Conference report: The Classical Musician in the 21st Century, 23 May 2019 in Cambridge

This stimulating study day—kindly supported by the RMA and hosted at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge—revolved around the notion of the ‘portfolio musician’, an issue relevant to almost every emerging musician seeking to make a living out of their artistic practice. Its genesis lay in a pragmatic desire not only to identify and expose some of the most pressing challenges facing musicians today, but also to provide a platform to some of the musicians currently grappling with them. There are lessons here for musical institutions and prospects for young musicians; this report will briefly shed light on only some of them.

If there is a message to be received by academies, conservatoires, and universities from this study day, it is simply that more needs to be done: the roles that musicians expect to occupy following their studies are often at odds with reality, and the purposes and relevance of training programmes are at times uncertain. What, for instance—as Christopher Leedham (University of Leeds) asked—is the basic purpose of a PhD in composition? Is it intended as training in composition, or indeed research ‘through’ composition? In the realm of performance, Maria Krivenski (Goldsmiths) challenged what she sees as the narrow conceptions of classical musicianship that conservatoires continue to foster—conceptions that remain closely wedded to classical concert performance. Somewhat complementarily, Adrian Horsewood (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) explored some of the alternative training models that budding musicians could consider in the face of conservatoires whose pathways (to use his words) are in many ways ‘rigid and outmoded’. Some fascinating perspectives from beyond the UK were later offered by David Kjar and Allegra Montanari (Chicago College of Performing Arts), whose stark account of the state of play in the U.S.—where crippling student debt puts enormous pressure on music graduates—was followed up with innovative funding and community engagement initiatives to prepare students for the practical challenges that lie beyond third-level education.

If institutions can afford to be slow in response, musicians themselves cannot. This study day featured many young practitioners who shed light on the increasingly blurred lines between composition, performance and research, whether for composers/performers (Jonathan Packham [University of Oxford]/David Cotter [University of Cambridge]); Caitlin Rowley/Josh Spear [Bastard Assignments]) or indeed performers/audience (Heloisa Amaral [Orpheus Institute]. Another way of putting this is to say that musicians’ skillsets are, by necessity, expanding, and not only in terms of music: Zubin Kanga (Royal Holloway) demonstrated how his career as a pianist, in reality, requires a much wider, non-musical skillset, encompassing marketing, PR, law, tour management, sound engineering, and project management (among others). Indeed, the notion of skill recurred throughout the day and was given its most thorough attention in a philosophical exploration by Anthony Gritten (Royal Academy of Music).

The final mention must go to Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s (King’s College London) keynote speech (and its aftermath). If institutions are to respond to musicians’ needs, and if musicians themselves are to expand their skillsets and broaden their musical horizons, then greater creative freedom—especially in relation to performance—is not only to be sanctioned but to be welcomed. Leech-Wilkinson’s critique of what he calls the ‘performance police’ and encouragement for greater expressive freedom in classical performance (for both aesthetic and economic reasons) offered inspiration for rethinking some of the basic assumptions many still hold about the ‘rules’ of musical interpretation. In fact, these were put immediately into practice: a series of performances that directly followed Leech-Wilkinson’s paper broke with several classical conventions as audience members were invited to sit among, walk around, and even conduct performers while they played music old (Chopin; Halvorsen) and new (Packham/Cotter; Rowley). To see thought and practice come together like this at the centre of the day was particularly rewarding.


Adam Behan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge, specialising in musical performance studies.

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