I’m not employed by a university. I perform and compose music. That’s my job. So it’s easier for me to speak out in an unfiltered way about music schools, their curriculum, and why I think it should be different. No one can fire me for speaking my mind, so I’m going to let it fly. Here it goes:
“That’s how we’ve always done it.”
“We can’t lose who we are as an institution.”
“We have expectations that we need to meet.”
“We can’t lose who we are as an institution.”
“We have expectations that we need to meet.”
These are all answers I’ve heard from real life music school deans and professors when asked why music schools haven’t evolved. They always get a little uncomfortable when I ask questions like, “Why is the curriculum the same today as it was 50 years ago?” “Shouldn’t we evolve with the changing culture around us?” “Why is the orchestral repertoire so highly studied while the popular music genre is completely ignored?” These questions can sometimes push people’s buttons. I once was asked, “Well, if you think things need to change, what would YOUR ideal music school look like?”
I’ve thought a little bit about this, and have come up with some ideas. Here’s what my pretend music school would look like:
- Every student at my pretend music school is required to take a class in Audio / Visual production: How to operate a camera, sync recorded audio to video, learn about aperture / brightness / editing / splicing / etc. Why a required A/V class? Other than playing live, online videos are currently the biggest platform for reaching new audiences, which is critical to a musician’s survival. If this means I omit a semester of music history from my pretend music school’s curriculum, then so be it. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT. Just look at Evan Monroe Chapman, a perfect example of a musician / videographer / completely awesome and creative person. Evan has created a platform to showcase his music skills because of his video skills. Since we don’t live in the same area, I might not know how sweet Evan is at percussion if it weren’t for his awesome videos. Now, I follow his career and own his record. I’m a fan. At my music school, every student will develop these skills and graduate with a basic online portfolio, including a YouTube channel, SoundCloud page, and a website.
- Career Counseling: Every student at my school will have frequent meetings with career counselors. This will be more than just a one time meeting to discuss interview skills like “make your weaknesses your strengths…” It will be a comprehensive plan to figure out student goals, and more importantly, actively doing things to reach those goals, while in school. By the time a student graduates, they should have already planted seeds to build their career. This could mean releasing a solo album, commissioning a fellow student composer, starting a band, creating an outreach program at inner-city schools, or taking orchestral auditions while in school. My career counselors will also be active in the field of music. I want my students to get advice from people presently doing things in the field.
- Less large ensembles, more chamber music. Given the amount of orchestra & concert band jobs currently available, why does a music student have to take so many semesters of large ensembles? While certainly important historical and pedogogical genres of music, the amount of time typically spent in these groups doesn’t equate to the amount of jobs actually available in those fields. Last time I checked, the amount of chamber groups are growing while the number of orchestras are decreasing. Shouldn’t a school’s curriculum adjust to meet these changes? My pretend school will have large ensembles, but will have a focus on chamber music; string quartets, quintets, rock bands, jazz combos, mixed ensembles, ukulele band, whatever. Maybe my students will be in charge of choosing what their chamber group is like; what genre they play, what music they play, where they play, their instrumentation, etc.
- Music Theory: Composing & Arranging. Having experience composing & arranging can create supplemental sources of income for musicians, i.e. marching band arrangements, chamber music arrangements of larger works, and even writing your own music, which gives you your own voice as a performer. Just remember, when someone asks you to arrange Sia’s Chandelier for piano and cello for their wedding, you should be able to do it. I mean, why not have that skill and make some extra income? Maybe this means we axe that last semester of atonal theory in favor of some more practical theoretical skills that we can immediately utilize in our post college lives.
- My pretend music school will have pour over coffee and ice cream readily available at all times. These things make people happy. Ice cream.
- Classical music will be a focus at my school, but so will other genres of music. For example, students should know how to play and improvise in many different styles. Don’t turn down gigs because you “don’t play rock”. You do want to make money, so you should have the skills to do so in many different musical contexts.
- Which is why students will all improvise! Yep, that liberal arts class you hardly ever go to will not exist at my pretend music school. Instead, you’ll go to a class focusing on improvisation and creativity. (Not that liberal arts classes are a bad thing! It’s good to be well rounded, but if your liberal arts class has absolutely nothing to do with what you want to be doing, you probably shouldn’t be paying for it.)
- Of course, there are private lessons with really great faculty members at my school. You have to be really good at your instrument! Scales, arpeggios, technical exercises, standard repertoire for your instrument, etc. My band member Patrick Laird, who is one of the most accomplished rock cellists I know of, says he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without the strict classical training he received from his private teacher at Eastman. So yes, you still have to practice and be really good!
- Eurhythmics: Eurhythmics is required. If you can’t walk, clap, and sing in time, you don’t deserve a degree from my pretend music school.
- Required Music Business classes. Do I even have to explain this one?
- Standing Room Only Concert Halls: Yes, my school will have standing room only concert & recital halls, with a bar readily available. Cheering will be encouraged. Have a good time. Music.
- On that note, my school will have a bi-weekly open mic night to encourage student performances. None of this one-recital-a-year business. If you’re at a music school, you should be performing all of the time, on a regular basis. That’s how you get better at performing.
- My music school will be located somewhere where the weather is perfect. Perfect weather!
- The DMA: I’ve thought long and hard about whether my school would offer a DMA degree. OK, maybe I didn’t think super hard about it, but I did think about it! I started thinking about the amount of DMA graduates currently in the world vs. how many jobs are actually available. It is scary to think about. Do I really want to send even more DMA graduates out into the world and encourage even more national student loan debt? Put them in a position where they potentially start their lives with what amounts to a mortgage in a job market that is mainly producing adjunct jobs with no benefits? Sorry for being dark, but it seems the education system in this country has developed a “must have” DMA protocol for acquiring any sort of college teaching job, even at the community college level… That’s CRAZY to me. Maybe not to you. But it is to me. It’s also especially startling when I think about the fact that none of my former college percussion teachers have DMA degrees. None of them. And they are all wildly successful, master teachers and performers, and essentially shaped the landscape of classical percussion music. But times change, and since colleges are in the business of selling degrees, they want you to have one. I guess that makes sense. I guess…perhaps a blog post for another days…For grins, let’s pretend my pretend school has a DMA program. Here are three things it would focus on:
- Performance: If you graduate with a DMA from my school, you damn well better be a beast at your instrument. If you’re not, how will you compete with your beastly peers from other schools? My pretend school’s DMA’s will be beastly performers.
- Teaching: If the purpose of acquiring a DMA is to teach at a college, shouldn’t your degree be less about the academics outside of your field and more about the stuff in your field? (I’m not sure a DMA candidate should spend months on end studying for a test that is mostly irrelevant to their end-goal.) Shouldn’t it be about bettering yourself as a teacher? Building a sustainable studio & program? Focusing on your field of study; repertoire, teaching pedagogy, lesson plans, etc.? My pretend school will focus on the actual stuff you need for your job, which ultimately leads to becoming a great teacher, which should be the definitive end goal of a DMA program. My pretend DMA’s will be beastly teachers and educators.
- Recruiting / Outreach is the third thing my DMA program focuses on, and probably every degree at my school. What does that even mean? Well, why would a college hire you if you can’t fundamentally rally people behind your cause? Once you get a job, you still have to get students to want to study with you, to want to come to Such and Such college to learn from you. If you can’t keep the numbers up, your job could very well diminish or get cut altogether. If you don’t have the personal skills to get out there, meet people, community build, and inspire people to want to study with you, then it will be hard to land a job, or worse, keep a job. So maybe some of those irrelevant tests and courses are replaced with seminars and classes in interpersonal skills and community building. My pretend DMA’s will be beastly interviewees and community leaders.
- Ice cream and coffee. I know I said that already.
Of course, there are schools out there starting to break the mold, which is great! I for one extremely value my education from Eastman School of Music, as it’s always been a school aware of the pulse of our industry and one that encourages creativity. (Bands like Break of Reality, Alarm Will Sound, Jack Quartet, and Sound Exchange all started at Eastman, so that says something to me. And yes, I called them bands.) Mannes School of Music has updated it’s curriculum significantly, which is awesome! So it’s happening, but I would love to see it happen at a much faster rate across the country.
What if your school isn’t evolving? That doesn’t mean you can’t. Host your own open mic night, write some music even if you don’t know what you’re doing, start a band, hire a public speaking coach to work on your interpersonal skills, or start a YouTube channel.
Got anymore ideas for an ideal music school? Speak out and share them. Maybe if we create enough noise, we can at least turn some heads and create more self-evaluation from the schools we invest our time, energy, money, and futures in. That’s what I’m hoping for.
- Ivan Trevino, Sept. 20, 2014