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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

Some of Sam's Thoughts on Higher Ed

I don't know Sam Burtis personally, and haven't experienced his playing or teaching first hand, but he's always been outspoken and thoughtful in his online posts, both on social media and on his site (linked here). Given that he's been an active member of the NYC freelance scene for five decades(!), well, the man can clearly play and navigate, so I listen.

When Sam Burtis replied regarding my recent post "...and CUT!", about recent financial strains at Sam's alma mater Ithaca College, I reached out in hopes he would share his perspective about it. Below is the result, published with Sam's permission.


Ilan… This problem of “size” in higher music education has been on my mind quite a bit since we exchanged messages. I must admit that I cannot think of a truly practical way to solve that sort of problem, given the financial and career exigencies of modern university/conservatory level education. So…instead I am going to propose a probably impractical set of ideas.

I have already mentioned to you my dissatisfaction with the mainstream university approach that I encountered at Ithaca College in the mid-‘60s, and also how wonderful it was to be at Berklee before it too overgrew its innate usefulness and became larger. As things get bigger they tend to get less functional…less efficient. That goes for corporations as well as governments, and I have no idea how to prevent that. Success on some levels always seems to breed a certain kind of failure. On to the impracticality…

Instead of one large school/university that houses many levels of student achievement and expertise, each school providing its own clearly necessary roster of ensembles, how about this idea? A number of allied smaller schools, each specializing in particular idioms or skills…say an orchestral school, a “jazz” school, a school for those who primarily want to be teachers and one for those more interested in the business of producing and distributing music, and a school that consists of nothing but ensembles and recording labs to which the other schools could send their students.

This would immediately solve the overgrowth dilemma to a great degree. But could it be financed and organized? Out of my realm of expertise, I’m afraid. Other than that? The only other way that occurs to me is to mimic the system from which Berklee arose in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s, a system which presupposes an available group of working musicians in whatever city it is located and keeps itself small and focused on only one general area of music. That works as long as the ensemble needs do not predicate against small size, such as full orchestras and such.

The Wikipedia article on Berklee is actually quite informative about how it grew during its most effective years. ( ) As it expanded, it unfortunately lost its efficiency. I was there for two years…1965 and 1966. 1966 was the first year that it outgrew its original headquarters on Newbury St. and started to expand. I essentially got in and out just in time. 10 years later it was almost unrecognizable. So it goes…

Why is this idea impractical? Because a small school cannot pay the best teachers as much as can a larger school. Berklee had the initial advantage of teaching highly valid and advanced styles of music that were essentially being disregarded…maybe “despised” would be a more accurate word…by the mainstream Boston schools, while simultaneously having a large enough local talent pool of fine jazz players to teach the music and a growing national population of young players who wanted to learn those idioms in an organized manner. Also…it was so cheap!!! After my first semester I was able to pay my entire tuition without help, just from musical work. And I wasn’t alone. I believe it cost about one quarter of what Ithaca had cost at the time. Maybe even less.

On to the practical. Can mainstream, large music schools be somehow made more efficient? I have not extensively involved myself with those schools except as a hired brass teacher, but my impressions of them in NYC lead me to believe that in almost every school…I exempt only William Paterson University from this group in terms of personal experience…a group of ambitious people control almost everything that is going on in them. They are largely bureaucracies that do not/cannot pay sufficient attention to things suggested by well-meaning teachers unless they too join the bureaucracy and play by its rules. Rule number one is expansion, and what I am suggesting is contraction.

There you have it from my almost totally freelance viewpoint.


So there you have it: Sam Burtis' thoughts on some of the issues we all encounter in higher ed. Please visit Sam's website for more of Sam's writings, and information on how to order his book Time, Balance & Connections.

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