Confronting the Dilemmas of Higher Music Education: Is There a Will to Change?

August 17, 2015


Review: The Crisis of Classical Music in America: Lessons from a Life in the Education of Musicians: Robert Freeman
Rowman and Littlefield, 2014,  ISBN 978-1-4422-3301-0

To lead is to live dangerously because . . . when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—. . . . And people push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium . . . .People resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game, pushed aside, undermined, ostracized, or assassinated.

Martin Linsky and Ronald Heifitz
Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading
Harvard Business School, 2002 (2)

Following 24 years as Director of the Eastman School of Music, Robert Freeman found himself in the position of having his resignation as President of the New England Conservatory (NEC) requested by the institution’s board after only two years on the job. According to Freeman, having been recruited to mount the sorts of initiatives that had garnered Eastman’s recognition as an internationally leading music school, an NEC board member claimed he had “tried to turn NEC into a liberal arts college” (198). Reflecting on the event, Freeman thinks he may have attempted to move too quickly relative to the readiness of NEC for change; but he also implies that his efforts were compromised by a failure of support from those to whom he reported. Freeman notes, “I did not properly understand the nature of rumormongering in an institution where many people were made nervous by the thought of change,” and later states, “If you are willing to lead a music school into the next generation . . . you need at every moment the steadfast support of the person or people to whom you report if you are effectively to lead through what most American schools will need to survive in the years immediately ahead . . . in writing and frequently reiterated” (199).

From the title, one might assume that Freeman’s ultimately readable and insightful book would define the terms of a crisis in classical music and offer analyses of contributing factors and potential remedies. Though it fulfills that assumption to some extent, it’s not a linear path that Freeman treads. Instead, after calling attention to current indicators of concern in the professional world that ought to, but too often don’t, trouble those who study, teach, create, produce, and perform classical music—and those preparing for such roles—Freeman offers leadership and operational insights from his own years of experience as a music school administrator. His wealth of reflections, anecdotes, and sage advice are geared toward a positive, but changed, future for classical music and musicians, and for those willing to take the risk of leading and implementing change. Freeman’s defense of his NEC tenure is that he challenged the faculty and students to “think about whether they were really performers, and to question the problem raised by our issuance as a nation of more than twenty-one thousand degrees a year in music without questioning where and how all these young musicians might find employment in the world of music” (198).

His call for such critical and analytical thinking helps to reveal the book’s central theme: that schools of music have a responsibility to assure graduates the knowledge and skills to write, think, speak, and perform in ways that engage audiences more deeply and enhance people’s perceived relevance of classical music to societal issues and concerns. To do so, there will need to be better balance and cohesion among technique-heavy performance studies and related dimensions of music and beyond-music understanding. There will need to be greater acquaintance with, and respect for, diverse musics outside the classical canon. In addition, students need more opportunity to study fields of knowledge that complement music studies and enlarge their world views; and they require growing realization of political, community, demographic, business, and technological issues that influence the work of musicians and, concurrently, compel initiative on behalf of their art form. Successful career musicians will need to be versatile musically, entrepreneurial in spirit, cognizant of music’s historic and ongoing role in human existence and society, adaptable to change, and willing to risk new audience approaches and initiatives consistent with societal traits and needs.

Among Freeman’s persistent admonitions, closely related to the need for a more general and less specialized music education, is that the quality of time in the practice room is more important than quantity, and that not every performing medium’s repertoire warrants the same hours of dedicated practice as others. He notes that classical musicians historically fulfilled multiple roles across composing, conducting, performing, marketing, criticizing, and teaching, yet today’s education, based on a model derived in a different era, tends to force students into myopic boxes and roles based more on faculty interests and their own upbringings than on students’ long-term well-being. And, perhaps giving a clue to the real cause of the NEC’s concerns about his turning the school into a liberal arts college, Freeman is unapologetic in saying “Too much time is spent in the college training of musicians who play and sing at much higher levels than ever before in history, while too little time is spent in developing skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking” (18). Indeed, in my own experience, when as director of a music school I urged weekly convocations featuring both performance and critical discussions of issues crucial to our students’ musical and career development, some faculty argued that such endeavors were a waste of time because “our students don’t spend enough time practicing,” and “they don’t really want to hear someone talking about those things.” Here, Freeman urges the teacher role advocated by Lev Vygotsky—that of “knowledgeable others”—drawing on faculty experience and expertise to work collaboratively with students for long-term benefit, nurturing and encouraging the gradual growth of important skills and understanding.

The heart of Freeman’s book is the six chapters he devotes to advice growing primarily out of his experience as head of three different music schools. Each of these chapters is aimed at a different constituent group: students, parents, college teachers, and others. In them, he gives voice to a personally driving and consistent philosophical perspective, arguing for the relevance of classical music to value and meaning in everyday living, and thus to society and its many challenges. Building on this premise, he makes the case for classical music’s role in advancing the creativity required in diverse fields to address global challenges. He argues that contemporary musicians should understand and lead out of their knowledge of the well-documented affinity of all humans for deep expression and the anthropologically demonstrated human capacity for meaning-making through the art of organized sound.

Nowhere is this perspective more evident than in his discussion of the role of service in faculty promotion and tenure decisions (Chapter 6, “Advice for Collegiate Music Faculty”). Citing the emphasis given to research and teaching in most faculty performance evaluations, Freeman urges a higher priority on service; in his view, service should be redefined from the usual routines of committee and administrative work to mean productive contributions to addressing major societal questions. The traditional focus on disciplinary expertise and achievement tends to reinforce the status quo and inhibit change. By contrast, weighting and assessing service relative to advancing the interests of the art and the university are more likely to encourage out-of-the-box thinking regarding music’s value in society. Such expectations are reasonable given the lifetime security institutional tenure typically conveys. Though Freeman doesn’t make an explicit connection, such definitions and assessments of faculty service would undoubtedly influence perspectives on teaching, where he suggests there is too much focus on faculty research interests and not enough on considerations for students and their learning needs.

This service-to-society mentality on the part of musicians is also clear in Chapter 5, where Freeman offers advice to collegiate music students: “While you may think that you have matriculated at a music school in order to learn how to play the piano or the oboe, you have in fact undertaken much broader responsibilities, including making Americans and their elected representatives more sensitive to the importance of music . . . you are going to need to be able to analyze complex situations and to think, read, write, and speak on behalf of music in ways that other people understand and are moved by. If you don’t know why the Mahler Fifth excites you—apart from the fact that the principal trumpet part can be dangerous for the player—you cannot expect taxpaying nonmusicians to care enough about music to support it ” (96-97). Musicians, he contends, have the obligation of deepening people’s experience with music. When talking about research that matters, Freeman urges music schools and faculty members to collaborate with policy institutes, business schools, medical schools, and other departments and schools across campus. Such collaborations will not only advance interdisciplinary inquiry, they will yield richer understanding of the problems facing classical music, the interventions that might help resolve them, and the role music can play in broad societal concerns. As flautist and MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase noted in a convocation address at the University of Minnesota in 2013, the twentieth century was the age of specialization; the twenty-first century is the age of collaboration.

It would be a mistake to think that Freeman’s observations, recommendations, and anecdotal accounts boil down merely to recipes for how professional musicians, educated as classical performers, scholars, teachers, and creators, can be taught to survive in a rapidly changing world. Freeman’s thoughts are much richer and more profound, though often cloaked in a good deal of personalization and references to his many interactions with famous individuals. Sometimes the anecdotes work; sometimes they feel more like Freeman’s desire to let the reader know he’s traveled in sophisticated circles. But each reader will determine for himself or herself whether the anecdotes are interesting and worthy. In my view, they at no time distort or distract from the significant points he makes about the need for change in classical music’s ecosystem—including both the existing professional world and the curriculums and cultures of institutions that educate professional musicians.

A strength of the book is Freeman’s willingness to name issues that are discussed from time to time at conferences and symposiums and that may find expression in print, more often in social media than in scholarly work, but that are rarely subjected to rigorous and critical analysis. For example, the term “entrepreneurship” is ubiquitous in professional music circles today, as it is in many fields, but what it means to be an entrepreneurial musician from the perspectives of music’s value and the core challenges facing classical music is rarely considered at levels where calls for radical curricular change might ensue. I have rarely heard a session on entrepreneurship in which the term itself is interrogated along the lines of creating value rather than creatively selling one’s product.

Another example is when Freeman states, “It is a central part of the message of this book that in a world of very rapid change, music teaching, still the predominant way musicians make a living, has been very slow to change, as have the curricula of our major music schools and the pedagogic goals toward which those curricula have been directed” (36). It’s certainly well known that teaching is a near-universal occupation of professionally educated musicians; and the typical assumption for DMA and Ph.D. graduates is that they will seek teaching positions in higher education. Yet music schools—particularly those in universities emphasizing research—have given precious little attention to systematic preparation for teaching. A faculty acquaintance of mine once said in response to the question of where graduate students learn to teach, “They don’t need that—they’ve been going to lessons and classes all their lives.”

NASM standards call for pedagogy for performance majors, yet institutions frequently earn reaccreditation by claiming that they incorporate pedagogy into lesson experiences. Graduate assistants complain that they receive no systematic support in areas such as the structure and knowledge of music, how to teach in classroom vs. individual settings, or how to engage students in group music making as part of academic learning; yet, many schools fail to provide substantive content and delivery support for TAs, resorting instead to advice and suggestions derived only from the faculty’s intuitive experience. In fact, expert teaching based on an understanding of learning and skill and concept formation as opposed to information loading and repetitive technique development occurs largely among those faculty who have elected to take knowledge of teaching seriously rather than as a simple mandate for tenure and promotion. To Freeman’s point, music teaching in higher education shows little assimilation of advancing research on effective teaching, and our curricula have not accommodated systematic support for developing knowledge of teaching as a prerequisite for assistantships or degrees. Efforts to dialogue about this gap in curriculums, or to institute systematic learning opportunities designed to enhance teaching, are too frequently met with disdain by many faculty who see no need to change a system that has produced performers, teachers, and scholars for centuries.

In the book’s Preface, Freeman alerts the reader to a core tenet of the journey on which he or she is about to embark: “It is the thesis of what follows that classical music instruction, the professional world of musical performance, and the development of an intensely interested audience are seriously misaligned enterprises, in serious need of realignment” (18). Among other significant but frequently undiscussed topics, at least with any aim toward curricular change, Freeman includes the following:

  • Recalling Milton Babbitt’s 1958 High Fidelity article, “Who Cares if You Listen?,” he notes that Gunther Schuller, Christopher Rouse, Kevin Puts, and others are among “those who have strengthened a conviction among young composers that their music is without much purpose if it fails to move a human audience” (36).

  • Similarly, he suggests that theorists and musicologists might logically extend their scholarship beyond writing for one another and contribute to better understanding of music among the broader public, thereby offering role models for change from the work of narrow specializations and Ph.D. programs that educate students as though they will all be teaching in elite Ivy League institutions.

  • He argues that performance and academic music study (he finds the term academic applied in this way to be “pejorative”) must be complementary and holistic, forging change from the still-active view that these are compartmentalized facets of study (ironically, it is sometimes academic faculty who argue that performance students should not be required to learn academic writing “because they will never use it anyway”); and he further urges that doing and thinking about music must be synergistic in ways that compel dialogue across specialist faculty.

  • He posits that rather than music schools and departments seeking to be similar, their real value lies in the ways in which they are distinctive, based on locale, resources, and other variables that may actually strengthen their ability to attract students.

  • He argues that music schools and departments ought to be deeply concerned about serving the entire campus community, not just music majors.

  • He advocates that students, like growing numbers of professionals, ought to perform in a variety of venues, often non-traditional ones, to enhance interchange with audiences and reduce the sometimes-intimidating effects of large concert halls.

  • He urges that, rather than avoiding discussions of the realities of challenges in the world of professional music, faculty members need to support students in understanding those challenges and thinking about how they might be addressed, as well as how students might make contributions as professionals to advancing the perceived value of classical music in society.

If the pertinent issues Freeman raises in this book were to be considered seriously and collaboratively throughout the classical music ecosystem, and perhaps even engage individuals outside the ecosystem, change would become inevitable and necessary. Faculty, administrators, students, and other constituencies could not consider the well-being of classical music, musicians, and, most importantly, society at-large, without also considering the kinds of curricular change essential for assuring vital engagements with music for all people.

There are occasional gaps and inconsistencies in some of his assertions; and, as a reviewer, I am not completely convinced that where Freeman finds some harbingers of hope he has analyzed the realities sufficiently to claim that they embody the overall perspective he advances. An example is his praise for the Venezuelan El Sistema movement that has spread worldwide—developing youth orchestras in the context of social benefit through musical excellence. Recent criticisms have raised some questions about whether this movement is necessarily as effective with regard to social change as it purports to be, as well as whether the model of an orchestra is really the best way to engage youth in developing their own musicianship. Another is his emphasis on reducing supply relative to demand rather than assuring opportunity by innovating new career models for musicians.

But it is clear, despite these minor considerations, that Freeman’s acquaintance with the inner workings of music schools and his resulting observations and suggestions make an important contribution to the guidance available to music teachers and administrators at the collegiate level. His commitment to music for the edification of the common good and, concurrently, to the primacy of artistry of the highest caliber, is unequivocal. We all have much to learn from his experience and wisdom.

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