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Is NEC the Right Size? Is the Piano Department in Good Shape?

by

Russell Sherman, NEC demigod

As we noted a few weeks ago here, New England Conservatory has added to its faculty roster, on one-year appointments, the two illustrious pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Jonathan Biss. To pursue some of the thoughts about teaching, institutional positioning, and other matters this move has aroused, we spoke with NEC’s new provost Benjamin Sosland and its Piano Department Chair Bruce Brubaker.

FLE: Marc-André Hamelin will apparently be teaching every few weeks whereas Jonathan Biss will be teaching three or four times a year.

BS: We’re still working it out with his schedule, but it’s three or four times over the course of a year.

Only a couple of students, my spies tell me.

He has just a handful of students, and he’s helping cover some sabbatical replacements – that was always the intention.

BB: I’m thrilled by these appointments and I take the willingness of these artists to join us as a sign of what NEC has achieved in piano. I’m not being conceited when I tell you that NEC’s piano program is now among the very top piano programs in the world!

Hamelin is covering a lot of Wha-Kyun Byun’s students because she’s taking a six-month sabbatical.

She’s taking sabbatical, yep, exactly. It’s not a bad bench team, if you will, to have those two gentlemen come and take care of her students. And some others, as it happens.

And Marc-André tells me that he’s very much in awe of the students that he’s had, such as George Li.

It’s Marc-André’s first real plunge into teaching at a conservatory level.

He’d never wanted to teach.

He now apparently wants to give it a try. And he’s approaching it with some eagerness marked with trepidation.

He seems flexible as a teacher. He doesn’t imagine that’s he’s going to be turning out students anything like himself, and he has encouraged them to be themselves.

The sign of an innately good teacher is not the mimic-the-great-master model. Marc-Andre has such an inquisitive musical mind and a huge range of repertoire; that fits in well with the NEC ethos that does not equate excellence with genre. We do a lot of stuff here, and do a lot of stuff really well. We don’t hold up one type of music as better or innately superior. Excellence is excellence, no matter what you’re doing. It could be jazz. It could be our Contemporary Improvisation department. It could be a non-Western instrument that gets played around the halls around here a lot.

Marc-Andre Hamlelin

The one thing it can’t be is early musical instruments.

Why is that?

Well, I don’t think you have an early music department at the moment.

We don’t have an early music department, but we are slowly experimenting with including a little bit more early music in the offerings, and that’s most specifically through the acquisition of a quartet of baroque string instruments that we’re going to make available to students to experiment with. We have a list of guests that we’re hoping to come just to gently feed that desire.

Well, I think there was a time when these instruments were not kept track of, and some of them had disappeared. There were wonderful Chickering-Dolmetsch instruments that were once in the collection. And no one knows where those are now. And some of them were just for display, and haven’t been playable in many, many years. Just like the dusty old wind instruments in the cases at Symphony Hall.

But I guess that could lead into a broader discussion about where NEC is and where it’s going, and what your role is going to be. You are taking one of Tom Novak’s many positions.

Yes, that’s true.

He seems to be the eternal interim.

That’s true as well. I’ve been especially grateful to him during the transition period. His institutional knowledge and his willingness to share context and history is so deep. He is a genuinely kind human being.

But when NEC President Andrea Kalin came and hired you, what was her charge to you? What was her expectation? Is this part of her imprint? Is this part of your imprint? What is it in your history that made her think that you’d be a good fit?

Well, you’ll have to ask her directly, but what I can tell you is that we both share a very strong desire to make the education relevant to the societies around it, to prepare students for a 21st century career, to make sure that the model of education in a conservatory, which is rooted in a somewhat old-fashioned style, continues to evolve to meet students’ needs, that we take advantage of technologies when we can, that we make connections for students in the field, that we make sure our offerings are nimble and dynamic, and we can serve a wide range of students from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I mean, I can go on and on.

What is it that NEC had been doing wrong that you’ll be correcting?

I want to make sure we are delivering an educational “product” in a way that leverages the excellence of the faculty, that keeps NEC fresh and innovative, that furthers the tradition rather than abandons the tradition, that incorporates new research and new methodologies to make it as relevant as possible.

So the school’s primarily one on one, which is an expensive way to teach people.

Andrea and I agree that one-to-one teaching is a foundational aspect of conservatory training. And then you complement that core component  with experiences in ensemble work, learning how to collaborate in orchestra and chamber music, or jazz orchestra or a contemporary improvisation ensemble: those are foundational things, too, because the skills that one learns from them are transferable to an incredible range of contexts.

Do students, however, need to sit in the classroom in 2021 with 15 other classmates for a two-hour lecture format class? There is complete validity to that way of teaching and learning. but maybe there’s a different way to do it as well. Maybe there’s a way to teach the historical and social contexts and theoretical concepts that moves away from a classic lecture format into something that’s more interactive, or something that has a partial online component, or in some cases this may be completely asynchronous. or project-based. So those types of inquiries, I think, are the things that I’m really eager to delve into, and I know Andrea is as well.

No matter whether they study third stream, jazz, Broadway, or whatever, you’re still going to require them to take larger classes of harmony, theory and whatever they need for their craft and art.

I use the medical analogy, which is that you can’t specialize in your specific area of medicine until you take gross anatomy. And gross anatomy to me is theory, history, analysis, and liberal arts classes that teach critical thinking, etc. It’s not that we’re going to move away from how one analyzes a chordal progression. But the way in which that is taught could be more practical, more based in applied practice, more based in stylistic fluency, more based in technology that uses multiple modes of delivery. These are the things that I find quite exciting in the conversations that are happening on campus.

And do you think some of that is related to marketing? Do you know what the competition is doing and how NEC’s programs and methods are different from the other large conservatories? Of course it’s going to be different because everybody’s on full scholarship, at Curtis, and it’s small. But when you’re comparing yourself to Juilliard or Oberlin or Indiana, do you think they are more modern in their methods?

Except for Juilliard, where I just came from, I don’t have an insider understanding of all of the other conservatories out there. But what is true about NEC is that it has been rooted in a tradition of experimentation and innovation that is inscribed into the culture here. That is a distinguishing characteristic. NEC can’t compete on scholarship dollars with a place that’s free. So I’m interested in leveraging what we can compete on. Preparing students for the culture of collaboration, to bring what they learn here on Huntington Avenue to Boston at large and beyond.

NEC’s history of community engagement is pretty singular. It’s remarkable the reach our students have around Boston, whether it’s at MGH, or in a community center, or with young kids. The impact that our students have on the community, in a city of Boston’s size, is one of the reasons I took this job.  I’m not aware of the comprehensive nature of that relationship existing anywhere else.

Jonathan Biss (Benjamin Ealovega photo)

I gather, there are going to be more close ties with BSO. There are some BSO players who teach here.

Quite a number, actually.

The institutional connection hasn’t been strong in the past. And I think that would be great if that happened.

I couldn’t agree more, actually. Many of our wind and brass faculty are BSO members. Obviously, I’m new enough here that I don’t know the history of the relationship, but we’re hoping with new leadership there and new leadership here, and the fact that we are quite literally a block apart, we will be able to cultivate the common interests that are mutually beneficial for each institution.

And apropos of reaching out and reaching in and looking in, what are the problems that some people in the black community feel as impediments to access or inhospitality? Monique Van Willing (Director of Cultural Equity and Belonging) is supposed to work on the relationships. Over the years I’ve asked Black and Asian people what, if anything, makes them feel uncomfortable at NEC? And I have never really gotten an answer that I can understand. What is it that the BSO and NEC can do to welcome people who feel that it’s inhospitable here, whether this has to do with audiences or whether it has to do with students?

I’m not going to speak for the Black community, I wouldn’t presume to. Depending on your viewpoint and personal experience, you either had a way into the world of classical music or you hadn’t. And whether or not that is structural, systemic, cultural, financial, economic, geographical, I don’t think we can generalize about the experience of a vast swath of the population.

So for some people the concept of classical music itself is off-putting, regardless of how welcoming the auditorium is. Clarence Thomas famously said that he likes classical music but does not like the people who listen to it. That’s something of a Groucho remark! It’s OK for me to be uncomfortable with rap music, and it’s OK for somebody else to be uncomfortable with classical music. It’s not for everyone. It’s 10% of every community, at most.

If you’ve never been exposed to it, if you’ve never heard it, if you don’t know the protocol, if you can’t afford the ticket, if it’s not next door, all of these things work against an appreciation – and that applies to every genre of music, not just classical music.

But the problem is, some think that everyone should like it

I wouldn’t say that it’s better than anybody else’s music, because the music that you like is the best music. Right? And I don’t think we should engage in an imperial narrative where we’re going to shove music down anyone’s throat. But why can’t we try to expand access to music? Why can’t we try to make it more available, to provide a pathway?

Well, OK. So that’s equality of opportunity. That’s great. Can you expect equality of result, and have people necessarily come and like it if they haven’t learned it in grammar school?

You can’t dictate people’s taste. But the difference between equality and equity is what comes to mind, which is to say that there are people for whom access to classical music has a direct, unencumbered path, whereas there’s a majority percentage of the world for whom this is not the case.

Since I’ve run the Intelligencer, and put up a calendar, it’s just extraordinary how many concerts there are. And how many of them are free. So there really aren’t economic impediments.

Free doesn’t mean free, necessarily, because if you have to schlep across town, if you need a babysitter, if you have to park. You know, there’s all sorts of indirect costs associated with going to a concert.

But not over and above going to any other kind of concert. You’d have to do that if you went to a downtown movie, or a play, or a jazz concert, or rock show.

And so then it comes back to the question of taste, education, familiarity, comfort, convenience, access, all the other factors that weigh into making a decision about whether you’re going to attend this event or that event.

***

Well, let’s steer it back a little bit to the institution and what’s happening here. I’m curious to know what percentage of the students come here because of a particular faculty member.

It’s safe to say at every conservatory that the choice of teacher is the number one deciding factor why a student chooses to come to one school over another. If a prospective student has a teacher in mind that they think can give them what they need and what they want, it’s a really, really strong selling point.

So from a marketing perspective, it’s important that you have a certain number of star members of your faculty.

It’s not “star” in the celebrity sense of the word. It’s track record, standing in the field, longevity, alumni success, all that sort of stuff. Name recognition is of course important. But just because somebody’s famous doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher.

So how do you measure that in terms of your current faculty and how well they are doing in terms of attracting students? What are the metrics?

Yeah, it’s a good question. There are reams of data about the number of applicants, the number of requests for a specific teacher, the number of students who chose to come, versus not. So there are measurable ways to interpret this.

Well, I think, thinking back into the past, for instance, there was an early music department, and an organ department, and when Peter Sykes just had one student, that was the end of the department. Because that was an expensive department with practice organs and so forth. And I mean, other departments are more popular. Some departments more popular than others.

Sure.

And I was interested in the piano department, because some people think it’s a bit long in the tooth. Can it be refreshed the way the string department has been with some major strikingly good hires. On the face of it, what you did with Marc-Andre and Jonathan Biss, looks like it’s going in that direction, except those are one-year engagements which wouldn’t’ have affected admissions, since the announcement came long after that process.

Our hope is that this is the beginning of a relationship, and we’ll see if it’s something that does get extended. And I guess the only point that I might take gentle issue with is that it does feel to me, from inside, that the piano department has a quite rejuvenated presence. And that is first emanating from the students, because the quality of playing among the average student pianist is so high, along with the appointment of some key faculty in recent years.

So is there any plan for any particular department where you think change is needed? There have been a fair number of retirements from the piano department, or people moving on. I don’t know the other departments well. I hear all the time the comparisons between the string department and the piano department. It’s the string department being tremendously attractive, and the top of the heap.

Yep, it’s at the top of the heap. And it’s a strategy that we’re going to build on. There is a generation of great string teachers at NEC who are still incredibly valued members of the community and who just keep giving, but no one can teach forever. Just the fact of biology. So very much on my mind is who’s coming up behind them to take, to succeed them, to make sure that the standard they set stays where it is.

BB: Actually, that assessment might have been accurate a few years back Lee, but now the piano department is operating at an incredible level. I’d point to the NEC concert projects in which 70 piano majors play all the piano music of Beethoven, or the department offers six concerts including all of Scriabin’s piano music. Almost alone in the world, NEC is able to do this because of the depth of talent among the pianists. Only one other school in the U.S. could do this — and they choose not to.

***

Benjamin Sosland

And do you think that NEC is the right size?

So that’s a really good question, and we are currently engaged in a very comprehensive exercise to look at enrollment, to figure out if we have the right number of students overall, the right number at the undergraduate and graduate level, and then quite granularly, whether the individual instrument areas are balanced.

And do possible mergers come into this? I’ve heard talk from time to time.

There hasn’t been a merger discussion since I arrived, but I’ve only been here for a little while.

How many conservatories does Boston need? And Northeastern, I’m sure, would love to swallow up NEC.

There are so few independent conservatories, really, in America, just a tiny handful that aren’t associated with a university. So on the one hand, it’s an expensive model since everything has to be done in-house and you don’t have the infrastructure to lean on in a big state school – IT, maintenance, security, for example. On the other hand, it’s liberating, because here we are on our own, and we can kind of pivot when we need to.

***

You need to have a music journalism class, even if it’s only for four or five people. I mean, Oberlin has done that. We founded the Intelligencer in the hope that we would get more active musician and music academics to be writing. And there is a tradition of at least active composers writing musical criticism. Because I would like to hear, to read a review written by people whose ears were better trained than mine.

So here’s an off-the-record proposal. You know, we have a DMA program. Very high level, very scholarly. Really smart students. Could they be given column space to write something so that they have a published article to their name?

Sure. I’d love to do that.

4 Comments »

4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Interesting read. Sosland clearly knows his talking points, and is quick on bis feet. Seems a born ‘suit’, if you will.

    I’d like to point out a bit of a contradiction in his remarks, however. He is accurate that “just because somebody’s famous doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher.” And MA Hamelin, deservedly famous as a virtuoso pianist, has admitted that he’s an inexperienced teacher who until now (thanks to covid/less income from concerts) ” apparently wants to give it a try”. And Biss’s appointment is essentially a visiting one with 3 or 4 swoop-ins per year. So, if you want to say you’re not making hires for their fame, fine. But don’t then make hires because they’re famous.

    This is all relatively beside the point, which is that Dang Thai Son will now be the most in-demand teacher in North America thanks to his two winners in Warsaw, and he’s already at NEC.

    And THAT is beside the main point, unmentioned in the excellent interview, which is this: Will most of the newly minted bachelors, masters and doctors of music be satisfied teaching in community music schools or home studios? Because face facts: major, and even minor concert careers are fewer and farther between than ever. Yet the number of supremely gifted, well trained young artists seems to increase exponentially with each generation. Are they being duped by conservatories into striving for unattainable career goals? Conservatory teachers who disregard this essential fact are willingly leading their students down a primrose path. They say: “If they want what I offer, let them come”, without concern for their students’ real potential to earn a living wage, not to mention often incurring substantial debt. As long as the teachers have their piece of the pie, conscience takes a back seat. This obtains especially in piano world, but also in orchestral instruments where orchestras have only one or two occasional vacancies (think oboe, harp, percussion, timpani, et al). Maybe there should be tracks in collegiate music schools, where only the most gifted can pursue solo performance careers, with other tracks for orchestral careers, teaching/pedagogical careers, etc. Some countries do this at a very young age.

    Things to think about.

    Comment by Hans Lick — November 11, 2021 at 9:02 am

  2. With the appointments of Dang Thai Son and Alessio Bax (!) and now Marc Hamelin and Jonathan Biss, NEC really is a leader in piano. As Juilliard’s piano eminence has declined, NEC had risen. Three NEC students in the Warsaw competition this fall.

    Comment by Loren — November 13, 2021 at 6:07 pm

  3. >> Three NEC students in the Warsaw competition

    Who, please?

    Comment by David R Moran — November 13, 2021 at 11:02 pm

  4. In the Chopin Competition, that would be Evren Ozel, Aristo Sham, and Yutong Sun, according to Bruce Brubaker

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 14, 2021 at 8:03 pm

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