Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Stefan Weisman
photo by Ezra Weisman

As the new century rapidly approaches, it has become almost cliché to look back and evaluate the last one-hundred years from every conceivable angle. Yet, for American concert music this turn of the calendar is genuinely significant. Early in this century, when Juilliard was founded, the notion of an American college dedicated to teaching only music was truly novel. There is no question that the 20th Century is when great American conservatories emerged and created top-notch performers equal to any in the world. This is also the century when the music of American composers finally matured. But, these same conservatories often trained composers quite apart from their performer colleagues. Student composers, particularly in the last half of the century, practiced the daring and radical experimentation that characterizes 20th Century music, while as a whole the conservatories seemed designed to produce instrumentalists specialized in the standard pieces of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. Instrumental professors taught music that they themselves had learned as students, and they perpetuated this cycle. Even today, this schism between student composers and student performers still exists in many schools.

Whether one ascribes to the belief that “new music” is dying or just recently emerging from hibernation, the shocking fact is that in just over a month the term “20th Century music” will no longer be synonymous with “new music.” So, performers and concert-goers who cannot move beyond Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951, have some catching up to do. When I spoke with noted author, critic and composer, Kyle Gann (Oberlin, ’77), he said he was appalled that when modern music is taught, most music schools emphasize the “official” contemporary repertoire, such as Boulez or Stockhausen, while important younger composers are too often ignored.

So, what is the state of new American music at conservatories and colleges around the country? I examined a dozen music schools, making an effort to look at those of all complexions and sizes, and from all areas of the country. Everyone with whom I spoke acknowledges that to perpetuate an enduring art, it is vital for each generation to add its own unique contributions. Still, the levels to which schools take contemporary music seriously varies. Some schools – the University of California at San Diego, New England Conservatory, and Oberlin, for examples – seem to have a mandate to teach music by living composers. Other schools also have an exemplary record, such as Yale and the University of Michigan. However, what is probably more typical of the treatment that new music receives at many universities is the Hartt School, a part of the University of Hartford. While Hartt does have several good outlets for its student and faculty composers, generally it does not seem to make new music a high priority. The shortfalls of the Indiana School of Music at the University of Indiana in Bloomington are even more disappointing because they have available such vast resources. Some schools make up for a lack of emphasis on composition with special projects. For example, Florida State University, which is strong primarily in the field of music education, has a Biennial Festival of New Music. Many conservatories acknowledge that their primary mission is to aid students in the development of their technique, and to teach performers the standard repertoire. For example, at Juilliard and the San Francisco Conservatory, students’ primary interest is not new music. Nevertheless, Juilliard has the annual Focus! Festival, an important outlet for modern music in New York City, and the San Francisco Conservatory has the New Music Ensemble, which under its dynamic new director, Nicole Paiement, seems destined to become an important contribution to the contemporary music scene on the West Coast. Even a conservative conservatory like Curtis genuinely appears to be supportive of their composition students and faculty. Best of all, are schools like Eastman that react to the shrinking interest in classical music by teaching students ways to reach out to the local community, educate and build new audiences for classical and modern music.

The brains of the next millennium’s musicians, composers and concert-goers are now developing in children across the country. However, American public schools are generally indifferent to the state of music. Most states have little or no graduation requirements for music in the public schools. (See the Music Educators National Conference’s website) Many schools no longer teach music at all. If children are exposed to even the basic musical concepts and skills, or to the most elementary musical history, they are lucky. The greatest American composers, such as Charles Ives and John Cage, are most likely unfamiliar names to young Americans, and important living composers are even less known. So, when high school graduates who are lucky enough to be exposed to classical music, decide to enter conservatories and universities, it is not uncommon for them to have been raised on a staple of dead Europeans. Of course, they may have also played the music of American composers, but probably less often. It is unlikely that they have ever performed the music of a living, breathing composer. Because it will not happen in public schools, conservatories and universities around the country are the places where advocates for new American music must be created.



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