The World on a String

As the San Francisco Conservatory of Music moves to fancy new digs, its students struggle with a shrinking professional marketplace.

Even as he says this, Murdoch seems to deny that his students have to understand their plight. Every year, for example, the top 10 ranked music schools in the United States (a list last compiled by U.S. News & World Report in 1997, which placed the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at a disappointing 26) graduate about 2,000 instrumental performance majors. Last year those 2,000 students saw fewer than 40 openings in full-time, professional orchestras in the U.S. Over the last five years, the number of semiprofessional orchestras in the country has dropped by almost half, while the graduating classes of music programs have nearly doubled.

"The fact of the matter is, if you want to play the violin seriously in a professional way, you don't have much time to do much else to get ready for that," Murdoch says. "And I don't think the conservatories have changed that much when it comes to that message. And they can't. If we were to say to a student who is aspiring to be a violinist, 'Don't practice so much, go do this or do that,' we would be doing that student a great disservice."

He doesn't mention that it might be an equally great disservice to send one graduating class after another into a working world for which they are woefully underequipped.

"I think basically there are students who are coming out of training today who have to be much more, let's say, resourceful to be successful," says Tim Day, acting second flutist of the S.F. Symphony and a flute teacher at the SFCM. "I was pretty much on an orchestral tack, with all my eggs in that basket. For most instrumentalists out there that is the goal. But to expect to these days can be unrealistic."

The halls of the conservatory are lined with grand pianos, its walls hung with pictures of some of the only household names in classical music -- Placido Domingo, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma. Wearing victorious smiles, these stars drape their arms around students who graduated long ago, pupils who, in all likelihood, have since given up their aspirations of performing music to make a living.

Walking those halls, visitors pass the administration offices, a student lounge with vending machines, a disorderly sheet-music store called the Music Rack, a few classrooms (which double as practice rooms after hours), a hive of dedicated practice rooms on the second floor, and Hellman Hall, the only real performance space in the building. From one room to the next, sounds fade into each other: a snippet of a soprano's aria, a trumpeter's orchestral excerpts, the din of pianos and trombones. None of the rooms is soundproof. It's a beautiful and maddening place.

"We have all these open doors, and it's very easy to walk in and out, get the feeling of openness from the place," says the conservatory's dean, Mary Ellen Poole. "You can hear the openness," she explains, gesturing to the sounds that permeate her office. From this room near the center of the school, one can hear a handful of students practicing at once -- a cacophonous muddle of scales and melodies, in different keys and tempos, including the rehearsals of David Southorn's trio. Today, a thunderous piano in the room above plays scales over our conversation.

When Poole speaks of the impending changes the move will engender, she mentions with some regret the losses that the conservatory's culture will suffer through increased security -- a necessity because of the larger number of people in the new neighborhood -- and the "more corporate" environment, which will require visitors to sign in and wear guest badges. Yet when she discusses the move's benefits, she doesn't talk about professionalism or career options at first, but of humane perks: The students will have more options for food and living arrangements, and they'll be more a part of the thriving diversity of the city. "We tend to think of ourselves in a much more suburban way out here," she says. "When we move, [the students] are going to have a lot more choices to consider. It will be good for students to engage with a city, to become more worldly and less sheltered. That will be the greatest benefit."

She continues in a hopeful vein. "I want them to get a sense of who their neighbors are, and a little bit better sense of what it might take to get them to join their neighbors," Poole says. "Right now, we're a halfway house between their childhood and the professional world. I hope that by being at Oak Street, by mere proximity we'll have increased opportunities to do things like attend rehearsals, to bring in a guest conductor from literally right down the street. But more than that, I hope that it's going to give our students more of a sense of their place in the world and how that works practically."

Poole, a classically trained flutist, calls it a "not-so-secret priority" to introduce a new curriculum for students that better equips them for the realities of today's job market. Such a curriculum would include more required classes that focus on practical aspects of the professional musician's world -- from being prepared to teach to simple concepts of business and networking. Currently, the SFCM offers only one class that overviews such topics, called "Practical Aspects of a Career in Music," essentially a business class on the benefits of employing a manager or lawyer and mastering money management. The course is worth two credit hours, and it's required for seniors.

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