Jun 4, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Preparing university students for the professional world is a moving target for any field. The landscape, business models and technologies inevitably changes from the point curricula is settled to the moment students apply for their first job.

But training classical musicians in the 21st century is particularly difficult — both because the classical music business is an uncertain, dynamic period and because the classical music world is often caught up in its own tradition. When Fred Bronstein was appointed dean of the Peabody Institute in 2014, the goal of rethinking what tools graduating musicians received from the 159-year-old conservatory was at the top of his list.

“What really surprised me was that there was actually a part of the music world, the music industry that was more conventional than orchestras,” said Bronstein. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

The former St. Louis Symphony CEO and professional pianist makes it clear he is speaking half tongue-in-cheek (though only half) and that he is describing not just Peabody but music conservatory culture as a whole. Bronstein speaks passionately about a need to rethink that conventional thinking because in his experience in professional classic music, that conventional training isn’t preparing students for a difficult and fast-changing musical landscape.

Conservatories are producing more talented musicians, trained at a higher level than any time before — far more than will be able to win highly competitive orchestra, opera or soloist jobs, which have been the traditional sought after prize for graduating musicians. But even for those traditional jobs, Bronstein said the field is changing.

“Even if you’re lucky enough to win a job in a symphony like the St. Louis Symphony — and very few people will — your ability to get into that orchestra may be [through the conventional audition process], but your ability to be successful in the culture of that orchestra is going to be driven by many factors including how you interact with audiences, how you talk to donors, how you do things with the media, how you are in a school setting, how you are in a cancer ward — I mean it is a much bigger landscape than just being able to sit on stage and play your instrument,” Bronstein said. “And yet we, the major music schools, haven’t done a good job of changing how musicians think about that. By the time they get to the professional world, it’s too late. It has to happen here.”

In the past hundred years or so, classical music presentation has become very formalized and, depending on who you ask, very sterile. The concert starts at precisely 8 p.m., there are rules about what you wear and how you act that were either enforced either actively or by social and peer pressure, and the musicians on stage never speak to the audience. That last one, which is still a taboo in some circles, is particularly troubling to Bronstein.

Much of that has started to change in recent decades as classical musicians see a need to be involved in developing and connecting with their audience, rather than assuming they’ll always come. At both the traditional and non-traditional professional ranks, musicians are increasingly being asked to engage and build their own audience — which is why Bronstein said he was astounded to see that none of the concerts he attended in his first four or five months at Peabody included anyone saying a word to those in attendance.

“I said to the students that if I go to one more recital where you don’t say something, I’m going to shut the place down,” he recalled. “I was kidding, but I was trying to tell them that they have to be able to do this. They have to have that skill set. How are you gong to manage if you can’t talk to an audience in a cogent, entertaining and meaningful way?”

Beyond just communicating with audiences, Bronstein counts off a long list of skills he wants to see better integrated into his conservatory’s training. Some are focused on the changing business of music, like community engagement, using technology and the Internet to present your music, entrepreneurship and programming for and developing different audiences. Some are focused on broadening musical training that better reflects the demands of being a professional musician.

“I think everyone who comes through a program like this ought to be able to improvise,” he said. “These are not skills that are valued unless you’re in a jazz program. But you ought to be able to play a film score or a jazz chart. You’re going to have to be able to stylistically pull off different things. I don’t think any cellist that goes through a music program should be able to get through four years without playing continuo. That’s what a broad music education should look like.

“And again, what’s funny about all of this is that none of this is new,” Bronstein added. “If you look at how people got their music and what the concert experience was 150 years ago, or if you look at the range of what performers had to do in Bach’s day. … All of the barriers that were created between classical music and so-called popular culture were artificially created. I think that was probably the worst thing for classical music where all these barriers were created and it was separated from the rest of culture.”

Some of those barriers are easier to tear down than others. Bronstein said something he heard over and over when he was with the St. Louis Symphony from audiences is that they wanted to know more about the musicians and seeing behind the scenes. In that regard, Bronstein talks admiringly about how much a simple tool like YouTube can provide and said he thinks all of his students should be able to cut their own video and know how to present it online.

One of the most visible signs of this changing thought process has been a series of conversations, branded as the Dean’s Symposium Series, where Bronstein talks with outside classical music leaders and working professionals. Part of the goal is to bring in fresh perspectives and to show how much things are changing in the outside classical music world. Bronstein points to a recent conversation he had as part of the series with Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter that reflects that change.

“Here’s a person who runs one of the leading classical music presenting institutions in the country which is in some ways very conventional, but the conversation that we had was really about how even they are thinking about new audiences, changing the concert experience, more cross-disciplinary experiences and how we make this more relatable,” Bronstein said. “It’s all of the things we need to teach performers to do, and she said [to me], ‘I’m begging you to train musicians who will do that.’”

Some of the speakers in the Dean’s Symposium Series — like International Contemporary Ensemble founder Claire Chase or Le Poisson Rouge co-founders David Handler and Justin Kantor — give perspective on how an entrepreneurial mindset has allowed some classical musicians to build their own opportunities in the current landscape.

Bronstein asks every one of his speakers how they feel about the future of classical music, and the common thread in all of the answers is that the future is bright, but it is different than it was and will be challenging at times. This is at the core of a lot of Bronstein’s philosophy. He is optimistic about the future, but he also wants his students to see there might be different possibilities out there after graduation that neither he nor they can see at this moment, which he said is “liberating” to realize.

Being able to embrace those possibilities requires a different perspective and mindset than has usually been valued. During remarks at Peabody’s spring commencement, Bronstein talked about what performances musicians consider “valuable.” In his own career, Bronstein said he played at many major halls and got many reviews — all of the things that are traditionally thought of as “valuable.”

“But some of the most meaningful experiences for me were not in the traditional performance settings. We once played a piece by a Cambodian-American composer to an audience of largely Cambodian immigrants in Lowell, Massachusetts — most of whom had lost their families to the Khmer Rouge — and this was something that was connecting them to their culture,” Bronstein recalls. “I’ve played on many major stages, but it’s those kind of performances that I remember.”

As Peabody rethinks how it approaches its curriculum, Bronstein is very clear that he doesn’t want to just add a few elective courses.

“[Several music schools] offer elements of these things, but it’s all on the periphery. It’s [with the message] that if you want to participate in these things, you can,” he said. “My position is that’s not going to do it. It has to be integrated into the standard curriculum.”

Inevitably when conversations of adding things to curricula come up, there is a question of whether that takes away from the core mission to train the best musicians. For Bronstein, that argument recalls conversations a few decades ago (that have continued to some degree) when many orchestras started broadening their mission and launching more education and community engagement initiatives in part to demonstrate their value in their home cities as a public institution. Bronstein points to his experience with the St. Louis Symphony as proof it’s not a question of one or the other.

“The conversation went like this: If we broaden what we’re doing, we’re going to lose the artistic quality of what we are,” he said. “That is completely a false choice, and I think the same can be said of training musicians. It’s a false choice to say you either do this or that. It’s got to be both.”