Concerning Conservatories III: A Tale of Caution and Renewal

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part of an essay written for The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, where it first appeared.
Read parts I here and II here.

In the second part of this series, I introduced the theme of Creativity as perhaps the most persistent of the ideas inspiring the reformation of our institutions of higher music education. The fact that “music study has long been predicated on the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance” masquerades as an accusation – or at least as weighty criticism. And it’s hurled as thoughtlessly as it is effectively because we rarely question the assumption that hides behind the mask – if we even notice that it’s there at all. If we do question it, we’re generally at a loss for an answer. Is it a bad thing to subordinate creativity to technical proficiency and interpretive performance?

As the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said in his presidential address to the Royal Academy when it opened in 1769,

I would chiefly recommend that an implicit obedience to the rules of art, as established by the great masters, should be exacted from the young students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism. I am confident that this is the only efficacious method of making a progress in the arts; and that he who sets out with doubting will find life finished before he becomes master of the rudiments. …Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion that rules are the fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius….1

The discipline and pursuit of technical proficiency, of course, is not antithetical to creativity and was the rule throughout the periods of history that produced our civilization’s greatest art. Juliette Aristides notes that, “Historically, the practice of master copying was a central component in the methods of training painters; it started at the very beginning of a student’s training and often lasted long after the individual had reached mastery.”2

‘Copying,’ [Eugène] Delacroix wrote, ‘herein lay the education of most of the great masters. They first learned their master’s style as an apprentice is taught how to make a knife, without seeking to show their own originality. Afterwards, they copied everything they could lay hands on among the works of past or contemporary artists.’3

It was the same, of course, for the musical training of history’s great composers. “Interpretive performance,” a form of “copying,” has been the central component of a musical education from the very beginning. And there is one more, very important reason for that fact: music, unlike art, only exists when it is being performed. It is not like a painting, which only needs to be painted once in order for us to experience it fully. The composition of a painting never changes; when we come back to it, it is always exactly as it was, and only we change. But music only exists when we are hearing it. It must be “copied” again and again and over again; and every copy is different like every human fingerprint is different. It changes and we change, each time we hear it. And if we cease to play Beethoven’s symphonies – or if we fail to cultivate in the next generation of musicians the skills and the love necessary to faithfully “copy” them – then in a very real sense they will cease to be.

What the revolutionaries and reformers, in their zeal, also seem to forget is that the vast majority of musicians – that majority they profess to have always in mind – even in Bach’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, Liszt’s, or Schumann’s time, were interpretive performers. Though they’d like to imagine it otherwise, we can safely say that virtually none of us are born with creative powers even remotely equal to those of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart. In fact, we’d be lucky to have one such genius in our midst during the course of an age. And I think that even today, most of the students who enter our conservatories do so, not because they believe they are in line to be the next Mozart, but because they love performing the music that has found its way into our canon – and the time and energy they’ve invested in learning to be worthy of playing it attests to that fact. It’s part of the great miracle of classical music that the preponderance of musicians who have come and gone throughout the long course of its history were interpretive performers inspired to play “repertory created in, and for, another time and place” – overlooking for the moment the sophistry already mentioned, and taking that phrase to mean instead “music composed before one’s lifetime” – because if they weren’t, we’d know little or nothing about the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart today. Perhaps that’s fine with the Modernists, but I think the rest of us would object loudly.

It seems to be a triumphal bit of amnesia that confidently injects the modern reformer’s rhetoric with that “false and vulgar opinion” that “the subordination of creativity to technical proficiency” is somehow a detriment to the development of a student’s creative genius. But it’s an argument that is as popular as it is unexamined. A former music critic who is now one of the Internet’s most popular bloggers on the future of classical music – and who admittedly would “like to run a music school” – weighs in:

Music schools don’t encourage creativity. …I’m not saying that their teaching might not be on a high level, but mostly it’s on a high level of doing what the rest of the classical music world does, making music the way your teachers, your chamber music coaches, and the conductors you play for expect it to be made. …But art students, I’m going to guess, are doing varied, original things, because that’s what they see in the art world.

We are invited over and over again to compare our conservatories to our art schools. And it’s a useful comparison, though not in the way the reformers think it is. Art schools already and thoroughly made the mistake that the musical academy is being encouraged to make:

In our arts climate, historical education and art training are often considered antithetical to genius. Rising artists are frequently expected to tap their knowledge directly from the ether, disconnected from history and labor. However, when the instincts of the individual are elevated above education, the artist can become stuck in a perpetual adolescence where his passion outstrips his ability to perform. A far more powerful art form is created when artists seek to first master the craft of art and then use it to express their individuality.4

But it is hard to convince us of this because we really want to believe that technical proficiency – which concerns itself ultimately with Beauty, Truth, and Goodness – is a dictatorial grey area eclipsed by the shining genius of innate creativity. And after all, if four and a half minutes of silence can stand next to one of Bach’s fugues as a work of creativity, why do we need to bother with technical proficiency? Of course, when faced with this absurdity, we realize that there is something that precedes creativity, just as we know that there is a way for creativity to reach beyond technicality. Sir Joshua Reynolds described it this way:

How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as the poet expresses it,

“To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,”

may be an after consideration, when the pupils become masters themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building.5

The problem is that the project of our art schools, and the project of reforming our conservatories, has become rather to raze the building.

Art Schools and the Atelier Movement

The critics are not wrong about the differences between our academies of art and of music. Music conservatories have until now largely resisted the impulses that have so effectively reformed our art schools. And the nation’s very best music schools continue to ignore the din and still reliably produce the world’s top musical talent.

But art schools long ago succumbed to the delusion that sets creativity and originality ahead of discipline. They long ago embraced the widespread cultural rebellion against tradition in all its forms; generations ago they rejected the practice of “teaching as it was taught to me.” They have effectively broken with the past. They’re even wildly successful at turning out entrepreneurs: modern artists are now rolling their “art” off of assembly lines straight into museums.

Alexander Gorlizki is an up-and-coming artist… [whose] work has been displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Denver Art Museum and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, among others, and sells for up to $10,000. Mr. Gorlizki lives in New York City. The paintings are done by seven artists who work for him in Jaipur, India. “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting,” says Mr. Gorlizki, who adds that it would take him 20 years to develop the skills of his chief Indian painter, Riyaz Uddin. “It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency,” he says.6

We don’t have to squint to see where this road that our reformers are rushing down ends. Indeed we are fortunate to have such an explicit example to study. Before we bid our conservatories follow our art schools into the great modern experiment, then, we ought to ask ourselves – and consider carefully – whether or not the experiment has been successful.

There is a growing movement of students and artists who are convinced that the answer is no. And they are flocking to ateliers that continue to spring up all over the world. The modern atelier movement is the correction to the art schools that first abdicated their responsibility to teach technical proficiency and tradition – and subsequently lost the ability to do so altogether. But if the art schools themselves are responsible for the rise of the ateliers, they are not at all to thank for the possibility that they could even exist. Modern ateliers exist because,

Against all odds and facing ridicule, a handful of artists who were still academically trained managed to preserve the core technical knowledge of Western art and to continue the process of teaching another generation. There is now a growing movement of artists demanding to be taught the classical methods. They are part of a new Renaissance that has brought the atelier method full circle and back into the art world of today.7

The atelier is an artist’s workshop, set up much as it was 150 years ago and with its roots in the guilds of the early Renaissance. It is the place where a student trains for many years under the careful, meticulous, and demanding eye of a master artist. Often, only a handful of promising students are accepted at any one time, and they are immersed in the intensively slow and steady process of acquiring technical proficiency, of mastering foundational principles, and of realizing the historic artistic achievements upon which the tradition of Western art has been built. Juliette Aristides was trained in an atelier and now trains her students the same way:

The atelier movement attempts to rebuild the links between masterpieces of the past and our artistic future. As such, it sets a different course than the one prescribed by the arts establishment of the modern era. By reinvigorating arts education we can give the next generation of artists the tools that have been lost or discarded over the last one hundred and fifty years.8

As serious students of art begin to realize that they do have the option of learning the tradition and the disciplines that art schools cannot – or do not – offer, art schools in turn are starting to realize that serious art students are willing to forego the accredited college degree – along with the possibility of a university career, a steady salary, and tenure, to say nothing of the approbation of the art establishment – in exchange for the opportunity to learn the craft, to master technical proficiency, and to spend their time tediously copying history’s masterpieces. Their ambition is fired by love for, not resentment of, the canon and its creators – and by a burning desire, which perseveres in the face of failure, to participate in the long and living tradition that is our Western heritage. As Peter Trippi, Editor-in-chief of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine points out,

[A]telier enrollments have continued to soar nationwide…. These enrollments have slowly been “stealing” business from mainstream university art departments, so some are now responding by creating their own programs in this vein.9

It is very possible that the music academy, if it harkens to the shouts echoing all around it and proceeds in the proposed march toward reform and “progress,” will pass by the art academy as it hastens back to that crossroads where it took a wrong turn. It is very possible that, by chasing “relevance,” our conservatories, like our art schools, will make themselves irrelevant.

Can we say, then, that all is well in the world of higher music education on this side of the pond? For now, we continue to produce an ample supply of musicians that rank among the world’s best, with the technical proficiency, confidence, and maturity to faithfully perform the great works that were handed down to us. Occasionally – no more often than we might expect it to happen – a creative talent rises visibly from the cohort, perhaps one day to join the canon and the masters at whose feet he studied.

If our music schools are in danger, the danger is a knowable one that rumbles predictably and pharisaically. The course of man, like the labor of the student, was always fraught with mistakes. But the tale of higher art education is ultimately a hopeful one. For there will always be those students who, hungry to participate in that transcendent experience that is the miracle of classical music, will seek out and heed the advice of Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, imparted to us in Il Libro dell’Arte at the dawn of the 15th century – ever as fresh as the day he inscribed it:

You, therefore, who with lofty spirit are fired with this ambition, and are about to enter the profession, begin by decking yourselves with this attire: Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience, and Constancy. And begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master of instruction as early as you can; and do not leave the master until you have to.10

Endnotes

1 Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 13.

2 Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.

3 Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 6.

4 Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).

5 Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A Discourse Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President”, published in Seven Discourses Delivered in the Royal Academy by the President (London 1778) 14.

6 Stan Sesser, “The Art Assembly Line” in The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2011). Accessed 9/28/15: www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303745304576357681741418282.

7 Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, in his Foreword to Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008).

8 Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2006).

9 Peter Trippi, “Ateliers Today: A New Renaissance?” in Fine Art Connoisseur (November/December 2012), 79.

10 Quoted in Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice (New York City 2008), 1.

About the Author

Andrew Balio has served as principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since his invitation by Yuri Temirkanov in 2001, and recently served as principal of the Oslo Philharmonic during its 14/15 season. He is former principal of the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Estado de Mexico. Andrew’s interest in orchestral affairs and challenges began while he was a music student, renting a room from the Boston Symphony’s long-time chairman of the Players’ Committee and thereby gaining a unique and candid vantage point from which to consider the inner workings of a highly successful organization. In Baltimore, he served on various orchestral committees before formulating his first strategic plan for the organization called Repositioning the BSO in 2003, collaborating with Robin-Marie Williams, strategic planner for NASA and the Department of Defense. His many years of watching, studying, and seeking out the experts culminates with his founding of the Future Symphony Institute. More recently, Andrew has been called upon again to present a new value strategy for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and continues his ongoing efforts to fundamentally change the patron experince. Andrew remains active as a teacher, performer, committee member, and as an avid student of business, philosophy, and the challenges of our modern culture.
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Discussion

  • What is missing from that analogy between music and visual art is that ateliers train people to create their own paintings or sculptures with what they have learned. They generally have done so in the past as well, although a few artists spent more time working as assistants on large murals than on their own paintings. What orchestral musicians do is equivalent to working in a Chinese factory churning out replicas of the same few old paintings. While there have always been more performers than composers, and performers did play music from previous generations, the discrepancy was not as ridiculous as it is now; the Baroque era did not have 80 piece orchestras playing 90% repertoire from the 1500s, with one premiere of a contemporary piece every six months that would never be played again. Now even mid-range synthesizers can replace several instruments at once, and there are also versions of orchestral stringed instruments that can be amplified and passed through doubling effects, so the practical use for large numbers of musicians on stage, let alone in a recording studio, is less than ever. In the area where conservatories do come closer to what art schools do, the composition departments, they lost all credibility around the same time the art schools did. I would not expect them to be able to train students to the level of Bach or Mozart on a regular basis either, but if conservatories had real composition teachers rather than inept teachers that hate tradition, they would have produced several with the skills of Graun, Telemann, Weiss, Benda, Myslivecek or Vanhal in my lifetime. The decades-long trend of idolizing “outstanding” performers, who sound indistinguishable from “mediocre” performers 95% of the time, is a very transparent attempt to deflect attention from this.

    It is too bad that musicians could not figure out how to establish real places to learn as the visual artists have. That would also have helped anyone with a real concern that they were not prepared to make a living musically; one atelier in Italy does try to make business connections for its painting students (it also will train beginners, rather than demanding letters of recommendation and auditions to make most of the teaching someone else’s responsibility, and costs less than $13,000 a year). A small non-accredited school could be run with less money than one bloated orchestra; if that were still impractical for other reasons, then a unified internet site for musicians with written lessons, videos, active forum discussions and classifieds should have been created. Any author of music articles could have easily made these suggestions. Instead, classical music writing from conservatives consisted mostly of several very similar articles complaining about the Second Viennese School and praising the free market, which accomplished absolutely nothing. It is unfortunate that when liberals have largely destroyed music, and are obsessed with finding new ways to somehow continue destroying music, that conservatives consistently either criticize the latest liberal trend or one older avant-garde movement and live in denial of the rest of the damage. Fully identifying the problem and making an effort to rebuild music? Too extreme and dangerous, but doing that with visual art is okay. In this environment, “those students hungry to participate in that transcendent experience that is the miracle of classical music” are soon going to give up in frustration whether or not they read Cennini.

    • You make some very important points, Dymitry. Of course you are right that “composition departments… lost all credibility around the same time the art schools did.” And I agree with you, too, that “inept teachers that hate tradition” will never turn out the kind of composers we need. Attacking the failure of our composition departments is a little like kicking a dead horse. But we keep finding ourselves up against those who won’t concede yet that the horse is dead.

      I had hoped to convey my optimism about the kind of music education one can still get in our best music schools. And of course, one doesn’t even need to attend such an institution in order to become an accomplished professional musician. There are alternatives to the Academy. I admit that I have mostly the performer in mind when I say so.

      And I think here might be the only place where we disagree: the relative importance of having a large number of musicians on stage and of having “bloated” orchestras. And that’s because an entire and very important segment of our repertoire will disappear when our large orchestras do. There’s a critical difference between music and art which limits our comparisons of them. Art has a physical form. It’s produced once and persists in exactly that form until it is destroyed. Copies of it exist as physical forms side by side and simultaneously with the original. A symphony, however, doesn’t have a physical form. It is not the written composition – not the ink on paper – but the music those markings signify. It only exists while it is being performed. Your “Chinese factory churning out replicas” can be only be producing copies of either the score or a recording of some performance. And that of course is not what musicians do.

      You are right to direct our attention toward the composer, however, because it is much more difficult for him, and the Academy is largely to blame for that fact. What student composers face even today within the Academy is similar, I expect, to what Alexander Stoddart describes of his art education in the 1970s, when he was shunned as a Nazi for his adherence to classical figurative work. And in fact, he is still largely shunned by the establishment. Likewise, composers who reject cultural progressivism are rarely heard from again.

      The problem is precisely as you put it: those who “have largely destroyed music… are obsessed with finding new ways to somehow continue destroying” it. And it is tempting to put up a fight on only the latest front, or else to linger on one that has largely been abandoned. But maybe it’s not so much that we “live in denial of the rest of the damage” and rather more that it can be a real challenge to know where to begin on the rest of it. It is all so thoroughly tangled and deeply rooted. And I think we can understand why it often seems “too extreme and dangerous” to refute the ideologies, like cultural progressivism, that have become the orthodoxies of a new religion – especially when the priests of that religion seem to keep all the gates. FSI exists, at least in part, to encourage and take part in that challenge to modernist orthodoxy, to embolden those who have maybe been reluctant to speak up about the real problems, and to find effective ways to recover and sustain our tradition.

      I’m afraid that you’re right, too, that in the meantime all this means that many students will “give up in frustration” (– and will, incidentally, never read any Cennini, either). But there might lie their first test in Constancy.

  • I understand that the plans for a musical performance on paper are not themselves perceptible as music, but that does not mean that the work is erased from history if it is not being constantly performed, especially if plenty of recordings exist. Almost everyone of my generation sees a recording of a performance as indistinguishable from a performance itself, and recordings are usually duplicated many more times than paintings or sculptures. While I do not see live performances to be as fundamental as you do, I do see them as very helpful ways to maintain musical interest, promote networking, and generate income, and I do not want to reduce the number of them. I also would not want to see live performances that resemble most electronic music concerts, with very little instrument playing and a lot of button pushing. However, very large orchestras are a relatively recent development, with some composers running into logistic problems with their large symphonies as late as the 1890s and 1900s.

    I would not want to obliterate an “entire and very important segment of our repertoire” without a very good reason. However, that segment is a small portion of European music history, which deviated further from traditional music than earlier eras, and has contributed towards a much larger amount of earlier repertoire written for smaller orchestras being largely forgotten and ignored. Increasing the size of orchestras past a certain point not only requires more expensive and specialized concert halls, but also results in a lack of instrumental clarity for the audience and a greater risk of hearing damage for musicians who play in them. Large ensembles in general also eliminate the ability of performers to contribute with any creativity. If it is really that important to continue playing music from that era, then it can be reserved for the largest cities, which are capable of sustaining it, or smaller ensembles in other cities can play rearrangements of it with fewer parts or live synthesized backing.

    When I made the “too extreme and dangerous” comment, I was not thinking about reactions from progressives, but from a number of mainstream conservatives that tolerate any advocacy for truly traditional musical techniques and aesthetics almost as badly as most of the left does. They are quite comfortable with visual artists taking influence from the 15th century or rejecting techniques dating well back into the 19th century if they like. At the same time, they act like the only good classical music was produced in the late romantic era, and as if the obvious way to make it even better is by adding as many disparate elements of big band jazz and broadway showtunes as possible.

    I do have some optimism about the future of music; with time, I find more surprisingly easy ways to improve the quality of composition, the efficiency of education, and practical ways to use technology, and there are more people in the world dissatisfied with what is currently available. However, so many people in the so-called “western” countries offer so much resistance to such improvements, whether due to various metapolitical ideologies or their emotional attachments, that it looks like the places to manifest musical ambitions will have to be quite far from their influence, and what little of Europe has resisted this attitude towards music was never inclined towards classicism to begin with.

    • You’re quite right in your observations. I especially sympathize with this one: “When I made the ‘too extreme and dangerous’ comment, I was not thinking about reactions from progressives, but from a number of mainstream conservatives that tolerate any advocacy for truly traditional musical techniques and aesthetics almost as badly as most of the left does.” That is the more important way to understand where we are now.

      As usual, you make some excellent points very excellently, Dymitry. Thank you for taking the time and care you do to contribute them.

    • Two corrections seem to be justified:

      1) “Large ensembles in general also eliminate the ability of performers to contribute with any creativity. ” This pertinently not true: in the hughe scoring of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss there are plenty of episodes where soloistic writing offers ample space to excell in individual creativity.

      2) “………….. and what little of Europe has resisted this attitude towards music was never inclined towards classicism to begin with.” If ‘classicism’ is understood as traditionalism, in the widest sense, but rooted in tonality (the basis of music anyway), younger composers in Europe turn towards pre-WW-II aesthetics and develop their own voice from there: Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon, Karol Beffa, Guillaume Connesson, David Matthews, James Francis Brown, Peter Fribbins, and others.

  • These three related essays address in a profound way the central issue of transmitting a cultural tradition. Rules, which can be learnt, result from practice, and rules are the way through which young people reach the field of practice, nothing more, nothing less. In music education, rules are not authoritarian restrictions upon the student’s creativity (as the essays clearly demonstrate), but are meant to stimulate a process of internalization of what happens in works of music. In instrumental teaching, often technique is transmitted directly from teacher to student in close imitation: ‘do as I do’, and muscially-talented students immediately pick-up the physical process of musical production, also if they do not consciously fully understand why things are done in this or that way. So it always was, and it reflect the timelessness of human creativity.

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