Don't Send Your Kid to a Conservatory

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Don't Send Your Kid to a Conservatory

Post by Ralph » Tue Sep 13, 2005 6:14 am

From The New York Sun:

September 12, 2005 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters

The Problem With Conservatories

By FRED KIRSHNIT
September 12, 2005

When "The Tonight Show" was at the height of its popularity in the early 1980s, Johnny Carson was very defensive about charges that it was devoid of cultural content. His counterstrategy was to mention during every interview that Itzhak Perlman was a regular guest on the program. I was reminded of this when reading the press releases announcing the celebration of the Juilliard School's 100th season as an educational institution. These releases all tout the matriculation of Mr. Perlman (Robin Williams is the best they can do on the theater side).

In truth, a great number of fine musicians have graduated from Juilliard and its two sister schools, the Manhattan School of Music - which somewhat confusingly occupies the old Juilliard building on 122nd Street - and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but I don't know how much they have to celebrate. Those of us who hear concerts for a living have long detected a trend toward the bland in the classical music world, and there's good reason to lay the blame on conservatories.

The musicians who apply to the Juilliard School for their pre-college program at the ages of 12 or 13 are already used to many hours a day of mindless practice; they're the modern equivalent of Dickensian factory children - with keyboards and bows instead of bobbins and spindles. Most are automatons bred only for the championship - a desperate attempt to be as type-A as their mothers and fathers. Throughout their conservatory careers, they will be pushed to excel, to be better than their peers, to place first in competitions, and to earn first chairs in the orchestras. The practice room becomes the weight room, the music teacher the football coach, the parent a refugee from a Little League nightmare (I have actually witnessed incidents of corporal punishment meted out for wrong notes). Art is ignored; success is all.

The conservatory's emphasis is on one overriding subject: How to survive and succeed at an audition. Much time is devoted to teaching a student to stress the tried and true and to value unchanging metrical lines above expressiveness and rubato. The best performer is the one who can play a cliche in the most reliable manner. As a result, students pursue a gingerly course. This is now so entrenched in the nation's top schools that many of the soloists below the age of 35 I hear in concert are guilty of plodding and ciphering; they trudge through the music unscathed but without communicating its substantive meaning.

I'm not suggesting that the practical side of the classical music curriculum be ignored, but the conventional conservatory wisdom is so antithetical to artistic excellence as to be positively frightening. The message from administrators and those teachers who follow the party line is that, in order to be successful, the aspirant must stand out as more technically proficient than his peers, but should never be perceived as outside of the main stream. If Joshua Bell had gone to Juilliard instead of Indiana University, he would never have developed his signature portamento.

Let us examine for a moment the state of contemporary performance of one particular piece: Brahms's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Written for solo piano, these masterful variations were designed to present a variety of shapes and colors, all generated from the same core theme. The genius of the piece, in addition to its almost superhuman melodic inventiveness, is that no two variations have the same style; the resulting totality is a survey of musical thought from the Baroque to the Modern, from the concert hall to the salon, from the palace to the whorehouse (where Brahms himself spent his early years at the piano bench).

Hearing these pieces in performance today, I am mostly struck by how little clue most modern pianists, educated in the conservatory system, have about musical styles and periods. Their "variants" sound like so many repetitions of similar thematic material. The performances are tedious and bland. Just compare the Tzimon Barto or Paul Bisaccia versions to those of, say, Claudio Arrau or Egon Petri.

Some 70% of students in Juilliard's pre-college program are East Asian, and critics - and therefore the public at large - have settled on the stereotype that artists of Pacific origins are unemotional. It is consummately ironic that it is their training at the hands of white Europeans that has often fostered this mechanical method.

Recently, I discussed these trends with a successful young jazz musician, a graduate of Juilliard who also spent two years at Manhattan, and who gave up a good classical orchestral job a few years ago. He pointed out that true expressivity in the classical repertoire is extremely difficult to achieve and requires a great deal of time learning the subtleties of individual technique. As a result, it should come as no surprise when highly skilled conservatory graduates drift toward jazz and pop.

Those who pursue careers in classical music and do not succeed as soloists must deal with the reality that finding a position with a solvent symphony orchestra these days is almost impossible. In 2002, for example, when the hard-working but hardly world-class Albany Symphony was seeking an oboist, the orchestra was

overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the aspirants for this relatively low-paying position. Considering that a successful candidate for that one position must have about as many rigorous years of study under his belt as a physician, the competition is geared towards acceptance.

Of course, no one ever went to Juilliard to become an oboist in the Albany Symphony - or, for that matter, the 15th second violin player of the New York Philharmonic. Virtually all hope to be soloists when they enter the conservatory, and as a result many are disaffected in their orchestral jobs later in life. In fact, conductors have to spend a lot of valuable rehearsal time instructing their members about what they should have learned in school.

The best musicians graduating from these institutions today are those lucky enough to study with the few private teachers who are still risk-takers, or those rare students, such as Midori and Yo-Yo Ma, who were educated in stylistic matters by their parents. But be wary when attending a concert at one of these conservatories. That clapping you hear at the conclusion may simply be the sound of self-congratulatory pats on the back.
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Post by Lance » Tue Sep 13, 2005 8:12 am

What an eye-opener from this critic's perspective. Makes you wonder what does go on in our "best" institutions.

I'm reading Mozart in the Jungle. What an eye-opener that is, too, from the performer's point of view [an oboist, to boot].
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Conservatory musicians

Post by C.B. » Tue Sep 13, 2005 8:46 am

Sadly, much of what the article says about "conservatory musicians" is true. Many years ago, the British viola da gambist Peggy Sampson wrote an article in Continuo magazine about this very topic; in it, she decried the average conservatory-trained musician's lack of imaginative phrasing, his unwillingness to find the expression in the notes, instead choosing the pursuit of technical perfection and "playing it safe". Unfortunately, period instrument performance at the time of the article (late '70s) didn't have quite the standing that it has today, and so Ms. Sampson's remarks were dismissed by many in the musical "establishment" as the ravings of the "lunatic fringe".

I believe that areas such as Early Music, jazz, alternate music, third world music, even some aspects of Pop are potentially capable of injecting life into the moribund concert music scene and drawing more people (i.e., young people) back into the concert halls.

In the area of Early Music (roughly pre-1750), a very positive recent development is the frequent appearance of such period-instrument conductors as Nicholas McGegan and Robert King on the podiums of American orchestras. Mr. McGegan's yearly concerts with my home-town orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, are immensely popular, and feature inspired, imaginative music-making that draws crowds. Nary a trace of "elitism" or pedantry is to be found--rather than haranging about vibrato and phrasing, about the "correct" way of playing, McGegan believes in letting the musicians "do their own thing". Of course, this is the basic premise of the Early Music movement, that interpretation should come from the individual performer, rather than being imposed "from on high".
Musica magnorum est solamen dulce laborum

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Post by Donald Isler » Tue Sep 13, 2005 9:05 am

I'm glad that the writer notes that classical musicians may have an education as long as that of a physician. Certainly the six years I spent at the Manhattan School of Music getting my bachelor's and master's degrees are just a small fraction of my many years of professional study.

I will also never forget a cartoon that was on the wall in the MSM finance office in those days, the place where students paid their bills to the school, or pleaded for mercy if they were short on money. The cartoon showed an insurance salesman at the home of a young couple to whom he was trying to sell a policy. Their young child was playing on the floor with his toys as they spoke. The salesman said to the parents "And here's an extra policy you'll need if your child goes into music, or the theater."
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Post by Ralph » Tue Sep 13, 2005 9:11 am

Donald Isler wrote:I'm glad that the writer notes that classical musicians may have an education as long as that of a physician. Certainly the six years I spent at the Manhattan School of Music getting my bachelor's and master's degrees are just a small fraction of my many years of professional study.

I will also never forget a cartoon that was on the wall in the MSM finance office in those days, the place where students paid their bills to the school, or pleaded for mercy if they were short on money. The cartoon showed an insurance salesman at the home of a young couple to whom he was trying to sell a policy. Their young child was playing on the floor with his toys as they spoke. The salesman said to the parents "And here's an extra policy you'll need if your child goes into music, or the theater."
*****

Did your parents buy that policy? :)
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Post by pizza » Tue Sep 13, 2005 9:13 am

I've heard that the few who made it as successful soloists in modern times studied with a noted pedagogue or a successful artist after their basic musical education.

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Post by C.B. » Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:19 am

pizza wrote:I've heard that the few who made it as successful soloists in modern times studied with a noted pedagogue or a successful artist after their basic musical education.
Another possibility is the "summer music festival". I find it noteworthy that many symphony musicians are drawn to places like Aspen or Tanglewood, where they go to develop their dormant "chamber music" abilities.
Musica magnorum est solamen dulce laborum

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Post by karlhenning » Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:33 am

Time to repeat the old joke: What's the difference between a large pizza and a classical musician?

A large pizza feeds a family of four.
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Post by C.B. » Tue Sep 13, 2005 11:03 am

Or the comparison between a scientist, and engineer, an accountant, and a classical musician--

A scientist asks, "why does it work?" An engineer asks, "how does it work?" An accountant asks, "how much does it cost?" A classical musician asks, "do you want fries with that?"
Musica magnorum est solamen dulce laborum

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Post by janewilko » Tue Sep 13, 2005 2:26 pm

Don't be so negative!

I am in my fourth year at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and I love it. Yes it's hard going but if you want to be a successful musician you have to take the rough with the smooth.

If conservatoires were soft on the student then what is the point? It is a harsh industry and you have to be prepared whatever life throws at you. I have to be discaplined to be the best and if thats what it takes then I'm going to do it. :D

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Post by Lance » Tue Sep 13, 2005 2:39 pm

janewilko wrote:Don't be so negative!

I am in my fourth year at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and I love it. Yes it's hard going but if you want to be a successful musician you have to take the rough with the smooth.

If conservatoires were soft on the student then what is the point? It is a harsh industry and you have to be prepared whatever life throws at you. I have to be discaplined to be the best and if thats what it takes then I'm going to do it. :D

Hi janewilko from Blackpool. [How I love that name, Blackpool.] Well, you make a good case, and if I was a betting person, I'd bet that you are going to do just fine and make it to the top. Keep up the great spirit!
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Post by janewilko » Tue Sep 13, 2005 2:43 pm

Why thank you, Lance! If you don't believe in yourself, then who will?

Watch this space! :D

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Post by Ralph » Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:00 pm

janewilko wrote:Don't be so negative!

I am in my fourth year at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and I love it. Yes it's hard going but if you want to be a successful musician you have to take the rough with the smooth.

If conservatoires were soft on the student then what is the point? It is a harsh industry and you have to be prepared whatever life throws at you. I have to be discaplined to be the best and if thats what it takes then I'm going to do it. :D
*****

Thanks for the very on-point corrective to the parade of jokes about musicians. All the best to you in your career.
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Post by MaestroDJS » Wed Sep 14, 2005 5:10 am

janewilko wrote:I am in my fourth year at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and I love it. Yes it's hard going but if you want to be a successful musician you have to take the rough with the smooth.
Of course classical musicians don't choose their career for the money, it's because their career chooses them. Thank goodness for that. The world would be a much poorer place if it weren't for committed musicians who give us glimpses of heaven every time they compose or perform.

Then there are those of us who took the "easy" road. Three decades ago I seriously considered a career as a composer, but my parents persuaded me to choose "something more practical." So I pursued engineering instead of composition. Much as I enjoy this career, it's always been my 2nd choice.

Luckily circumstances are such that I've begun to enjoy a rewarding 2nd career as a part-time composer. Last year came a commission for a concerto which was premièred this year, now I'm working on a commission for a fanfare for brass and percussion, and a Chicago-area orchestra has inquired about my music instead of the other way around. Oh well, maybe I needed to live nearly half a century before I had anything meaningful to say anyway. :)

In retrospect it was probably a blessing in disguise that I dropped out of musical academia. The trendy faculty composers in the 1970s used graph paper and mathematical formulas and aleatoric passages to write their music for them, whereas I was hopelessly mired in melodies. :D

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Post by janewilko » Wed Sep 14, 2005 10:13 am

Some would say I am young and therefore naive about a carrer in opera (being only 21) but somebody has to be an opera singer. If we all gave up then there would be a national crisis. A world without singing...? Unthinkable! :o

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Post by Ralph » Wed Sep 14, 2005 10:18 am

janewilko wrote:Some would say I am young and therefore naive about a carrer in opera (being only 21) but somebody has to be an opera singer. If we all gave up then there would be a national crisis. A world without singing...? Unthinkable! :o
*****

You are so right. Reflecting my own commitment to averting such a crisis - indeed a catastrophe - I have for the past year been spending much money for a study at home karaoke course in becoming a heldentenor. Not to sound arrogant but when the Met next holds open auditions I expect my "Siegfried" to stun the panel.
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Post by jbuck919 » Wed Sep 14, 2005 10:24 am

Ralph wrote:
janewilko wrote:Some would say I am young and therefore naive about a carrer in opera (being only 21) but somebody has to be an opera singer. If we all gave up then there would be a national crisis. A world without singing...? Unthinkable! :o
*****

Not to sound arrogant but when the Met next holds open auditions I expect my "Siegfried" to stun the panel.
I have no doubt it will. :)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Post by MaestroDJS » Wed Sep 14, 2005 11:32 am

jbuck919 wrote:
Ralph wrote:
janewilko wrote:Some would say I am young and therefore naive about a carrer in opera (being only 21) but somebody has to be an opera singer. If we all gave up then there would be a national crisis. A world without singing...? Unthinkable! :o
You are so right. Reflecting my own commitment to averting such a crisis - indeed a catastrophe - I have for the past year been spending much money for a study at home karaoke course in becoming a heldentenor. Not to sound arrogant but when the Met next holds open auditions I expect my "Siegfried" to stun the panel.
I have no doubt it will. :)
Oh, what the heck, here's one more nested quote box. :D
What a great idea! You might remember that great article from The Onion:

New York Philharmonic Hosts Open-Mic Night
http://www.classicalmusicguide.com/viewtopic.php?t=8501

Metropolitan Opera Karaoke could be the next craze in music, even better than all those Do-It-Yourself Messiahs.

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Re: Conservatory musicians

Post by Johnny » Wed Sep 14, 2005 4:43 pm

C.B. wrote:Sadly, much of what the article says about "conservatory musicians" is true. Many years ago, the British viola da gambist Peggy Sampson wrote an article in Continuo magazine about this very topic; in it, she decried the average conservatory-trained musician's lack of imaginative phrasing, his unwillingness to find the expression in the notes, instead choosing the pursuit of technical perfection and "playing it safe". Unfortunately, period instrument performance at the time of the article (late '70s) didn't have quite the standing that it has today, and so Ms. Sampson's remarks were dismissed by many in the musical "establishment" as the ravings of the "lunatic fringe".

I believe that areas such as Early Music, jazz, alternate music, third world music, even some aspects of Pop are potentially capable of injecting life into the moribund concert music scene and drawing more people (i.e., young people) back into the concert halls.

In the area of Early Music (roughly pre-1750), a very positive recent development is the frequent appearance of such period-instrument conductors as Nicholas McGegan and Robert King on the podiums of American orchestras. Mr. McGegan's yearly concerts with my home-town orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, are immensely popular, and feature inspired, imaginative music-making that draws crowds. Nary a trace of "elitism" or pedantry is to be found--rather than haranging about vibrato and phrasing, about the "correct" way of playing, McGegan believes in letting the musicians "do their own thing". Of course, this is the basic premise of the Early Music movement, that interpretation should come from the individual performer, rather than being imposed "from on high".

I couldn't agree more. The absence of true emotion does affect
the Performers ability to read the piece and create an accurate
interpretation. Often this mechanical style leads to a technical
if not outright bland performance.

I personally know more than one accomplished Musician that
has lost all passion and emotion for all but the most rousing
pieces. Shame really ...
I live my life one note at a time.

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Re: Conservatory musicians

Post by Barry » Wed Sep 14, 2005 5:02 pm

C.B. wrote:Sadly, much of what the article says about "conservatory musicians" is true. Many years ago, the British viola da gambist Peggy Sampson wrote an article in Continuo magazine about this very topic; in it, she decried the average conservatory-trained musician's lack of imaginative phrasing, his unwillingness to find the expression in the notes, instead choosing the pursuit of technical perfection and "playing it safe".
I've suspected for a while that the reason the top American orchestras seem to excel more when it comes to technical perfection, while the top European orchestras strike me as often sounding more musical in terms of phrasing and imagination is a result of the type of schooling the musicians receive in their conservatories in the respective continents.
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Post by Johnny » Wed Sep 14, 2005 5:32 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head Barry. There IS quite a bit
of difference between European and American orchestras and
especially Conductors.

If you read my new topic, you'll see how I feel. After spending
time in Europe during my formative years, I became hooked on
imaginative, expressive, and emotional conducting styles.

Do you think we Yanks need to lighten up a bit ? :)
I live my life one note at a time.

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Post by Barry » Wed Sep 14, 2005 5:40 pm

Johnny,
On us Yanks lightening up, I don't want to confuse music with other topics :wink: .

But I do tend to prefer the sound and style of the top European orchestras to the top American ones. Just a personal preference though.
"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee." - Abraham Lincoln

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Post by janewilko » Thu Sep 15, 2005 4:32 am

I think perhaps European orchestras play with a more traditional and patriotic approach to the music because it is part of their heritage. They have a natural feel for their national music. American orchestras are too obsessed with being the best therefore dwell on technique and every tiny detail of the score as a pose to the sound.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Thu Sep 15, 2005 12:07 pm

I thought the #1 job of conservatories was to produce the next generation of music teachers. The odds on their producing a soloist or orchestral member of any distinction are so poor, if that were their goal, they would have been out of business long ago.
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Post by MahlerSnob » Thu Sep 15, 2005 7:42 pm

This article is extremely broad and is clearly written by a person who has little direct contact with conservatories. There are many problems with the American conservatories (and they are all different problems). For example, Curtis has a habbit of favoring younger students. I personaly know several current Curtis students and recent graduates, and virtually all of them were 15 or 16 when they got into the school. The atmosphere, from what I hear, treats the students like prodigies and they end up having the mentality that they are better than everyone else and will never have any trouble winning jobs or working as soloists. This is, of course, far from the case.
Juilliard is an extremely intense inviroment, possibly a bit more than is really necessary. The school has been known to crush those students that are not emotionaly "built for it" or those who do not conform to what the teachers expect.
NEC has plenty of problems, all of which I know all too well. Their main problem is in giving string players an innacurate view of how likely it is that they will be in professional string quartets. The faculty is made up primarily of prominent quartet players (Don Wilerstein, Paul Katz, and Martha Katz of the Cleveland Quartet being the best example) who encourage their students to play in quartets and not take orchestra seriously. This is of course problematic, as most of these players will get orchestra jobs.
Anyway, this article makes many broad generalizations and over-vilifies the conservatory system. It also picks on Juilliard - which is by far the most severe offender of all the named evils - and speaks as though all other conservatories are exactly the same. This is not true. Saying that the atmosphere and training at all conservatorys is exactly the same is like saying that Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Standford are all exactly the same.
I am tempted to go through this article an rebut each false statement point by point, but I lack the time, energy, and laptop battery to do so right now.
I thought the #1 job of conservatories was to produce the next generation of music teachers. The odds on their producing a soloist or orchestral member of any distinction are so poor, if that were their goal, they would have been out of business long ago.
Actually, no. The #1 job of conservatorys has always been to train performers, and contrary to what you may think, orchestra jobs are not that rare - to say nothing of free lance work, church jobs for keyboardists and singers, and other such work. Educators are traditionaly produced by the large University music schools - Indiana, Michigan, etc.
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