More things conservatories need

Here are some final thoughts on what music schools need.

Well, final for now. This is a big subject, and readers — thanks so much for your support for my ideas! — are warmly invited to comment with thoughts of their own.

Briefly…I’m saddened by the silos music schools build.

And a parenthesis here: I realize I wasn’t clear to readers outside the US, when I’ve talked about “music schools.” It wasn’t clear to them that I was talking about conservatories, about professional classical music education. So I should have said “conservatories,” early and often, to make my meaning clear. A matter of terminology, nothing more, but an important one.

silos blogThe silos: Instrumentalists here, singers there, composers somewhere else. And the instrumentalists divided from each other.  How much do violinists know about people who play the bassoon?

And of course there are other categories beyond those I’ve mentioned. Conductors, for instance. Music education students. Many schools teach jazz, and pop music.

These divisions can be gaping gaps. I’ve had a sprinkling of jazz students in one of my Juilliard courses, and this semester I have a drama student auditing my course on the future of classical music. But I’m not aware that Juilliard classical and Juilliard jazz students communicate much, and I don’t think there’s much contact between the dance and drama and music divisions.

This is such a missed opportunity — a missed educational opportunity, a missed chance for students to develop as artists, and as human beings. And, simply, as people who really understand the business they’re in.

Case in point. Instrumentalists who take my Juilliard courses have told me sometimes how much they hate playing in the orchestra for the school’s opera productions. Sometimes they make disparaging remarks about singers, saying that the singers are terrible musicians. Or they complain about having to sit doing nothing, while staging details get worked out.

One year, Julius Rudel was conducting an opera production, and Frank Corsaro was directing it. To anyone who knows opera, these are legendary names, two of the people (surely the two main people) who, as conductor and stage director, made the New York City Opera the most exciting US opera company during the 1960s and 1970s.

But my students knew nothing about that. All they knew was that rehearsals stopped while Frank and Rudel argued with each other. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during those arguments! That’s what someone who knew opera would say. But nobody told the students in the orchestra that they were witnesses to history. Or, anyway, to an echo of important history.

As I said, it’s a missed opportunity. As is the larger question of instrumental students learning what opera’s about, what singers do, how an opera is put together. If schools deeply believed in education, in its widest sense, and thought these things through, they wouldn’t miss this chance.

I don’t mean to single this one issue out, or to blame the instrumental students for not knowing why opera is the way it is. I’m just using this as one example — a very telling one, I think — of what schools might teach, but don’t. (If any school does work on this, please let me know!)


And one more thought. Music school — conservatory — publicity. With apologies to music school publicists I know (I’m very fond of some of them), I think conservatory PR is very weak. Mostly it’s about faculty appointments, and performances the schools give. From my email archive:



Of course these things are fine, as is everything else mentioned in the press releases I get from conservatories. But how many people in the outside world really care? We already know that Juilliard and Thornton are distinguished schools, so of course distinguished things happen there.

But do these releases create interest in the schools, let alone excitement about them? Do they give any picture of what the schools are really like? Of course not, except among a very small group of people.

What would generate a wider buzz? PR about people, PR with real human content, PR that talks about things people at the school are doing, things that happen in classes and lessons, intriguing extracurricular projects, by both students and faculty.

Many of the graduate students I teach have fully developed musical lives — concerts, concert tours, teaching, much more. In class yesterday, we were talking about Catherine Shefski’s stimulating ebook, Go Play, about creative, completely out of the box ways to teach piano to kids. Two of the students were already doing some of the things Cathy talks about, in their own teaching — encouraging kids to say what music they themselves like, and to find ways to play it.

Another student talked about how his own piano teacher had done that with him when he was a kid, and had gotten him hooked on classical music, which he’d never cared about before. His present teacher, he said (he plays an orchestral instrument), encourages and stimulates interest in a wide range of music, not all of it classical.

Why shouldn’t Juilliard’s PR talk about — celebrate — things like these? A wider world would care a lot, I’d think.

Or how about this? My colleague Bärli Nugent, in her course on career development, pulls a surprise on her students. She gets them talking about places where they might give concerts, unusual places, not standard concert venues — and then sends them out into the Juilliard neighborhood, telling them to return a little more than an hour later, with a concert newly booked! The students sometimes wail with dismay, Bärli says, when they’re asked to do this. But every one of them books a concert.

Why shouldn’t Juilliard’s PR talk about that? Well, I can think of a reason. Maybe we don’t want too many students to know in advance that they’ll have to go out in the world and book a concert in an hour. Maybe that spoils the surprise, weakens the teaching moment.

Or maybe not. But of course there are other things that happen in Juilliard courses (and of couse at other schools) that are just as striking. Like, for instance, what i understand happens in required music history courses. Students go online, to sites the faculty picks out, and on their own learn the facts of classical music history. In class, instead of being taught these things all over again, they dramatize and debate what they’ve learned.

Surely that’s worth telling the world about. Every school is full of stories, often heartening, encouraging, stimulating stories, despite what I said in my earlier post about how conservatories discourage creativity. These schools aren’t monolithic, and lots of good things go on. Why not tell the world about them? Maybe not immediately, but soon enough, you might have mainstream media coverage that you’d never seen before (with, I’d guess, a very heartening effect on people who give money to the school).

And you’d be doing something to encourage creativity, by telling the world about the creative things that — maybe in the cracks between the more official doings of the school — are going on.


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  1. Laura Kennelly says

    “Why not tell the world about them?”
    OK, I’m telling, at least part of the world, what our amazing students did a couple of weeks ago at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music. In addition, and in good-natured response to our annual Bach Festival (81 years now, oldest collegiate Bach Festival in the USA), for the past three years, they have been staging a very well-done & quite popular Beatles Festival modeled along the same lines as the Bach event. Here’s a link to the latest Festival. or (better) a link to their Facebook page at

    The festival is completely student-run, publicity and all. The show involves instrumentalists as well as vocalists (it doesn’t hurt that our Musical Theatre program here is so good).It’s been extremely popular with the local community (all the Boomers plus their kids) and with the students.

    • says

      Very good to know about! And bravo for the students. I’d recommend that readers follow the link, and watch the video. Students and faculty do “Penny Lane,” with such joy. Such a tribute to the song itself, and to how much so many people love it. Bravo to everyone involved.