Professors: Universities need to help classical music students expand their professional views beyond tradition

Professional education of classical musicians should better prepare the students for diversifying work opportunities in order to thrive as artists in complex societies, say Professor Heidi Westerlund and Associate Professor Guadalupe López-Íñiguez. The article is part of a series about the future of Uniarts Helsinki from a research standpoint.

Heidi Westerlund and Guadalupe López-Íñiguez
Professor Heidi Westerlund and Associate Professor Guadalupe López-Íñiguez. Photo: Eeva Anundi

Based on their research, Professor of Music Education Heidi Westerlund and Associate Professor of Music Education Guadalupe López-Íñiguez believe that higher education institutions should offer alternative horizons and a taste of a variety of career possibilities, in particular, to classical music performing students.

“The career options already available, for example, in the health and social sectors demand alternative approaches to the education offered to performing musicians. This was the topic of our recent book Expanding Professionalism in music and higher music education–A Changing Game. The academic curricula do not sufficiently reflect the changes that have already happened in work life. This does not mean we must abandon traditional career paths, but in addition to that we must offer education that resonates with those alternatives,” Westerlund explains.  

Recent international research discourses clearly point out that classical musicians can thrive when working in jails, refugee centres, old age homes, or hospitals—to mention a few options, says López-Íñiguez.

“However, many musicians are in shock when they graduate, as they cannot find a job in an orchestra or as concert soloists, which are still now seen as the pinnacles of success in this profession. Musicians are not aware of the variety of skills and creativity they have that they can use to earn a living while playing an active role in the society,” she continues.

Westerlund points out that students are very aware of societal and ecological problems.

“We need more heterogeneity in the curriculum while offering individualised study paths from an early age, so that people can follow their dreams as well as create new visions without narrowing down their options. The younger generation needs to look at the future and cannot stay neutral on societal and ecological issues. They need to work together across disciplines and art forms and learn from each other to confront the changing realities,” Westerlund concludes.

“The psychological processes involved in music learning are very interesting from the perspective of vocal or instrumental pedagogy. In particular, the processes related to people’s motivation and experience have great potential to empower performing students in music universities and conservatories: they become more agentic and creative with their artistic careers while considering societal issues as central to their work,” López-Íñiguez says.

A new pedagogical visions for higher music education

Together with Professor Mieko Kanno at Uniarts Helsinki, Westerlund and López-Íñiguez are part of the European REACT network that encourages higher music education institutions to rethink their music performance pedagogies and curricula.

“Rethinking Music Performance in European Higher Education Music Institutions” (REACT) is an Erasmus funded strategic partnership project for 2020–23. It consists of an international network of researchers aiming at developing new pedagogical visions for music performance in higher education institutions.

“REACT brings together people with different backgrounds. It is one of the biggest interdisciplinary cooperations in music research right now. We are studying the careers of artists and envisioning what artistic research-based learning in classical music performance could be like,” Westerlund says.

REACT was built on the acknowledgement that higher education institutions (HEIs) are not helping musicians to meet the challenges of working life and troubled societies. REACT’s recent report Artist Career in Music: Stakeholders Requirement Report brings together research on actual careers of musicians in Europe that reflect this issue.

“We are developing constantly changing and growing pedagogical visions for classical musicians. Instead of the traditional conservatoire model where the apprentice learns from the master, we encourage real cooperation and collaboration with a focus on societal work. Music students undoubtedly need to have an excellent craft of their voices and instruments. However, that is not enough anymore: they also need creative critical thinking to appreciate “outside-the-box” professional roles that expand what we are already offering to the world,” López-Íñiguez explains.

“There isn’t even enough work for all the graduates in orchestras, and a large number of highly skilled musicians are competing for these few open positions internationally. Some of our best students enrol to pursue another degree after they graduate to make a living. Various alternative career options must therefore be recognised in professional education of musicians,” Westerlund acknowledges.

The other universities in the REACT network are based in Sweden, Norway, Portugal, and Cyprus. REACT expects to influence the degree structures and curricula in HEIs, both on a European and wider international scale.

“In REACT, we bring together research we have carried out within this field, and we learn from each other. We are combining knowledge from different disciplines connected to music performance education, as well as research from different universities in different parts of Europe. We all have recognised similar problems in the education of professional performing musicians. Our aim is to push forward change to prepare graduating music students so that work life is not a complete surprise to them and that they can use their imagination in creating new practices beyond the tradition,” Westerlund continues.

Education should support various career options

Both for the REACT project with her co-researchers at Uniarts Helsinki, and for her previous Academy of Finland funded project “Transforming Musicianship”, López-Íñiguez has interviewed over 20 classical musicians and composers who are professionally linked to Finland.

“Generally, these people found their work rewarding, but they felt that their education did not sufficiently prepare them for the careers they are pursuing in the music industry—especially the younger generation. Recent graduates are working successfully in cooperation with other artists and in venues that go beyond the traditional big arenas for classical music,” López-Íñiguez says.

Some of the younger interviewees also participated in longitudinal focus groups as part of López-Íñiguez’s research. That type of work revealed they needed encouragement and career-related information that considerably expand what is offered to them in higher education.

“After some of these musicians shared their experiences and empowered each other in the group, they were ready to search for alternative work roles and positions. More and more teachers start displaying the expertise needed to offer alternative career options to their students. In my opinion, this is extremely positive and helps expand our existing views of the classical music performing profession,” López-Íñiguez emphasises.

“The message should be that every opportunity—whether playing as an orchestral tutti or as a chamber musician in children’s hospitals—is valuable and possible. If the music university valued and rewarded all musicians’ career paths equally, the students would see them as valid options,” Westerlund concludes.

Internationally acclaimed researchers

Professor of Music Education Heidi Westerlund and Associate Professor of Music Education Guadalupe López-Íñiguez are internationally acclaimed researchers of music education at the Sibelius Academy, Uniarts Helsinki.

In addition to REACT, Westerlund is also a partner in the Music for Social Impact (SIMM) project, led by the Guildhall School of Music & Dance, investigating musicians working outside traditional concert practices in four countries: UK, Belgium, Finland, and Columbia.

López-Íñiguez conducted a 3-year-long Academy of Finland-funded study at the Sibelius Academy on how to equip classical music students to manage their work and learning across diverse roles in the music industry and their career lifespan. She is also finalising a recent study of hers funded by the Wihuri foundation on the challenges for higher music education to equip professional musicians in times of crises.

Westerlund’s research interests in the recent decade have focused on collaborative learning in higher music education and expanding professionalism in music and music teacher education. López-Iñiguez has studied the educational psychology of music from the early learning years in music schools to the professional level in higher education—paying particular attention to constructivist pedagogies.

Further reading

REACT report: Correia, J. S., Dalagna, G., Foletto, C., Papageorgi, I., Stavrou, N. E., Constantinou, N., Westerlund, H., Kanno, M., López-Íñiguez, G., Östersjö, S., Holmgren, C., Eidsaa, R., & Orning, T. (2022). Artist Career in Music: Stakeholders Requirement Report. UA Editora.

López-Íñiguez, G., & Burnard, P. (2022). Towards a nuanced understanding of musicians’ professional learning pathways: What does critical reflection contribute? Research Studies in Music Education, 44(1), 127–157.

Westerlund, H., & López-Íñiguez, G. (2022). Professional education towards protean careers in music? Bigenerational Finnish composers’ pathways and livelihoods in a changing professional ecosystem. Advance Online Publication. Research Studies in Music Education.

López-Íñiguez, G., & Bennett, D. (2021). Broadening student musicians’ career horizons: The importance of being and becoming a learner in higher education. International Journal of Music Education, 39(2), 134–150.

López-Íñiguez, G., & Bennett, D. (2020). A lifespan perspective on multi-professional musicians: Does music education prepare classical musicians for their careers? Music Education Research, 22(1), 1–14.

Westerlund, H., & Gaunt, H. (Eds.) (2021). Expanding professionalism in music and higher music education – A changing game. Routledge, SEMPRE. Open access. DOI: 10.4324/9781003108337.

Read the other articles in the series