Education = Advocacy

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I’ll come out right in the beginning of this post to say that this is a) basically a big ad for new things we’re doing at Curtis and b) me being excited about it. I’ve been teaching here now for a decade (which is one year longer than one of our new students has been extant). The school has changed dramatically and positively in some ways, and changed not at all in others, and I’ll stand by my conviction that we’re doing it right. The students that I’ve seen graduate have been fabulously gifted and accomplished, from the Lang Langs and Hilarys I went to school with to an alum I know teaching the hell out of bands in Texas. Success is measured not just by accomplishment, but meaning, and who will argue with: it’s just as important to have what you do as a musician mean something to you than to be playing in big houses? The idea that our work must be meaningful to us personally has become increasingly important in our teaching and learning—why make the tremendous sacrifice to be a musician if you’re just doing it because that’s what you know? On the less narcissistic side, we have a responsibility as artists to advocate for what we do. It keeps us relevant—I have heard counter-arguments to this idea–that “musicians are not social workers,” and indeed, that’s usually not our training… 

But if you care about the music, you can do something about that—and one of the most direct ways is by teaching. Education is the best advocacy, as seen through the work of a Curtis grad with one of the most meaningful and accomplished careers out there.
So I’m writing to plug the composition program for high school and college aged (14-19) students at the Young Artist Summer Program that we’re doing in July. I know it’s going to be unique amongst music festivals, and I should know because I’ve taught or directed programs at about a dozen of them. The model that I’ve tried to work with involves a daily seminar class, private lessons of course, and then a culmination project involving some sort of performance or reading of new works. I’ve done this everywhere I’ve taught in the summer, and there are always good results. The most important part of it all is the performances and workshops. You learn more as a composer hearing your music played by living humans than you do in any class or lesson. As important as it is to study, you can’t replace hearing your music.


At the YASP the composition students are going to have the opportunity to have their music work-shopped and performed frequently by Curtis students and program faculty, and that’s just a terrific opportunity that I haven’t seen in the same way anywhere else. The composers will be a part of the program, integrated into it so that they are just as active as any violinist or pianist or singer would be. This is one of those things that I wish I’d had when I was in high school (which one way I can judge if something is worth pursuing is to ask the question “would I have benefitted from it at that age?” I’m going to try not to let past-me get too jealous of these guys…)

This school has changed a lot since I was a student, fortunately, with the times. The fact that we have a summer program at all is a major step toward reaching out to the world when in the past I feel like we were looking inward much more. As an institution it’s significant–really significant–that the school has chosen to open its doors a bit so that people can share a little of the secret recipe. You’ll hear that sentiment echoed across music, and it’s really not possible, much less desirable, to block out the world and just make your art your whole life floating around in disconnect, as natural as that might have been years ago.

People can get a ton of good information online, and increasingly that’s the case. That future from Star Trek–when the Wesley Crusher studies quantum physics or multivariate calculus in seventh grade–is boldly going now. There is access where access was once denied, and I think that’s terribly exciting.

Aside from all of the summer programs we’re doing (that will include an adult chamber music “fantasy camp,” bassoon and bass workshops (these are two different things) and other events, we’re also going to be filming our two new MOOC’s. Jonathan Biss is doing one on Beethoven Sonatas and I am doing one with Jonathan Coopersmith on music history through the lens of six important pieces from the eras, giving a composer’s point of view.

After two days we already had more people signed up for these two classes than have ever attended the Curtis Institute. Between both there are over sixteen thousand people signed up now, and we haven’t even posted what pieces we’ll be looking at. There are sixteen thousand people out there who want to learn more about concert music; this so-called “elitist” and “exclusive” art form. Well how about elitism for everybody?

It’s all connected: education = advocacy.




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