Brave New or Same Old, Same Old?

Jonathan Bellman

David Mermelstein’s January 6 New York Times article about the Colburn School profiles a new institution that should promise more than it seems to. It seeks to be a conservatory, train professional musicians, and does not seek to train music scholars. This is made explicit:

“We are a performance school,” said Robert Lipsett, who teaches violin and helped map the conservatory’s evolution. “If you want to be a musicologist, Colburn is not the place. It’s for musicians who are going to make their livelihood as performers, at one level or another.”

Fair enough, I suppose. The Colburn website (click on the “Conservatory of Music” link and choose “Faculty”) indicates that they have precisely one music historian for ninety-four students. There are more theorists, true, although I can’t say I recognize any of the academics’ names (and few enough of the performance faculty). Shouldn’t a Brave New Conservatory, near Disney Hall and emblematizing the hot, new, ever-revitalizing, multinational and multicultural Angeleno classical music scene have some uniqueness, some stated special reason for being, some reason that students should choose them over Mannes/Juilliard/Oberlin and so on? Taking Lipsett’s remark at face value, they’re talking like a trade school, and for all the practical realities involved in music performance we are still talking about art, often great art, and there is a hell of a lot more to address than fingerings, bowings, tonguings, and metronome markings. The—ah—Colburn Vocational Institute for Orchestral Infantry doesn’t do it, for me at least. “Musicians who are going to make their livelihood as performers” is a pretty ambitious statement, given the market realities. (I’m not going to get into Blair Tindall’s nauseating book here, but there is some distance between “I’m going to be a professional musician” and actually being a professional musician. I wonder if this is acknowledged in the Mission Statement of Colburn?)

Perhaps I’m being unfair. (If so, it would be the first time.) As one raised from early childhood in Los Angeles County, though, I would really like to think that a school with those kinds of cultural resources to connect with and draw upon would come up with a better training model than the one reflected in this article. I don’t mean a required pedagogy class, a Jazz appreesh class, and a history class, all of which would never be attended because the teachers would all be part-time and have no status; that’s standard conservatory faire. I do mean some approach other than the influential-teacher-anointing-promising-students model, because that one truly is OVER. I am not doing a Chicken Little about the Death Of Classical Music, but I think it is inarguable that the old institutions (Conservatory, Canon, Symphony Society etc.) are bloated and inefficient, and that they are either changing (usually far too slowly) or dying. It is not my place to draw up curriculum for a performance school that (full disclosure here) I probably never would have made it into, but the fact is there is no shortage of obedient executants, so something more is clearly wanted.

So for the new pure Conservatory in Los Angeles, I would look for a vision reflecting West-Coast Brave New Out-Of-The-Boxism rather than also-ran we’re-also-important us-tooism. Let’s all keep “Colburn School” in mind, just to see how often we hear about it, and why.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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10 Responses to Brave New or Same Old, Same Old?

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    Rather than either West-Coast Brave New Out-Of-The-Boxism or also-ran we’re-also-important us-tooism, maybe what they’re offering is Get-a-union-card-and-studio-work-ism? If what we’re talking about isn’t art but the entertainment industry, then skilled-craftsperson training isn’t unreasonable; whether it’s desirable is another issue.

  2. I had similar thoughts after reading the NYT article. The idea of conservatory-as-trade-school has always made me uneasy, even more so after attending such an institution for postgraduate study. I put some thoughts together about the conundrum that is post secondary music education, if you’re interested. (

  3. Sarah Connor says:

    It’s so odd that you describe Blair Tindall’s book as “nauseating,” since you as you outline your beliefs, they almost directly parallel hers. Except she actually had the guts to go to New York, throw her hat in the ring, and make about as big a success of herself in classical music as anyone CAN. Did you actually read the book, or just a few pages here and there so you could pontificate, as a non-performer, from an office at the U of SND at Hoople?
    And to address the first comment, it’s a good point. But unfortunately, there is virtually no studio work, or any kind of commercial recording work left on either coast, or in Nashville, which is the third-largest US market. It’s all gone to Canada, eastern Europe, and Seattle, where there are no union regulations regarding residual (royalty) payments. It’s far cheaper to record abroad and email the sound files back to the US.

  4. Jonathan says:

    No, Sarah, I read the book and found it–in all its narcissistic tell-all glory–nauseating. More to the point, I always think that the diciness of a musical career should be more obvious than it is to people, even high-end people in privileged conservatories, but again and again it seems that it is not. Often they show the same naïveté that college students sometimes do: “I managed a B.A. in Classics; where’s my research position at Brown?”
    Thanks for the gratuitous insults, by the way; they accentuate your righteousness. A PDQ Bach reference! Wicked!

  5. Sarah Connor says:

    Glad you caught that PDQ ref, sweetpea. Wasn’t sure you were quite up to date to the last three decades, your head is so buried up your ass. The author didn’t “manage a BA in classics,” she has played principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic, produced a well-reviewed solo debut at Carnegie Recital Hall, has been nominated for a Grammy, earned a handsome income solely from playing the oboe, and wrote a book for a major publisher that’s been translated for several foreign editions — something far outside her original training. She did really well. You, on the other hand, have published obscure works and landed at a backwater outpost, where I daresay you are sexually frustrated, if you thought her book was a scandalous tell-all. It’s non-professionals like you who are the problem, not the real musicians who get out there and perform.

  6. Squashed says:

    Why can’t classical music be just like when everybody begins? “because it is fun getting together making music ..”
    of course making buck, institution, tradition, pecking order and social connection matters … but don’t we have new tools to accelerate the process?
    For instance a big one : Why isn’t any music school have “facebook” like application where musicians can log on and get together to plan for music activity? (instead of elaborate dance of sending letters and phone call)
    Why can’t music school posts their entire “printed on paper” curriculum online under creative commons for everybody to use? Rather than complaining why those whipper snappers never seem to know music history.
    (Well if you post them online for everybody to read, then people can quit whining and get down to making music again.)
    (but but but… that’s how we make money. Yeah well ya wonder why it’s dead. It’s not music anymore. It’s just some enterprise selling recycled information. It’s not about learning. Everybody already gets that and move on.)
    Who kills classical music? The people who forgets what music is about. The people who forgets that music is still about making people shakes their behinds in joy, tapping toes or believe that innovative sound can change the world.
    k’ I am done ranting. 😛

  7. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Squashed —
    Who are these people who forget what music is about? It’s always someone else. I don’t think anyone will cop to being the guy who forgot what music is about. Everyone is convinced that he/she is the one with the right convictions and everyone else is sadly deluded.
    It’s easy to believe all kinds of lurid conspiratorial things about the people in charge of schools and curricula, but they’re usually doing the best they can to do right by the music they love. Of course, no-one can ever agree on what that is, which is where the mischief is done. We come to believe that the other camp (performers, if musicologists; musicologists, if performers; or the dean, or that other dean, or the guy in your department you can’t stand, etc.) are not just wrong but maliciously, perversely wrong: wicked, stupid, dead-souled — maybe even sexually frustrated, and certainly not a “real musician.” If any of you are so fortunate as to get a job in a music school or university department of music, you’ll see what I mean.
    “Who kills classical music”? If you’re reading this, go to the bathroom and stare at that thing above the sink. Yes, it’s like the Murder on the Orient Express: everybody did it.

  8. Galen says:

    I would ask whether students at conservatories with larger musicology faculties are really benefiting from those faculties. The only data-point I have is my experience at New England Conservatory, but that experience suggests to me that the professionally-oriented performers aren’t making a whole lot of use out of the musicologists anyway. There was a pretty standard disclaimer offered by the professors at the beginning of most classes (and this was largely at the graduate level) that “I understand that your practicing is the most important thing you do, so if you can’t finish the homework on time because you’re practicing I understand.” The coursework was pretty unrigorous, with not much homework, not many papers, and not much good class discussion. But I don’t actually mean this as an insult — those performers who didn’t have time for much homework were practicing eight hours a day and sounded phenomenal. And the lack of academic rigor wasn’t because the students weren’t smart, they were just smart about stuff other than academics. There are only so many hours in the day, and the amount of practicing needed to be good enough to get a job at a good orchestra necessarily pushes out other academic pursuits.
    My concern about Colburn is whether their _non-music_ coursework is adequate. I would think that a significant percentage of their graduates aren’t going to be able to get performance jobs due to the size of the job market, and they really need to have a decent liberal arts education in addition to the musical education. The humanities curriculum seems to consist of one course per semester for the 4 years of the BA:
    The Ancient World
    The Medieval World
    Renaissance and Reformation
    The 17th and 18th Centuries
    The 19th Century
    The 20th Century
    Ethics I
    Ethics II
    Is that adequate? I don’t know. And I don’t actually know how they compare with the non-music components of other conservatories’ programs.

  9. Peter Alexander says:

    I agree here with rootlesscosmo: teaching the craft of performing would be a reasonable goal for a “music trade school.” One problem of the conservatory model is that too many of the applied teachers present only the artistry of the performance and none of the craft of the profession. What I want to see is a school that teaches the craft of free-lance performance — studio work, orchestral subbing, pit and club gigs, etc. — as well as the financial aspects (contracts, investment, taxes), performance etiquette, how to manage your solo career or your small ensemble, and much, much more. How many performers come out of the conservatory, or the public universities for that matter, with chops to spare and loads of artistry, but no knowledge of the craft?
    Yes, a complete education in an art form includes understanding of the theory and the history. But in California of all places, there is a place for a music trade school that really teaches the trade. Whether Colburn is that place or not, I don’t know.

  10. What interesting times we live in, musically.
    As an instrumental major at NEC, some thirty years ago, I do remember a bit of slack allowed around practice schedules, yet it was the required music history program that provided some of my richest educational experiences. Although I often complained at the seemingly barely related to my major, classes, I cannot count the times a teacher would play something that unexpectedly captured my musical heart. The broadening of my musical world, I now feel, was something I wouldn’t want to trade.
    I believe we are at a paradigm shift in the human musical institution (although only slowly evolving), where “music” will be rescued from the millennium long (or more), practice of notation, monks and masters “teaching” humans to be “musical”, and re-founded in the unalienable gift given to all humans via the strange conglomeration of evolutionary adaptation for survival. Perhaps it will seem a regression at first, but an ensemble of musicians based in the all inclusive, natural order of group communication and binding behavior (as is exhibited in many “primitive” societies) would be an experience free from the megalomaniacal, cultish, sexist and generally, the oppressive individualism that characterizes music of the past institution (then I do have communistic tendencies ☺ ).
    As an old dog, I’m glad I’ll probably be long gone by the time this all comes about, but our musical world will warp, strain and snap under the pressure of this glacier like inevitability.

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