What’s wrong with music schools (2)

faun 13 blogIn my last post — the first in this series — I said that music schools aren’t creative enough. Now I want to talk about how we can fix that.

I should say here that I’d love to run a music school, or otherwise be in a position to put my ideas into practice.

The first principle is simple enough, but very important. We can’t turn the school upside down. There’s an established structure, inhabited by people with a stake in how the school operates: students, their parents, faculty, alumni, donors. We can’t tell everyone to start thinking differently, to start doing things differently. Some may not want to. We have to be sensitive to that, and as far as possible avoid confrontations. 

And the school has to keep on doing what it already does. We still have to teach students how to play the bassoon. If we don’t keep doing that, we won’t have a school. Which means we won’t have any chance to encourage creativity. 

So it’s not a good idea, I’d think, to rush around trying to infuse creativity into every corner of the school’s curriculum. Better to do what’s typically done when schools want to foster entrepreneurship. They create a separate program, maybe an entrepreneurship center inside the school, and let it operate largely or completely outside the curriculum, the idea being that those who want what it offers will come to it, and that over time it will demonstrate its value.

Which of course means that the entrepreneurship program on its own has to do notable, maybe even dramatic things to show the value of what it teaches. And the top administrators of the school have to support it. I’ll say more about that in posts I’ll write about entrepreneurship. 

Creativity, though, would be (or so I think) supported differently. A school could create a creativity center, or appoint a creativity director, but I’m skeptical of these things. I worked once with a major foundation, which over many years tried to encourage orchestras to do new things. The program had some success, but the buzxword “innovation” — which permeated everything that happened — soon began to annoy me. The more people talk about innovation, I decided, the less they actually innovate.

Innovative people don’t call meetings to discuss how to be more innovative. Instead — such a radical thought — they innovate! Innovative people say, “Oh my God, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s make it a reality.” Or else, “We have a problem that’s not being solved. Let’s find a new approach.” Innovation, in other words, is about specific things.

And so is creativity. So I don’t want a creativity center at a music school I might be involved with. I want the school to be creative.

So how do we do that? Well, in my last post, I said I’d asked some students how they’d feel if a school gave a prize each year, for the most imaginative performance of a standard repertoire piece. So a school could do that! But I’d be cautious. This, I’m thinking, wouldn’t be the first thing any school should do.  Some people might not understand a prize like this. Others might oppose it. Others might hate the winning performance, and thus damn the whole idea of the prize, not yet realizing (and I wouldn’t blame them for this) that when you encourage creativity, of course you don’t like all the results. If some people didn’t hate the winning performance, how original would it be?

And who would be the judges? People at the school, who might then become a pro-creativity faction in disputes (you really wouldn’t want this) that might shake the institution? And be viewed as the president’s/dean’s/director’s pets? Or would they be outsiders, who maybe some people at the school wouldn’t respect precisely because of their own creative performances?

The prize, I suspect, would come a year or two or three down the road — assuming that in practice it ever seemed like a good idea — once creativity at the school had been established.

So what else could we do? I’ve got a long list of possibilities. Which doesn’t mean I think they all should be tried, or, if we did some of them, in what order they’d be done. So much depends on the school, on the people there, what they’re good at doing, what they’re comfortable with. So I’m offering these things only as possibilities. Doing them all at once — as I hope there isn’t any need to say — might create chaos, and would be a big mistake.


The president/dean/director of the school — the person in charge — can offer creative ideas. For an example of the head of a school doing that, look at Tony Woodcock, the president of the New England Conservatory, who does it on his often daring blog. And, I’m sure, in other ways. When I visited there two years ago, he and his wife showed up at a multi-genre performance using many areas in a performing space, produced by a student with a grant from the schools Entrepreneurial Musicianship program.

A school could encourage students to talk about new ways of doing things. Because creativity doesn’t only involve individual, creative ways of playing music. It’s also about new ways of thinking. And, with classical music in a ferment these days, why wouldn’t the school want that talked about? There can be guest speakers. (And don’t just let them hold forth as individuals. Put them on stage with students, to get discussion going.) There can be forums, even conferences. (With all sides — all the varied views, for instance, that we see in comments on this blog — represented.)

The school could create a blog that students would write, or play a part in writing. As has been done at Carnegie-Mellon University, where there’s an online journal called The Muse Dialogue, largely written by students. It deals with all the arts, but recently, as I’ve been told, there’s a

series composed by musicians in the graduate program of the School of Music in CMU’s College of Fine Arts. In it, these musicians (two flutes, one trumpet, one percussionist) are all talking about the uncertain nature of their futures because of the uncertain nature of classical music itself.

(I’m quoting Andrew Swensen, editor of the journal, and an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, an interdisciplinary graduate school that’s involved with technology and public policy. Thanks, Andrew, for telling me about this!) [Added later] A school-sponsored discussion like this might be one of the early steps to take. It starts changing the atmosphere without creating too much disturbance.

(And, a thought in passing: I’ll cite several examples of things that already have been done. Which, inevitably, are the ones I happen to know about. I’m sure there are many other ways — striking ones that I don’t know about — in which creativity has been encouraged at music schools. Please tell me about them! And apologies if I don’t mention something well known to everyone except me.)

Other thoughts. We could change the ambience of the school, in small ways, at first, but then maybe gaining speed. We could put artwork in the halls. Have artists in residence, who mostly wouldn’t be musicians — poets, painters, playwrights, actors, film directors, fashion designers, dancers,  choreographers. Creative businesspeople. Ideally they’d do more than hang around. We — slowly at first — could find ways for them to enhance the teaching at the school. A string quartet coached by a film director, or a choreographer? Not so crazy. Are they really doing enough (for example) to bring out the music’s narrative? An outside ear might catch that sooner than a musician might.

At Guildhall, in London, music students work with actors and directors from the school’s drama division, to sharpen their onstage presence when they play. (Or at least that was true when I visited Guildhall two years ago.)

If the school has an entrepreneurship program — and it should — creativity is linked to that. I’ll write more about that in future posts. But entrepreneurship at music schools, though it seems to be (and is often advertised) as being only about business, in fact opens a door to creativity. If students are encouraged to make careers in new ways, it’s only a short step from that to making music in new ways.

And then schools can sponsor creative performances, both by outsiders, and by students and faculty. Juilliard did this, in the fall, at the convocation that kicks off each new academic year. The entire focus of the convocation was entrepreneurship, and two highly original student-produced projects were presented, one in music, the other in drama. [Added later] Sponsoring performances might be one of the first things a school might do, to encourage creativity. As long as you don’t make grand claims about what you’re doing — “This is the wave of the future, and you’d all better be like this!” — I’d guess that you’ll start changing the atmosphere without upsetting too many people. Though you have to keep doing it! I’d love to see Juilliard follow the convocation with more signs that the administration favors creativity.

NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship program sponsors one student performance each year. Last year it was “Mahler Remixed,” part of a schoolwide Mahler festival, which, in the hands of Entrepreneurial Musicianship, involved DJs remixing Mahler records while a sitar player improvised on Mahler themes. This year, students went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, picked artworks, and then picked or composed music to go with each art piece. And then performed the music in front of the art. Students conceive, produce, and play these programs. Do enough of this, and what Juilliard did, and students with creative ideas will strongly feel encouraged. (Faculty, too.)

Beyond that, of course, a school should , in at least some modest way, publicize independent student — and faculty — projects, even if those aren’t in classical music. To give a dramatic example: A few years ago, one of the principal trumpet players in the Met Opera orchestra, who taught trumpet at Juilliard, quit his Met job to focus fulltime on a band he’d started. Wouldn’t this be worth talking about at Juilliard? If the player was willing, the school might have put together an informal forum, at which students could talk about this striking career move with the man who made it.

When I taught at Eastman, one of my students formed a crossover cello ensemble, which was being courted by major record labels. That’s worth talking about. One of my Juilliard students emailed a few years ago, to tell me she’d be playing with the very hot band Vampire Weekend on Saturday Night Live. That was huge for her. I watched her on the show, and she was grinning from ear to ear. Worth celebrating!

Two of my Juilliard students, years ago, started a company to provide classical instruments (and their players, and, if needed, music for them to play) at hiphop recording sessions. More recently, their was briefly a Juilliard Rock Club (I was faculty advisor), for music students who had rock bands, and, as it turned out, drama students who were singer-songwriters. The club dissolved when its founder graduated, but, like the hiphop company, it was worth talking about at the school.

And, finally, I knew a student at one major school whose band got reasonably far on America’s Got Talent. Instead of being helped and encouraged by his school, he was discouraged, in ways both intangible and tangible (he had trouble getting time off to be on the show). I think a school should encourage this. And if anyone thinks it’s low-rent, not worthy of a classical music institution, let’s remember that creativity has to be an open door. You can’t open it, then shut it abruptly on someone’s nose, saying, “Oh, but I didn’t mean that!” 

A school could encourage new ways to write artists’ bios, press releases, and program notes. The existing ways, God knows, are bad enough, ranging from dull and academic (too many program notes) to unreadable, not saying one thing a red-blooded human being would want to know (bios and press releases). Let students — and faculty — find new ways to write these things!

One great idea from Ben Verdery, guitarist and faculty member at the Yale School of Music. He told me, a few years ago, that he asked guitarists auditioning for the school to play a new piece, specially written for the audition — which didn’t have any expressive markings at all, no tempo marking, no dynamics, no phrasing, nothing but the notes. The people auditioning had to make music out of it, which let Ben see pretty quickly, he said, who had musical imagination, as opposed to people who merely played, however beautifully, pieces for which they’d had extensive guidance.

Similarly, Bruce Brubaker, head of the piano department at NEC, told me he’d sometimes ask students to learn, all on their own, obscure 19th century pieces, pieces whose style would be familiar, but which the students wouldn’t find on recordings. So they’d have to make their way through the music by themselves.

And, at the National Orchestral Institute, a summer program for young orchestral musicians at the University of Maryland, students are given complex contemporary pieces to play (including, one recent year, the John Adams Chamber Symphony), and have to learn and perform them with no conductor, no coaches, and with a rule forbidding them to listen to recordings. Forcing an entire ensemble of students to figure out music on their own.

Or you could — not in the first year all this was happening, but some years after — encourage students auditioning for the school to improvise at their auditions and their juries, or play a piece they’d written, or maybe play an arrangement they’d made of some music they like. As is done at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada (where the entire piano curriculum is designed to foster creativity, and seems to produce amazing results).

But again, that’s the advanced course, something you could only do if, let’s say, all the piano faculty, or all the oboe faculty, bought into it. So that a student, improvising at a trombone audition, wouldn’t offend as many teachers as she impressed.

And then, finally, there are new roads the school itself could travel on. It’s a small thing, maybe, but Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership started a profit-making business, creating a for-pay online course in music theory, which turns out to be saleable to New York State high schools, and to students (especially from outside the US) who want to brush up on theory before they start at Eastman. [Added later.] One reason, I was told, that they did this was to set an example. If they were going to encourage entrepreneurship, why not be entrepreneurial themselves? And in quite a creative way, as it turned out, because the theory course reached more people than they’d thought it would.

And, of course, there’s so much that happens with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. The concert dress, informal black with color accents the students add in their own unique ways (or don’t add, if they don’t feel like it, which makes the look of the orchestra onstage even more wonderfully unpredictable). The displays in the lobby, during concerts, featuring students writing about the pieces they’re playing, or (complete with baby pictures) about how they first fell in love with music. The entrepreneurial work to get a new audience, done by orchestra members who organized campaigns in the dorms they lived in.

And then — one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen done in music, by students or professionals — the performance of Afternoon of the Faun, which the students played (so beautifully) from memory, and danced (so compellingly) while they played. Follow the link to see a video, though you may well have seen it already, because it circulates widely, as it deserves to. (The photo at the start of this post comes from that performance.) 

This wasn’t a school initiative, strictly speaking, but — along with everything else I mentioned that the orchestra has done — comes from James Ross, who teaches conducting at the school, and conducts the orchestra. (Well, I had a hand, indirectly, in the dorm organizing, which was led by John Devlin, a DMA student in conducting.)

But the school didn’t stand in Jim’s way. And by allowing him to be himself, they put themselves in the forefront of creativity, not just at music schools, but for all of classical music.

As I said, just some ideas. Not to be done all at once, and some of them, no doubt, never to be done at all. While there are many, many other paths to follow that I’ve never thought of, or heard about. Everyone should find their own ways to do this. The lesson of Afternoon of a Faun, after all, isn’t that every music school orchestra should play from memory and dance a piece. It’s that, once you free yourself to follow your imagination, there’s no limit to what you can do.


[Added later]

Peter Witte made this short, incisive comment to my previous post, about the lack of creativity at music schools:


Come to Kansas City’s Conservatory at UMKC.

We celebrate choices, imagination, and artistic initiative.




And he should know. He’s the dean there. The videos he links are marvelous. Please watch them! They show just the spirit he’s talking about.

I went to the school’s website, and found marvelous things. Only words, if you like, but they breathe such an air of (just as Peter says) choices, imagination, and artistic initiative. And putting words like these out for all the world to see — including your students and faculty — is an important step in changing the atmosphere in your school.

Look at this, for instance:

The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance is internationally recognized as a center for artistic excellence, innovation and engagement with our communities.

In rehearsals, in class and on stage, our students interact with an exceptionally gifted faculty and with leading visiting artists in ways that are supportive, yet rigorous. Our faculty and students recognize that arts careers in the 21st century will blend new works with master pieces; unite performance, engagement and education; and above all will pulse with a sense of adventure and creativity.

And here are some quotes that keep appearing on the pages of the site, changing each time you go to a new page:

“I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson.” (John Cage)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” (Einstein)

“One must approach music with a serious rigor, and, at the same time, with a great, affectionate joy.” (Nadia Boulanger)

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” (Picasso)

“At least one day out of the year, all musicians should just put their instruments down and give thanks to Duke Ellington.” (Miles Davis)

I’d love to be in a place that put thoughts like these on its flag.

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  1. ariel says

    Part one seemed to hold some hope and interest, part two only dismay .
    Seems nothing changes ..the thought that comes to mind is self indulgence and public relations gambit as one views the UMCK youtu. I remember the dreadful three tenors always
    commenting on how their awful concerts would get thousands to “cross over ” and attend
    the “real ” concerts , never happened .Once one reads preserving “established structure ” you
    know all is lost .

  2. says


    Many thanks for this piece, for pressing the conversation, and for sharing some of the innovative things that are happening out there. The question is a difficult one both because of the organizational history (sometimes inertia) and because of the rate at which change can be incorporated into any institution, music school or otherwise. Yet your core notion is eminently manageable: innovate. Innovation can happen in a performance class, in recital requirements, in new courses added to the curriculum. In our age, it can also occur in media generation and delivery. There is one significant management principle that must also be honored in any institution if it wants to have the will to innovate. Namely, it must grant its innovators (students, faculty, administrators) the latitude to experiment and, frankly, the freedom to fail. When you step into terra incognita, stumbling is inevitable. Yet stumbling is itself part of the process of discovery and part of the journey to innovation that endures.

    Keep up the good work.

    Andrew Swensen

  3. Mark Francis says

    Though there is a lack of genuine creativity, before any of those problems can be addressed we need to face the toxic lack of ethics that pervades this profession, the “good old boy (or girl) system, the stirring of students into degrees where there are no jobs (and the students often lack any real talent) and do so to justify unjustifiable programs. These are the things that are destroying what we all claim to love. This is the underlying problem no one will talk about. I recently had a major figure in the orhestra world suggest I leave the business, not because I was unqualified, but because of how things are falling apart. Ben Phelps’ recent satirical blog about how to make it as a composer rings only too true. The ways musicians conduct themselves would make lawyers blush.

    • says

      This isn’t new, though. Any profession, any area of life has toxic elements. Are music schools and the wider classical music business worse than politics, or college sports? I think we need perspective here, so we carefully judge how bad things really are. And whether good happens despite the problems. Orchestras are a special case, since what’s falling apart isn’t the ethical basis of the enterprise, but its financial viability. Which then leads to upsets of all kinds, when it becomes clear that the kind of jobs orchestral musicians expected to have just won’t be there, and too many people fall into the old human practice of finding scapegoats to blame.

  4. ariel says

    It’s not that the music schools are not very creative as Mr. Sandow correctly observes , but
    there does not exist a large enough paying audience for whatever the schools may send out to the world.
    ” Innovation” for the most part is dressing the corpse in contemporary attitudes and
    pretending it is alive . The music sensibilities of the 17th and 18th and even the 20 th . century are
    not the sensibilities of 2013 . You have a “classical” loving music audience that claims
    to be open to new musical ideas and so they are as long as it all sounds much like the old. The
    works played in most concert halls today are mostly museum pieces ,and all the games played
    to find an audience ends up as the attached youtu . It is an age in which the visual dominates.

  5. richard says

    As if the more commercial popular music doesn’t all sound familiar. For example,what is Country-Western but old rock-n-roll.

  6. Campbell Vertesi says

    I love this series, but I’m skeptical of academia as a useful seat for creativity. Universities and Conservatories are insular by their very nature, and like any human institution, build creativity only in the direction that is already supported by their value system. In other words: ask a university to get more innovative and creative, and they will only innovate along the lines that are acceptable to their paradigm. You’ll see more recent compositions, but not the kind of compositions that audiences like. Rather, you’ll see the ACADEMIC modern compositions. The ones that are a delight to dissect, as long as you don’t have to hear them. The ones that don’t care about audience engagement or acceptance, but which are published like research papers for academic consumption only.

    A great example is the Manhattan School of Music, which has made a concerted effort to push boundaries in their opera program. Talk to their voice majors, and you discover what they’ve really been pushing: everyone there is an expert in “modern” music from 50 years ago, the stuff that’s now academic mainstream… but which was never interested in audience engagement. They’ve all performed a ton of Babbit, but no Menotti. Lots of Cage, but no Floyd.

    This vein of “creativity” is not really what we’re hoping for in this article. It’s not pushing any boundaries anymore, it’s not helping engagement with an audience. It’s “creative” only along the lines that academia already supports. At the same time it’s not doing the students any favors: kids at Indiana University come out with a resume and experience of most of the “top 10″ performed operas in America. Kids at MSM come out with a resume of works that no one recognizes, a resume that has no bearing on anything actually performed outside of academia.

    It isn’t that this music is without value. It’s that it’s values aren’t those that we are hoping for in this article, such as audience engagement, individual artistry, emotional honesty, or at least professionally useful experience.

    In a nutshell: the problem with academia is that it has its own value system, and it will only build programs to support that value system. That’s how human paradigms work, and it’s a problem across all the academic disciplines: just ask Thomas Kuhn about promoting creative new directions in the sciences.

    Academic institutions are great for teaching orthodoxy. They’re great for teaching standard approaches to problems where normal solutions are helpful. They can be really useful to give young musicians a toolkit for approaching musical issues and situations. But if you really want to see young musicians branch out in new ways that delight and engage audiences, academic institutions are a poor way to handle it.

    We might take some inspiration from the training of those great singers of the past whom you reference in your talks. Sometimes they attended small academies, but the majority of training was individual, intensive work with private voice teachers and small studios. The variation between studios proved a hotbed of interpretative and technical diversity. Arturo Melocchi was a controversial teacher whose studio built a very different kind of artist than those of Sam Margolis. Of course we can talk about technique all day, but fundamentally the artistic style of a Del Monaco or Corelli contrasts sharply with that of a Merrill or Hines… and that difference came about because they were distinct, small groups that could have separate paradigms of singing.

    We might also look at the other factors that allowed such a flowering of individual artistry in music. Were conductors freer to take interpretative risks? Were audiences more demanding? There are other, better ways to approach this problem than to try and adapt the wrong tool to solve a problem it helped create.

    • says

      There’s a lot of truth in what you say, but on the other hand I don’t think things are as monolithic as you say. Consider the Manhattan School, for instance. Yes, its opera department — like other academic opera departments, and in fact like most professional opera companies in the US — has a very cautious view of what new music is. But on the other hand, the school has Todd Reynolds on its composition faculty, and the Yale School of Music has David Lang. These examples could be multiplied. So you have composers who aren’t remotely academic teaching at major institutions. A few years ago, I was at a private conference about orchestras at Princeton, and someone described the Princeton composition department as basically an artists’ retreat, where students wrote quartets for electric guitars. I didn’t try to verify that, and haven’t checked in more recently to see what’s going on, but the mere fact that an insider would say this to me, in a very relaxed, matter of fact way, shows that the idea was quite acceptable to him.

      I think these institutions in fact are highly varied. Many things go on inside them. At the U of Maryland music school, students danced a performance of Afternoon of a Faun, while playing it from memory. This isn’t likely to happen at Juilliard, but it did happen in Maryland. At New England Conservatory, students produced a concert as part of a schoolwide Mahler festival, in which DJs recombined passages from Mahler recordings while a sitar player improvised on Mahler themes. This was done with official school sponsorship.

      So I wouldn’t condemn these institutions entirely. They vary, from one to another, and from one part of an institution to another. A lot of good things are happening.

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