Young musicians face fears on the classical job market

by Emma Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
December 5, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — This holiday season, thousands of college students traveling home to see their families are dreading the inevitable conversation with uncles, grandmothers, and second cousins that begins, "So, what are you studying?" and ends, "What are you going to do with that?"

Any millennial can rattle off the list of doomsday majors — the ones that'll keep you sleeping on the couch in your parents' basement, or trying to write your novel at night while your Craigslist roommate watches Dallas reruns. The list is always the same: English, history, philosophy — maybe comparative literature or geography for the more adventurous. They're all risky, certainly. But there's arguably one that stands out, striking more fear in the hearts of Minnesotans than any other: the music major.

And why shouldn't those uncles, grandmothers and second cousins be skeptical? With no end in sight to the Minnesota Orchetra's labor dispute — the longest in the history of American orchestras — it's no wonder they're a bit skittish.

According to a Wall Street Journal report based on 2010 U.S. Census data, the unemployment rate for music majors hovers around 5 percent — better than the majority of arts-based majors, and only tenths of a percent worse than electrical engineering.

However, that doesn't mean music majors are necessarily working in their field. I interviewed cellist Nathaniel Yaffe last year for a story about how the orchestra lockouts affected the University of Minnesota's music school. He was a Ph.D. student at the time, uncertain where he'd end up. When we met again recently, Yaffe told me he'd worried every day about having to settle for a job outside of music.

This year, though, he won a seat with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh. It was a long process — the 11 auditions previous had been fruitless.

Auditioning is stressful — "a marathon," Yaffe said. There are multiple rounds, each eliminating candidates until just a few remain. For the North Carolina audition, he said, about 100 cellists competed for two spots. Up until the final round, the audition was "blind" — a screen separated players from those making the final decision.

Before other auditions, he'd practiced himself sick. When the opportunity arose to audition for North Carolina, "I didn't go crazy," he said. "I worked on what I needed to work on." To get through it, he reminded himself that he had nothing to lose.

"If an audition doesn't go well, my life doesn't change," he said. If it did go well, things could only get better.

Now several months into the job, Yaffe describes himself as "extremely lucky."

He enjoys living in Raleigh and likes the orchestra's mission. The group plays concerts around the state, including a series of educational shows that introduce young people to orchestral music. He also plays chamber music on the side, and plans to start teaching.

It's not a perfect situation — his fiancee is still based in Minneapolis, and the job itself can be exhausting — but for now, Yaffe said, he's done auditioning.

When asked if there's anywhere else he'd like to live, he said simply, "That's not a decision an orchestral musician can make."

First in a four-part series. Read more:
* Life as a freelance musicians: "Scary, but a lot of fun"
* What do you do with a music degree — when what you do isn't music?
* Auditioning for graduate school: "Your mind is like a laser beam"

Emma Nelson is a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota.

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