Conservatories at the Crossroads

Mark MacNamara on April 21, 2016
Jenny Bilfield | Credit: Toni Gauthier


Every few years comes a knock on the door from critics newly convinced that music conservatories have become irrelevant, and that even the best ones — despite all the hoopla in recent years about courses in entrepreneurial skills — are still too focused on learning how to “wiggle your fingers.”

This concern is tied to that broader conviction, brooded over to death these days, that “classical music is in crisis.” Incidentally, renowned columnist and critic Greg Sandow made that very argument once more in a 2011 blog, writing that in stark contrast to the classical music culture of three-legged stodgies in black tie, the broader culture seems “more informal than we used to be, more spontaneous, more widely creative, and — not least — far more diverse.”

“And, let’s note,” added Sandow “that this art form has an almost all-white audience, almost all-white musicians, and an almost all-white repertory. How can classical music survive — and demand to be lavishly funded — in an age when soon we’ll see a non-white majority?”

True enough. And from a conservatory student’s point view, add to the crisis the specter of fewer mainstage orchestras, fewer traditional job opportunities overall, and then, of course, the whole DIY, small-business nature of being a musician these days. The popular advice seems to be, manage your talent as though it were a neighborhood pub!

But to those pounding on the cathedral doors demanding a reformation of classical music culture and doctrine, the truth is that change, albeit slow, is well under way and many conservatories have been working for years not just to diversify — in every sense — but to deconstruct the parochial, sometimes sanctimonious, male-dominated, performance-or-nothing culture of the past.  

The question is, what are administrators replacing it all with, and what role should conservatories play in this crisis, and more to the point, what’s the view of those who employ conservatory graduates looking for jobs not on stage or in the classroom, but in arts organizations?

Life in the Studio

“Personally, I’m very mixed about conservatories,” Jenny Bilfield told us the other day. Bilfield, is the president and CEO of the Washington Performing Arts Center. Before that she was the artistic director at Stanford Lively Arts, which became Stanford Live. Before that she was president of the music publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, and before that she led several chamber music organizations. In 1985, she took a B.A. in music from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Bilfield’s ambivalence toward conservatories began in 1981 when she was a 15-year-old music school student in New York. Bilfield says she was constantly “hit on” by her teacher: “He made a lot of passes at me and basically said, ‘as a woman, if you really want to get ahead, you’ve really got to ‘live down in the village’ and you’ve got to put yourself out for some men, because that’s how things happen. I’m just going to give it to you straight.’”

“He used to sit there and pick lint off my sweater. I remember sitting frozen on the piano bench, thinking, ‘I’m never going to be in a position where somebody owns me in this way, where someone has sole control over me.”

Bilfield found that her experience was not unique. Or limited to an era. Or to a continent. Indeed, it’s what Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, once referred to as an “historical problem” in music schools. Robert Fitzpatrick, former dean of the Curtis Institute traced this “sinister trend” in American music education to European conservatories, and notably refugees from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. “Like the Catholic Church,” he said in an article in 2013 “music schools tended to sweep their dirty little secrets under the rug. Students were never willing to discuss the improper actions of their instructors because of fear of reprisal that could sink their career as a performer.”

“I have a lot of friends,” concurred Bilfield, “who’ve gone to conservatories and felt that if they didn’t abide by their teacher’s rules and training and structure that basically their career would be ended.” 

“A friend once came to me with a story about a woman he knew who was studying with a particular composer and he came on to her, and told her that if she didn’t sleep with him he would ruin her career. The composer had a reputation for this kind of behavior. And so my friend asked, does he have this power and what can this woman do? I basically said that she should tell the composer to fuck himself, talk to the dean, and threaten to bring a lawsuit. What students often don’t realize is that you can fight back.”

“What I worry about,” added Bilfield, “is that when students who are 16, 17, 18–years-old go to conservatories, often they don’t have an adequate support system, especially in the face of teachers who may want to tear you down with the goal of rebuilding you. And if you’re in a studio with 30 other people, it can become airless and deeply competitive, and students may not know where the teacher is coming from. All they know is that this is a person with a Pulitzer Prize who’s going to write their recommendations, and can connect them with composers, other musicians, and all kinds of opportunities. Everything is in this person’s hands, and if this is all you know as a student, the classic music world may seem a little cult-like.”

In a later conversation, Bilfield added by way of clarification: “I didn’t suffer lasting trauma from my experience, but I have internalized a long-term awarenesss of how fragile those situations are and how vulnerable people can be when they’re just starting out.”

Off the Performance Path

Jenny Bilfield studied composition in college but never wanted to make that a career.  Her light bulb-moment actually came in high school when she found herself more interested in how her piano performance would be experienced than how she would perform.

“I found myself imagining who would come to the concert and how we would get the word out, and how I could arrange the chairs, and what the program would include. I was particularly drawn to how people reacted to a particular performer, and the nuances that distinguished a really good performance. Above all, I liked the sense that people could be carried along by a story in the concert, and so I began to focus on the nature of content.”

Her parents encouraged her to study music, but having grown up in the depression they stressed the need to develop a skill. “My mother’s dream was that I become an administrative assistant on Wall St. and marry someone who would enable me to live at home to play the piano all day long.”

Bilfield eventually married another composer.

Her decision to focus on arts presentation grew out of the realization that at a certain point on the performance track “you realize you’re competing with people who do it better and they’re really in it because they love it. And so if performance is not fully engaging you — musically, creatively, experientially — then find something else you love. “And maybe it’s not in arts administration, but rather in arts education, or nonprofits, in a community center, or maybe it’s opening up a music store.”

The Good Hire

And what does Bilfield look for when hiring people? She doesn’t care so much about where you went to school, although perhaps more than she might admit. Moreover, job seekers need not have gone to graduate school, but if they’re coming from a conservatory her preference is that it be one that offers a wide range of exposure to both music and the world.

She doesn’t focus on an applicant’s course of study, but looks for people with discipline and a history of commitment. She might look again at someone who has played sports at a high level, because that demands practice, teamwork, and loyalty to a common goal. In the world of fundraising, for example, she is not interested in someone with experience in several different fields. She’s not interested in a salesperson, someone asking in the context of a commission but instead a person asking in the context of devotion. 

She tends toward people who challenge, even provoke her, and who are unafraid of offering an unpopular point of view. “I want to know that that my staff has my back, but it’s not about stroking me. That drives me crazy.”

She likes to hire people who have worked for small-to-middle size organizations. “I prefer they come from an environment where the standard is ‘All hands on deck.’” As opposed to a large organization where cliques form and too often the office politics is ‘us vs them.’ She’s attracted to candidates from organizations where they’ve had to pitch in backstage, maybe write some copy for a grant proposal, and who are self cross-trained.

“I’m also very interested in finding people who bring with them an optimistic view of the world. That’s important because during a time of stress and a scarcity of resources in the arts you want people who believe in the future and that change is always possible. I’m not an optimist myself, in one respect, but I work toward optimistic outcomes. That’s always my goal. Certainly, I’ve hit road bumps both personally and professionally, and I’ve learned not to let the possibility of failure or disappointment control the intent with which I work. I want people who say, ‘well, okay this didn’t work so let’s try something else.’ I want people who know there’s a donor for that performance or a foundation for that program, and they’re willing to develop the matrix or the language needed to make it happen. But this is where I get cranky: when people say ‘this is never going to work. This sucks.’ My response is, ‘don’t ever come to me and say this is the problem and then put a period at the end of the sentence.’ That’s one of the questions I ask when hiring: ‘tell me about a transformative experience you’ve had — in any part of your life — a time where you’ve had to really struggle to succeed.’”      

The Power of Agency

Bilfield’s conviction is that whether coming from a college music department, or a conservatory, students interested in a career in music must find their bliss. And that means unlearning the stubborn belief that if you didn’t make it to the performance stage you’re a failure.

“The best thing conservatories can do is to graduate healthy, intact people with a sense of agency over their careers and lives. The whole Svengali thing has to be held in check, because universities have ways of burying those bad experiences and boards don’t want to hear it. Often the bureaucratic solution is settling, moving people around, passing around some nondisclosure agreement. I have friends to whom these kinds of things happened and they wished they’d had the support not to settle. But that’s so hard when you’re 18 [and] facing huge law firms.”

Bilfield has a 15-year-old daughter, whom she describes as a ‘music-theater kid.’ Right now, her daughter is undecided about her career path, but is attracted to New York City. Her mother has not been pushing, but gives this advice: “go to a college, because you love it, and then immerse yourself and if you’re really interested, commit to it. But at the same time look around, discover things, take other classes, meet other people and remember that probably the thing you’re going to do with your life, or some large part of it, is something you haven’t even experienced yet.”

As for specific schools, Bilfield doesn’t press for the Ivy League, her own experience notwithstanding and although her family lives in Palo Alto, where the notion is, ‘If you can’t get into Stanford, remember there’s always Harvard.’ 

The problem, she concedes, is that no school is a ready passport to a job, and the best you can do is find an environment that ‘feeds your soul.’ As for conservatories, they best serve those who take themselves “seriously enough to be mindful of all the stages you’re going through. For certain kids it would be suffocating not to be in that environment. They have to go Julliard or Curtis because they’re ready for it, they’re chomping at the bit, and can’t imagine being anywhere else. And they’ll thrive; that’s their destiny.”