymusician.com.  I’d like to feature these visionaries in articles here.

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