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After years on both sides of traditional music education, I'm ready to start serving students better.

This is a blog post adaptation of the following video:

This video is part of a series called Isn’t Music Theory, where I share some of my ideas about music and how we learn it. I’ve adapted and/or commented on the video for this post. If you’re interested, check out the whole series on the Midnight Oil Collective YouTube channel.

I just started Synthase, an online school for music creators. Starting music schools is not something I’ve seen people around me do, so I wanted to explain why I’m so excited about this.

I should start by outlining my own relationship to music schools, because I’ve been learning and teaching at them for about the last fifteen years. This part may seem obnoxious, but I think it’s important you know where I’m coming from:

  • I have a bachelor’s degree in jazz piano from the University of Michigan.
  • During my bachelor’s degree I spent a year abroad at the University of Cape Town in the South African College of Music.
  • I have a master’s degree in composition from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
  • I’m in the final years of a doctoral program in composition at the Yale School of Music.

I also have a fair amount of experience in music programs from the other end:

  • I’m on adjunct faculty at Montclair State’s Cali School of Music;
  • I’ve taught at community music schools in New Jersey, Cincinnati, and Harlem.
  • I’m on faculty and part of the leadership team at the Walden School’s Young Musicians Program in New Hampshire.

This is what I’ve been living and breathing, and teaching has become really really important work for me. (And I should clarify, if it wasn’t obvious, that all of the views in this writing are my own and not representative of any of my employers.)

I want to tell you what I’ve been seeing in music education, and to do that I need to bring up Wile E. Coyote.

In the old Roadrunner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote always runs off a cliff at some point, and there’s usually a moment where he’s suspended in the air solely by his own belief that there’s still something below him, until that belief evaporates and he falls into the canyon. I think this is a great analogy for when things keep going the way they always have been, even when the foundation that they’re built on has already dropped off.

In a lot of ways I feel like right now, in 2021, music education is that Wile E. Coyote that has gone over the edge of the cliff and hasn’t yet looked down. Here are four ways that I’ve seen that play out:

1. Conservatories still enforce notation-based distinctions that don’t exist outside conservatories.

Cliff with text: "The world caring about arbitrary distinctions." Wile E. Coyote running off cliff with text: "Conservatories caring about arbitrary distinctions."

As an example, take a look at these editor’s picks for contemporary classical albums of 2020 from the blog I Care If You Listen, which is one of the major blogs in the contemporary classical music world: Miyamoto is Black Enough’s Burn/Build features spoken word, steel pans, synths, and drum sets. Clifton Joey Guidry III’s Darkness is a Myth references noise music and free jazz. There are three records from New Amsterdam, a label that refers to itself as “post-genre.” Invisible Ritual is a collaboration between Jennifer Curtis, whose bio credits her style to “Americana music (bluegrass, blues, old time) as well as Eastern European and South American traditions,” and Tyshawn Sorey, an incredible multi-instrumentalist and composer-improviser who originally made his name playing in the bands of jazz artists like Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman. To Be Surrounded by Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh is Enough comes from noise-punk act Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith, a legendary avant-garde jazz trumpeter.

This list is far from a comprehensive look at the aesthetics of the genre, but in general, contemporary classical music is a community that was formed by people with training in notation and who had certain musical values, and then expanded because the values mattered more than the notation. Yet conservatories are still fundamentally built around notated musical scores, and the addition of jazz programs to select conservatories (often literally in their basements) has seemingly had very little impact on their dominant assumption that scores are the only true authority for musical works of value. Compare the above list with a course bulletin from, say, my current institution, the Yale School of Music, and you’ll see how ill-equipped conservatories are to actually prepare students for the landscape they enter upon graduation.

In an ideal situation, a narrow focus would mean that musicians get a solid grounding in a particular tradition, and then there’s a delta where they expand from that into lots of other music. But instead, students are often taught in a way that completely ignores or even denigrates other musical styles. We get more and more entrenched in separate styles, which is not the way that musical communities interact, and that musical innovations happen.

Given all of that, Wile E. number two is not super surprising:

2. Conservatories don’t reflect the diversity of the world around them, including the very cities where they’re situated.

Dismantling white supremacy has taken on a new urgency in 2020, but conservatories that I’ve seen have have shown a lackluster response to this. That isn’t too much of a shock, given that the foundation of these institutions is that the creative output of almost exclusively white European males is the whole of what can be referred to as “music.” 

Look at the mission statements of just about any conservatory in the US, which often involve bold claims about creating musical leaders or shaping the future of music, undertaken in practice by a near-total immersion in the European classical canon. If you compare that with the present landscape of music in the USA, which rests overwhelmingly on the foundations laid by African American and Latin American innovators, it’s not hard to see conservatories as allied with the precise goals of racist groups that have been on the rise in a dangerous way in recent years. Compare, for instance, this sympathetic 2016 analysis of the alt-right by media outlet Breitbart. Regarding the “natural conservatives” within the movement, the authors write: 

Their perfect society does not necessarily produce a soaring GDP, but it does produce symphonies, basilicas and Old Masters. The natural conservative tendency within the alt-right points to these apotheoses of western European culture and declares them valuable and worth preserving and protecting.

Of course, white supremacists shouldn’t get to ruin classical music for everyone else, but there’s much more going on beneath the surface. If you’re new to this argument, a good place to start is professor Philip Ewell’s talk “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” at the 2019 conference of the Society for Music Theory. If you want to go down a rabbit hole, look into the ripple effects of that talk.

3. Higher education in general has moved away from full-time faculty, but institutions still expect the same level of quality from their adjuncts without the pay, security, or benefits.

Cliff with text: "Support for instructors." Wile E. Coyote running off cliff with text "Expectations of instructors."

This means that a lot of adjuncts are literally living in poverty and hustling to balance several jobs at once, and often they’re very passionate about teaching, so they’ll put untold, unpaid hours into their teaching jobs, which is why the universities are able to perpetuate the system. But students suffer from this, because when everything is chaotic behind the scenes, students can’t get the consistency and continuity they need for their education.

4. In 2020, we took away the physical infrastructure for learning music and then realized that the learning systems are optimized for that infrastructure.

Cliff with text: "Physical classrooms." Wile E. Coyote running off cliff with text "Music pedagogy"

If the entire educational model is built around sitting in rooms and reading books, and then you move to Zoom rooms and PDFs, you realize that the model is inadequate for the new circumstances. Here are some questions that have likely been going through students’ heads:

  • Books don’t make sound, so why do we learn music out of them?
  • Aren’t lectures are just videos that happen live with no subtitles?
  • Paper can’t hear music, so why does all the music have to go on the paper before we can hear it?

The pedagogy deeply reflects not only a literary, rather than aural, music tradition, but also the physical realities in which they had to take place before any alternatives existed.

These are some major problems that, frankly, institutions are not known to be nimble enough to solve quickly. I have some really good friends who are working from the inside to make sure that change does happen in a meaningful way. Meanwhile online learning for music creators in higher education has separated students into two categories. One category can’t wait to get back to in-person learning because they found learning online impossibly difficult, and colleges and conservatories will have to really step up to serve these students. There’s another category though: students who did fine online and are wondering why it has to be so expensive and so thrown together.

In fact, let’s zoom out a little bit and think about people beyond higher education. The world is full of music creators who are now learning how to learn effectively online. A lot of them are now developing techniques for managing distraction, finding connections, working toward their goals, and getting what they need out of an education.

If you were to build a system of education for music creators right now from the ground up, even one that’s deeply connected to history, I don’t think it would look like anything like what’s currently out there.

And I have a lot of ideas for how it could look.

But first, some reflection on the above critiques. Please don’t assume my critiques are all consistent with every aspect of my experience in music schools. A lot of professors and resources I had in school have been really important to me.

This is largely a critique of a system: when I’ve spoken up about my concerns with music schools it has been clear that there generally aren’t strong systems of accountability in place that factor in student experience. Power structures in conservatories discourage any critiques from reaching those who need to hear them. At one conservatory I’ve attended, student evaluations simply don’t exist, and at another, professors are free to simply not administer them. There’s a lot of worthwhile discussion about bias in student evaluations, but from a systems perspective, not having a way to deal meaningfully with feedback from your primary stakeholders is basically like jamming a cinder block on the gas pedal and jumping out of the car. Or if you’re a coyote, being so self-assured that you keep running forward without noticing cliffs.

But enough of the negative. Here are some reasons why I think online music schools have a lot of potential right now:

1. Technology has enabled new paradigms for learning music.

As music educators, there are a lot of things we just can’t do on a large scale in person because we’re limited by the form of interaction. When technology enters the picture, and people can now sing and dance into devices, and those devices can respond in text, image, and sound, the possibilities are endless. I want to emphasize here that this is not about replacing humans with technology; it’s about connecting humans through technology, and replacing books, paper, and other inert things with dynamic things.

Another caveat: I love books. Books will not go away. But sound is a time-based medium and books are not, so the only thing about music we can learn from books is the part that doesn’t have to do with sound.

2. Minimal overhead means the freedom to focus on what matters.

Online music schools don’t have to be beholden to wealthy donors, grants, or government—there can be a direct relationship between students and educators that saves students money and pays educators more. And having this direct relationship is also a quality assurance mechanism, because students are only going to pay for what they think is valuable. I realize that a lot of valuable educational experiences may take time to prove their value, so I’m also skeptical of a consumerist approach to education, but I’ve been teaching long enough to know that there are plenty of students who are as well. They’re self-motivated, they’re deeply connected to music, and they’re in it for the long haul. They’re just looking for someone they can trust to take them through this journey. That’s why I believe in literally investing in the student-educator relationship: I don’t think I’m crazy to say that we can give students a genuinely good education that they’re also happy with.

Which leads me to the next thing that I’m really excited about:

3. Educators hiring people.

I’m an educator. I’m going to need developers, business people, and legal people to help me educate. And of course the people I’m most excited about working with are other educators. The model of educators hiring people to help them run things is common in community music schools, but in the online space you might be surprised at how much education is being done by business-y people, or at least by people who are hired by business-y people. My online school is going to prioritize education, so educators are going to answer to students, not just as customers but as human beings, and everyone else will answer to the educators.

In other words, my plan is to build something I believe in, with the help and scrutiny of people I believe in, and find students who also believe in it.

With low overhead, this can be sustainable with just a few students, and with the scalability of digital platforms it could grow a lot, but the moment growth comes up against values for good education is the moment when growth stops. So even if I had very little faith in humanity, I should be able to run a successful music school just with the exceptions, but I actually have a lot more faith in that, so I’m feeling optimistic.

I hope some things I wrote here can be valuable to other educators who may be in a similar boat, and I’d love to connect with you if that’s you. If you want to learn more about my school, Synthase, you can sign up for the newsletter, where I’m sending weekly updates about how this is unfolding and what opportunities are available.

About Synthase

Synthase is an online school for music creators. We’re specialists in creative music education and we offer lessons, classes, workshops, and curricula for students of all levels.

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