My thoughts on professional music education – what schools should emphasize

Hope for the future – what I told my Eastman class:

My courses this spring – at Juilliard and Eastman – are about the future of classical music. You can read the Juilliard syllabus http://www.gregsandow.com/juilliard right here, and in fact I’ll happily invite you to do that. (The Eastman course is the same, but much shorter. If you’re curious to see how I abridged the Juilliard schedule, go http://www.gregsandow.com/eastman here.)

You’ll find you can read everything I’ve assigned for these classes (and hear whatever music I’ve assigned). You’ll also see that the syllabus isn’t quite complete, that I’ve got a few blank weeks to fill in. Come back in a bit, and the blanks will unblank.

You’ll see that the class begins with some of the problems classical music faces – declining numbers (as detailed in many posts here), and, more crucially, a decisive turn in our culture away from classical music. (Which of course is the reason for the declining numbers.)

But here are two things in this part of the course that I might mention here. First, I made a comprehensive presentation of the problems facing classical music, numerical and otherwise.

It’s here – and it’s never appeared anywhere else, not even this blog.

Second, I assigned readings that – in a way I think we never read inside the classical music world – show why a new, smart generation won’t like classical music in the ways it’s currently presented. These readings come from Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class http://www.gregsandow.com/juilliard/richard_florida.htm  and from John Seabrook’s book Nobrow http://www.gregsandow.com/juilliard/nobrow.pdf. The people Florida describes want a cultural community that’s local and contemporary, fluid, eclectic, interactive, and varied. Does that sound like classical music, as we know it today?

The course also talks about classical music before it was classical.All the reading here is provocative, but for some quick hits, I compiled some  anecdotes – and excerpts from scholarly papers – showing how wild classical could be, before it got formal and serious. Then we deal with pop music (what’s its relationship with classical music?), with new music (why is it such a problem?), with how the standard repertoire might be performed, and finally with some plans to fix the crisis.

And here the mountain gives birth to what might seem like a tiny mouse. I ask my students to present some work they’ve played or sung (or written), talking about it in very personal terms, trying to interest people who don’t know anything about classical music. In a world where the audience is growing older (for the past 50 years!) and shrinking, and where the culture at large has moved in directions the classical music world can’t grasp, my assignment may seem like no more than a tiny step.

But it’s a seed from which many things can grow. As I told my Eastman class: The problem, overall, is that classical music – at least as we currently see it — doesn’t speak to contemporary culture. And yet here we have my students, and so many other young classical musicians, who inhabit both worlds. They’re in the classical music world, as young professionals, and they’re also in the mainstream world, sharing the same culture as their friends who don’t pay attention to classical music. (Nobody should underestimate how true this is. Many of my students follow pop music far more closely than I do, even some who, if you ask them point-blank, say classical music is more profound than pop. And I’ll never forget an Eastman student a couple of years ago, a conservative Christian who with wild delight explained why a song cycle she was singing reminded her of Sex in and the City.) [I’m a geek — misstated the name of the show!]

So if these students can, even in a small way, bridge the gap between themselves and the culture at large, they’ve done something potentially revolutionary. They’ve shown how anyone can do it – even how large orchestras and giant opera companies can do. And in the current climate, this means a lot. At a time of change, any innovation has extra force. People are looking for change; they’re expecting it; if they hear about something new, they may well get excited, and try that new thing themselves. Thus, even small individual changes can be multiplied, and the momentum for change keeps growing stronger.


Finally, some thoughts on professional music education, as I e-mailed them to the dean of a major music school.

What should schools do to prepare students for the contemporary world?

Students should be trained in entrepreneurship, or at least should have the opportunity to be trained. Classical musicians will, increasingly, be finding new career paths, and students should prepare themselves.

Music history needs to be rethought. Students now are taught (as I was [and I suspect many of my blog readers were] the history of music as if it was essentially the history of composition. That fits the standard emphasis on masterworks, and on the musician’s expected role as the servant of the composer. But this doesn’t entirely fit historical reality, and also doesn’t help prepare students for the contemporary world. I’d like much more emphasis on entrepreneurship in the past (it certainly existed), on the role of the audience, and on the role of performing musicians.

Students should be encouraged to find their own musical paths. In classical music, students typically learn the repertoire for their instrument. “I’m a clarinetist, so I’ll play the clarinet repertoire.” In other musical genres, a musician will far more likely say, “I play the clarinet. What music do I want to play on my clarinet?” Yo-Yo Ma is an outstanding example of a current classical music star who takes this not very classical approach. I’d like to see students take it, too, looking into their hearts to find out what kind of music is important to them, and then finding ways to make that music (or, more likely, all those many kinds of musics) part of their professional lives. (And of course I strongly believe that all students should compose. If that’s not going to be a requirement, it should at least be strongly encouraged.)

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  1. says

    Excellent! Finally, someone who says that classical music is wild and not so serious. Mozart’s music is not so dainty, and Beethoven’s pedaling was not so pure. Instruments were developing and composers made full use of them. Bach’s music is fresh and alive–I always tell my students, ‘Could you have so many children? Was this man passionate or what!’ In humility, in agreeing with you, one reviewer wrote last week that a performance I gave of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ had all the fervor of a world premiere. This may be attributed to my recent foray into new music, but never taking away from the wild side of the classical masterpieces. I am so glad you feel this way!

    As we get older, (I will be 47 this May), we take with us the society of our youth and the training we received in music history and everything else that comes with it. What we lived through, politically and sociologically, the music, the art, the media, the use of the language, is part of us. You are correct in that all of these elements existed before out times, and will do so after. This does affect the arts, the music, the teaching etc. Do piano teachers, for example, teach in the same way they did in the 1800s? Do pianists, for example, dedicate themselves to the production of sound the way they did in the 20th century? How did the pressures of society and the interpretations of the music at the time affect the way people listened and accepted performances? How was the popular music different in the 1910s and how did this affect the way people heard Debussy? One famous example is the ‘Lexicon of the Musical Invective’, which most people know. New music, even Beethoven’s, was hated. In teaching, when I play a chord from a Beethoven sonata–try the chord with a fermata in the opening of the ‘Tempest’ d minor–from the bottom: A-D-F-G sharp. I single out the A-G sharp seventh and play it atleast 8 times so that it sounds ugly. This makes the student hear it as though it were just written.

    I am in Florida at the moment with Richard Hayman–who will turn 88 years old. He arranged for the Boston Pops after Leroy Anderson, and is famous for his arrangements, and, although a harmonica player, fell into conducting just because he was asked to do so. His stories are pricelesss, about Liberace, Victor Borge, Arthur Fiedler etc. He lived through a time vastly different from those who are growing up today. There was no internet, no e-mail, no fax machines, no cell phones, no cordless phones, no call waiting, little television. The society and values he lived through, both good and bad, contributed to his way of life. (Nowadays, he likes to gold every day!) It is difficult for anyone today studying music to fully understand the world of the past composers. We live with museums, and it is easy to categorize things as being old, which sometimes takes away their energy and fresh vitality. It will always be a challenge to inspire new students of the world as it exists to immerse themselves in the world when these great works of art and music were created.

    Thanks, Jeffrey! Your Beeethoven example is worth its weight in gold. Obviously, this isn’t the only way to make old music new. But it’s one way, and an important one. We can ask what sounded really new about those pieces, when they were first written, and we can try to emphasize those things when we play them now. If it’s not done mechanically — if it’s done, just as you say — with passion — then it’ll make an impression.

    One other detail from the pianistic past. Pianists routinely improvised in recitals. In fact, they’d improvise a prelude to each piece they played. There are some recorded examples, from old-school pianists like Wilhelm Bachaus, who did this kind of “preluding” (as it was called) right up to the end of his life, in the 1960s.

  2. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Just a quick thought in response to a comment from one of your readers about the longevity factor with respect to pop music. Part of the problem with such attempts at pop prognostication, I think, is that when we try to imagine a possible future for today’s pop music (or any music) we are mostly thinking about what is possible or likely given the musical cultures that exist now. So, to take the example offered in the comment, Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World” seems unlikely to last 200 years, or even 50 years, if what we have in mind is some future band performing the song just as we know it in a musical style with which we are familiar. But music cultures, and the songs given life by them, are (fortunately) not static. Perhaps it is only classical music that attempts to make being static into a self-conscious virtue–even folk music fans recognize that songs and performance styles evolve.

    Take the case of Robert Johnson’s extraordinary impact on the 60s rock culture through the music of Dylan, the Stones, and a host of others. Could he have predicted the (specific) kind of influence his songs would have on the rock music of the 60s? I don’t think so. He had no crystal ball to show him how electricity and a turbulent social and political environment would come together with his own sounds and words to create something new and lasting. It is, I would argue, just as improbable that we could say with any certainty what will become of the songs of Neil Young or Nick Cave in a future pop world. If the “pop songs” of our time are going to have staying power, and of course it is always possible that they will not, it will have to be with respect to a musical culture that will be significantly unlike anything that exists currently. As it is impossible to say exactly what “pop music” will look like in 200 years (if that term has any meaning at all then), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict whose music will find a home in the musical culture of the future and whose will not. As for the lyrics being baffling to a future audience, this might actually work in the song’s favor. As I think you pointed out in one of your recent posts, the importance of the words in pop music is often overstated. And sometimes it is actually better if they make no sense at all.


    Jay, I quite honestly forgot to address Dennis’s point about recordings. Different strokes, I guess. I don’t see why, at this point, after so many years of recording, a notated piece that will be performed from notation has any greater status than a recorded piece, whose recording will be played over and over. There are classics of recording — I mean recorded pieces, like the Louis Armstrong records with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens — that have been around for 80 years. Seems to me they’ve proved themselves by now.

  3. Ries says

    An interesting example of a “pop” song, and how it becomes much more than one recorded performance- this article about the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

    Written in 1984, by a man who is now 73, this is hardly “youth” music.

    It has been covered by so many different performers that now, a mere 24 years later, its already considered to be a classic, the kind of song they used to call “traditional” in the credits on an album.

    There is no reason to believe that this song, transformed and interpreted a hundred different ways, will not still be played a hundred or two hundred years from now.


    The same is true for musicians like Bob Dylan- songs he wrote 50 years ago have become part of the traditional canon for musicians the world around- they are totally independent of his original recordings, or performances.

  4. says


    I couldn’t agree more with “Students should be encouraged to find their own musical paths.” What I’m not so sure about is your emphasis on entrepreneurship (not the notion that it’s important, but the notion that it can be taught effectively). Obviously, some schools (mostly conservatories, it seems) are already beginning to incorporate this into their curricula, notably Eastman, or so I’ve read. Nonetheless, were I to become a prospective student again, I would seek out the school which would allow me to most idealistically focus on musical concerns to the exclusion of “real world” distractions. Why go back to school at all, then?

    I think it’s incredibly foolish to think that further codifying and studying such “real world” concerns will accomplish anything towards helping students deal with them. It merely creates another gulf between theory and practice, a logistical one which students now will have to face concurrently with all the musical and technical ones they already have on their plates. You are certainly more experienced in these matters than I am, and hence better equipped to make pronouncements; but I am very skeptical of this approach. I had classmates who double majored in all sorts of things, including business; happy as I am for them, that was and is not my cup of tea, and at least to this point in time, I can’t say that this was a bad decision.

    If we allow music school to become merely about training a workforce, we will have succumbed to all of the worst traits of global capitalism, among other things (really, this is already the case at many schools; why go further?) Why not move in the opposite direction and strive to make postsecondary music (perhaps all arts?) education as idealistic and music/art-centric as possible? How about freeing up some elective credits for students to use at their discretion rather than watering down those courses and presenting them within the music department? “Music/art-centric” does not have to mean “narrowly focused.” I do think it should be (to use the word one more time) idealistic in the sense that we refuse to waste one second that could be spent studying, practicing, composing, etc. on contemplating how to make money. Come graduation, I believe that all of us musicians will face the same challenge, whether we’ve had business courses or not, although since I don’t know that for sure, I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who actually went the business direction.

    Stefan, this is a good perspective to put in the mix. My answer would be that the two approaches can be combined — that the business perspective allows you to do what your idealism aims you at. We often talk as if business and marketing has to be crass, that you start with what the market wants, and then adapt yourself to it. But it can also work the opposite way — decide what you want, and then find the market for it, aka the people who’ll go to your concerts, hear your music, and support you in whatever way they can.

    Students also have become entrepreneurs on their own — they tend to be ahead of the schools instituting these programs. They start their own ensembles, put their performances on YouTube, spend hours a week managing their online presence — all to find support for what their idealism aims them at.

    There are two relatively new realities at work here, finally. One is that there aren’t as many jobs as there used to be, or bookings, so classical musicians will have to promote themselves in ways they didn’t need before. And the other is that entrepreneurship is sweeping through arts and culture, high and popular, as people empower themselves to make careers in their own way. This is happening whether schools teach it or not. So the schools, in many ways, are joining a trend that’s already happening without them.

    Still, what you wrote is a good caution, and I’ll remember it as I draw up a proposal to help a school institute a new entrepreneurial program.