The Academic/Professional Disconnect: Why Music Students Don’t Know How to Earn a Living with What They’ve Learned

Disconnected Brain

Disconnected Brain (Photo credit: Collimateur)

Today’s post is a guest submission by my good friend and colleague Ar Adler.  She’s been a huge supporter of Tuxedo Revolt over the years and now I’m thrilled to share her work with you. Ar’s bio can be found at the bottom of this post:



By Ar Adler:

I‘ve worked in academia for 2 decades and colleges are still scrambling to address a chronic problem: students leave not knowing how to earn a living with what they’ve learned. It’s particularly true of the performing arts. By the time the typical conservatory student has earned an undergraduate degree, she/he has spent approximately 15 years studying an instrument or discipline. This laser-like focus on theory and technical proficiency produces some incredibly talented musicians. But, having focused so narrowly on these essential elements; they may be entirely clueless as to what other skills and experience they will need to turn that into a gainful pursuit.

It has of late become common knowledge that being a professional musician is largely an entrepreneurial pursuit and teaching “entrepreneurship” has been peddled as the one word remedy for the disconnect between student’s training and successful careers. In giving the remedy a convenient label, institutions risk making the mistake of believing there is a systemic solution that will magically instill in students the complex mix of interpersonal, technical and logistical skills and knowledge necessary for success in the real world.

The reality is this–the concepts can be taught, but the learning is experiential. You Gotta Do It! Running your own career is one of life’s experiences that you must engage in while you still don’t feel quite ready and by doing so, you become ready. Because of that, it is essential that students simultaneously learn on two related tracks while they are in school – one academic and technical as it relates to their area of discipline; and the other – experiential.

So what is answer? 

In order to make money making music, you need a professional training ground to pursue opportunities to do just that. Here are 4 essential areas of experiential learning that institutions can provide to bridge the student/professional gap:

  • Students need access to clients that seek musical services such as paid performance opportunities and private lessons while they are in school; as well as access to supportive guidance throughout the process.
  • They need to not just learn about, but develop the hands-on skills that ready them for today’s teaching market: arts-in-education and community engagement training, and teaching artist opportunities.
  • They need to understand and cultivate administrative skills that they may be exposed to and bring to bear in an arts-related internship.
  • Most of all, students need opportunities to cultivate the interpersonal and communication skills necessary to effectively engage audiences, promote themselves and network with others in the profession, potential clients, employers and prospective funders.

Presenting a series of experts and panel discussions with successful musicians who have done interesting things may be enlightening and provide an anecdotal backdrop for career possibilities  addressing at least one component of the disconnect; however, students need a platform within which to cultivate and practice these concepts for themselves. ALL of these activities, concurrent with their studies equals the best potential for a gainful music career.

Music is an applied art. You can’t learn how to do it by absorbing concepts, reading about it or listening to someone else play. Running your own career is no different. Expecting students to graduate and spontaneously respond to the unfamiliar terrain of the professional arena is unrealistic. Unfortunately, for many music school graduates, this is where they find themselves.


Ar Adler is a vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, recording artist, studio teacher and performance coach. She has opened for Count Basie and his Orchestra, was the featured vocalist at legendary Broadway producer George Abbott’s 100th birthday party, has played live on WBAI radio and at many NYC venues including Kenny’s Castaways, Dangerfield’s, the Marriott Marque, The National Arts Club, Queens Theatre, Tavern on the Green and the Waldorf Astoria, among others. She has produced 2 internationally distributed CDs: Hurry Up & Change and Coney Island Rhapsody, and her music was featured in Red Wall Productions indi short film BFF which premiered at Lincoln Center, was shown at over 50 film festivals and appeared on TVs BET Lens on Talent. She is a BMI member and a contributor to the JinglePunks licensing catalogue. Ms. Adler a graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School, Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions; served as Associate Director of Career Development at Manhattan School of Music and is currently a career counselor at The New School serving Mannes, the Jazz and Contemporary Music division, Eugene Lang, The New School for Public Engagement and Parsons.



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