The 21st Century Conservatory

So what does the ideal conservatory of the 21st century look like? Sound like? How radically different is it from the hundreds of conservatories that dot the globe today? To answer these questions, we should first look at the state of the musical landscape in the 21st century, for it is in this distinct musical environment that conservatory graduates will attempt to forge their musical lives.

The 21st century has brought a whirlwind of change to the world of music. The entire CD industry collapsed before our eyes as file sharing and digital downloads shook the foundations of the music industry giants. To get a sense of how pervasive the shift away from CDs has become among students, I asked the members of an entrepreneurship class I was co-teaching to tell me about the last CD they purchased. Out of a class of 25 students only three, yes THREE, had ever even owned a CD!

Meanwhile, the news of major orchestras experiencing financial distress is all too common, prompting whispers about the imminent death of classical music. What should we make of this? The music industry collapses before our eyes and major orchestras are struggling to survive. Certainly these are signs that music is no longer relevant and that becoming a musician is nothing short of folly, right?

Wrong!

Music isn’t dying. It is as relevant as ever. It still defines our humanity and lifts our souls. The means by which we deliver our music, however, is changing radically and rapidly. We are experiencing a paradigm shift away from the world of CDs, monolithic record companies, top-40 radio stations, and large, administration-heavy symphony orchestras, to the world of digital downloads, self-publishing, YouTube, and smaller, nimbler orchestras and opera companies. We are in the midst of this whirlwind of change and no one is sure exactly where it will end up. For the unprepared musician, this change is frightening, overwhelming and disheartening. For the prepared musician—the 21st-century musician—this change is exciting, exhilarating and filled with opportunity. Today, a smart, innovative, collaborative, adaptable musician has the exciting prospect of redefining our musical landscape. What a thrilling possibility! So this takes us back to our original question: what type of cutting-edge conservatory can produce the smart, agile, innovative, collaborative, visionary musician that can thrive in a rapidly changing musical world? The answer, of course, is our conservatory, the Lawrence Conservatory.

The Lawrence Conservatory of Music is perfectly suited to produce the ideal 21st-century musician, and, ironically, has been for more than 100 years. How could this be? Certainly there needs to be radical shifts in educational philosophy in order to accommodate our radically changing world of music, right? Wrong. The visionary secret, codified in 1874, was to embed a world-class conservatory within a small liberal arts college. This simple but radical concept sets our conservatory apart from nearly every other in the world, and lies at the heart of why Lawrence Conservatory musicians are perfectly suited to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

It just isn’t enough anymore to be only a strong musician. The 21st century demands not only musical mastery, but intellectual horsepower as well. Since the core of the liberal arts ideal is to grow the mind, increase intellectual capacity and foster a passion for lifelong learning, Lawrence provides the unique environment that nurtures both musical and intellectual excellence. This beautiful combination produces world-class musicians who are also world-class thinkers. They are perfectly prepared to take on the exciting challenges of a rapidly changing musical landscape.

I experienced the power of this dual education firsthand. In 1992, just six years after graduating from Lawrence with double degrees in music and English, I landed a job at Microsoft in its audio acquisitions department. Not one thing that I worked on
at Microsoft had even been invented when I attended Lawrence. Everything was new. Everything was a puzzle. I was learning everything on the fly, and I was helping to redefine how the world listened to music. My Lawrence education provided the foundation I needed to move comfortably and easily in new, rapidly changing, musically and intellectually challenging environments.

As we move deeper into this century, experiences like mine will become the norm rather than the exception, so our liberal arts approach to conservatory training will become even more relevant. Like our graduates, our Conservatory is also adaptable and continually striving to provide our students with greater challenges and broader opportunities. The study of world music is now a core offering in the Conservatory, as are courses in innovation and entrepreneurship for musicians. Our entrepreneurship courses challenge students to think creatively about how they can merge passion with profession. The class is a lab where they can experiment with how they might combine their intellectual capacity and musical prowess in bold new ways. So far we have seen the creation of a baroque orchestra, a music-booking website, a rehearsal-space locator service, and a DJ-booking agency. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I can hardly wait to see the bold ideas yet to come.

So if anyone asks what the ideal conservatory of the 21st century looks like, just point them to our conservatory, the Lawrence Conservatory. We will be happy to show them around and give them a glimpse of the magic that happens here.

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