It’s intriguing when you meet someone who thinks, works, operates differently than the “status quo.”
In the beginning of October, I was asked by administration at one of the leading colleges for music, located in NYC, to come interview their Dean about upcoming events and changes at their school.
This college is the Mannes College of Music, an institution that is part of the New School in New York City. The man I was asked to interview was Richard Kessler.
I expected a straightforward interview that would be a nice piece for this website you are on.
I expected to talk about how the school is moving from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village next school year, about the brand new, state-of-the-art facilities Mannes has made for the students, and the like.
Don’t get me wrong, we did talk about all of that, and it was wonderful to hear about the new physical moves Mannes is making to strengthen its program.
But when I came to Mannes to speak with their Dean, Richard Kessler, I encountered a conversation I was not expecting, a conversation that was remarkably progressive and, dare I say, quite moving.
A conversation less about the physical moves Mannes is making and much, much more about a new emphasis on treating musicians as unique people, as individual artists who will be given the skills to seek truly individualistic careers with their talents.
A conversation on training musicians to bring their music, diverse skill-sets, and unique selves to a market, not just asking them to be well-behaved members of a music section.
For those of you who don’t know Richard Kessler, he is a musician and administrator with a known reputation for being progressive.
He emphasizes entrepreneurialism and initiative as a means of expressing human agency as well as artistic creativity.
He isn’t about maintaining the status quo.
This is a good thing.
When I came to Mannes, we immediately began discussing a new initiative they are planning out, how musicians should think like J.S. Bach and Leonard Bernstein in order to make money, the 100-year anniversary of Mannes, the skills a musician needs to succeed, and so much more.
We also talked about what Richard hopes his legacy will be in his role as Mannes’ Dean.
This is our conversation:
Part I: The Initiative Forward
Bill: There is a really big, significant initiative happening at Mannes. An initiative that not enough music schools embrace. But in our ever-changing 21st-century, every single music school must take on this kind of program. It is a plan called “Mannes In a New Key.” So let’s get this on the table – what is “Mannes In a New Key” and how is it going to help and prepare students for their musical futures?
Richard: Mannes In a New Key is an organizational and strategic plan for Mannes.
We looked at this seminal question: what do our graduates need to know and be able to do in order to succeed out of school?
So we created that list, a list of everything they need to know and be able to do.
How big was that list?
Then what we did was we worked backwards, asking ourselves “What do we provide to our students? “What don’t we provide?”
And it’s pretty sizeable – we then started framing that philosophically. It led us to rethink traditional notions, and well, it led to a mission change.
We looked at the mission, we looked at courses, we looked at values, and what happened was we started getting into the issue of the importance of writing, and speaking. We looked at the importance of a deeply reflective practice.
We looked at the importance of being technologically literate. We looked at the importance of being entrepreneurial, and the real role of entrepreneurship – not as marketing, not as PR, not as a technical thing – but as a human agency.
We asked these seminal questions:
“How do you take the thing you love the most, your music, and how do you bring it to the world?
“How do you find people to perform it with?
“How do you find the places to perform it?
“What is your vision for it?
“How do you find the support to do this, financial and otherwise? How do you make a living?”
These are primary, not secondary, questions to being an artist.
I see this as being an artistic conversation, an essential artistic conversation.
You don’t make music in a vacuum! You make music with others, you make music for the world! You don’t write a piece for it to sit on a shelf, you write a piece for it to be performed, with people, to affect people.
The sooner a musician or any artist is thinking about any of these things, and having it influence contextually what they want to do and where they want to go, the better off they are. I see this as about human agency.
We also, in a nutshell, came to the position that we really wanted to restore the support and the development of an artist to be what it was pre-20th century.
In the 20th century, things really started to change. Specialization started to occur. Prior to the 20th century, most performers did some composition, they improvised, they could conduct. They were business people, and they were entrepreneurial.
In the 20th century, that kind of stuff peeled away so the composers were put off into the corner and the performers were very much separate from them. Improvisation became a disappearing art in classical music.
Whereas in pre-20th century, they improvised…in operas!
We want the idea of basic flexibility and multiple skills to reemerge.
Think about Bach, he’s the perfect example. He conducted, he taught, he composed, he was a business person. And if you read his biographies…
Oh, so true.
He was thinking about money, about how to put it together, about how to get the commission, about teaching, about there being an organist in the church and how he moved from one job to another…
It’s so clear when you look at someone like Bach.
But go further! Take a look at Mahler – composer, conductor, business person. Think of them all – Mozart, Beethoven – they were also scholars, they were ethnomusicologists, like Bartok.
We want the students to be versatile, and that means they have to know the world around them.
All of these things have to be put into the curriculum where at Mannes (and other music schools) very little of it has existed in the past.
In Part II on the next page, Richard and I discuss the reaction to all this change from the Mannes community.