Are music schools serving the needs of its students?

Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth - mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.  More info here:
Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth – mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.


I really do plan on getting back to the Aging of Orchestra Audiences issue–really, I do!  But I’d been having a stimulating and thought-provoking dialogue with some folks over at Eric Edberg’s blog in a post titled, Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

Something I hadn’t thought about in some time, but especially as we’re getting an entrepreneurial push in music conservatories, was whether this is enough and whether its too late.  I’m almost wondering if this is just the latest effort of one industry (the music education industry) feeling the pressure to make itself relevant to its “customers” (i.e. the students).  Eric had said in response to my ideas about Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio, that:

Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter.

And I just blurted out so many things that were in the back of my mind regarding music education–some of which are just elaborations of ideas i posted in my Supporting Whose Arts Anyway?  Rather than elaborate on what I said, and since my response touched on issues in the public (though not at the University Level) as well as private sectors, here is the response in full:

That’s the interesting other side of the issue–since education has many of the same structural features as any other “non-progressive” (or as Baumol is now calling them since his latest Cost Disease book: “stagnant”) industries how long will it be before primary/secondary/university education simply has to adapt to the changing climate for, say, arts education?

I know Marc O’Connor has been pushing the alternative strings methods for primary/secondary education and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that ASTA hosts an “Alternative Strings Competition” every year now. I read the piece about the winner from 2010 (I think) who played Indian Carnatic violin for the competition. Sure, it make it difficult to judge a competition when you place a Bluegrass fiddler next to an Irish fiddler next to a Persian violinist next to a Carnatic violinist, but I think arts education at the primary/secondary level is possibly adapting more quickly than the universities.

The Purple Silk Music Education Foundation in San Francisco has formally replaced (or created) Chinese Music education in many of the schools in the Bay Area and have created a “continuing studies” type degree at one of the local community colleges. Given the high proportion of Chinese-Americans in the area, and high per capita number of traditional Chinese Ensembles and Orchestras, this kind of initiative isn’t surprising. I know the New York Arabic Orchestra has recently done a few fundraising concerts for the sole purpose of building an Arabic Music school in New York.

Some for profits are also ahead of the curve–I was reading about the wonderful music store in Chicago called the “Old Town School of Folk Music” which decided (spearheaded by Jim Hirsch who’s currently the executive director of the wonderfully diverse Chicago Sinfonietta) that rather than focusing on Americana style folk lessons it would branch out and start finding teachers for the Sitar, Oud, Djembe, and other world instruments. Then it started adding infant/pre-school music classes which were highly adapted to parents busy schedules and average toddler naptimes.

What was once a struggling music school that focused on classic Americans music instrumental lessons has blossomed into a fully functional world music education center for people of all ages. The lessons and classes that are taught so fully cover the day to day operating budget of the school that they have shifted into being an events center during the night where they can afford to bring in outside talent or give a forum for the students and local talents in a plethora of musical genres. World Music Wednesdays, Global Dance Party (focusing on different world dance music genres), and Pueblo Latino Chicago are some of the regularly occurring events on top of the traditional Americana, Zydeco, Bluegrass concerts.

I get regular mailings from a local music store, “Mom’s Music,” which has (I think) three branches. I usually get my non-classical electronic gear from there as it’s a local store and not a big megachain. I’m on the mailing list and occasionally get event notices for their Clarksville, IN branch which is the one that actually has a regular band concert series. Most of the private lessons for rock band instruments are taught at that store (one of my cello students actually takes guitar lessons there) and the students form bands and occasionally give band “recitals” –and apparently this is a fairly regular type of phenomenon in more local music chains and I wonder how much of this kind of educational initiative is actually spurred by the declining economic situation for local bands.

Going back to Push Down and Turn–Sam also said after about 1995, most of those nice 5 grand gigs started to dry up. More clubs opened, and music audiences got more diffuse. More opportunities opened for amateurs who just wanted to play out and venues started to realize they could get free entertainment if they weren’t already converting to using live DJs or Karaoke which were becoming more popular and cheaper alternatives to a four-piece band.

I’m starting to ramble, but I guess the question is, if we’re starting to train kids at a younger age in many non-classical styles of music–whether it’s happening in the for profit or non-profit world, then where does that leave the music conservatories? I wonder how much of the entrepreneurial push is possibly a last-ditched effort by the university system show how it can make classical music training relevant!

Things are changing, and different organizations and industries are changing at different paces.


  1. Quick question: who judges “alternative” styles? My cynical side wonders if people who were knowledgeable about Carnatic music were in the jury for that competition. Opening up the styles means that we have to invite not just students to play them but also include virtuosi in those traditions as well to judge them and to speak knowledgeably about them. Otherwise, cynical me fears that they will be turned into politically-correct accessories instead of being truly understood and respected for the millennia-long, finely wrought traditions they are. This can turn quickly into the musical equivalent of the Western tarot deck that calls itself “Native American” because it has pictures of people in buckskin on the cards. 😦


    • I suspect it was a panel of ASTA professionals and I would like to think it included string players with at least some familiarity with various styles.

      I would like to think that any professional level musician would be able to tell the difference in skill level, but I’m afraid so much of it might just boil down to stylistic preferences. But really, that happens in any kind of competition–and maybe that’s the problem. Competition is so ingrained in human culture (and especially American culture) that we think nothing of the completely unrelated genres competing against each other in popular shows like “America’s Got Talent”–I mean really, who has the competency to judge whether the bellydancing duo, Kaya and Sadie, is “better” or “worse” than, say, the violin hip-hop duo, Nuttin’ But Stringz?


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