Please note — what you’re reading now is a revised version of this post. The earlier version had a shorter description of what goes on at the Lawrence Conservatory, instead of the longer one that’s here now. My bad. The post always should have had the longer one.)
To follow my blog post last week about the start of my Juilliard course on how to speak and write about music…
Conservatory education has been changing. Not everywhere, but in many places. New ideas, new thoughts about what education for classical musicians should be.
What you’re going to read here comes from Brian Pertl, a deep soul who’s the extraordinary dean of the Lawrence Conservatory, at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. What he does at his school is off the charts, in wonderful ways. I’ve visited there, and seen some of it for myself.
But first, where we’re coming from. What conservatories traditionally do, of course, is to teach classical music. You take lessons on your instrument (or voice lessons, or composition lessons), and move from there into the standard classical repertoire. Composers naturally do their own thing, but performing musicians learn the repertoire for their instrument or voice type, along with (as appropriate) the chamber music repertoire, the orchestral repertoire, operas, lieder, whatever. What you learn is tied to what you do. If you’re a clarinetist, you learn clarinet music.
But emerging in the last decade…
…have been wider idea. Now students might learn entrepreneurship, so they can go out and make their own careers. Often also they’re taught to go out into the wider community, and use their music for community service.
But then beyond that there’s an emerging idea that — instead of focusing on what’s traditionally been done — students should be encouraged to do what they want to do in music. Which might well go beyond the repertoire for their instrument, and could easily involve music that’s not classical.
Students, in other words, are mentored to be creative, to do things (if they like) that may never have been done before.
Enter Lawrence. Here’s what Brian wrote for me, about what they do there. (The earlier version came from emails he sent before my visit; this new text was specially written for my blog. Thanks, Brian!)
An important thing to know about the Lawrence Conservatory of Music is that it is an all-undergraduate institution sitting within a nationally ranked liberal arts college. At Lawrence, attaining your highest musical potential requires expanding your intellectual capacity as well. It isn’t a coincidence that nearly half of the students in every incoming conservatory class are pursuing a double degree program — a Bachelor of Music and a BA in another field. This intellectual curiosity and eagerness to break down departmental boundaries so a student can learn to dance between disciplines has a profound influence on conservatory-focused initiatives.
The Lawrence Conservatory is creating a culture that merges world-class technical training with opportunities to deeply explore other vital areas of musicianship like creativity, play, improvisation, exploration of various music traditions, rethinking standard performance practices, and elevating the power of music as a transformational tool for social engagement. The Lawrence Conservatory is constantly deepening and expanding this vision.
Check out our 21st Century Musicianship Initiative to dig into more detail.
Lawrence prides itself on its outstanding graduates who are performing in major orchestras and opera houses, creating vibrant careers as freelance musicians, teaching at major universities and secondary schools around the globe, running private studios, directing major nonprofit organizations, starting their own businesses, and changing the world through their music. The heart of this success lies with the core training in performance, theory, musicology, and academics. This is central to what makes Lawrence great. This blog, however, will look at those other elements that set Lawrence apart and greatly enhance all aspects of Lawrence’s outstanding core musical training.
A few points of Interest:
New Required Musicology Sequence
Starting this fall, the chronological approach to the history of Western classical music will be replaced by something much more compelling and relevant: Introduction to Musicologies.
Our Musicology Department, Julie McQuinn, Sonja Downing, Sara Ceballos, and Erica Scheinberg, spent a year designing this phenomenally forward-looking sequence. Here is the course description:
This two term sequence takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of music, drawing on fields such as ethnomusicology, music history, popular music studies, sound studies, cultural studies, music hermeneutics, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonial studies, historiography, and performance studies. We will explore musical styles, practices, functions, meanings, and values in cross cultural and transhistorical contexts. We will develop — and think critically about — the power of engaging actively, intensively, and creatively with questions, ideas and sources.
This sequence radically reframes the standard music history sequence into something much more expansive, diverse, inclusive, and interdisciplinary. It will change how Lawrence students think about music and its role in society. Starting next fall, the chronological trudge through the history of Western classical music will be replaced by this two-term sequence: Introduction to Musicologies.
This is a collaboration between Opera Studies, IGLU (Improvisation Group of LU), and Dance.
Students create, through collective collaboration, small operatic vignettes based on socially relevant themes. The micro-operas are always performed in nontraditional spaces like the lobby, staircases, elevators, hallways, and bathrooms of our Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. The performances are designed to welcome audiences in who may have never seen an opera before and to get them thinking about socially relevant issues. We have created three versions so far: Alienation and Inclusion, America’s Relationship with Guns, and What is Truth?
For Lawrence students, being eyeball-deep in the messy, difficult, glorious process of collaboratively creating micro-operas is amazing. The last two version of our micro-operas have also won National Opera Association awards for best production. Here is a brief video on the gun-themed performance.
(To which — Greg speaking here — I might add a video from Copeland Woodruff, who runs the opera program and describes what it’s about. In embracing ways I’ve never heard opera talked about. Scroll to the bottom of his page to see it.)
Presto Conservatory Tours
Lawrence is committed to completely reimagining the standard university music tour. Instead of a series of performances punctuated by bus rides, Lawrence is creating meaningful partnerships with local social service organizations. The goal is for our music and our students to help advance to message and goals of these organizations.
Last year the bands went to Minneapolis and partnered with five organizations focused on mental health services. Students spent one day at an elementary school focused on students on the autism spectrum. One student described the experience as life-changing. The bands also partnered with transitional facilities, and used their concerts to talk about the work of these organizations.
This year the choirs went to Chicago. Lawrence partnered with the Fifth House Ensemble to work with the Merit School of Music, Chicago Children’s Choir, Sarah’s Circle, a women’s shelter, and YEPP (Youth Empowerment through Performance Project), an organization that houses and works with homeless LGBTQ teens. The work is difficult, emotional, and extremely powerful for our students and the partner organizations. This video captures the power of the Presto tour.
Music for All
Two of our faculty, Erin Lesser, flute, and Michael Mizrahi, piano, are members of Decoda, the official outreach ensemble of Carnegie Hall. They have brought the Decoda approach to audience engagement to Lawrence student chamber groups. Every year about 50 students are working to create highly engaging performances for nontraditional audiences. The students perform dozens of times each year throughout the community at warming shelters, transitional facilities, food pantries, and schools.
Another professor, Catherine Kautsky, piano, has built a long-term partnership with a nearby prison. Lawrence students are providing up to five performances a year at this facility. This opportunity to experience music as a means for social engagement and social change is transforming the way Lawrence students think about performance and the power of their art. This approach is becoming more and more central to Lawrence’s musical identity.
New degree program: Bachelor of Musical Arts in Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation
Lawrence has always had an outstanding jazz department. This year, LUJE (Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble) won the Downbeat Award for Best Undergraduate Large Ensemble, and a student combo won for Best Small Group. Although Lawrence has had a nationally-recognized program for nearly 50 years, there has never been a standalone jazz and improvisation degree. We are excited by the possibility of this program, because it will attract a different kind of student and cater to much broader musical tastes and interests.
This program will have a separate theory sequence that is focused on applying theory to one’s playing. Instruments will be required in every class and students will learn theoretical concepts through their playing. It actually won’t be called theory at all. Instead, it will be called Applied Musicianship.
The degree is designed to cover a broad range of musical skills and focus areas designed to prepare students for their musical life. Private lessons and ensemble work are combined with courses in improvisation, composition, arranging, recording, entrepreneurship, musicology, world music ensembles, dance, and, of course, a healthy dose of college courses — because learning how to think expansively, write clearly, problem-solve effectively, collaborate efficiently, and communicate powerfully are critical skills for today’s musician.
The Refuge Foundation, Cory Chisel, and Lawrence
There is a very cool Grammy-nominated songwriter, singer, guitarist, and creative being from Appleton named Cory Chisel. Cory plays with Norah Jones and just about everyone else from Nashville, but was looking for his true musical path. He moved back to Appleton, bought a monastery, turned it into an artist retreat called The Refuge and is committed to making Appleton the creative center of the universe. This sounds like hyperbole, but once you get to know Cory, you quickly realize that it isn’t. This mission for The Refuge aligns with Lawrence’s vision, so a collaborative partnership is developing.
For the past five years Lawrence has partnered with Cory and Dave Willems, another local visionary, to help put on The Mile of Music Festival. In four days in August, over 200 bands gave nearly a thousand performances of original music in about 80 venues along a one-mile stretch in downtown Appleton! This is one of the few major music festivals that integrates music education as a key component. Lawrence Music Education Instructor, Leila Pertl is the Music Education Curator for the festival. [Leila Ramagopal Pertl, also a deep soul, is Brian’s wife. She’s an elementary school music teacher and member of the Lawrence music education faculty.] Her mantra is Music is a Birthright.
So her team of 20 music educators puts that mantra into action by creating over 60 hands-on music-making events, from samba drumming, to songwriting, to hiphop and funk jam bands. Each year the team helps over three thousand people aged 2-100 discover their inner music-maker. Check out the energy this event generates in this Mile of Music Education Team video.
This fall, Cory Chisel will be a visiting lecturer for new course that Dean Brian Pertl will be teaching called Sound Lab: American Roots Music. It will be a holistic, experiential deep dive into Roots Music. Students will be listening and discussing, but also creating, and writing, playing and recording music in different roots genres. Through Cory’s Nashville connections, visits from culture-bearers will also feature prominently in the class. This course will help expand the musical offerings of the traditional conservatory curriculum.
Brian Pertl, Dean of the Conservatory, and Leila Pertl, Music Education Instructor have worked closely with Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), the driving force behind Deep Listening Practice. Pauline described Deep Listening as listening to all things, at all times, in every way possible. Deep Listening at its heart is a contemplative practice that utilizes listening, movement, and mentally-generated “sound” — dreams, memory imagination — to raise acute awareness of the present moment.
Giving students a space to step out of the firehose blast of obligations, class pressures, media overload, and self-doubt, to completely immerse themselves in the present moment is itself a precious and much needed gift so they can have the time to reflect and resenergize. Deep Listening lets them know that they matter, that they are heard, and that what they bring to the table is important. This alone is reason enough to include Deep Listening in music schools, but there is so much more.
Another essential element of Deep Listening is the creativity that arises out of fully occupying the present moment. Pauline’s written-text scores, though often radically simple in design, are meant to encourage collaborative improvisations where each participant is fully attuned to all of the sounds around her. Silence is considered a vital musical contribution, and sounding, when it occurs, emerges from a deep understanding of the current sound world. At first glance, Deep Listening practice can feel too nebulous, too hippy-dippy for a high level music school. It might seem antithetical to the very nature of a conservatory with its focus on rigorous training and technical mastery. But in reality Deep Listening is a vital complement to hyper-focused technical training. Intensely focusing on the art of listening has been missing for far too long in most conservatories and exponentially elevates all of the other hard work conservatory musicians engage with every day.
What if all of our musicians in our orchestras and bands and choirs could get their ears off the written page in front of them and actually be aware of what every other ensemble member is doing? We all know this is the ideal, but how often is it achieved? Deep Listening practice is a way to integrate high level listening skills, collaboration skills, and improvisation skills into all of the beautiful technical and musical training conservatories do so well.
Lawrence offers a course called Deep Listening Lab, but Deep Listening practice is also a part of music education courses, entrepreneurship courses, opera training courses, improvisation, and dance courses. There is also a vibrant student club called the Deep Listeners of LU that meets every week to practice Deep Listening. In short Deep Listening makes our conservatory musicians better, more attentive, more musical human beings.
There is so much going on right now at Lawrence that it is impossible to cover it all in one blog. Feel free to come visit and experience the magic for yourself.
I went to a Deep lLstening session (this is Greg again), which as Brian says is also a deep music-making session, since everyone involved (more than 20 people, when I was there) contributes to the sound. Of course I joined in. The spontaneity of it, the easy and deep involvement of everybody there — it’s a model for a kind of musical life we don’t normally have in classical music.
And even more remarkable was to sit with the people who direct the large ensembles at the school (among them are the jazz big band, the improvising ensemble, the orchestra, and the opera department was included). Amazing to hear these people talk about how to foster student initiative, to give the students a voice in the artistic direction of these groups.
And I should end with Zeek, the conservatory dog. Who naps in Brian’s office (he’s a older dog), but also goes with Brian to sit in when students audition for the school. The idea being to make these students more comfortable, and less afraid.
That speaks to a deep humanity we don’t find everywhere. I loved being part of it.