January 24, 2011

Music education sure, but which kind? Nick Rabkin's thoughts on the NEC announcement

This past week, two big stories on music education. In one, Carnegie Hall (which is not, at its core, an educational institution) expands its commitment to education. In another, the New England Conservatory (which is, obviously) parts ways with El Sistema USA, one of the most important music ed organizations in the country. Interestingly, both make arguments based on their missions.

The long-ish NY Times article covering the New England Conservatory announcement was vexing in it vagueness. Why is El Sistema USA, the year-old U.S. version of Venezuela’s phenomenally successful music program for children and youth, “not a good fit” with the mission of the august New England Conservatory? Something wasn’t being said.

So I emailed my friend Nick Rabkin, my go-to guy on all things arts education, especially since I attended a presentation he gave recently on his Teaching Artists Research Project [pdf], a multi-funder effort to understand and document the role of working artists in arts ed. (Nick has also written a monograph for the NEA looking at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data through an arts education lens.) Here’s what Nick dashed off in response:

It is easy to understand why the original El Sistema has drawn attention and admiration from the world of classical music in the US. The Venezuelan network of training centers and orchestras is developing talented, passionate musicians who play music for a growing and appreciative audience — and this in a nation that prides itself for breaking with European classical ideas about almost everything. Its most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, is now the musical director of the LA Philharmonic. And, oh yes, El Sistema helps keep 400,000 mostly poor Venezuelan young people off the streets every day.

Sixty years ago, network television in the US regularly broadcast classical concerts, but classical music seems quite marginal to the cultural life of most Americans today. Its audience has slowly drifted away and aged. Music education has become so atrophied that relatively few young Americans are even introduced to classical music. And, as in Venezuela, the streets provide the risks, thrills, and opportunities that young people crave but most can’t find in inner-city schools or social programs.

So the New England Conservatory of Music had reason to take great pride when, in 2005, it announced that it would be the home of El Sistema USA, a modest effort to develop a US version of the Venezuelan program. Now NEC and El Sistema USA are breaking up, at the conservatory’s initiative. Cost was an element in the decision. But NEC president Tony Woodcock expressed more concern about El Sistema’s “fit” with his institution. He told the NY Times, “We felt this was outside our mission altogether.” Joseph Polisi, president of the Julliard School, supported that notion. “The core mission of any institution has to be protected,” said Polisi. ...

Historically, music conservatories were developed to prepare artists and musicians for careers in the service of church and court patrons in the middle ages and renaissance. Formal patronage of that kind went the way of indentured servitude some time ago, but the association of the arts with wealth and privilege remains. Conservatory education has changed as well, but it is still the vehicle of choice for young artists who wish to enter that world of elite music-making and the culture that goes with it, and conservatories have been very careful to protect the idea that they teach ‘the arts for arts’ sake’. They do not teach in order to keep young people off the streets.

Venezuela’s El Sistema teaches the skills, rigor, and discipline of good musicianship, just like the conservatories. But it is fundamentally a social program, embracing the idea that the arts are for everyone, not reserved in any way for a talented elite. Democratic impulses like those beat in the hearts of most Americans, including many who work in the arts. They were beating strongly at NEC in 2005 when it embraced El Sistema USA. But they are in conflict with other deeply felt notions about the arts — what they are and who they are for — and arts education is one of the big arenas for that conflict. The future of classical music, and the future of the arts generally, depend on reconciling those conflicts. NEC’s decision will not kill El Sistema USA; the program will find another institutional home, or get along without one. And it will still contribute to that reconciliation. It’s just too bad that it won’t happen at the New England Conservatory, an institution that should care as much as any other about broadening the foundation on which the future of music stands.

I love Nick’s distinction between the conservatory model (art for arts’ sake) and the social-program model (art for all). Like all good dualities, it helps us make sense of the otherwise-confounding evidence we see around us (such as a leading higher education institution in the arts severing its ties with the most promising national music program for young people). But it also provokes us to think our way past simple slogans and categories. Note the contrast with Carnegie Hall, which you might think would be another member of the traditional, elite, art-for-arts’-sake club, but which, as the other Times piece shows, is as active in musical-education-for-all as any classical presenter or ensemble in the country.

Perhaps the difference is that Carnegie, like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (whose Institute for Learning, Access and Training was launched in 2008) and others, are more concerned than conservatories about the long-term development of audiences in the future for what they do. But I think it’s more than that. Some institutions just believe in their bones that music is for everyone, universal and necessary in ways that go beyond the rhetoric of annual reports and keynote speeches. They don't see a conflict between the ethos of democratic participation and the aesthetic of world-class musical excellence. In order to thrive, the music institution of the future will have to be about both.



5 Comments »
mary wyporek — January 28, 2011

As a working class parent who reluctantly allowed my daughter to attend the New England Conservatory, I was very dissappointed with this decision. Music is a very primitive part of our humanity and it is for all to not only enjoy but to participate. I hope there is a future for this program

Ellen Pfeifer — January 28, 2011

As I have reiterated many times in recent weeks, NEC is not divorcing itself from the El sistema movement in the United States. Indeed, NEC is continuing to honor its commitment to fund the Abreu Fellows training program for five years--fulfilling Dr. Abreu's TED wish. What we declined to do was fund the expansion of El Sistema USA, which would have included a greatly expanded website, research and evaluation of programs, and paid consultancies. It is those three initiatives that fall outside our core expertise.

It is also important to distinguish between El Sistema USA the organization and the El Sistema movement in the US. The former organization is intended to be a service organization that provides information, best practices, advocacy for the many, decentralized, independent nucleos throughout the country. El Sistema USA, which can be compared to the League of American Orchestras, does not control nucleos, fund them, credential them or exert control over them. It also has no organizational structure--no incorporation, no tax exempt status, no board of directors. It is two staff members and an idea at this point. The Abreu Fellows, created and funded by NEC, was developed as a program of El sistema USA, but is operated entirely by NEC employees.
NEC did not choose to end its association with El Sistema USA; that was the choice of El sistema leadership when faced with NEC's decision not to fund the expanded programming.

In the meantime, the Abreu Fellows program continues with the first class in the field doing brilliant work and a second class getting the training to do the same. That hardly qualifies as NEC abandoning El Sistema.

Caleb Hayashida — January 29, 2011

I feel like music isn't something that everyone has a natural capacity for... at least not in the sense of playing and performing and composing. Certainly we all have the capacity to partake in music. It's something that resonates with human nature very profoundly. But those who are really passionate about music do need the opportunity and resources to pursue that passion. I think that's what music education is all about.

Nick Rabkin — January 31, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell often lobs cultural grenades that provoke considerable rethinking of some of our cherished assumptions. One of those is what he called the '10,000 hour rule.' He argues that there is a considerable body of research that supports the idea that 'talent' or 'natural capacity' has less to do with mastery than we think. Instead, the people who are successful in challenging domains, including the arts, are people who have the disposition to practice. A lot. It seems that it takes about 10,000 hours of serious practice to really master anything worth mastering. The idea of 'talent' is cherished in the world of arts education. It is the principle on which auditions and portfolio reviews are based when it comes to admission to conservatory-style arts education. Picasso once observed, though, that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” That doesn't really sound like 'talent', does it? But it probably takes lots of practice and determination.

Peter Linett — January 31, 2011

Thanks, everyone, for these insights. Mary, I like your point that it's not just about enjoying the music other people make, it's about participating yourself. That's another helpful way to think about the distinction Nick's making.

Ellen, I appreciate your giving us the insider scoop, which of course is more complicated and nuanced than we outsiders usually acknowledge. (More nuanced than the NY Times coverage, too!) I'm particularly glad to know about the difference between the movement and the organization, and am glad NEC is still associated with the former.

And Caleb, Nick and I both agree with you that "those who are really passionate about music do need the opportunity and resources to pursue that passion" at a high, competitive level. There will always be a place for elite, conservatory-style music education. It's just that there are deep individual and social benefits to ANYONE who learns to play music, and those benefits should be widely available even though not everyone who learns to play will have (or even want) a performing career. So I think you're making a big leap to that last sentence, "that's what music education is all about." It can also be about personal enjoyment, social engagement, brain development, and a dozen other things that have nothing to do with getting to Carnegie Hall.

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