Learning to Grow

By Lacey Ann Johnson

The Peabody Preparatory, long a Baltimore hub of arts instruction for children and teens, is dramatically expanding its programming to reach adults from a variety of music and dance backgrounds.

Learning to Grow

Illustration by Anna Godeassi

In the final session of his Intro to Music Production and Beatmaking course, hip-hop artist Wendel Patrick showed students how to interlace sounds from digital instruments to create music.

“It’s a little bit like making your own puzzle pieces, and then figuring out where you want to put them,” explained Patrick, as he arranged yellow and blue blocks — representing a drum loop and a bass loop — on a grid within his music editing software, Ableton Live. He tapped the space bar to play the newly formed sound clip, composed of beats from a digital snare drum, bass drum, and high hat.

Along the right-hand side of his screen were the faces of students watching via Zoom. One young man wearing headphones bobbed his head to the beat. A woman with glasses leaned in to get a better view. A father and his teenage son, who were taking the course from separate rooms of their house, listened intently. Some students lived just a few blocks from Peabody’s campus in Baltimore, while others were logged in from as far away as Jamaica, Texas, Detroit, and Vermont.

Wendel Patrick

Conservatory faculty artist Wendel Patrick teaches the Preparatory’s Intro to Music Production and Beatmaking course.

Patrick’s beatmaking course was among a handful of online courses introduced at Peabody Preparatory this academic year as part of the Breakthrough Plan 2024, the new phase of the institute’s strategic plan. Within the Preparatory, the plan aims to expand noncredit learning opportunities. In addition to providing greater accessibility, administrators hope the classes will attract more adult professional and avocational learners from a variety of music and dance backgrounds.

Since its founding in 1894, the Preparatory has grown into a highly respected Baltimore institution for training children and adolescents in music and dance, but it’s lesser known for its adult programming. Until recently, of the 2,500 students enrolled each year, about 90 percent have been young people.

“We have a small adult population, but we know the potential to grow is there,” says Preparatory Director Maria Mathieson. When developing the Preparatory’s contribution to the Breakthrough Plan, finalized last summer, Mathieson and other Peabody administrators sat down to consider what the long-term future should look like.

Says Mathieson: “We had to ask ourselves whether the Preparatory should continue to be this wonderful, lovely community school — or can it be more? Can we push the boundaries — physically, virtually, and educationally — in what we’re offering?”

To answer those questions, the Preparatory launched three new programs last semester: Peabody Prescribe, Peabody Pro, and Peabody Plus. Each program houses a rotating selection of noncredit, online courses available to teens and adults from varied artistic backgrounds. Taught by world-class faculty from both the Conservatory and the Preparatory, the programs go beyond traditional music and dance lessons by offering niche courses related to professional artist development, music appreciation, technology, and the intersection of arts and health. Long-term, administrators hope the expansion will attract more adult students — including those who may not play an instrument — and give them a newfound sense of community within the Peabody family.

Prescribe, Pro, Plus

Taking advantage of the renowned medical expertise found at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Peabody Prescribe courses explore the ways music and dance intersect with health and wellness. The program has rolled out two courses thus far: PD Strummers, which teaches guitar to people with Parkinson’s disease, and Playing Well, which examines how to prevent common musicians’ injuries and syndromes. As Prescribe grows, the Preparatory hopes to add more courses with health benefits, such as music classes for stroke survivors, chamber music for hospital staff members, and dance classes for nurses.

“A nurse may not want to become a prima ballerina, but there’s a benefit to taking a class in the middle of the workday to relax and decompress,” says Mathieson. “We have a lot of ideas floating out there.”

Peabody Pro’s mission is to offer professional development for arts educators, arts administrators, and performing artists — many of whom never learned 21st-century digital and pedagogical skills when they were in school. The program started with a modest selection of courses this academic year, including a five-week audio engineering course and a four-part series on violin and viola pedagogy.

“We’re training wonderful musicians, but we also want to provide content for them to continue to learn. Peabody Pro is the natural next step,” says Mathieson.

Abra Bush, a classically trained singer and senior associate dean for institute studies, saw firsthand how many arts and music educators were in need of professional development training when COVID-19 closed campuses last spring. Her administrative colleagues from Juilliard, Oberlin, Cleveland Institute of Music, and other conservatories were suddenly searching for instructors who knew how to teach remotely, but they were in short supply.

With Peabody’s help, Bush decided to host a “Lunch and Learn” series where performing arts faculty members and alumni could receive free training in distance learning techniques, online audio recording, remote auditioning, and other topics.

“I thought I would be talking into this blank computer screen, but by the end of the summer, it was extraordinary. We had 300 to 400 people on those calls at noon on Tuesdays. What became clear is there was a huge need to retrain our workforce in how to teach in this format,” says Bush, who’s hopeful that some of the Lunch and Learn attendees will become Peabody Pro students. “In music, we’re moving from a very analog age to a very digital age, very quickly,” says Bush. “There’s so much our faculty are being asked to do today that they were never asked to do before.”

Professionals who don’t find what they’re looking for under the Pro umbrella can also learn new skills within Peabody Plus, which provides courses for a range of adult learners, from career performers to the musically curious. The fall semester’s offerings included Digital Music Technology, Home Recording, Music History, and a course on the cultural and musical impact of The Beatles.

Bai-Chi Chen, instructor;

Preparatory faculty artist Bai-Chi Chen instructs adults playing the cello in a photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adult learners can still take private lessons and enroll in group classes in subjects like ballet, chamber music, guitar, jazz ensemble, music theory, strings, and voice — which are now housed within Peabody Plus — but the new online courses are giving people access to specialized training that either didn’t exist before or was only available to Conservatory students. And, with most courses costing between $150 and $400, students don’t have to break the bank to learn a new skill.

“I’ve been trying to do music classes at Peabody for a couple years, but there were none that fit me particularly well,” says 35-year-old Radell Moyd-Kane, a Baltimore-based performer and musical artist, who goes by the stage name EU1OGY. When he saw a two-part beatmaking and production course being offered through Peabody Plus, he enrolled in both sections.

Radell Moyd-Kane

Baltimore musician Radell Moyd-Kane (EU1OGY) learned the basics of beatmaking in Wendel Patrick’s course

“Beatmaking was one of those things I was totally in the dark about. I decided it was time to go for it, because it would help me with my art,” he says. Three months later, the music production software that once intimidated him has become another tool for creativity. “It was amazing. It really got my confidence up as an artist.”

Students who may have believed Peabody wasn’t a good fit due to their age, location, or experience level, now have a wealth of new learning opportunities — and Patrick thinks that’s a wonderful thing.

“My students are thrilled to be getting the instruction, and they’re really happy that the Peabody name is attached to it,” says Patrick, whose mother used to drive him from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore to study piano at the Preparatory when he was a child. He also noticed how the classes have created a sense of community at a time when many people can’t interact with friends and family face-to-face due to COVID-19.

Building an Online Campus

Mathieson says one silver lining of the pandemic has been an accelerated shift to online learning. In less than one semester, the Preparatory’s 120 in-person instructors all transitioned into confident online teachers. And that’s good news for the online campus being built through Peabody Plus, Pro, and Prescribe.

When the pandemic is over, Preparatory administrators hope to expand the three programs to include in-person learning. Plenty of ideas are on the table, such as summer workshops, weeklong intensives for professionals, and a program that would bring arts programming into local senior communities and hospitals.

“It was a risk to launch programming in 2020, but this was actually a great time to learn. Everything has been up in the air, and people are more willing to take a class and try something new,” says Mathieson. “I think the real risk was just staying where we were and not taking the brave step into the new world. Coming out of the pandemic, I believe we will have the experience we need to make this a success.”