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Music School Curriculum

Two recent experiences have triggered my thinking in regard to one of the central questions facing higher education music institutions today: how to revise the curriculum, so that students are prepared to survive and thrive in the new and future world of music.  

Both experiences were encouraging as these individuals, both in leadership positions, understand and accept the fact that things have changed — dramatically, and understand that these changes have not occurred overnight, but have been in the making for decades.  These individuals are also committed to finding solutions.
The “common” talk for some time now has been that students need business skills, and need to learn a broader array of musical skills.  Recent thinking has included leadership and entrepreneurship.  One cantus firmus that remains, one that needs rethinking, is that room in the curriculum will be made for these new items by reducing the theory and history curriculum.
Yes, these two areas will need to be rethought, but so will all of the performance-related curriculum as well.  The incredible levels of technical expertise that have been achieved in recent years may be less useful in the future musical world.  What will be useful will be a wide variety of skills and abilities that make for a versatile and adaptable musician.
At the risk of ruining my argument here, but also at the risk of making a point, I was recently sitting in Rittenhouse Square, around 9:30 AM, in between meetings, and reading my email.  Nearby I noticed a musician setting up a music stand, then putting his music on it, getting out his flute and beginning to play traditional flute repertoire.  He also opened his flute case, suggesting donations.  Of course I watched and listened closely.   As women pushing their baby carriages and strollers approached him, he would change his repertoire to children’s songs.  Invariably the parent and child would stop and listen, talk to him and he to them.  As they left, he would migrate back to the traditional repertoire.  What intrigued me the most was how he moved musically from Syrinx to Mary Had A Little Lamb.  The guy was a really good musician.
Now of course the problem with this situation is that he’s not making a living off of this activity, and probably not even a fraction of what he needs to subsist. 
The musician of tomorrow, so to speak, in order to create a satisfying and productive musical life will need to be flexibly skilled at a level not currently imagined.  Among these skills must be:
Musical flexibility — play or sing traditional repertoire at A level, but also transpose instantly, improvise in a variety of genres, play a second or third instrument (well), compose and arrange (especially important), sing (well enough to carry a part in a polyphonic setting).
Academic Orientation — understand music within a wide context, both among the arts and humanities, but also within an historical context and contemporary issues.  Be able to apply this thinking into action within one’s community.
Leadership/Entrepreneurship — be sensitive to opportunity and possess the skills to apply oneself to them.
This is only a start — I will need to think this through more thoroughly.  And of course, one must address what has to go in order to accomplish these goals.  I have touched on this, but must again be more specific.


  1. Great post, and as you say, it opens up lots of issues. I do some teaching in the UK, and to my mind the key is to connect the theory of the art with its ‘real world’ practice.
    Arts Administration has become its own discipline, and whilst there are specialisms to be learned here, there’s also a risk that arts managers and artists operate in different paradigms. Arts Managers are from Mars, Artists are from Venus, perhaps. It’s already possible to see how this plays out in terms of authority, incomes and status – arts managers tend to be hands down winners, having a regular income and control of budgets and performance contexts. Of course, the best managers and the most successful artists find ways of negotiating their different priorities. But it sure could help if the curricula could be more integrated.

  2. The incredible levels of technical expertise that have been achieved in recent years may be less useful in the future musical world. What will be useful will be a wide variety of skills and abilities that make for a versatile and adaptable musician.
    I must humbly disagree, at least in part.(And thank you for posting this article, by the way!)
    Young performing musicians must be able to perform at a very high level in order to function professionally. They must also have the ability to work effectively in a broadening array of genres. And they will have to learn the crafts of small business–which is a good, good thing.
    There are only so many hours in the instructional week, to be sure. However, to cut back on theory and history training cuts the legs out from the students’ abilities to function in the future.
    It’s a quandry!

  3. Thanks very much for this post. The problem with the “quandary” you identify is that no one is working seriously to address it. — and it must be addressed. I have heard some academic scholars suggest that students need to be more efficient in their studies, especially in practicing their primary instrument. And speaking from my experience in this area, I just don’t think this gets the job done. There needs to be a fundamental rethinking of those skills and abilities that tomorrow’s musicians will really need — to not only survive, but thrive and redefine the current problematic scene.
    I am haunted by how when I was at Eastman the technical levels just kept rising and rising, but often without any apparent knowledge of the actual music being performed. We often referred to the Sibelius effect: that a student could technically master and perform (in audition) the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but when asked what key it was in, looked completely blank. Now I know that knowledge of the tonal center of the piece is not necessarily related to the artistic statement, but I believe my point is made.
    Thanks again!

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