I am so happy that my blog post My Pretend Music School has created dialogue about music school curriculum! It’s had over 40,000 readers (!!!!) and has been used as a talking point for higher ed administration, committees, and faculty meetings around the country. As a working musician, I am not in the position to make decisions about these topics, so creating dialogue is the most I can do. So, THANK YOU for reading, agreeing, disagreeing, and talking about the issues!
One general response to my blog post was especially thought provoking:
“I like your ideas but I’m not sure how they would apply in a traditional college curriculum…”
For me, this is one of my major issues with music school curriculum: “If your ideas don’t fit into our system, then we can’t use them.” How about this, music schools? Rather than changing these “new age” concepts to fit into your traditional framework, perhaps a better solution would be to change your system to allow these new concepts to be introduced and experienced by our students.
Since I have self-appointed myself pretend dean of my pretend music school, (I know, that sounds ridiculous), and since I have some newly enrolled students (readers!), here’s one idea for our pretend school:
Forget everything you know about your senior year of music school. You’re going to do this instead.
SENIOR YEAR FIELD EXPERIENCE
I would love to see students receive actual field experience before graduating. LOTS of it. Get real world experience before actually entering the real world. I think a music student’s senior year could consist of lessons with their primary teacher (yes, being a good musician is still priority #1), plus a number of different field experience projects. Having already taken their required course work during their first three years of school, seniors could focus on putting their education into action. For lack of a better name, let’s’ call it Senior Year Field Experience. Here’s how it could work:
During your senior year, you do not take classes. That’s right. No classes. Instead, you take lessons with your primary teacher while spending the year as an actual “working” musician. Specifically, you’d be required to:
– Book, self-present, market, promote, and perform X number of concerts in your community. These self-presented concerts won’t take place at your music school i.e. no concert office, stage crew, and music stands to help students out. It’s important students face these “real” gigs as they will in the real world. Perhaps this means a student barters with a local church or public school to gain a performance space… The music a student performs, who they perform with, and how these concerts are presented will ultimately be up to the student, just as it would be in the real world.
– Seniors will give X number of educational outreach presentations at public schools. Cultivating a young audience for classical music is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of keeping classical music alive. Creating meaningful presentations for young people, analyzing those presentations, fixing them and making them better, is a really important skill to have.
– Through a collaboration with local public schools, each senior is required to maintain a small teaching studio throughout the year (maybe 5 students or more). They will offer weekly lessons to underserved students of various ages and ability. Lessons will periodically be monitored by a teaching mentor, who will offer suggestions and criticisms, ultimately helping these music majors become better educators. The experience of teaching on a regular basis is extremely beneficial i.e. scheduling, lesson planning, adapting to different learning styles, crashing and burning, etc.
– Create a website that features a press kit, X number of photos, X number of videos, a biography, audio, etc. In other words, a functioning real life website (!)
This “field experience year” could be overseen by career mentors, who would offer advice and guidance. Ultimately though, it’s up to the student to make everything happen. Schedule rehearsals, plan video shoots, call venues, practice (!), make posters, create social media events, create a lesson schedule, write press releases, etc… And if you don’t get everything done, you don’t get the job (or in this case, the degree.)
As a student, I would much prefer this “field experience year” as opposed to another year of classes, as it gives me a little more creative freedom, a lot
more responsibility, and a genuine real world experience that I can learn from. It demands that our students become go-getters, be active instead of passive musicians. In the real world, we ultimately learn by doing, and with this “field experience year”, we are essentially giving our students an entire year to experience the real world in a supportive, educational environment, before they actually dive in.
Some might be asking, “Can’t you just do that stuff when you graduate? Why do you have to do it in school?
Student loans, paying bills, and simply putting food on the table can be stressful for young musicians. It’s the nature of our job; it’s a very difficult career path, and will always be. In his address to the Eastman School of Music graduating class of 2010, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman summed it up best. “You are brave” for doing what you do. I remember sitting around my fellow classmates thinking “What is he talking about?” Now, I know.
I would much prefer students have a practice run at being a working musician before diving in. When a student is in school, they can afford to take creative risks, and ultimately, make mistakes and learn from them. Once you’re in the real world, that luxury dissipates pretty quickly.
I realize some students just want to do one thing; just play in an orchestra, just be a soloist, etc…Given our job market, that is no longer a feasible approach for 98% of our graduates. Sure, it might work for specialty schools like Juilliard or Curtis, but as my friend Robert Freeman
says, “Every school can’t be Juilliard or Curtis, and shouldn’t try to be.” That’s a short, but pretty profound statement. (By the way, a few of my current band members are Juilliard and Curtis grads, and they are doing way more
than just one thing to make a living too!)
I can’t take credit for the concept of “field study”, as it’s been happening for decades in the music school world. Most music education majors around the country are required to student teach. Some schools and educators have adopted independent studies that might focus on a particular topic of interest, while others are applying field studies on a broader scale, through creating ensembles and community residencies, an idea that my friend Michael Drapkin encourages students to do. I am simply taking the concept of field study and applying it to an entire year of a student’s degree program, so that students can realize first hand what it’s like to be a current day working musician.
Before you say I’m crazy, (which many people already do), here are the experiences a Senior Year Field Experience could provide:
– organizing and self presenting concerts
– creating outreach initiatives
– day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month planning
– real life teaching experience
– creating an online portfolio
This sort of curriculum change, I believe, could also have a broad social impact, creating more musically immersed and affluent communities. Can you imagine if multiple colleges and universities from around the country adopted a field experience music curriculum? In those particular cities, there would be more concerts, more lessons for underserved music students, and more outreach presentations for young people, which could lead to more appreciation for music on a broader scale. Pretty utopian and idealistic, I know.
Back to my main point. The most important thing a Senior Year Field Experience could offer a student:
An entire year of being a real musician; gaining a real life understanding of what it takes to piece it all together. That’s what the job title “musician” has become, whether we like it or not.
This is just one idea that reimagines what a music degree could look like. Maybe this isn’t for every school out there, or for every student out there. But wouldn’t it be nice to at least have the option?
Ben Fang, a wonderful musician, member of the band Grey Light, and current Eastman student, once said to me regarding entrepreneurship in the music school curriculum: “I want to be a working musician, which means I might not make a lot of money. I’m ok with that. Ultimately, I want these classes to teach me how to be a little less poor doing what I love to do.” I don’t think Ben is asking for too much.
I understand there’s an argument that a college education should not be gauged in the light of economics, that college is about enlightenment and knowledge, not about making a career in the end. I agree that college is about gaining knowledge, being enlightened, and ultimately becoming an independent thinker. All I’m asking is that music schools give their students the tools necessary to pay for their enlightment. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for either.
You might be asking, “Is a Senior Year Field Experience even doable at a real college? Would it meet all of the requirements for a real life college degree?” Honestly, I’m not sure, but it certainly meets the requirements for being a real life musician.
– Ivan Trevino, 11/9/14