Who’s Leading the Leaders? – Part One

Whether they’re brand-name conservatories in major cities or programs at rural liberal arts colleges, music schools across the country are all grappling with the same question: How do we prepare the musicians of tomorrow to connect with contemporary audiences? 

And how do we prepare the leaders at these programs to prepare their students? In the first installment of a two-part series, we turn to those who are helping to lead the charge in transformation at the institutional level. This month, we welcome music school thought leaders Fred Bronstein, Mary Javian and Tayloe Harding to weigh in on how our institutions can better address matters of diversity and inclusion, audience engagement and 21st century skill sets.

Fred BronsteinFred Bronstein

Dean of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University
How do we make our art, and art spaces, welcoming for all?

The thing that really needs to change, at least in the classical music field, is the people who make the art. Classical music has seriously lacked diversity for a long time. If we are going to grow new audiences in the decades to come, it will require the creation of a more diverse audience than what exists today. That will not happen without more diversity on the stage. Peabody has made diversity a strategic pillar for the school. For example, we have a program at the Preparatory called Tuned-In, which offers full Peabody Preparatory scholarships for underrepresented students from Baltimore. 

Of what value is a spirit of entrepreneurship to today’s music students?

While entrepreneurship is certainly a piece of the puzzle, I think it’s bigger than that. It’s about the holistic artist: the artist who expands their skill set to include artistic, communication, community engagement and technology skills with, yes, a sense of being entrepreneurial. But it requires a mindset shift. Often, talking about these other skills can have a threatening connotation for students. They interpret them as contrived to substitute for inferior artistry. The truth is that the “normal” career path for musicians is increasingly less normal, and even traditional paths increasingly require these skill sets. This is about creating artists who are not only artistically talented, but who are also communicative, accessible, adaptable and creative. I always tell people that classical music can learn from the pop world. There are so many artists in that realm – and beyond the superstars, too – with vibrant careers. They’ve developed these careers with their own infrastructure, creating individual brands and building audiences without the traditional mechanisms of managers and record companies. They’ve done it because they’ve had to. Classical music needs that same spirit. 

Mary Javian

Chair of Career Studies at Curtis Institute of Music
How do we keep our audiences coming back for more?

Audiences need to feel part of the creative act in order to get hooked. For example, as a double bassist, I am always looking for new solo material that I can take into communities. I also love to sing, and I’ve realized that, for many people, text is a powerful entry point into music. I have started collecting pieces that I can both sing and play, and I’ve used a wide variety of audiences to workshop the pieces and my performances. You don’t have to play for a room of musicians to make this happen; you just have to find a topic to unpack that is interesting and accessible, that connects us to shared human experiences. 

Can you think of a time when you witnessed musicians using their art to bring communities together?

At Curtis, we have an ongoing partnership with the Penn Memory Center, which is the Alzheimer’s research and treatment center at the University of Pennsylvania. Nicholas DiBerardino, a composer and Community Artist Fellow at Curtis, leads a weekly class for patients and their caregivers called “Creative Expression Through Music.” To create the course, we partnered with graduate students in the school of social work who work in clinical and research spaces. We’ve met with patients and caregivers, neurologists and gerontologists. We’ve learned about “ambiguous loss,” when family members slowly lose connection with their loved ones over time. Our approach to bringing people together in this project has been to find musical activities that patients can participate in with their caregivers and family, even if language is already a barrier. Drumming, moving and composing scores with graphic notation are some of the methods we use, but the most important one of all is listening. Hearing what brings people joy musically and personally is the most essential part of being an artist and citizen. 

How well do our music conservatories prepare students for a 21st century career?

One of our biggest challenges at conservatories is that we are still centering the bulk of our education around the orchestra. I have been performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 20 years and it is still one of the great joys of my musical life. It is, however, only one aspect of it. I also teach, curate, collaborate with artists across disciplines, write grants and develop projects with social value. We cannot simply add more and more requirements to students’ schedules without also making space for exploration. We cannot assume our students’ careers will look like those of their teachers. 

Tayloe Harding

Dean of the School of Music at University of South Carolina
How do we keep our audiences coming back for more?

I think there are three things that make audiences want to come back to live musical performances: practical matters that make attending our events enjoyable, programming that includes works that are accessible – either musically or intellectually– and works that influence us in ways that enrich us with hope or longing. 

What’s the best way to instill an entrepreneurial spirit within music students?

Possessing a skill set common to entrepreneurs must be a core value for musicians who wish to make a difference in the lives of others. I feel that the best way to instill this spirit in a music school setting lies in a nuanced combination of specific course instruction in entrepreneurial thinking and project-based learning that makes use of experiential methodologies, such as partnering with local agencies in need of musical skills to more fully realize their missions. Curricula that feature both of these types of learning and that employ rigorous assessment of newly learned skills are the most effective. 

How well do our music conservatories prepare students for a 21st century career?

I am not entirely sure what each American conservatory is doing on this front, nor am I even convinced that most students at conservatories wish to make a difference in the lives of others with their music. Many of them may simply feel that being the most virtuosic musician they can be will be all the propulsion they need for their musical lives and careers. I would add, though, that schools that value the skills needed to be a 21st century musician are leading the way to what the future of music in higher education will and must become. We’re seeing increasing numbers of institutions embracing innovations within their pedagogies. 


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1 Response

  1. Don Stewart says:

    (afm. agma. etc.) Or at least understand the importance of performing arts unions.
    Why should the schools be creating a larger mass of beggars???

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