V.com weekend vote: Do classical conservatories face extinction if they don't change drastically?

March 12, 2021, 9:22 PM · This week a story in The Rolling Stone called Juilliard Must Modernize, or It Will Disappear garnered a lot of attention on our Violinist.com discussion board as well as on social media.

violinist playing to empty hall

Written by a violinist and Juilliard graduate named Emma Sutton-Williams, the article begins when she nearly misses out on a gig -- playing with Bruce Springsteen -- because she doesn't know who he is. It goes on ask "why is (Juilliard) continuing to prepare brilliant students to only enter the world of dying orchestras with downward spiraling funding without helping them explore other genres or expand their skill set to survive a changing market?"

She suggests that "classical schools should teach technological advances as survival skills — and introduce different genres to their students, audiences, and donors alike." She also suggests that "crossing over musical boundaries and integrating technology" should be viewed as core accomplishments rather than extracurriculars.

Fair enough, but toward the end is this sentence, "Classical purists clutch their hearts in disgust at the mere suggestion of their holy shrines teaching business skills like freelancing or contemporary styles like pop, rock, or electronic music."

Really? As a professional classical violinist myself, I actually don't know many colleagues with this attitude. Most actual musicians see the merit in many different genres -- for example, Itzhak Perlman at age 70-something played for a Billy Joel concert; Rachel Barton Pine loves heavy metal music. "It takes one to know one," and good musicians recognize that excellence is not exclusive to "classical music." The attitude she describes is the attitude of a dilettante.

When it comes to music schools teaching business skills, I can can give you at least one example: my own alma mater. I received my Bachelor of Music at Northwestern University, where I took a business course through the Music School, specifically about the music business. It was eye-opening and helpful, and even though the music business has changed a great deal in the years since, it gave me a foundation for understanding and dealing with the business side of music. So I agree that music students benefit from business courses, but I disagree with the idea that no music schools offer them - this course existed since the 1980s and possibly before. And I'm pretty sure Juilliard currently has such courses as well.

Also, I do think it's important for young musicians to know how pop music and film scores are produced in the modern world, if they wish to participate and have power in the industry. I think some classical musicians underestimate the importance of being adept in the technology of music production - and how "out of it" you'll be today, if you are not. I have seen some of this first-hand: my son is a young filmmaker who has scored a number of his own films, recorded and produced music and made quite a number of music videos of various genres. Despite the 10 years of piano lessons I foisted upon him, many of his most important skills are completely separate from those lessons, and they are rather complex: running a digital audio workstation, knowing recording technology, etc. I have recorded with him and his friends and I greatly respect what they do. Anyone "clutching their hearts in disgust" at learning such skills does so to their own detriment. That said, I feel that a lot of classical musicians would be open to this new world, given the chance to learn about it.

So the ideas in Williams' article provide some good food for thought and raise a number of questions, at least for me:

I would invite you to participate in the vote below, and then share your thoughts about those questions.

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March 13, 2021 at 09:22 AM · Having read all the comments in the discussion forum, in my opinion it is likely that the article itself was just another journalistic provocation.

How often we are subjected to this. An opinionist writes something with the purpose of stirring up a debate, and earns professional points by doing so.

It reminds me of an article published in The Strad where the contributor claimed the falsehood that Cremona was "importing entire containers of violins in the white" to then finish and sell off as true Cremonese. Boy did that detonate.

March 13, 2021 at 01:33 PM · I agree with Dimitri with the addition that one does not have to have an opinion about everything. Indeed, one shouldn't. In other words, stick to your knitting.

There is also a difference between publishing a provocative opinion to stir debate and doing so to stir anger.

And then there is the problem of publishing outright lies.

March 13, 2021 at 02:37 PM · I would say the problem--if it is a problem, I am not sure--in conservatories would be excessive focus on technique (in the narrow sense of "how to play an instrument"). The perfection we have all gotten used to would astonish people like Spohr or Joachim (who were not just violinists but all-round musicians who composed, conducted, managed orchestras...). The miracle to me is how well many of our top "technicians" perform as musicians.

If there were a way back to Spohr's kind of excellence I think it would be worth considering. But there is never a way back to anything (second law of thermodynamics), so maybe no point in worrying about this.

It is true at any rate that the occasional intonation mishap, the occasional flubbed passage does not destroy a piece of music.

March 13, 2021 at 03:10 PM · I agree, the article was provocation, but it worked, we are talking. I cannot speak to the present about thoughts by faculty or students at these kinds of institutions, but at mine, which is a LONG time ago, we had both by both parties: those horrified at the thought of change, and those that already had. That's not to say they prepared us for a diversified musical world. It was the traditional music, preparation, and so on. I entered knowing that I was never going to have the chops to do what I wanted, and prepared my life accordingly. My chagrin was seeing the pretense all around me that most of my peers wouldn't either, but they all pretended like they would. They need other skills as well to be successful in a difficult musical world.

March 13, 2021 at 03:52 PM · Musicians may well need a broader education, but students should not be unduly distracted from the work they need to do while young.

March 13, 2021 at 05:03 PM · I graduated with my M.M. in 2013, and my school was starting to offer career coaching, music business classes, and a focus in performance health. I thought these were really great and needed additions - and that career coaching service landed me paid internship while still in school and found the job I still have now. It's huge. Schools should absolutely be teaching career skills.

March 13, 2021 at 05:08 PM · Well, to be blunt, I think this is nonsense. If I've learned anything over this enigmatic year, it's to forgive, to allow people their moods and reactions to situations, and to avoid major changes and decisions in the midst of this whirlpool. A fear of classical conservatories avoiding a change-or-die, Cassandra-type warning is a bit exclusive and over the top. Not to rob the selectivity of the dilemma, but this is not a problem for one school of thought or method of education. At this time, all forms of artistic genres and educational institutions are going through some soul searching and needed reexamination of their focus and goals. We are in the midst of a cultural paradigm shift. Life for everyone will not go back to what it was up until one year ago. It will probably be similar, but change is happening. Let's all move forward without the sky-is-falling mindset of the past four years. Let's keep what works, downsize and adjust what doesn't work, and maintain cool heads while all of this gets sorted out.

March 13, 2021 at 05:57 PM · The whole of tertiary education is in a mess. The institutions that look most likely to survive concentrate on imparting traditional skills.

March 13, 2021 at 06:28 PM · Classical "serious" music is perfect just the way it is. It is the people that need to change and embrace this most beautiful art form. We need to continue this heritage for the ages. People are too lazy to learn to play the violin and it is too difficult for the majority of people. I have only one fear in life and it is not dying, my fear is that classical music will be lost in my lifetime!

March 13, 2021 at 07:51 PM · That article was just silly. When I was in music school 40 years ago, my friends and I were certainly listening to and aware of all the popular music of the time. I don’t think that has changed.

I also don’t know of any classical musicians who would turn down any sort of popular music gig out of snobbery, unless they were otherwise independently wealthy. I have enjoyed sharing the stage with many different well-known, non-classical artists, as have my colleagues. There is only good music and bad music, and even bad music can provide checks that spend just as well as the others.

March 14, 2021 at 03:19 AM · Certainly a provocation, but the broader points made are worth consideration regardless.

Employability / career-related skills are a big focus in higher Ed at the moment, and rightly so. Interesting to read Claire’s comment above, and while I’m no longer in the music profession, my experience was the same - flexibility and adaptability are more important than ever, in many professions, not just music.

Not so sure about the EU and US and UK, but in Oz, big classical orchestras are finding it extremely tough. The best business models are those of the ACO and similar, who still maintain high standards but present diverse and dynamic programs, but their overheads are less.

Conservatories do need to ensure relevance to the employment marketplace, but can and should always provide ‘pure classical’ subjects, for want of a better term.

While I’d be sad to see the demise of regular full orchestras, it’s certainly a possibility, especially in Oz.

March 14, 2021 at 05:31 AM · It’s been a long time since I was taking performance and theory and composition classes (and that was piano not violin) but I ham aware of current practices in conservatories (several of my relatives are fairly recent conservatory graduates) and my current teacher is also a professor of violin performance. I think most conservatories are effective as they are. Yes, many COULD change and be slightly more effective, there’s always room for improvement and growth in any human endeavor, but I don’t feel that they must change to stay relevant.

March 14, 2021 at 02:46 PM · The problem with all this career advice is that it does not change the basic economics of the situation: For someone to have a job someone is required to be willing to pay for some work. No level of "career skills" will change the balance between job seekers and employers. If there are more jobseekers than jobs there is a problem that career skills and competence in the music business won't fix. It will just change the competition among the job seekers, make it even harsher most likely.

This is true for all professions and crafts though the disequilibrium in music has been larger than in most other fields for a long time.

March 14, 2021 at 08:12 PM · Learning to make your own work and raise your own funding - this is a valuable skill, to be sure.

March 15, 2021 at 08:19 AM · I actually don't have an opinion about the article's topic.

But I do have an opinion about the picture used at the top of the article. Surely this man is not a violinist - his posture is terrible...

March 15, 2021 at 08:22 PM · Some observations. I have a friend who is a virtuoso violinist and a section first violinist in a major orchestra. He says that the younger players winning auditions today play at a higher level than his senior colleagues did when he joined the orchestra 30 years ago. But...many of these younger players, while US conservatory graduates, got their early training in Asia and clearly entered conservatory at a higher level than US trained students.

I don't know how much it really matters. I think that a huge portion of the classical music audience will not return to public concerts. Even a lot of players are consumed with fear in spite of almost no evidence of transmission among the orchestra.

It would be a perfect opportunity for young healthy risk averse players to carve out an audience if there were a young risk averse audience willing to pay. It's very sad.

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