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Enacting Change in the Performing Arts World Begins with Changing the Conservatory Culture
Enacting Change in the Performing Arts World Begins with Changing the Conservatory Culture avatar

Make your Motion!

For nearly twenty years, I had the privilege of leading major American orchestras, which are not exactly known as bastions of change. But I could not have imagined a place more conservative than orchestras until I found professional music schools! In moving from the classical music industry to the training ground for those professionals, I saw very clearly the need for a new approach.

Twenty-five years ago American orchestras began a conversation about what would happen to excellence in performance if orchestras broadened their missions to focus on education and community engagement. The fear, unfounded, was that excellence would be compromised. The opposite was true. One sees an identical conversation today in our professional schools—a fear that if we ask students to stretch beyond the traditional focus of mastering performance skills, then excellence will be jeopardized.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, Built to Last, call these kinds of false choices the “Tyranny of the Or” versus the “Genius of the And.” We must embrace and teach the “Genius of the And.” It is possible to be both an outstanding performer and a citizen artist—indeed it’s necessary to be both.

Today, administrators of top performing arts organizations are begging for those of us who train artists to start training like it’s the 21st century and not the 19th. More than new skills—which is certainly part of it—this requires something more difficult: a change in the mindset of musicians. We must understand we’re all in the audience development business.

The problem is that the professional schools have approached this by tinkering around the edges. Offer an entrepreneurship program, do a little community engagement, do some technology. In most music schools, 20 percent of the students are engaging in this. Which means the other 80 percent are not. This is not an acceptable approach to tackling a fundamental issue.

Our graduates are coming of age at a transformative time of unprecedented change. The evolving landscape for classical music is reflected in the profound changes that institutions like orchestras continue to experience. The inconsistent state of arts education, changing lifestyles, and technology have all contributed to a seismic shift in how music is consumed and experienced.

Today, the ability to be successful as a musician goes far beyond excellence in performance to include interactive and communication skills, an ability to foster accessibility, and to thrive as a performer across a remarkably broad range of musical styles and genres.

As the oldest conservatory in the United States, the Peabody Institute adheres to our core commitment to excellence in the musical arts, even as we now build on that tradition and recognize that excellence is vital and necessary, but not enough.

Accordingly, over the last several years, Peabody has been developing its Breakthrough Curriculum, which for the first time integrates into the training of every Peabody student essential skills of communication; audience development; community engagement; the impact of technology on music and how to leverage its benefits; and through a newly reimagined ensembles program, the ability to be a facile musician able to step into professional roles requiring an unprecedented ability to stretch musically.

Through four phases—EXPLORE, BUILD, IMPLEMENT, and LAUNCH—this new curriculum engages every student in a progressive set of meaningful training experiences across these critical areas, always led by the guiding goal of musical excellence and accomplishment.

Prior to implementation this past fall, Peabody students had already taken part in this work, piloting community engagement components of the new curriculum. Examples of these activities include the Peabody String Sinfonia, which has performed at homeless shelters, veteran organizations, and prisons, and the Peabody Pop-Ups, which this past year sent 30 Peabody students out across Baltimore for a series of impromptu performances over an intense two-hour period.

Who benefits from this? Our students, because they learn to be musicians in the context of a different world. The community benefits, because what better way to serve our community than by making it an extension of the classroom and studio? And the performing arts organizations which will employ these students in the future benefit, because the students will bring a bright, new perspective badly needed in the world of the classical performing arts.

The importance of expanding the core of a musician’s education beyond simply performance excellence was driven home to me again when Peter Sellars visited Peabody last spring for our Dean’s Symposiums. As he and I talked about Peabody’s four strategic pillars of Excellence, Interdisciplinary Experiences, Innovation, and Community Connectivity, Peter looked at the pillars and remarked, “This is great, but reverse these. Begin with community and innovation, and when you do that right, that results in excellence.”

When people ask me what I think about the future of the arts, I always say that artistic expression and music has its best days ahead. But I’m equally sure it won’t look like the past. Nor will our field, and why should it? Nothing stays the same. We who are responsible for training the future generations of artists need to say that, mean it, and be willing to stake everything on it.

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