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  • Ilan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

The Irrelevance of Music School?

Updated: Apr 12


I don't usually respond to other blogs, especially by anonymous people. But this sensationalist, simplistic blog post, titled The Irrelevance of Music School, caught my attention. It was this gem that really caught my eye:

“So how do we make music school relevant? How can we at least offer students a chance of success in a field where the goalposts keep changing? Let us first acknowledge the aspects of a conservatory education that are valuable.

  • Private lessons and coachings

  • Ensembles

That’s it. All other classes are useless, nothing more than an opportunity for professors to indulge their narrow field of study in order to further fuel their desire for self-importance.”


Here's the thing: if you've read anything I wrote about this, you know I'm somewhat of a skeptic of higher ed, at least as it stands, and that simultaneously I have also been a part of it as a teacher for as long as I’ve been performing. Additionally, I believe we are witnessing a period of adjustment that will value individual study to a greater degree, and perhaps in some cases over academic credentials.


I don't think this is specific to music. You don’t have to be a CPA to prepare one's taxes, not all financial advisors have an MBA, in some districts you can teach public school with a masters degree in a related field but no education credentials, nurse-practitioners can act as great substitutes for many doctor's appointments (and I'm thankful for them!), and some movement teachers are personal trainers, or yoga instructors, or Feldenkrais (a great example of non-traditional learning), or whatever.


In this environment, it's not a surprise that we are starting to see private courses replace experiences that previously were exclusively academic, and are priced accordingly.


It's far too easy to dismiss these courses as the music world's Trump U: I'll openly concede there is a logic to this trend. When music schools can charge as much as 60k for tuition alone, why not spend a quarter of that and get your core purpose, i.e. private lessons and audition coaching, covered? There are certainly fewer distractions.


I think that if you're a person, like myself, who really does believe in higher education, that it's important to concede that this model, of intense instrumental study alone, in addition to avoiding academics that can seem like a distraction, also avoids another potential distraction: student ensemble requirements, large and small. Unlike the writer of the above blog, in my experience fulfilling one’s student ensemble requirements can range from great, to instructive, to neutral, to let's face it, a complete and maddening waste of energy and time, waiting for fellow students to learn their part over weeks of repetitive bad sounding rehearsals in an environment that can get uncomfortable fast. Don't believe me? Ask me how many large ensemble directors I've worked with had publicly expressed romantic interest in students.


But I'd like to suggest that if we really care about our students and our field, that we also not forget those good teachers and ensemble directors. Those who modeled professionalism. Who showed up on time, prepared, and enthusiastic to work with young musicians. Those who kept their hands and eyes to themselves, and didn't just reuse the same rep over and over in never ending 4 year cycles.


And, here's the really important and, if we truly care about our students let's not discount the importance of academics.


Let’s not forget that music is a wide field. Performers are an important part, sure. So are educators, researchers, scholars, students, composers, administrators, music librarians, stage hands, AV professionals, and theorists.


We need people to occupy all parts of the business for our corner of the world to thrive. Every one of those complementing disciplines is just that, and we can't simply decide to only teach future performers in our music schools, while ignoring the context they will be performing in. Doing so in the name of relevance, as the linked blog suggests, is self-defeating. More importantly, if YOU plan to be a performer, and really don't want to do anything else at all, and you really are talented/smart/well-off/hard working enough to do that, you'd better get used to the idea that you'll be interacting regularly with musicians who are not, so you'd better learn to speak their language to be able to communicate with them regularly.


You need theory to perform. You need history to perform. You need business savvy to perform. It’s painfully obvious to your colleagues when you struggle in these departments in your playing. And unless you plan on making a living playing your instrument alone in your living room, you also need to be a human that can work with other humans to perform.


Music school executed well is holistic and concerns the multiple facets of our industry and its students aspirations and realities. Let's confront and address what needs to change at a collegiate level, without ignorantly and avoiding crucial experiences and knowledge.


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