Can you teach resourcefulness?

Curtis Symphony Orchestra

On the agenda at a recent Board of Overseers’ meeting at the Curtis Institute of Music were past graduates, some with non-traditional careers both in music and not, speaking about the preparation their Curtis education provided them. The backdrop to the conversation was a speech the previous afternoon by Derek Bok, who advocated for the importance of liberal education beyond music as an essential component of an artist’s preparation.  The context for the entire discussion was the current state of the classical music field and the idea that young musicians will need resourcefulness to make their way in the world. Music “jobs” in the future are likely to be less attached to institutions (many of which are troubled in one way or another), entrepreneurial, and varied beyond a straight performance career to include all manner of teaching, coaching,  and work we could loosely call “public engagement.”  And while society’s appetite for classical music seems to be as strong or stronger than ever (more on that in a future post), the manner in which people want to engage with music and musicians is changing. What can an elite music school do to prepare its students for new opportunities?

Curtis is not the only institution thinking about this. New England Conservatory, Julliard, and places like Parsons and Cal Arts all are wrestling in one way or another with the question of young artists’ development and what new experiences and information should be added to their courses of study.  Higher ed increasingly thinks about justifying the expense of education with its practicality;  note the number of recent news stories calling the question on whether a liberal arts education can be justified financially (check out Who Needs an English Major?). The most popular college degree in America today is Business.

A life in the arts has always meant resourcefulness and artists are inspiringly resourceful — how else could they get their work done? I wonder whether a conservatory-based classical music education has really been less helpful than it could have been in this regard; witness the number of chamber ensembles (think Eighth Blackbird, among many others), chamber orchestras (think The Knights, East Coast Chamber Orchestra, many others), and music projects like Play On, Philly or KidZNotes that musicians are avidly founding and leading.  I also wonder whether resourcefulness can be taught. The most resourceful people I know are propelled by an inner muse, not one that can be gained in the classroom or studio. Their resourcefulness comes from curiosity, from courage, and from necessity, or from some combination of these.

Becoming resourceful means making a lot of mistakes. It’s an inherently creative process of trying, messing things up, learning, and trying again. On the one hand, this sounds exactly like practicing music: try/learn. On the other hand, perfecting a piece of music for performance is also about learning not to make any mistakes. So, maybe there is something in the musical training itself, rather than in any ancillary training, that could be considered if faculty want creativity and resourcefulness to flourish. Being rapped with a ruler for every mistake has fallen out of favor in the classroom.  Let’s be sure that conservatories don’t use the old-fashioned equivalent.

Conservatories should encourage young artists to read broadly, learn history, and understand science; these things make life fuller and more interesting. Many subjects can be self-taught by a motivated learner, particularly given the resources available on-line. And personally, I think everyone should know a bit of accounting. If I led a conservatory I’d be sure every young artist knows at least something about accounting and a bit about contracts, at least enough to know whether they need an accountant’s or a lawyer’s help, and enough not to be taken to the cleaners.

Beyond that, I think creating an environment where young artists can try things, make mistakes, and learn, perhaps with some mentoring but maybe without any — this is what I think will most help develop resourcefulness. The worst thing a school could do is to be over-protective, to anticipate situations where mistakes could occur and pre-empt them, or to squelch enthusiasm for an idea that seems dubious, but from which learning will occur, even if it bombs. In other words, the last thing young artists need is for someone to cut up their food and serve it to them. They need to learn how to cook.

I’m glad that Curtis is thinking about this. Curtis grads form a distinguished cohort in classical music and their future resourcefulness will be a boon to the sector. What would you change, if you could, about conservatory training?



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  1. Michael Millar says

    Thanks, Sarah, for your very interesting commentary. It relects the complexity of the ongoing discussion about effective education in the arts.

    • says

      This is an interesting read. I am not a conservatory musician, but a retired music education major,that taught junior and senior high band in the St. Paul Public Schools. After earning my BS and MA degrees, I learned these were not enough to deal with the politics of school cuts to music programs. So, at the age of 57, I took a one-year unpaid leave, and returned to earn a MA in Arts Administration. This degree gave me an out-of-the system network, with internships in the marketing department of the MN Orchestra, the JazzMN Big Band, and the Twin Cities Youth Symphony’s.
      With a business degree, I became the manager of my school band program, performing at the Dakota Jazz Grill in Mpls, on MPR the Jazz Image, opening for BB King at Orch Hall Mpls, and a 3 day trip to New York for a 42 piece 8th grade swing band, performing on campus at Lincoln Center.
      Using this degree, the parents of the students became the programs support-political foundation, to keep the program in the school.
      I recommend a business minor for every music major.

  2. Megan says

    While I did not attend conservatory, I have a degree in performance from a large public university. Drawing from my education and the experience and insight I have gained since graduating, I am a strong advocate for the restructure of the modern musician’s education. I agree with a lot of the points made above (I am really interested in NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship degree and am watching it’s progress) and I have three topics to add:

    1 – That young musicians learn about personal finance. With such a unique take on income, musicians need to be prepared to field W-2s, 990’s, unemployment benefit knowledge, and how each state handles (and taxes) self-employed income (CA will tax you as a small business, for example).
    2 – Musicians (and other artists) should understand that being an educator is also part of the professional package. You should have skills with teaching one-on-one, but also in large orchestral settings, for workshops, masterclasses, visits to elementary schools, outdoor performances, even new ways of performing that makes ‘traditional’ musicians moan and groan. With such competitive field for the audience’s dollar, arts orgs (especially orchestras) need to be creative about how they get that funding – and the musician’s play a huge role.
    3 – Akin to the above point, I think having some kind of business (NFP and FP) model/structure training would be beneficial. The musicians would understand how their employer functions, and administrators/managers would have an increased dialogue and understanding with the musicians in order to create/change/adjust/etc. the current and new programming.

    I am so excited that this conversation about the education of artists (especially musicians) is taking place. Thank you for the post!!

  3. Rafael de Acha says

    Thanks for your interesting post. My wife and I graduated from the New England Conservatory in ’72, both with our Master’s in Voice. Gunther Schuller was our president at NEC and he was very encouraging to us both. We were married, refusing on principle most offers of help from our parents and trying to survive in Boston while at NEC. We did every imaginable gig we could do — church jobs, temple jobs, luncheons, dinners, drove all over New England doing everything from Gershwin to Handel. Some of our teachers were concerned over our all-encompassing need to sing all kinds of music for our supper and our self-starter mode of operation while others, such as Gunther Schuller, understood and encouraged us to pursue our own form of “public engagement.” In addition, our pre-NEC education at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music had equipped us with a good liberal arts education that made us better artists and human beings in the long run. My point is that even “back then” this current “resourcefulness” mindset was around at least with some of us. My wife, along with her fellow faculty members continues to pass on that manner of thinking and that self-starter strategy for survival to her Voice students at CCM today.

  4. says

    I think there’s an enormous number of things that need to change about conservatory education. My own list includes ridding ourselves of engaging music merely via an extremely limited canon, perhaps jettisoning years of prescriptive 4-part writing procedures in favor of creative musical exploration of affect, including music theory in the curriculum that has been written about for years yet hasn’t yet trickled down into the curriculum (embodiment, semiotics, cultural studies, musical meaning, cognition, timbral analysis, lyrical analysis, etc.), transforming the positivistic language used in textbooks and classroom rhetoric to be descriptive and investigational, as well as including courses in aesthetics so students don’t graduate assuming that the music they have been studying is a priori superior to every other music. I think other required courses should include interdisciplinary collaboration (film, dance, media and visual arts, etc.), business & accounting skills, self-promotion, concert production, and analysis of the current cultural climate surrounding music in our culture so that students know what’s out there before they are thrown into a milieu where they will need to assess their newly disposable position.

    In a nod to the title of the article, I absolutely think that resourcefulness can be taught. For a start, it simply needs to be constantly encouraged and then facilitated by the curriculum and the faculty, which is asking for much more than most conservatories currently provide for their students.

  5. sami says

    My musical education background is in classical piano and composition. I have always studied in Conservatories. I finished my masters in 2007 and truth is that I wasn’t close to ready to face my professional life. I graduated knowing a lot but knowing nothing, not even who I was, or even what I liked anymore. I think musical education needs to experience a revolution. First learning things in context. If we are studying Ravel.. besides his compositional technique, during what particular time did he live? What was happening historically? What kind of writers and thinkers were his contemporary? Also, we should learn as composers to find our particular voice, not only be taught obsessively about pitch. Aesthetics should be a requirement. Creativity can be taught indeed. Without any of these things conservatories are producing only products, empty, without any soul or identity. The tragedy of music is that it is treated as a science and we forgot it is a language. the industrial era we live in has killed our spiritual beings. Think about the time when composers would walk in the woods, or would read poetry, when allowing to express their feelings wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Academics and 12 tone have contributed so much to kill music. Performers have become athlets. They don’t understand the language they speak and they don’t understand their mission as musicians is very deep.

    On the practical side, I think that during our studies musicians, specially composers, should have a class in resources. Perhaps a 10% of graduates will leave school and find a good position but the other 90% will hnned to find a job in a very competitive world, with a lot of debt and few positions available. The amount of pressure is inhumane. Most of us struggle a lot. Most of us won’t make a living with our compositions. It would be good to have a class that forces us to think about what other resources we have and how to use them. Of course we all learn how to do it but having some tips would relieve a bit the burden and would give us a heads up. It’s going to be tough be ready, anticipate. I made it being creative and getting tips with people in the biz field, things I had no idea for example how to promote your biz online.

    In general a more holistic education would be nice.

  6. Leslie Chao says

    Just read this, and while much of it is great food for thought, I have one OMG moment here…Teaching accounting to 18-year old kids at Curtis? I would rather hear a great artist when I go to a concert – a mature, lively, informed and passionate artist – the training is done by many of the subjects you mention – learning history, reading great literature, and of course developing a great and vast knowledge of music and a great skill at playing a difficult instrument. A class in accounting might just suck all the passion and life right out of you! It seems that most orchestra managers these days (with accounting classes under their belts) don’t seem to be doing so well managing their own company checkbooks, no?

    • says

      Thanks, Leslie. I am of a mind that anyone who doesn’t know a bit of accounting will be at a disadvantage in navigating the taxes, contracts, financial planning, and other money elements of their lives, and artists especially so.

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