Out of the Practice Room…And Into the World

By Richard Byrne
Illustrations by Eva Vázquez

Rolling out this fall, Peabody’s new Breakthrough Curriculum promises a bold culture shift for the Conservatory’s students and faculty.

Out of the Practice Room

When new students arrived at Peabody this fall, they became part of a continuing pursuit of artistic excellence that began in 1857. Yet these students also find themselves on a new journey, as the oldest conservatory in the United States embarks upon one of the boldest redesigns of a music curriculum in recent memory.

Peabody’s new Breakthrough Curriculum in Music Leadership will challenge all students to embrace new repertoires, navigate the social and economic currents of artistry, and help build community through specific musical outreach in Baltimore and beyond.

The Breakthrough Curriculum is an ambitious and mandatory new track of study, empowering students to acquire tools essential to their professional and personal development as artists performing for wider audiences. It also asks students to broaden their range of ensemble experience, increasing their musical flexibility by rotating instrumentalists through a range of different ensemble formats. These include the new Peabody Chamber Orchestra, performing music ranging from the Baroque and early Classical eras to contemporary works for smaller orchestral forces, and the Peabody Studio Orchestra, performing works ranging from film scores to typical pops-oriented programming.

“Peabody is uniquely positioned to actually take the step of fully integrating these ideas into the curriculum because of its strong history,” says Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute. “Our base is so strong. We have the goods. And we also come by it honestly. Peabody was founded as a broad-based, holistic, cultural center.”

Joseph Polisi, president of The Juilliard School and a key voice in reimagining arts education, sees Peabody’s curriculum revamp as a strong institutional response to pervasive technological and economic shifts affecting professional musicians.

“The needs of our graduates have changed significantly in a digital world,” says Polisi, whose 2005 book, The Artist as Citizen, helped define the concept of “citizen-artistry” that is a foundation of the new curriculum. “The ability of our graduates to speak in public, to write effectively, and to understand the sociological, political, and economic contexts in which they live — and in which their art exists — is probably a more important factor than it’s ever been.”

Those involved in the effort acknowledge that sweeping changes involve risks. But they also believe that the Conservatory’s heritage of excellence built over 160 years is a firm foundation to pursue bold change.

“There is a need to be entrepreneurial in your career as an artist,” says Scott Metcalfe, director of Recording Arts and Sciences at Peabody. “I think this curriculum goes a long way in helping students recognize that.”

“I look at this as our moonshot,” says Joe Burgstaller, an international soloist who teaches trumpet and brass chamber music. “It’s an entire culture shift that will add to our core strengths.”

Ah Young Hong (BM ’98, MM ’01, Voice), voice faculty artist, believes the new curriculum will empower all students to take the risks required in a moment of shifting demands and expectations for musicians. “I was afraid of some repertoire more than others,” she observes, “and I have kicked myself for not exploring sooner. I learned the hard way to deal with contracts and negotiations. It is as if I have gone through my own personal ‘Breakthrough Curriculum’ over a long period of time.”

A New Arc for Professional Musicians

The institute’s new curriculum was designed by task forces comprising students, staff, and faculty, including Melcalfe, Burgstaller, and Hong. And it’s no accident that the curriculum embodies a number of elements in Bronstein’s Four Pillars plan, which emphasizes concepts of excellence, interdisciplinary experiences, innovation, and community connectivity. Another key factor driving the change: the “student outcomes” at the center of so many vital discussions across American higher education in 2017.

Peabody and the other great conservatories in the United States embrace the idea that intensive training produces extraordinary artistry. Yet as opportunities available in traditional orchestras and other ensembles narrow, many conservatory graduates must redefine what constitutes a rewarding and fulfilling career in music.

A much-discussed article published in The New York Times in 2004 tracked the trajectories of a number of 1994 Juilliard graduates, and the results jolted music educators. While some of those instrumentalists surveyed had gone on to distinguished performance careers, more than 25 percent had left professional music entirely, and others were struggling.

“Those students were trained in the model where they were all going to walk out into professional piano careers, orchestra careers, singing careers, and when they didn’t, they often felt like failures,” says Peabody’s Abra Bush, senior associate dean of institute studies and one of the major architects of the new curriculum.

Yet while the traditional path to full-time performance careers has narrowed over the past few decades, new vistas for conservatory graduates are opening up, including careers that marry performance with arts advocacy, teaching, administration, audience development, and fundraising.

John Kieser, executive vice president and provost of New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, says that acknowledging the potential new arc of professional music careers is vital for students and faculty. His organization has crafted a vigorous and highly competitive postgraduate program to train future musical leaders — a program that helps map out opportunities in this shifting environment.

“The fellows start understanding their role as a musician is not going to be what their teacher’s career was,” says Kieser. “One thing we talk about a lot is how can faculty understand that their students’ lives are not going to be like their lives — and how can they help prepare their students for a different kind of world?”

Arts organizations that seek to survive and thrive need accomplished artists not only as performers but as advocates and leaders who will help shape the future of music.

“The people who run performing arts organizations are literally begging for the training of musicians to change,” Bronstein observes. “The acquisition of new 21st-century skills is important but more important is the mindset. That’s what has to change. We as musicians are all in the audience-development business, and we can’t grow audiences unless we do something differently and think broadly about our role.”

String Sinfonia

Offered during the junior year, the IMPLEMENT module of the Breakthrough Curriculum intends to bring student-created work directly into the community, similar to the mission of the Peabody String Sinfonia.

Poised to Launch

Peabody’s new four-year track begins in freshman year with a course (EXPLORE) that introduces students to key concepts of community, citizen-artistry, and leadership. The one-credit class brings students into contact with career models and potential mentors, and acquaints them with Baltimore’s artistic community.

A network of mentors, classes with collaborative cohorts of 15 to 20 students, as well as the addition of online courses, will propel the next class in the track. The BUILD course, offered during the sophomore year, will give students a chance to develop, test, and assess their ideas on citizen-artistry and performance in increasingly complex settings. Online courses will impart fundamental skills and best practices in programming for diverse audiences, covering elements that may include programming of a concert, site selection, and marketing the event.

The mandatory track concludes in junior year with IMPLEMENT — a class in which small groups of students will undertake the planning and production of a community-based music project. The course encompasses preparation of programs and execution of formal agreements, as well as professional performance and analysis. The intention is to draw together all elements of the curriculum and bring student-created work directly into the community.

“The students will be influencing the way this looks,” says Burgstaller. “Going out into the community, they are going to be leading the charge and developing their own programs. What will they create that we could never have foreseen?”

A final optional course for students who want deeper immersion in citizen-artistry will be offered during the senior year. The LAUNCH module opens up a range of competitive, stipend-supported residencies and fellowships to students, including opportunities created in tandem with established programs such as Young Audiences of Maryland and the new Center for Music and Medicine.

Filling Gaps“It’s my hope that students will leave here equipped with the habits of mind to leave a lasting legacy in their communities,” says Bush. “They will continue to be trained at the highest level of performance, but they will as a group go out into the world and have an impact in a way that we perhaps have not expected in the past.”

The mandatory aspect of the new curriculum is key, says Bronstein. “Many schools have developed programs, but they aren’t integrated into what the students are doing. They are optional. They are on the side. Whatever we were going to do, it needed to be practical, and it needed to be integrated across the board.”

A number of Peabody alumni have been strong voices for these changes, and they are bringing their own experiences to the discussion. An alumni survey conducted in 2016 found that more than 80 percent of alumni valued skills in communication and audience
development as important aspects of their work as professional musicians. But the data shows a significant gap between the reality of professional life and the training they received at Peabody in these areas.

Matthew Rupcich (BM ’90, Music Education), immediate past president of the Society of Peabody Alumni and alumni representative on the Peabody Curriculum for the Future Task Force, says he welcomes the addition of coursework in networking, community building, technology, and public speaking that was not available in his era at the Conservatory.

“I wish I’d had that kind of experience when I was at Peabody,” he says.

Rupcich adds that the goal is not simply “moving the Conservatory into the 21st century,” but also an understanding of “how to be a strong, positive musician. There is so much more to it now than excellence in your instrument.”

Filling Gaps and Finding Balance

The trick in revamping music curriculum for students at the highest level is to innovate while still conserving the values and methods embedded in the notion of a “conservatory.”

Bronstein says the Conservatory’s continuing commitment to performance excellence remains central to the mission. “There’s no shortcut to that,” he says. “You have to do the work.”

But making notions of community, citizen-artistry, and entrepreneurialism a mandatory part of the curriculum expansion, he adds, is an explicit rejection of what he calls a “false choice” between a singular focus on excellence and acquisition of other key skills. “There is an idea that if you broaden the context, you’re somehow compromising on excellence,” he says. “But it’s not either/or. It’s both/and.”

Kieser agrees that even music students reaching for the loftiest pinnacles of artistry will find changing expectations of excellence having a significant impact on their careers. “As far as I’m concerned this should start in the Preparatory division,” he says. He believes auditions should be supplemented by interviews that explore other ways musicians will be able to contribute to the organization. He adds that Peabody’s new curriculum has the potential to mark out the institute’s graduates as especially equipped to navigate shifting currents in professional music.

“You need to be at the top of your game as an instrumentalist, but it’s more than that. You need to be a whole person and generous of spirit as well,” he says.

For Bronstein, the new curriculum’s insistence that students bring their work to the community is key. “The challenge for any school — and the challenge for Peabody — is that we’re well thought of, but we’re an icon on a hill,” he says. “We’re trying to open that up. To send the message that Peabody is an asset that the community can participate in. So the Breakthrough Curriculum is actually a kind of two-way street with the community. Students bring their talents to communities, and in doing so, are deepening those skills.”

Bronstein observes that the curriculum will continue an ongoing dialogue within Peabody and in the larger community about the power of music. He expects that conversation to be enlarged and refined by all of its participants.

“People imagine that when you change things they will be there for the next hundred years,” says Bronstein. “But actually I see this curriculum as a living roadmap, letting it grow, evolve, and be organic.”

Predicts Burgstaller, “The Breakthrough Curriculum will serve to raise our standards. Once we stop solely focusing on notes and include focusing on the relationship with our audience, we actually don’t miss as many notes.”