Music School Curriculum

Two recent experiences have triggered my thinking in regard to one of the central questions facing higher education music institutions today: how to revise the curriculum, so that students are prepared to survive and thrive in the new and future world of music.  

Both experiences were encouraging as these individuals, both in leadership positions, understand and accept the fact that things have changed — dramatically, and understand that these changes have not occurred overnight, but have been in the making for decades.  These individuals are also committed to finding solutions.
The “common” talk for some time now has been that students need business skills, and need to learn a broader array of musical skills.  Recent thinking has included leadership and entrepreneurship.  One cantus firmus that remains, one that needs rethinking, is that room in the curriculum will be made for these new items by reducing the theory and history curriculum.
Yes, these two areas will need to be rethought, but so will all of the performance-related curriculum as well.  The incredible levels of technical expertise that have been achieved in recent years may be less useful in the future musical world.  What will be useful will be a wide variety of skills and abilities that make for a versatile and adaptable musician.
At the risk of ruining my argument here, but also at the risk of making a point, I was recently sitting in Rittenhouse Square, around 9:30 AM, in between meetings, and reading my email.  Nearby I noticed a musician setting up a music stand, then putting his music on it, getting out his flute and beginning to play traditional flute repertoire.  He also opened his flute case, suggesting donations.  Of course I watched and listened closely.   As women pushing their baby carriages and strollers approached him, he would change his repertoire to children’s songs.  Invariably the parent and child would stop and listen, talk to him and he to them.  As they left, he would migrate back to the traditional repertoire.  What intrigued me the most was how he moved musically from Syrinx to Mary Had A Little Lamb.  The guy was a really good musician.
Now of course the problem with this situation is that he’s not making a living off of this activity, and probably not even a fraction of what he needs to subsist. 
The musician of tomorrow, so to speak, in order to create a satisfying and productive musical life will need to be flexibly skilled at a level not currently imagined.  Among these skills must be:
Musical flexibility — play or sing traditional repertoire at A level, but also transpose instantly, improvise in a variety of genres, play a second or third instrument (well), compose and arrange (especially important), sing (well enough to carry a part in a polyphonic setting).
Academic Orientation — understand music within a wide context, both among the arts and humanities, but also within an historical context and contemporary issues.  Be able to apply this thinking into action within one’s community.
Leadership/Entrepreneurship — be sensitive to opportunity and possess the skills to apply oneself to them.
This is only a start — I will need to think this through more thoroughly.  And of course, one must address what has to go in order to accomplish these goals.  I have touched on this, but must again be more specific.

About the author

James Undercofler

Jim has been a Professor at Drexel University since May, 2009. His previous appointment - since August, 2007 - was as the President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Jim was Dean of the Eastman School of Music from 1997 to 2007. He has played a prominent role in musical arts and music education throughout his career. Before joining Eastman in 1995 as associate director for academic affairs and professor of music education, he was an active, performing chamber musician as well as first horn in the New Haven Symphony. Jim serves as board president, American Music Center; advisory board member, Arts Education Policy Review; board member, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, New York State Association of College Music Programs and American Symphony Orchestra League, and is a founding member, NETWORK of Performing and Visual Arts Schools and Mercury Opera of Rochester.

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