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A Professional Music Education Opens Unexpected Doors

By James Gandre, Ed.D.
President – Manhattan School of Music
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

James Gandre

Throughout the United States, professional music training at a myriad of conservatories, colleges, and universities is, happily, going strong. I say "happily" because I believe deeply in a society that gives individuals in the performing and visual arts, particularly young people, the opportunity to explore their creativity with concentration and abandon. A society without these opportunities for artistic expression is a society devoid of certain higher aspirations and ideals, a society in search of enlightenment. The arts teach us to search inward for deeper understanding of ourselves and our society, and they urge us to metaphorically look up and seek greater truths.

In schools big and small, selective and less selective, music education and learning leads students to greater levels of achievement, expertise, and expression. Here at Manhattan School of Music (MSM), students are exposed to a wide variety of courses during their degree programs, and through this work they gain critical insights and know-how that will prepare them for successful lives in the music world should they choose that path. But, I also argue that in these very courses, our students learn skills that are directly transferable to business. 

At an institution like MSM, the study of one's instrument (e.g., violin; bassoon; voice; piano) is the act of learning from a master-teacher who has spent a life in the music profession. In our case, MSM's faculty consists of current or former artists in the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a plethora of other performing arts ensembles of all sizes as well as soloists, such as the great violinist Pinchas Zukerman. In this intense one-on-one relationship, which includes no less than a one-hour private lesson each week, our artist-faculty passes along the traditions of the art form and the instrument being taught, but they also often function as mentor and guide, sometimes even parent/disciplinarian in absentia. They help each student hone his/her craft and art. The flip side of this intense and unique master-teacher/student relationship in higher education are the endless hours of solitary study, from hours each day in the practice room to the study of historical texts and – particularly for singers – poetry and language. During a typical four-year undergraduate program, students, depending on their instruments, spend three to five hours per day practicing and studying. Over the course of a four-year program, that commitment adds up to no less than 4,500 hours and up to 7,500 hours of study by oneself, and this is before any other coursework has been attempted.

In addition to the study of solo literature and technique on one's instrument is the study of small ensemble (chamber) repertoire and large ensemble (orchestra; big band; choir) repertoire. This can involve anywhere from five to 20 hours of study per week. In these performance activities, as opposed to private lesson study and practice, students learn small-group listening and negotiation skills, and in large ensembles of anywhere from 40 to 100 musicians, they learn the art of watching and following a conductor as well as performing together with exact precision (for without exact precision comes musical chaos).

At MSM, as at most top music schools, every student will also study music theory for two full years. Theory courses are subject to increasingly high standards and involve both analytical and aural acumen, including such things as the analysis of harmonic structure within a symphony or piano work, for example, and developing the skills to take "aural dictation" (writing down on staff paper what one hears being played on a piano by the professor). Every student also studies music history, from medieval through the music of today. In those courses, each student surveys and studies the great composers and the development of musical style in each century. Students also look to the music's wider context, examining a given era's musical/political/social intersections and how composers and performers conducted their professional lives in reaction to those intersections.

Manhattan School of Music

Additionally, in each instrumental discipline, there are courses specific to that major. These range from orchestral repertoire classes for woodwind players to improvisation classes for jazz majors; from acting and foreign language diction classes for singers to the great artists, relevant to each major, from various periods. Additionally, for undergraduates at all schools, roughly 20 percent of their work is in subjects outside music.

All in all, at an institution like MSM, an undergraduate student will be in class or rehearsal anywhere from a minimum of 20 hours per week to well over 40 hours per week. Add to this 20 to 35 hours of practice. And add to that study time for courses in theory, music history, and non-music subjects, and you have a student with a very full plate indeed.

At commencement this past May, I reaffirmed for our graduates the extraordinary academic and artistic journey each had just completed at MSM, reminding them of the various skills and the knowledge they acquired while here. I told them that they had learned about excellence, how difficult it is to achieve and how rewarding it is when that achievement happens. I went to say:  "Your MSM education has not only laid the foundation for you for a possible life in music, but it has also given you experiences and training to allow for the endless possibilities that life may present." 

At this fall's new student convocation, I told the assembled students: "If you follow in the footsteps of other MSM grads – and you will – your life journeys will be extraordinarily interesting and varied. To that end, I want to give you a glimpse of what your future might look like by telling you just a bit about a few of our alumni." I then went on to name a whole host of alumni, those recently graduated and those who graduated decades ago, extraordinary artists who went on to careers in the best orchestras and opera companies throughout the world. I spoke of those who had jazz, chamber music, or solo careers, those who won prizes in international competitions as well as Grammy Awards, MacArthur Genius grants, and Tony Awards. I spoke, too, of those who primarily focused their lives on careers in higher education and arts administration. 

I also spoke about our alumni who chose careers outside of the arts. They included people like: Dr. Cynthia Boxrud, a plastic surgeon and a professor at UCLA's medical school; Lee Franklin Dugger, a development officer for former President Bill Clinton's foundation; Noémi Neidorff, a major civic leader and philanthropist in St. Louis, and a member of MSM's Board of Trustees; Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC, and former Chief Economist and Economic Advisor to Vice President Biden; and Paul Juette, MD, an emergency room doctor at Buffalo (NY) General Hospital.

I cite these "non-music" graduates here because they are living proof of the power of a professional music education, which combines so many experiences and skills that set the foundation for someone to succeed in the business world, or indeed most any profession. An education in music, among other things, helps each student recognize, embrace, and benefit from the following: 

– The amazing power of understanding what it is to learn from a mentor in a one-on-one relationship, gaining insight and knowledge from someone with advanced experience and expertise;

– The need for discussion, compromise, and working together as a team through work in performance ensembles of all types;

– The recognition through work in large ensembles that sometimes the best course is to follow our leaders, that we are far stronger working together – listening to each other – than we are charting our own course without regard to the greater good (this New York Times article is relevant as it looks at orchestras, how they work, and how businesses can learn from them); and,

– The need to understand complex structures and social/political situations through the study of music theory and history. 

Each of these components is necessary, or at least contributes, to success in any business setting and are too often sadly lacking in the workplace. One might even argue that if there were a few more musicians in the halls of Congress, we might have better outcomes in that particular workplace.

Going back to Dr. Cynthia Boxrud mentioned above, at my installation as the 9th President of MSM three years ago, she stated:

"My academic journey started here [at MSM], and my path led me down different halls than many of you. But, the foundation is the discipline and expectation of excellence that is inculcated in us and in all of these classrooms and rehearsal halls. Music and medicine are a combination of art and science. In music, we learn the mathematical relationship of the notes, harmony, melody, and form in order to master a craft. But these are meaningless without the artistry and passion of a musician with interpretation. And likewise, in the world of medicine, all the knowledge in a textbook is of no use to a patient unless that knowledge is in the hands of someone who can listen to a story, understand symptoms, and articulate a plan for treatment…. I stand before you as evidence that the foundation of education and inspiration borne from my mentors and this institution can lay the framework for success in any field."

So, I state emphatically and without hesitation that an intense and quality music education, the kind offered at Manhattan School of Music, is something that prepares one for a professional life in music, yes, but it also prepares one to be successful in virtually any chosen field of endeavor. This academic alchemy is at least in part due to the discipline and time management, the multiple skills and proficiencies, the collaborative spirit and sense of history that are base-line requirements in the pursuit of a Bachelor of Music degree. 



Manhattan School of Music


Dr. James Gandre is an educator and musician with a deep commitment to students and the development of American conservatory learning. In addition to his role as President of Manhattan School of Music, he is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (GRAMMYS) and has an extensive performance and recording resume as a tenor.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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