Secrets of The Studio: Changes In Performance Teaching

October 1, 2009

Performance is, in certain respects, the primary branch of the subject that we teach in music departments and schools: it is a deeply formative part of every music student’s training; it is the experience that most often brings students into the study of music at the college level; it is what the largest number of students concentrate on in conservatories and in many music schools and departments; and it is what the public thinks music schools and departments are all about. At the same time, it can be hypothesized that performance teaching is the least changed of our musical pedagogies in the last fifty years. This hypothesis can even be tested in a limited way, by examining the documentary evidence of institutional catalogs. A look through the catalogs of a North American conservatory or university school of music or liberal-arts college from the past fifty years—the lifetime of The College Music Society—reveals that the course offerings and the structure of requirements in performance look distinctly less changed than those in composition or music theory or history, to say nothing of ethnomusicology. The heart of our performance pedagogy continues to be the weekly one-hour instrumental or vocal lessons and the regular rehearsals of choirs and instrumental ensembles.

Of course what goes on in the lesson and the rehearsal may have changed drastically, and it should be possible to examine whether it has or not. Here too there is documentation. Some of it is anecdotal, as in Judith Kogan’s 1987 memoir, Nothing but the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at The Juilliard School. Some of it is analytical, as in Henry Kingsbury’s 1988 study, Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System, or Bruno Nettl’s 1995 study, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Unfortunately for our purpose, each of these studies is concerned with capturing a single moment of institutional history, rather than with determining how things might be changing in the teaching of musical performance. Furthermore, in institutional histories, like Andrea Olmstead’s 1999 Juilliard: A History, which do concern themselves with processes of change, there are only sporadic hints of what went on in studios and rehearsals at different moments in the lives of those institutions. To cull the relevant insights from sources of all these kinds into a history of performance teaching would be a monumental undertaking.

When we look for some of the other kinds of documentation that can be most useful in tracking change in the teaching of music—namely, course syllabi and textbooks—we still come up short. Syllabi hardly exist for most performance courses, and textbooks play a distinctly minor role in most of them. There are exceptions, such as conducting courses, which have traditionally been taught to large groups in order to provide an ensemble for every student to conduct; for those classroom courses there was already a choice of several textbooks fifty years ago. The secrets of what has or has not changed in the studio and in the rehearsal room in the last half-century seem far harder to unlock than the comparable secrets of classroom teaching.

Rather than trying to break down the studio door to reveal the secrets within, let us reflect on the unchanged structure of our performance teaching. In the first place, though it may not have changed much in fifty years, it is hardly an eternal or inevitable structure. Two hundred years ago, music lessons were more likely to be given daily than weekly, and the regimes of daily practicing that make our weekly cycle of lessons effective had not yet been invented.1 Presumably the structure of instruction could change again. Furthermore, while the catalogs that appeared during these fifty years show an overwhelmingly unchanged format of lessons and rehearsals, they also reveal shifts in the kinds of careers for which performers are being trained, growth in the numbers of instruments and traditions being taught within that format, and an ever-changing context of courses that are offered to performance students in musical disciplines other than performance. Each of these developments has had a great impact on the learning experience of performance students and could have more. Let us consider them by turn.


Career Goals

Fifty years ago American music students could study performance in universities and colleges and conservatories, at home or abroad. But they could also still train for careers in performance by studying privately with master performer-teachers whose studios might or might not be connected to conservatories. In any case, they sometimes considered acquiring a degree to have been beside the point. Today it is very much to the point: performing musicians outside the popular realm all need one higher degree after another, or think they do, largely because they understand that careers in performance generally entail some teaching at institutions that require those credentials of their teachers. Music programs have always prepared students for a range of career activities. Nineteenth-century conservatories, for instance, explicitly trained their female piano students for careers as private piano teachers. Fifty years ago piano accompaniment was taught at the New England Conservatory in a course that promised to be useful for rehearsal pianists as well as onstage accompanists; the 1957-58 catalog describes the course as “practical training for advanced piano students in the art of accompanying vocal music (songs, operas, and oratorios).” Now this subject is called “collaborative performance” (though the term is applied to the pianist, not the singer, as if it takes only one to collaborate). And collaborative performance, like performance pedagogy, is now the subject of entire degree programs, not single courses. It has turned from an auxiliary skill into a career goal.

In a sense, music departments, in giving this new professional prominence within piano teaching to what were once considered everyday and auxiliary uses of the keyboard, are reverting to a pre-nineteenth-century conception of the keyboard instrument as an all-purpose tool—for composing and arranging as well as for accompanying and rehearsing—more than as a solo instrument. The new varieties of piano instruction, including the ever-growing pedagogy of class piano, can therefore be understood simply as new ways in which music programs accommodate the age-old recognition that they cannot count on sending all their students—whatever their primary medium of performance—on to careers devoted exclusively to performing. These programs may in fact be recognizing not only that most musicians trained as performers will make their livings using these out-of-the-limelight musical skills, but that all of them should be able to.

The same recognition marks the teaching of keyboard and other chord-playing instruments in traditions other than the mainstream classical. In early music programs, for instance, the teaching of the harpsichord—and also of the lute and other plucked instruments—is geared as much toward basso continuo playing as to solo repertory. In jazz programs the piano is often taught to singers and players of non-keyboard instruments, to enable them to learn, analyze, arrange, accompany, direct, and compose songs, not just to perform a single line. In popular-music programs of all kinds, including jazz, guitar instruction may take the place of keyboard instruction, precisely because the guitar is such an all-purpose tool in popular music. And for that reason, not just because of its solo function, the guitar has supplanted the keyboard as the most popular instrument in some music programs.

At the same time, electronic keyboards have stepped into new roles, and in some of those roles they put old skills out of business. They facilitate the use of music-writing software, for example, making it easy for students to compose and arrange music and hear what they have written. In this function, one keyboard displaces another, as the student uses the electronic keyboard to render the traditional class-piano skills to some extent obsolete. Just as composition teachers ask themselves what old and new skills are relevant to the brave new world of composing in the ever-changing digital era, performance teachers likewise find themselves needing to ask what skills their students need in order to pursue their careers in the teaching studio, the recording studio, the electronic studio, the rehearsal room, and the office, as well as onstage. For performers in the classical tradition, much of the technical side of the career may be connected to but separable from the act of performing itself; for performers in the popular tradition, that distinction may itself be a thing of the past.


An Expanded Range of Traditions

To be discussing instruction in harpsichord and guitar here is a sign of what might be considered the greatest single change in the college-level teaching of performance over the last fifty years: within the unchanging structure of vocal and instrumental lessons and rehearsals, the range of performing traditions, instruments, vocal styles, and ensembles that we teach has exploded. Fifty years ago, while Chuck Berry was singing “Roll over, Beethoven,” there was instruction in a very limited range of Western popular traditions at many schools; the focus was primarily on big band jazz and Broadway theater. Many other schools left even those traditions, along with other Western popular and folk traditions, to fend for themselves as the extracurricular interests of certain students. Just a couple of departments in the whole continent offered any instruction in any Non-Western performing tradition. And no institution offered what we would call historically-informed instruction in the performance of Western music or specialized instruction in the performance of contemporary music. Today, of course, music departments and schools all over the continent offer instruction in the performance of a much wider array of traditions than the most advanced school or department did then. And that instruction is complemented by courses in the theory and history and cultural dynamics of those traditions and in the pedagogies of teaching them to the next generation of North American students.

The question of pedagogies deserves attention. Every performing tradition has its own tradition of instruction. Nevertheless, in our music programs we now fit instruction in shakuhachi, electric bass, and folk fiddle into structures—alien to those traditions— that we devised for the teaching of Western classical instrumental and vocal performance: the one-hour weekly studio lesson, the assigned practice-room hours, the audition, the jury, the solo recital. Teachers who themselves learned within the traditional structures sometimes complain of the inappropriateness of the new ones. But bringing so many performance media and traditions into a single pedagogical structure also presents an opportunity that was not available half a century ago: the opportunity for teachers and students of all the traditions represented within a program to come together—whether in a course or symposium or an informal setting—and compare their experiences of teaching and learning within a common pedagogical structure. This would be a way for musicians to become more conscious of how the structures of their teaching and learning shape the ways teachers teach and the ways students learn to perform and to think about performance.

This opportunity to compare pedagogies is available in ensemble instruction as well as in individual instrumental and vocal instruction. In the Western classical ensembles that were standard in music programs fifty years ago—orchestra, choir, and chamber groups—there is already plenty of room for comparison. String quartet coaching teaches a model of decision-making that could not be more different from what orchestra directors teach and exemplify: “the conductor is the general,” writes Bruno Nettl, “the ‘baton’ of military origin.”2 With this military metaphor he raises an important question about what kind of musical culture we are constructing—and in particular about the kind of education we are giving in music-making—when we teach ensemble performance in a command-and-obey structure, as opposed to the more egalitarian and collaborative structure that is taught for string quartet playing.

How is the potential for such comparisons enriched when other traditions of ensemble performance are added to the curriculum? The added traditions, which range from Ghanaian drumming to Renaissance consort playing, offer many different models of leading and following, give and take, conformity and autonomy—much more than a simple choice between the model of the Western orchestra or choir and that of the string quartet. Besides, authoritarian methods are sometimes used to teach cooperative methods of ensemble performance; at the same time, some orchestral or choral conductors may be teaching by less authoritarian and more dialectical methods these days. My point is not that one kind of ensemble or one tradition is better than another in the way it models musical decision-making and coordination, but that when students have the opportunity to observe and participate in the workings of several traditions, they can discover for themselves how the musical styles in different traditions may relate to different power structures in instruction and performance. Of course, the mere fact that North American music programs nowadays often offer instruction in more than one performance tradition is no guarantee that the students are taking up the offer and are making these comparisons and discoveries about style and power. It is up to faculty from all the traditions represented on a campus to encourage them to ask such questions.


The Curricular Context

It is not, however, solely up to the performance faculty to help students become more conscious of what values are embedded in the models of music-making they are learning. For if in one sense the greatest change in the last half-century of performance teaching has been the expanded range of traditions we teach, in another sense it is the expanded range of classroom courses that performance students take in addition to their studio lessons and ensemble rehearsals. The other papers presented in the sessions on the topic “A Half-Century of Change in College Music Teaching” at the national meeting of The College Music Society in Salt Lake City, 2007 explore how the teaching of our other musical disciplines has changed over the half-century. My point here is simply that the expanding classroom requirements and opportunities of the performance degree have turned the student’s lessons and rehearsals from an education in themselves into one component of a curriculum in musical performance. Let us now consider how the studio and rehearsal component has been integrated into that curriculum.

What is perhaps most remarkable in this process is that the studio has survived at all, given what a costly part of the college-level music education it is. Compared to almost all the other teaching done in a college or university, the one-on-one time of the studio teacher is an extraordinary extravagance, and extravagances always attract the attention of institutional budget-cutters. How then has this system survived and flourished, when it is so expensive? Why has it not succumbed to alternatives? Why in particular has no technology been devised to deliver performance instruction more efficiently? The defense of the one-on-one lesson, I believe, has at least implicitly rested on the widely-held belief that performance instruction requires the establishment of a personal relationship; that the lesson fulfills a need that is as much role-modeling, or even therapy, as it is pedagogy. Likewise, the ensemble class is widely viewed as a group bonding experience, something more like the experience of a sports team than of other academic classes.

But the very personal character of this mode of teaching poses difficulties when it comes to integrating performance instruction into a larger curricular experience. The difficulty is that the vocal or instrumental teacher, who has the student to himself or herself for an hour a week and who may have a decisive power over the student’s performing career, develops a kind of authority over the student’s thinking that may shut out the voices of other teachers—music theorists, musicologists, composers, teachers of subjects other than music—and may therefore shut down the kind of dialogue that a curricular education might seem designed to promote. The difficulty, in other words, comes from the studio teacher’s or ensemble director’s power to insist on being obeyed and believed.

The music studio and rehearsal room are places where teachers pass on a tradition of techniques, stylistic concepts, and attitudes towards performance that they have learned in the same way themselves. My question is whether students in college music programs today can master that kind of tradition while also learning to think about how that tradition fits into the larger world of music-making. The following story indicates something about where things stand. A friend of mine is the director of choral programs at an American music school and also an expert on historical performance practices, with a particular passion on the subject of the sparing use singers made of vibrato in centuries past. Recently, faced with choral singers whose voice teachers insisted that singing without vibrato ruins the voice, he played them a recording made at the beginning of the twentieth century, on which a tenor who sang Wagner in leading opera houses for thirty-five years could be heard singing up to a high A without vibrato. The response to this recording from his students was “How could untrained singers wind up at the Met?”

There are several lessons that can be drawn from this story. One is that these students are being asked, by my friend at least, to consider vocal production and style as historically and culturally contingent, to consider that different repertories and traditions require different vocal approaches. Furthermore, they are being taught these attitudes not by a musicologist or an ethnomusicologist, but by one of their performance professors. And he is showing them how historically-informed performers historically inform themselves—a much more important contribution to their education, in my view, than any particular conclusion he might offer them about the use of vibrato in the early twentieth century. All of this marks a remarkable change in performance teaching from fifty years ago. But another lesson that can be drawn from the story is that some students at least, despite being surrounded by a plethora of different vocal sounds and styles and techniques, to which they are introduced by composers, ethnomusicologists, teachers of Western, including popular, music history, and even their choral director, nevertheless cling to the idea that only the kind of vocal training they are taught in their lessons can be considered vocal training at all. The studio system, in other words, seems in this case to be investing voice teachers with an authority that trumps whatever teachers of other subjects are saying. It hardly seems like an integrated education.

That this struggle for the minds of students has been joined at all is surely a great step toward educating them as self-conscious, thinking musicians and preparing them to work open-mindedly in the contemporary world of musics. But it seems to me that we make it unnecessarily hard for ourselves to achieve that goal when we allow ourselves —whatever branch of music we teach—to preach our various sermons to our students without engaging our colleagues’ very different sermons. And so I want to conclude my survey of change and no-change in fifty years of performance teaching with a question: If in fifty years we have brought such a magnificent range of musical traditions and perspectives and disciplines into the programs we offer our students, why can’t we take the next step and bring those differences into a fruitful collaboration in our teaching of performance?

Why for instance, with all the wonderful scholarship being produced today on issues of performance,3 can’t our performance teachers and our musicologists and theorists, our classical-music teachers, popular-music teachers, and non-Western music teachers, our voice and instrument teachers and our ensemble directors, devise and offer courses on performance together? Why can’t we make the teaching of performance, in both the studio and the classroom, intellectually provocative? Why not let theorists and performers challenge each others’ ideas of how a piece works; let early-music specialists and mainstream performers challenge each others’ ideas about how to interpret the evidence on performing Bach; let musicologists and ethnomusicologists argue about what constitutes a tradition or a style or a culture of performance. And let us do these things not just at conferences and in the pages of journals, but as a regular part of our curricula, so that we are teaching our students what it takes to contribute responsibly and meaningfully to these debates. Otherwise, though we may be introducing our students to all the music in the world, when it comes to their principal medium, we are still only teaching them to follow our own example and to obey our commands. And to my mind, that’s not educating them.



Kingsbury, Henry A. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988.

Kogan, Judith. Nothing but the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School. New York: Random House, 1987.

Nettl, Bruno. Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Olmstead, Andrea. Juilliard: A History. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Parakilas, James, Judith Tick, Douglas E. Bomberger, Martha Dennis Burns, and Mark Tucker. “The Piano Lesson.” In Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, edited by James Parakilas, 132-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Rink, John, ed. Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.



1See Parakilas, et al., “The Piano Lesson.”

2Nettl, Heartland Excursions, 35.

3One rich sampler of recent scholarship on the subject is Rink, ed., Musical Performance.

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