Last week I had a lovely time at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, TX, near Austin. I’d mentioned earlier that I was taking part in their annual Brown Symposium, and judging a composition contest that was part of it. 

And now it’s over. This was the 33d Brown Symposium, titled “Think — Converse — Act: The Salon and Its Histories.” Three days of concerts, lectures, and discussions, plus a gallery show. The lectures, three of them, were about the history of salons, fascinating stuff, delivered by expert academics. 

My role, apart from the composition contest, came in the discussions. There were three. The one I wasn’t part of was on art and technology. The two I was asked to join were, first, “Arts – Sciences – Religions: Conflict or Convergence?” and, second, “Ethics, the Arts, and Public Policy.” My title, in all this, was “conversant,” and I was dazzled by my fellow conversants, a mix of academics, professionals, and best of all, Southwestern students. 

In fact, if I had to name one highlight (for me, anyway) of what went on, it was student participation. Which speaks really well for Southwestern University, a liberal arts school I hadn’t known anything about until I visited. Many schools might organize high-level lectures and conversations. But how many would ask some of their students to take part on an equal basis — and how many would have students who clearly felt empowered to do that? 

Maybe I don’t get around enough in academia to know how common this might be. But I was impressed. 

The other highlight was the salon format of the three discussions. This was the brainchild of John Michael Cooper, professor of music and Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts at Southwestern, who planned and organized the whole thing. He came up with a discussion format that was meant to imitate — or evoke — a salon. Or maybe provoke one, by easing something salonlike into being. 

First, as he planned it, a group of us would sit on stage, at our ease in armchairs, conversing. This wasn’t the normal panel format we’ve seen a thousand times, where panelists make presentations, and then comment on what’s been said. We had no opening statements. We just conversed. 

After a bit, we were told to leave the stage, one by one, and take seats reserved for us in the audience. And then the audience was supposed to continue the conversation. Would this work? Nobody knew, least of all Michael (he goes by his middle name). But it did work. It worked spectacularly. It was as if by moving into the audience, we conversants seeded everyone with the spirit of conversation. Or empowered them. 

Whatever. Dozens of people in the audience jumped in to talk, including many, many students. I won’t deny that we conversants added further thoughts, from our seats in the middle of the crowd, But people from the audience mostly had the ball, and ran with it. 

The discussions were valuable. Good things were said. Bringing the audience in seemed to help the conversation. You might worry that this would diffuse the talk, but it didn’t. Instead it seemed to focus it. 

This was a triumph for Michael. He wanted to recreate the feeling of a serious salon, but a democratic one, one not dominated (as we might imagine historical salons were) by star thinkers and conversationalists. And he did exactly that. I wouldn’t have predicted it — my shortsightedness, maybe — but it really worked.


The winner of the composition contest was Agnieszka Stulginska, a Polish composer. We had entries from many countries. If you follow the link from Stulginska’s name, you’ll end up at her MySpace page, where you can hear her winning entry, the third movement of a piece she calls “lets meet.” Entries were supposed to embody the spirit of conversation, and this piece certainly did, with terrific spirit. 

I should mention my fellow judge, Jason Hoogerhyde, a composer on the Southwestern faculty. (His university page is here, his very fine personal webpage here.) He was a pleasure to work with, and when the Southwestern University Chorale premiered a piece of his, as part of the symposium, I loved hearing that he writes music with as fine an ear as he’d brought to judging and discussing it. Plus a really lovely sensibility, with emotions as precise as his compositional technique. 
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  1. says

    It was great to have you at Southwestern; thanks for writing about it. The best part about the salons and the luncheon with you was that they did prompt many more questions, even if we couldn’t answer them all.

    -(This is more a question for Southwestern, but it probably applies to others:) What is preventing some accredited universities, like Southwestern, from providing a music marketing class for their students? Or at least helping to facilitate development of practical, job-centric skills in some way? ( provides a nice alternative model for this.)

    -I got the sense that undergrad music/arts students can stand to be more engaged with public policy makers, but we tend to be at a loss as to how to do that, especially when we’re busy practicing, writing, student teaching, trying to have a life. Arts students (ok, all humanities students, probably) have the responsibility of proving to others why their work is important, and lots of people in the salons had great things to say about this. When we’re just saying these things to *each other* all the time, though, it feels a little pointless. At least we’re rehearsing our arguments.

  2. Megan Browne Helm says

    It’s so nice to read about triumphs. Southwestern sounds like a wonderful place. I’m going to have to check it their website. So many discussions seem to be “curated” by experts who lead questions. I think it’s a phenomenon bred from fear of losing focus. I believe any group of individuals interested enough in attending a live symposium or institute would relish the opportunity to get “off of the chain” and let their ideas run rampant. I’m glad Southwestern has discovered a way to do that, although, I still think feeling comfortable expressing ones self is easier when the facilitators have established a culture of tolerance, understanding and respect. It has been my experience that If even one facilitator stands in judgment over the rest, the magic is gone and the group clams up.

  3. says

    Hi Greg:

    This sounds great but I’m having trouble understanding the logistics of the conversation. Were you miked? How many “conversants” in armchairs to start? Did you agree on who would begin? What prevented more than one conversation happening at a time?



  4. a curious reader says

    Sounds like a great time! Brooke, it’s a good question as to why more universities are not jumping on this ship faster. My school is adding it’s first music business class, which is a good start, but I dont think that if we had a few particular people on staff, it wouldnt happen. This is also a reason I switched my major to a BA, I wanted the flexibility to take some serious marketing classes and possibly minor in it.

    Kudos to Southwestern for beginning something like this, hope to continue to see more institutions jump on!

  5. says

    First of all, a sincere thank-you to Greg, whose kind words are much appreciated. Southwestern was able to do this in part because of its excellent student body and partly because we had hosted a series of “run-up” public salons testing out this choreography and this sort of casting during the previous month; those salons all involved a mix of senior and junior conversants representing a wide range of fields and interests, and all centered on topics that are, to some degree or another, relevant to what’s going on now: the first interrogated the question of “What Are Salons Good For?”; the second, Identities of Faith (exploring the roles, relevancies, and problems of spirituality in individual self-definition in today’s world); the third (sponsored by the SU chapter of Amnesty International), drug policy and drug problems in the U.S. today. Most of all, though, SU was able to do pull off the Symposium as well as it did because all of our (advertised) conversants were eager for the reciprocal and egalitarian exchange of ideas, not just discussion, debate, or talk (all of which connote some measure of self-absorbedness and/or adversariality). Anyone reading this can probably guess that Greg was among the most gracious and unflaggingly engaged and imaginative of those voices.

    Brooke, the main reason why SU doesn’t offer a music marketing class is probably much the same as that as at most places. There are only so many credit hours available within any given degree, and music degrees are notoriously overcrowded, so much so that music majors usually have to commit to an extra year or more (at prices that, in this vexingly jobless economy that slings money at pavement and sports but scoffs at degrees, are often prohibitive for parents). Moreover, our accrediting educational agency — the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) — does not require or acknowledge music-marketing classes. Finally, most full-time / tenure-track faculty members are already wearing two or more hats. I’m unusual in that I teach only Music Literature, but then I hold an endowed chair and I do, after all, have to teach all music history from antiquity through last week — not that I’d change that if I could. To fit a music-marketing class into the existing curriculum would require us — and the students — to sacrifice either one of their already-sparse electives (such as your historiography course) or some other course that is required and acknowledged by NASM: ensemble, applied lessons, music history, music theory, or world music. As a practical matter it would probably require a new faculty line — something that under current circumstances is discouragingly difficult or impossible.

    Greg could probably tell us: isn’t it true that there was a spurt of “practical” music degrees dealing with subjects such as music criticism, the business of music, etc., some years ago? I seem to recall that there was, but now they are few and far between.

    All this is of course potential fodder for another moderated public conversation. I hope it can and will happen!

    Best wishes,

    Michael Cooper

    Professor of Music and Margarett Root Brown Chair in Fine Arts

    Southwestern University

    Georgetown, Texas

    Hi, Michael!

    Very complex things you’re raising here. At bottom, I think, lies the question of what’s needed now in classical music education, for professionals. Which do they need more — musical skills, or business skills? Or both! If the answer is both, then clearly something has to give on the musical side, which isn’t an easy decision to make. On two levels: It’s not easy to decide that something in traditional musical training has to go, and then it’s not easy to decide what that should be.

    I think this is why schools that create entrepreneurship programs for classical musicians do it outside the required curriculum. Eastman, Manhattan, and NEC have done that. The training is available for students who want it, but it’s not required. Except in the case of NEC, if I’m not mistaken, where I think they’ve always required a music business course, and now have rejiggered it to focus on entrepreneurship.

    All this said, if we really thought business skills were crucially important, we’d make room for them. I fear, Michael, that one way to do that might be to require less of your own valued specialty, music history and literature. Or of course something else. I was once on a panel with members of eighth blackbird when this very question came up. One of them 8bb people, who of course are superb musicians, said he thought species counterpoint didn’t need to be taught. He was thinking of things in his own music education that he didn’t feel he needed.

    Finally, here’s a thought, Michael. Music history is normally taught as the history of composition. But what if we added a lot about how the music business worked in the past? That’s quite an interesting study. Composers, for instance, were far more entrepreneurial in past centuries than most students think! So this might be one way to introduce business thinking even into the standard music curriculum.

  6. says

    “Music history is normally taught as the history of composition. But what if we added a lot about how the music business worked in the past? That’s quite an interesting study. Composers, for instance, were far more entrepreneurial in past centuries than most students think! So this might be one way to introduce business thinking even into the standard music curriculum.”

    I’m just imagining trying to convince the majority of music history professors I’ve known about making this sort of switch. Of course the thing to do is to start a conversation about it, and you never know when something will take hold. Even on the undergraduate level, many music history teachers are far removed from having to recruit, retain, or help develop the careers of performance and music education majors, and seem to be resentful that there’s not more class time to spend on the evolution of early notation. The academic focus on works is prized over the more sociological focus on performances, performance life, etc. Different styles of organum–that’s what’s important!

    And certainly it’s a good introduction to academic rigor. But very rarely is there interest in creating a classroom experience that is genuinely engaging (so lots of PowerPoint lectures with facts to memorize, let alone one that makes history relevant to what students are doing today and will do in their careers.

    So what you’ve been doing, Greg, to connect the history of performing to the possible future(s) of performing is very important. It’s great when places like Juilliard (your school) and DePauw (mine) give us the opportunity to teach elective courses.

    Thanks, Eric!

    The kind of music history course I envision would be about more than entrepreneurship. It would teach the true history of classical music — what audiences were like, what performances were like, how the music world really functioned. This is what we get in a good biography of any of the great composers, and it can be intensely interesting. The course would be far more arresting than music history as it’s presently taught.

    For instance: We’d learn that Brahms made a lot of money, but not from his symphonies or chamber works. He made it from his shorter piano pieces, which sold We’d learn that Brahms, in his days as director of an important performing group in Vienna, rarely played new music, his own or anybody else’s.

    We’d learn that Liszt toured Britain in the early 1840s with a popular singer and composer of comic ballads as his partner. And he played mostly lighter pieces, because that’s all the audience would accept.

    We’d learn that few composers in Vienna, in Beethoven’s time, wrote piano sonatas. Most piano pieces that were published were evocations of big events like battles.

    We’d learn that parts of the second act finale of Don Giovanni were improvised at the opera’s premiere.

    And so on.