By Fred Bronstein
Guest Columnist
Dean, The Peabody Institute
The Johns Hopkins University

As I was preparing comments for the Peabody Conservatory’s 135th graduation I was struck by the fact that these graduates’ years at Peabody have been during a transformative time, for both Peabody and the music world. Over the last several years, Peabody has moved forward to reimagine the training of musicians at the highest level, now in the context of what that means in this second decade of the 21st century.
Fred Bronstein

As the oldest conservatory in the United States, Peabody holds a special place in the traditional training of professional musicians. While we have adhered to our core commitment to excellence in performance, composition, and other elements of the musical arts, we are now building on that tradition and recognizing that excellence is vital and necessary, but not enough. There is a greater context for training artists and how we see ourselves as musicians. Having run orchestras for nearly twenty years before arriving at Peabody, I have become convinced that it is time to put a stake in the ground around this issue.

The Peabody Institute
Peabody is about to launch a new curriculum for the 21st Century, our Breakthrough Curriculum, which for the first time integrates into the training of every Peabody student essential skills of communication; audience development; real experiences in community engagement; the impact of technology on music today, and how to leverage its benefits; and the ability to be a flexible, facile musician able to step into professional roles that require an unprecedented ability to stretch musically.

Many Peabody students have already taken part in this work through task force discussions, Dean’s Incentive Grants, or piloting community outreach components of the new curriculum – a curriculum which redefines what professional music training must be in this new world.  

There are already multiple examples. Two that come to mind are the Peabody Student String Sinfonia, spawned from a Dean’s Incentive Grant, which has performed throughout the community at sites as diverse as homeless shelters, veteran organizations and prisons, along with the Peabody Pop-Ups that this past fall sent more than 30 Peabody students out across Baltimore for a series of impromptu performances. These examples highlight new ways to engage audiences, and to make music relevant and accessible for more people – to truly give the gift of music.

What we do is about more than any single recital, performance or audition, as important as that is. We must prepare for expansive roles as artists. If we don’t think about our role in developing and growing audiences, who will be there to listen? If we don’t think about diversifying and broadening our view of what our field entails, how will we broaden and diversify our audiences?

Who benefits from this? First, our students because they learn to be musicians in the context of a different world. The community benefits because what better way to serve our community than by making it an extension of the classroom and studio. And performing arts organizations will benefit from a bright, new perspective needed in the world of the performing arts, especially music, and most especially classical music.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Peabody’s affiliation with Johns Hopkins University, we are taking steps to better leverage the competitive advantage that we hold as part of a world-renowned research university. An evolving Center for Music and Medicine has as its dual focus an emphasis on injury prevention and wellness for performing artists who depend on their bodies in the same way that athletes do, along with studying the palliative use of music on diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Already underway are screenings for vocalists so they understand their own physiology, a health and wellness-focused seminar series, a study of the impact of side-by-side singing focused on Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, and development of a clinic for performing arts injury on the Peabody campus. Imagine the benefit this work can have for our students who in coming to Peabody can learn how to navigate and perhaps even avoid career threatening injury. These projects, and others, are already bringing together more than 70 partners in various medical disciplines across JHU.

We are also expanding our footprint by growing Peabody’s on-line presence including programs in wellness that can serve our alumni and other professionals. We are starting a conservatory-level dance program, and a new media program focused on creating and producing music for video games, augmented and virtual reality. The Music for New Media program itself builds on a core Peabody strength in composition and recording arts (we recently added our second Pulitzer-Prize winning composer to the faculty), and complements an expanded commitment to music of our time demonstrated through the new music ensemble, Now Hear This, and two recordings in as many years by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra for Naxos records’ American Masters series, conducted by renowned conductors Marin Alsop and Leonard Slatkin.   

Peabody Symphony Orchestra

At the same time, Peabody is sharpening its focus on diversity in programming and curriculum, recruitment of students from underrepresented minorities, and general issues of inclusion and diversity on campus. If we want to broaden and expand audiences, we must broaden the backgrounds of the artists on our stages. That will result in a broader depth to the excellence we always seek, and it does in time build audiences by welcoming new people to the experience. It’s both the right thing to do and enlightened self-interest.

Although much of this is new, the class of 2017 has already experienced a sense of change. The fact that these students have been in an environment discussing change and innovation should be good training for what they will encounter. Because make no mistake about it, ready or not, the changes that have impacted so many fields and professions are going to continue in our profession unabated. The young artist’s ability to be flexible, navigate, and embrace changes in our field, in audiences, programming, venues, is essential. Our very definition of what constitutes performance is being reexamined.

When the astonishing Peter Sellars visited Peabody recently for a Dean’s Symposium, he and I had a chance to talk about Peabody’s four strategic pillars of Excellence, Interdisciplinary Experiences, Innovation and Community Connectivity, the bedrock strategies of our Breakthrough Plan. Peter looked at the pillars and remarked, “This is great but reverse these. Begin with community and innovation, and when you do that right, that results in excellence.”

Like many things in life, we come full circle. Peabody was founded as a cultural center; a concert series, a museum, a lecture series, a library, even before it became a conservatory. Digging into our institutional DNA, we build on our tradition of excellence but understand that we must be in and of the community; the university community, the civic life of Baltimore, and the international community. We have a major role to play, and with all its accomplishments of the last 160 years, I am sure that Peabody’s best days are ahead, but I’m equally sure it won’t look like the past. Nor will our field, and why should it? Nothing stays the same.

(Excerpt: Kevin Puts Symphony No.2 courtesy of Kevin Puts and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra.)


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