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Careers for a changing marketplace

If you're a music student, chances are you have your sights set on a career of performance or teaching, or both. But have you considered all the options? Many of today's active musicians have taken professional paths that can appear unusual but may be highly feasible in today's uncertain musical market.

At first glance, the American-trained artists described here seem terribly familiar. They have the usual histories: The violinist earned a doctorate at Julliard, studying with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay, and then spent a year in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship. The young soprano was a music major at Connecticut College and president of her high school choir. The promising cellist graduated from the Eastman School of Music and went on to become principal cellist of an orchestra in Canada. With two degrees from the University of Houston, the composer earned a doctorate from Boston University and became an assistant professor there.

But who are the musicians behind these sketches?

Perhaps they are not as "usual" as their histories suggest. Walter Verdehr is professor of violin at Michigan State University. As a founding member of the Verdehr Trio, his vision provided the impetus for commissioning an entire repertoire for an unlikely chamber music combination violin, clarinet, and piano. Betsy Brininger is the director of the public events management team at the University of New Mexico. She is in charge of Popejoy Hall, one of the most visible performing venues in the Southwest. With a biomedical research support grant from the National Institutes of Health, cellist Richard Naill has studied the muscle activation patterns evident during different technical approaches to cello playing. His research has been published in several scientific journals. And John Sharpley is composer-in-residence at the La Salle School of Music in Singapore and a composer of music for films, who explores the sounds and philosophies of Southeast Asia.

These professionals have accomplished impressive goals. None was planned, but in each case a trained musician was curious and open to opportunities that were largely outside of his or her traditional academic training. Each invested time in research or sought the opportunity for further education. Their career journeys delving into 20th century commissions, arts administration, performing arts medicine, and global musicianship reflect the changing marketplace for all musicians.

Walter Verdehr, a native of Gottschee, Yogoslavia, spent his early years in Austria. At the age of eight he received his first violin lesson and studied for two years in Graz, Austria, with Marianne Kroemer, who founded the European String Teachers Association. After coming to California with his parents, he met Sascha Jacobson at the Music Academy of the West and studied with him before attending Julliard. He subsequently joined the faculty at Michigan State University as the first violinist of the Beaumont Quartet. In 1971 he married Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, a clarinet Virtuoso and professor at the same university. Verdehr ha been active as a teacher and violin soloist, but one of his most remarkable career achievements has been the creation of the Verdehr Trio, co-founded with his wife and the pianist Gary Kirkpatrick. More than 30 new works have been commissioned for the ensemble.

"Our trio developed for practical reasons," says Verdehr. "We wanted to tour together rather than separately. At first we asked our composer colleagues and friends to write for us. Then our work began to produce grants from a variety of sources, and we gradually expanded the geographical scope of our commissions. Thankfully, MSU has been very supportive of our efforts." Gian Carlo Menotti, Jon Deak, Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, Ned Rorem, Peter Schickele, Gunthur Schuller, and Peter Sculthorpe are some of the many composers who have written for the trio. Recent commissions have come through such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Michigan Arts Council, and Michigan State University.

The trio members are now veterans of several world tours, and their current projects include recording all the works written for them on CD. They are also producing The Making of a Medium, a six-part television series of programs hosted by commentator Martin Bookspan and consisting of interviews and discussions with composers and performers. What advice does Verdehr have for young performers setting out to commission works? "Composers who are your colleagues are often willing to write without getting paid. Some of our best pieces came from these projects." Helping in the creation of material for the trio "makes you feel alive," he adds.

Betsy Brininger describes herself as having been comfortable with administrative responsibilities as early as high school, when she was president of the choir, musical director for the theater department, and organizer of other music clubs and activities. "But I never knew it was a career," she says. "I backed into it. In college no one talked about arts administration as a career." She graduated with a minor in elementary education but soon realized she did not want to teach young children. Instead, with a B.A. in music, she ran a Yamaha music program of instruction for youngsters. Later, as the associate director of the Center for the Arts at the State University of New York at Binghamton, she mentored interns in the M.B.A. arts administration program. She herself took courses in the general M.B.A. program to add to her skills. Brininger believes that her musical background has been a plus in her current career. "I sympathize with what students are going through I have done it."

Through her various jobs as executive director of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in California, founder and partner of Modern Arts Marketing in Connecticut, director of the Arnold Bernhard Arts and Humanities Center at the University of Bridgeport, assistant director for marketing and operations, acting director of the Anderson Center of the Arts at SUNY Binghamton, and managing director of Palmer Auditorium Brininger has learned to address community needs. "Marketing is not as sophisticated in the arts as it is for the consumer industry. As artists, we have done ourselves a disservice. We must learn to connect with our audiences better," she says, quoting a Harris poll that says a majority of respondents feel arts are important, but only 10 percent say arts are an important part of their lives. "We have failed to put ourselves in the middle of people's daily lives."

Brininger's attempts to correct that failing bring a sense of excitement to her work. She says of the community of artists, "We don't deserve a handout. We must produce something that is wonderful." In discussing how arts administration should be taught, she advocates concentrating on the subject during the undergraduate years. "There needs to be the recognition, even at the undergraduate level, that the industry exists. Let students know it is an opportunity." Then, she adds, students need to work in the field, at any level of job responsibility, after undergraduate training and before graduate school.

The field of performing arts medicine is also a burgeoning interdisciplinary interest among physicians and musicians. Articles in such publications as Medical Problems of Performing Artists are usually written by medical doctors. However, an article entitled "Surface EMG as a Method for Observing the Muscle Activation Patterns Associated with Strategies of String Depression Used by Cellists" was written by cellist Richard Naill, in collaboration with Dr. Jill McNitt-Gray of the University of Southern California's school of Exercise Science. In his research, Naill sets out to develop an accurate vocabulary for teaching the cello. He had long ago figured out, for example, that words such as "arm weight" and "tension" mean one thing to performers and another to scientists. Naill attempts to identify these confusions and create a common vocabulary and understanding of the physiology of playing. That was not his original goal in music, however. Shortly after graduating from Eastman, Naill served as principal cellist of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Nova Scotia and also performed with two of Canada's best-known chamber ensembles, the Brunswick String Quartet and Le Trio Haydn de Montreal. It was only after he returned to his native Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to pursue doctoral studies at USC that he began research on physiological and biomechanical aspects of cello technique.

Naill warns his fellow musicians who may want to collaborate with scientists, "There are no shortcuts. Get the science background; we want science to validate our theories."

Naill's approach is part of a growing trend to support interdisciplinary research. For example, in a recent science newsletter, the National Science Foundation was warned by Congress that it must prove its strategic worth to the American people. Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Baltimore who chairs the Senate's appropriations subcommittee overseeing the NSF budget, called on the organization and its grantees to "focus more clearly on the transfer of knowledge and technology for broader national goals and objectives." Naill's work through the School of Biomedical engineering at USC speaks to one such broader objective science linked to a discipline outside the usual fields funded by the NSF. Other collaborations might focus on acoustics or an analysis of how the brain functions in music making.

Composer John Sharpley uses his musical training in yet another way. "Music has been my flying carpet," he explains. "Through it I have experienced different cultures, and in doing so discovered myself." Sharpley, who received his training in France, Houston, and Boston, became an assistant professor of music at Boston University in 1986. Shortly after that appointment, he was designated co-director of the university's program in Singapore. A tour of Southeast Asia and research on the region's indigenous musical traditions followed. In 1989 he resigned from Boston University and the next year accepted a position as composer-in-residence at Singapore's La Salle College of Music.

What compelled him to give up a secure life in U. S. academia? "There is a path that American composers take, and it would have led to a conventional kind of situation. My sphere here is larger than that." His interests range from the heritage of Indian classical music to Indonesian gamelan music. The latter influenced his compositions Gamelan Journey and Lupa, works for musicians and dancers. "I find gamelan music very mesmerizing," he says. "It is the music of nature, and it symbolizes something beyond tradition. When you listen to it, you become part of it it's what music should be." And Sharpley describes his affinity for Southeast Asia by saying, "This is not just a fascination, but redefining a part of myself."

The four musicians discussed here were trained in conventional programs in U. S. colleges and music schools. But many institutions have not yet begun to train musicians about what exists outside the walls of the academy. Every time we pick up the newspaper or attend a lecture about the arts, questions abound as to whether orchestras will still be around in 30 years, about the sorry state of federal government funding for the arts, and whether music will ever be put back into public education. Therefore, it is all the more critical that today's young artists find ways to be distinctive and individual in their career perspectives. This inventive approach is essential in the rapidly changing marketplace for musicians. These musicians the artist who acts as creator as well as re-creator through commissioning music, the arts administrator, interdisciplinary researcher, and composer with a global career perspective represent a perspective transcending the traditional approach to possible music careers.

Being inventive, curious, open-minded, and willing to take risks are traits common to these artists. Perhaps these profiles will shed some new light on how a musician just starting out or a professional in mid-career burnout can fashion a satisfying career niche and build upon it for the future.

©Strings Magazine. March/April 1995. Number 47.

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