A few months ago, I was invited to a small, liberal arts university to give a master class and perform a recital. While this university does offer some professional programs, the core of this program is its liberal arts curriculum, located on the beautiful, traditionally designed main campus. As I walked onto campus, I entered the quad, flanked, as one might expect, by buildings housing the school’s programs and some dormitories, and by one building housing the school’s performing arts center.
The music program is housed in the Humanities building, a short walk from the performing arts center, and is a small department. As I approached the building with my friend, a new faculty member at this school who had invited me there, on a misty, damp fall morning, I was struck by the demeanor of the students milling about in front of the entrance.
They were so calm. And happy.
As a graduate of two schools of music (an east coast conservatory for my bachelor’s and a west coast school of music for my master’s), I couldn’t help comparing the differences in the student environment here, in this small school, nestled in a little valley near the Cumberland Gap, and the students at the schools of music and conservatories where I have attended and taught.
Anyone who has attended a conservatory or school of music will tell you that they are . . . . for lack of better words, special places. They are wonderful places, attended mostly by students who simply love what they do so much, so much that passionate becomes an overused, tired expression to describe the love and dedication they have for their craft. These students tend to be highly intelligent, creative, and energetic types. For two years of undergrad school, my dorm room faced a patio outside the cafeteria entrance. I often woke to the sounds of music theatre majors and vocalists bleating out a few warm-ups or excerpts on their way to breakfast. While students at other schools sat and studied, my classmates and I practiced, and practiced, and met in the lounge above the practice rooms for breaks, snacks, pranks, hijinks, competitive banter, and then adjourned and returned downstairs for more practice. While we did attend classes and write papers like other college students, we spent a great deal of time in rehearsal as well. And a good many of our classes were lab-oriented – sight singing and ear training. We didn’t have many opportunities to fall asleep listening to a lecture.
In short, my undergraduate education was one of constant activity, outrageous happiness, and blood, sweat, and tears. And competition. It was a stressful thing. And it was a good thing. For me.
But that sort of experience is reserved for us weirdos who LIKE spending hours and hours alone in practice rooms, and hours and hours with others rehearsing. There is a very small percentage of our population that is cut out for that sort of experience, to do this thing full-time.
This is not to say that a liberal arts experience is not stressful or intense. But it is more balanced.
Back to my tale: The students at this small school continued to impress me throughout my visit. In our master class, I worked with a flutist who wishes to become a music educator. While her level of playing was perhaps not that of a student at a more performance-oriented school, she was quick to try new ideas, and was able to think about her own playing, and the music she was trying to interpret, in a critical way, and to develop plans to practice her music in ways that would help her achieve her goal. I think she’ll make a fine educator.
And every time I entered a hallway, or a classroom, or the quad at this school, I was again struck by the peaceful, contented nature of these students. This is not to say that they were lackadaisical. Not in the least.
To wit – the performing arts center has one stage, which is shared by the drama and music departments. It seems my recital was scheduled smack dab in the middle of a run of The Three Musketeers. When the dean saw the set-build in progress, she asked the drama professor to ensure the set was designed so there was room on the small stage for a grand piano and a flutist. It didn’t work out that way. But, knowing their set was in the way and a guest artist needed room to rehearse the following afternoon and give a recital the following evening, the drama professor and his students came in late one night and partially struck their set, only to rebuild it for the following weekend’s productions.
They love what they do. Maybe not enough to major in it, but enough to participate. The administrators at this school, and at many liberal arts colleges across the country, realize that music, arts, and drama should be an integral part of EVERY human’s education. For these students, their participation in The Three Musketeers or an instrumental ensemble is a vital part of their humanity, of their day-to-day existence. They understand that participating in an artistic project, as opposed to passively listening on their way to class or while studying, is a healthy and balancing part of their human existence.
And they come to concerts. On the night of my recital, it was foggy, misty, wet, and generally unpleasant outside, and yet the hall was full of students, faculty, and community members. Afterward, several audience members approached me to congratulate me, ask me what they should do about their grandchild who wants to study violin, and to thank me for giving the recital.
“I’ve been looking forward to this all week!” This was a student who told me she had played flute in middle and high school, and that she’d been putting in many, many hours in a lab that semester, and she was simply delighted to have a flute event to look forward to and attend.
I went home with a new appreciation of the value of arts education as part of a complete, well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, with classes in English, writing, history, foreign languages, science, philosophy, mathematics, art, physical education, drama, and music for everyone. With that in mind, I continually encourage my public school administrators to design and tweak curricula with this principle in mind, making these subjects accessible to all students. And I encourage you to do the same.