The Conservatory and the Future: Lessons from the Past, Lessons from the Present

Note: The Shanghai Conservatory of Music was founded in 1927. On November 27, 2017, the Conservatory hosted an International Forum for Directors of Music Institutions, as part of its 90th anniversary celebrations. Directors and other representatives from major conservatories and universities in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Auckland, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Vienna, and Minsk, gathered together for a lively international dialogue on advanced training in music performance, and a gala concert that showcased the wonderful artistry of the conservatory’s faculty and students. The text below was presented as my contribution to the dialogue. I welcome your comments and responses (!

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

By Dr. Richard Kurth
Director, UBC School of Music


Dear President Lin Zaiyong, esteemed colleagues here at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and from institutions around the world: I am delighted and honoured to participate with you in this memorable anniversary celebration, and I thank you all for your contributions to our stimulating time together. Above all, I congratulate the Shanghai Conservatory of Music on the many impressive and inspiring achievements of its first 90 years, which attest to the abundant energy and talent of its leaders, faculty members, and students!

My remarks today address the Role of Professional Music Institutions in Contemporary Society. My subtitle, in seeking “lessons from the past,” and “lessons from the present,” considers how conservatories have reacted to historical change in ways that inadvertently limit our current and future vitality. Although I will critique certain practices that impede our energies, I also affirm that we are all introducing innovations into our teaching and artistic practice to address these problems and vitalize our work. 

My aim today is to encourage our efforts in refreshing our pedagogies, by reminding us that some problematic practices have deep roots that are still reinforced every day.  The more clearly we can perceive ingrained habits, the sooner we can liberate our work from their negative impacts.

Let us first consider the global establishment of music conservatories, mainly from about 1870 to 1950, which aimed to preserve privileged modes of music creation that had flourished in golden periods of artistic cultivation. Conservatories were established precisely because the conditions for artistic activity were changing rapidly — with waning and waxing political and economic forces, redistribution of wealth, and large-scale migration into modern cities. The use of pastoral folk music elements in 19th-century art music was not only a means of building national identity, but also a strategy of assimilation related to changing dynamics of urban musical activity.  With migration into the cities, a burgeoning everyday musical life also grew from folkloric traditions, featuring music that was accessible in idiom and content, was heard in everyday performance venues, and was later widely circulated through recording and broadcast technologies. Indeed, these technologies were quickly emerging when the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was founded in 1927, one hundred years after the death of Beethoven. 

Recording and distribution technologies have chiefly amplified the pervasive impact of popular music forms. Conservatories have adjusted slowly and incrementally to technological change, while the popular music industry embraces a constant flow of new production and competitive change, with new styles and idioms replacing old ones, often along with the application of new technologies. To survive in this competitive environment, art music has also adopted recording and distribution technologies, with many positive outcomes, but also some negative impacts on performers, audiences, and training. 

In fact, it is interesting to note that our traditional performance pedagogies are also a kind of proto-recording practice, in the sense that (and to the degree that) they still emphasize imitation and reiteration. Although conservatories now take steps to engage diverse musical idioms, we still devote most of our energy to the standard repertoire. And our pedagogy is still based mainly on constant practice and repetition, which risk an emphasis on echoing and reiteration, and reduce the likelihood of creative re-discovery. Practice is essential, of course, but practice techniques must maximize efficacy and liberate creativity, building reliability without dulling the imagination.

The technologies of recording worsen our addiction to repetition and imitation, by surrounding us with copies.  The ubiquity of edited recordings forces performers to focus on technical precision and consistency in order to match the recorded standard in a live performance. But repetition is dulling our capacity for discovery, and even understanding. Familiarity and repetition are the deadliest foes, lurking everywhere in our deeply-ingrained routines, especially in practice rooms. The risk is that performances become reiterations, to be compared with other reiterations — a circular process of making copies from copies.

Instruments and singing are very, very difficult to master, and we must meet that challenge.  But artworks are deeply complex and can only be grasped if approached from many angles. If we believe in the works in the legacy, we must always rediscover each one through changing perspectives, and adjust our learning processes so that each encounter and performance makes the musical work unfold with vivid presence, as though emerging for the first time.  Every student and teacher must guard against the unnoticed habits of repetition, by finding ways to make daily work more spontaneous, but still informed by understanding and taste.

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

How can we change our training methods to break the pernicious cycle of repetition, but still sustain the repertoire as a living legacy? I believe we can profit greatly by rethinking aspects of our lessons and performance training, to change the energy, character, and purpose of daily work.

The individual lesson is both sacrosanct and necessary, but the advantages of one-to-one mentorship come with drawbacks and complications that are familiar to every student and teacher. In addition to the complex interpersonal dynamics, emphasis on individual training reinforces ideas about career development and professional identity that isolate the individual, rather than cultivate an ethos of collaborative music making. The individual lesson will remain essential, but should play a less dominant role, and be complemented by numerous opportunities for active collaborative learning and peer mentoring. 

Until students acquire a toolbox of targeted and efficient practicing techniques, unsupervised practising can simply reinforce unwanted habits. A new daily regimen that includes guided group practice, sight-reading, and coaching could help steer students clear of pitfalls, and would foster peer-mentoring, collaboration, and more rapid acquisition of confidence. Team-sports training can provide models for new approaches to skills acquisition in group contexts. Students need careful guidance in effective practice routines, and a hands-on approach involving advanced students as mentors can have benefits for all.

Teamwork is even more important in collaborative co-creation of musical interpretations. Here too, responsiveness and spontaneity should play a larger role in daily training, through coached sight-reading and fully-engaged peer learning, so that more repertoire is played, and stylistic differences are actively learned. A young quartet can make more progress through mentored reading of all six of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets, than by preparing just one of them for performance. With more teamwork, engagement in the spirit of the moment, and immediate learning from mistakes and misfires, students can more quickly achieve confidence and success, and recognize that it comes from collaboration.

By reducing unnecessary repetition in our daily work, we can hone skills that bring music to life anew each time, thriving on spontaneous responsiveness and living presence.  We can liberate ourselves from pernicious effects of recording and repetition, by learning to make unreproducibility a vital element of every performance, while of course still striving to be faithful to the work and stylistically cultivated.

Recordings will not go away, but we will show that they cannot substitute for a much richer and livelier concert experience.  Above all, our performances will not imitate recordings.  Of course, the great artists already achieve this.  Our students must cultivate this ability.

Many concerts, and the majority of student recitals, are still curated in outmoded ways that involve dated assumptions about the knowledge and interest of the audience, and about the performer’s role and persona. Audiences are thirsty to learn about the music, and to understand the experience and insight of the performer. Performers can find liberation and new authenticity when they embrace the role of communicator, and don’t limit themselves to mere reproduction. Happily, new performance formats are emerging everywhere, bringing richer immediacy and multifaceted understanding to audiences. Peter Sellars’s concert stagings come to mind, including their lively use of supplementary video images. At the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the “Hear it Twice” Series (Zweimal Hören) features two performances of a major work, surrounding an interview with the performer. At Le Poisson Rouge in New York, classical and contemporary chamber music are part of a wider-ranging musical menu, and the setting allows performers and audience members to interact more. 

Conservatories and universities are perfect crucibles for developing new formats of musical presentation. In my own institution, my colleagues are presenting themed ensemble programs with a variety of multimedia components; symposia to complement opera productions; and art song programs that use projected video and subtle elements of staging, to weave songs and cycles into an insightful larger narrative conception. I’m sure new approaches are likewise developing at your institutions. There is much we can share, and also broad momentum in our collective efforts. 

The graduating recital offers another opportunity for liberating change. Students should of course encounter a wide repertoire across their studies, but their graduating recitals should showcase projects that express their individuality, and their ability to collaborate and communicate.  Each recital should be unique, so that we no longer train every performer on a single model.  One size does not fit all.

Our conservatory curricula and professional institutions are evolving, and there are many exciting new practices to be emulated.  We are gradually casting off obsolete economic, technological, and pedagogical conditions that were already becoming outdated in 1927. To ensure our future vitality, let us liberate our pedagogy from the suffocating effects of repetition, and design fresh ways to learn. Let us teach our students to be engaging communicators, and give listeners as many points of contact as possible, so that the concert experience excites a lively collective present. Let us actively forge a new sustainable economics of live concert music, featuring the unreproducible uniqueness of the shared moment. Let us cultivate the joys and energies of shared active experience — the most vital, universal, meaningful, and unreproducible aspect of our shared musical spirit.  Our profession can then shape its destiny with renewed vitality.

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Photo courtesy of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, November 2017

Banner image: Interior view (architect's rendering) of the new opera house currently under construction at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. 

© Richard Kurth 2017