Music School: preparing for the real world?

I recently posted a link to an article that proposed that a) the symphony orchestra is dying and b) a way to solve many of the problems faced by recent graduates of music school would be to require them to double major in business. This post generated conversation which led me to want to expand upon my opinions. First, a disclaimer: most of what follows (all of it, to be honest) comes from my personal experience and the experiences of my friends and is therefore not at all scientific, nor does it apply to all schools or even to all majors within my own school. It does represent a perspective (mine) on the school vs. real life issue, that may or may not be relevant to other people who study or practice music. Whether or not you agree with the following is irrelevant. It presents an opinion based on a set of experiences and posits a possible shift of paradigm towards creating an environment more conducive to these sorts of “doing stuff” opportunities. The second disclaimer: Any creative spelling or insane grammar I blame completely on the large cupcake and huge quantity of caffeinated beverage I just consumed. It’s almost 6 PM. I’m currently 12 hours into my day (it won’t end until after I take two different kinds of transit home from a concert that I finish playing in about 4 and a half hours). I am after all a working musician.

While I was a student, I sought out all kinds of experiences and opportunities. I stretched myself thin in order to squeeze every possible drop out of my education. I had several forms of motivation to do this: the encouragement of those teachers and mentors who knew me well, some pressure from my family, and a lot of pressure/motivation from within myself. As a result of this, my third year at a conservatory I was, in addition to taking a more-than-full class load, directing a new music festival, single-handedly running the student concert series I founded, and auditing a course with a world-famous prof at a nearby university at the urging of one of my professors. Around this same time I enrolled in my conservatory’s class designed to prepare students in the final year (or two) of their study for the “real world.” I say “designed to” deliberately. In reality, the class was a bit of a joke, and mostly a couple of hours  week in which you could do your homework for other classes, sleep with your eyes open, mentally practice, or text under your desk. Nobody cared, everyone hated it, and I don’t know about the rest of the class, but I didn’t learn a thing. Or, if I did, it was so wrapped up in the bored stupor that pervaded the classroom that I forgot it again within a week. To put this in context: I wasn’t the kind of student who didn’t study. I was on the dean’s list every semester but one, and that one due to a technicality (incomplete jury grade due to an overuse injury. See? I worked too hard).

A huge percentage of what I now know (much of which has helped me get and keep my current employment) I learned by doing. All of the “doing” I did while in school happened without the approval (let alone support) of my private teacher. Example: my teacher found out I was directing the new music festival the week of the festival, and then only because she happened to see my name on the flier. If I had asked for help at any point, I would have been chastised for “doing too much,” told to drop the project, and would probably (based on what I heard from studio mates) have had my grade lowered. This same criticism, that we were “doing too much” was aimed at any unfortunate member of my studio who made the unforgivable mistake of leaving the music they were learning for our (required for graduation) accompanying class in their bag on lesson day. I only made that mistake once: I never ever asked for help or suggestions on anything my teacher hadn’t specifically assigned me again. I relay this information not because of anything to do with my lessons (whole different set of issues and none of your beeswax either), but because it illustrated the barriers set between students and “learning by doing” while in school. If doing anything besides practicing repertoire picked out by the teacher for juries (entirely from the standard repertoire, with Prokofiev and Scriabin as “modern” works) results in criticism (in some cases this criticism is represented by grading) in an educational environment where the private teacher basically owns the students’ musical lives for 2-4 years, very few students will actively seek out “learning by doing” opportunities.

Given the above information, I now point out to you, my reader, that in the case of each of my current jobs I’ve been hired almost entirely based on experience I gathered (without my teacher’s support or approval) doing things. I learned how to run a music festival and direct a concert series, how to work with other people, how to be professional, how to work on my own, how to fit into any situation that might arise. I learned to improvise, I learned to say no, I learned to say yes (and go learn how to do it later), I learned that I can get by with very little sleep when necessary. I learned how to create and distribute promotional materials, I successfully coordinated over 150 people’s schedules to make an 8-hour-long marathon concert containing 10 hours worth of music in three separate halls (including an opera) flow smoothly. (Side note: the music festival is still going, as is the concert series. Hooray for lasting impressions!) In other words, I learned how the real world works. Nothing is perfect, things happen, and you deal with it. You can’t get stressed, you can’t throw a fit, and you can’t drop a project at the last minute because you’re “too busy” unless you never want to be hired again. The music world is a very small world. The new music world, smaller still. In addition to picking up these very marketable skilled, by the time I graduated I had more than a year’s worth of actual work experience on my resume.

So, back to the original issue. If the culture of a conservatory were altered just a little bit, so that teachers supported students’ active rolls in the community more, this kind of experience would be common. I’m not implying that all studio teachers are ogres who never let students do anything worth while. Instead, I’m commenting that my education in a conservatory setting would have been much easier to navigate had I had full teacher support. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is to realize that a student is driven in a certain direction and help that student progress instead of trying to force that student to fit into a standardized educational model. Not that everything wrong with a conservatory education is the fault of the faculty! Far from it! A large part of the fault (if you want to even call it that) lies with the students. I’ve known plenty of people who do nothing but practice. Those who don’t end up flunking out of school (yes, you can flunk out of music school for academic reasons. Lots of people do.) are almost unanimously unable to find employment. Not only do they have no real experience, they have also learned to be unprofessional, to skip appointments, to look down on learning, and flaunt a lack of respect for education in a field still fighting with charges of elitism. Smart move? Probably not.

As institutions, there isn’t very much music schools can or should change. Many do have programs designed to introduce music students to the business side of life. However, a few small policy and attitude changes could at least pave the way for students to create more chances for themselves. Studio teachers having less of a death grip on students’ musical lives during their degree programs would help. Perhaps a way around this would be to allow all students (even undergrads, yes) at least some say in their repertoire choices. Another would be to encourage thinking off the beaten trail. Sure, there are benefits to learning a balanced program. Yes, I see a point in making students represent the four major eras of music history on their jury programs, at least for the first two years. In the case of my school the catalogue is actually quite forgiving. The first two years are closely regulated, but the second two offer ever greater freedom of choice. The actual description of a senior program’s requirements are “an hour of music of the applicants choice.” Take away the unwritten rules “all undergrads must at all times be playing a polyphonic work by Bach, a sonata by Beethoven (or Mozart/Haydn if they can’t play, or Schubert if you want to bug one of the other faculty members who hates Schubert), a major 19th century work (Chopin or Liszt preferred, anybody else considered a wild choice), some etudes (Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Debussy, MAYBE Scriabin), oh, and something Prokofiev for the modern work, or Schoenberg if you’re feeling daring,” and it seems just fine to me.

Another change in administrative policy that would make finding and/or creating opportunities easier for students is if the administrative staff (as well as the faculty) were actively supportive of independent work and helped students turn their ideas into workable projects. In my case, several individual faculty members proved to be of great help to me in realizing some of my plans. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule. My faculty advisor stepped in to coach me when my piano teacher refused to come to school outside the hours I was in class to hear my trio play a modern work. Knowing which faculty members to enlist when you needed help petitioning some committee or other for permission to do a project proved of vital importance. A teacher from an entirely different department signed off on projects and then backed off to give those of us working on them enough breathing room to make our mistakes and learn from them. I think more faculty support for student projects like those that I learned most from would be possible if a certain number of independent work credits were required for graduation. By putting these projects officially on the class list, it creates the idea that they are not only legitimate but also deserve the same attention and work that a regular class would. It also creates a push for the administrative staff to leave off their worries about quality control and such and let the students to their thing (within reason). With the right kind of institutional support and acknowledgment, many more students could create the kind of events that will help them prepare for their individual path in the field of music instead of turning out another hundred or so highly skilled musicians who don’t know what to do with themselves each year.

Cowell Project

I have a new project. I’m learning everything Henry Cowell ever wrote for solo piano.

I’ve already been told it’s impossible – but that’s never stopped me before. After all, I’m making a living as a pianist, and started doing so well before I graduated from college.

Of course, while perhaps not actually impossible, this is still a very large project, and will take some time. I’m beginning by refreshing the Cowell pieces I’ve learned in the past (Advertisement, Aeolian Harp, Amiable Conversation, Antinomy, Banshee, Exultation, Tides of Manuanuan, What’s This), adding pieces I’ve always loved (Lilt of the Reel, Tiger, High Color, Deep Color) and then will continue to add pieces of interest until I have a full recital program. On the list for immediate consideration at the moment are Two Woofs (published in 1947 in the 20th Anniversary edition of New Music,  vol. XXI no. 1), Hero Sun, Harp of Life, Rhythmicana, Episode, the set of Ings (which seems to have been published as both 6 and 9 Ings?), Slow Jig, and more.

I expect to publish recordings and/or videos of some of the pieces along the way, links to those will be found on my site as the project grows.

A little bit of backstory: As some of you may know, I fell in love with Cowell’s music the summer I turned 13, when I first heard his music in a music history seminar at a summer chamber music program. I returned home from camp banging on the keyboard with my arms and deconstructing my family’s upright to play inside. Looking back, I’m amazed my parents were less visibly upset about this than they were. If my unorthodox piano experimenting (I won’t go so far as to call it practicing) bothered them, they would escape to the backyard or close the door to my clusters. In highschool I learned my first Cowell piece, Amiable Conversation, quickly adding Antinomy, Advertisement, and What’s This. I played them in a small local piano competition, which I didn’t make the final round in. The competition later re-worded the repertoire requirements to discourage the performance of less-than-standard repertoire. My piano teacher got tired of listening to Cowell, or maybe got tired of my attempts to play Cowell, but I never completed the other Encores to Dynamic Motion. Then Cowell was put on hold, I had too much on my plate with three different youth orchestras on two different instruments (and for a while four – piano, violin, viola, and harpsichord), martial arts, and working odd jobs to help pay for my music lessons, and preparing to audition for college, and to go to school for the first time (like Cowell, I was homeschooled and mostly self-taught).

In College, Cowell came back. I finally convinced my teacher to let me put some on a jury program junior year, mostly by showing up at my lesson with four short pieces already memorized (Banshee, Tides of Manuanuan, Exultation, and Aeolian Harp). By this point I knew I wanted to play new music (not exclusively, but as a focus). I put up with comments from faculty along the lines of (and I quote): „I’m sorry, but I really don’t like this piece. As far as I could tell, it was well played, with good concentration.“ „A passing, if strange, jury.“ „Would you please play some real music next time?“ „What do you want anyway, a degree in avant garde?“ „You’re wasting your time and mine.“ „You are a failure, and this school has failed to teach you any taste.“ It wasn’t all bad though! I made many lasting friendships through school, both with my fellow students and with members of the faculty, and honestly I enjoyed some of the controversy generated by my serious interests in new music.

All this passed, and here I am: Graduated, and able to do what I’m passionate about, what makes me tick, what I as a musician feel is important. Commencement, while a bit redundant since I’d been out of school nearly 6 months by the time it happened, presented me with further inspiration to continue doing what I love: MTT’s advice to the graduating class of 2012 (never mind that I had graduated in 2011…) was to go out into the world and do what we were passionate about, no matter what people (especially our teachers) thought about it. After bouncing around a few ideas and reading through several hours‘ worth of piano music, I’ve finally found what I really knew all along: I am deeply passionate about the piano music of Henry Cowell, feel that he is an unjustly neglected figure in twentieth century music, and have now decided to do what I can to change that by performing his works and introducing them to new audiences.

#Liszt104 update

One of my (several) current projects involves analyzing Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 104. Of particular interest are Liszt’s interesting choices in notation/spelling. I had done an informal/partial roman numeral analysis a couple years ago as part of a presentation I did in a keyboard lit class, but coming back to it after a break has alerted me to new depths of chromatic craziness. For one thing, he can’t decide what to call his Augmented chord. The chord is spelled differently in the beginning than it is in the end (the end is the only time it’s different – a C instead of a B-sharp). When it’s a B-sharp, it functions as a leading tone (i.e. VII+ /iv) to C-sharp minor, but when it’s spelled with a C it becomes a bVI+ in the tonic. Liszt, why can’t you make up your mind???? On top of this, when the „main theme“ shifts/modulates half way through, the spelling is again modified so that in the new key it’s spelled as a bIII+ but functions as a V+/IV or a VII+/IV depending on how you want to hear leading tones. Or, of you don’t believe in secondary dominants, it’s a bVI+ in the new and temporary key of D major.

All this about how he uses ONE CHORD in an 8 bar phrase. The piece is 5 pages long (in the Henle Edition score I’m using for my initial analysis because it has lots of space for scribbling in the margins). I haven’t even started talking about the introduction yet, which is a series of syncopated suspensions „resolving“ from a dominant 7 sonority to a diminished 7 one, leading into an extended „recitative“ or cadenza-like passage outlining a VII˚7 chord (D#, F#, A, C) over a G-sharp, which is either ^3 in the tonic or a ^5 in the relative minor.

I must say, while it is a bit of an adventure to analyze, this rampant chromaticism does do a very fine job setting the scene for what was originally a song (set for tenor with piano accompaniment), the test of which Petrarch’s 104th Sonnet, „Pace non trovo“ (Peace I cannot find). The sonnet is full of contradictions, and illustrated the conflicted/agitated state that the writer finds himself in because of his love for an (in this case) unidentified lady. Petrarch’s original text and my own translation, which is quite literal and much less poetic than it might be follow:

Pace non trovo, e non ho da far Guerra;

E temo e spero, ed ardo e son un ghiaccio;

E volo sopra ‘l cielo e giaccio in terra;

E nullo stringo, e tutto il mondo abbraccio.

Tal m’ha in prigion, che non m’apre, ne serra;

Ne per suo mi riten, ne scioglie il laccio;

E non m’ancide Amor, e non mi sferra;

Ne mi vuol vivo, ne mi trae d’impaccio.

Veggio senz’ occhi, e non ho lingua e grido;

E bramo di perir, e cheggio aita;

Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui:

Pascomi di dolor, piangendo rido;

Equalmente mi spiace morte e vita.

In questo stato son, Donna, per Vui.


I know not peace, yet I do not wage war;

I fear and I hope, I burn and then I freeze;

I fly high above the sky, then lie on the ground;

In vain I grip, the entire world in my embrace.

I am held prisoner, yet do not seek release;

He neither holds me nor loosens the noose;

Love will not bind me, nor will he free me;

My life means nothing, yet brings me no difficulty.

Seeing without eyes, and without a tongue I shout;

I long for death, I ask for help;

I hate my very existence, yet I love another.

With pain I am nourished, while weeping I laugh;

Equally I despise both death and life.

In this state am I, Lady, for you.