More and more, we see music schools embracing diversity, new ideas, and growth.

But, this one school might take it to the greatest extreme I have ever seen.

Based in Appleton, Wisconsin, Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music is a school brimming with students asked to think about social justice, entrepreneurship, and forging new careers.

This school puts together improvisers, composers, opera singers, and classical instrumentalists into a melting-pot of unusual structure, resulting in fantastical collaborations and new ideas perhaps not experienced at any other school.

In late 2017, I sat down with the Dean of Lawrence’s Conservatory, Brian Pertl.

I was initially drawn to Lawrence for the one thing that makes it very famous as a music school: how their students are provided both a high-level liberal arts education as well as intensive conservatory-training.

I always knew Lawrence was a more socially-conscious school, but I had no idea to what extent it was.

Sitting down with Brian Pertl, we talked about operas with themes of social justice, students creating art out of alienation, and how “Dancing Between Disciplines” helps students prepare for the real world of music.

Here is my unique, intriguing interview with this school’s Dean.


Bill: What initiatives has Lawrence recently taken to improve its education for its students?

Brian: We have been focused on creating the best music education for today’s aspiring musicians.

The core nature of our specific education, embedding a conservatory within a larger liberal arts college, goes a long way towards that goal. We have always produced not only excellent musicians, but also intellectually expansive musicians.

Lawrence University Conservatory of Music

Besides our excellent core training, we have incorporated a greater emphasis in nurturing “creative musicians” – not just great translators of music – but creators, composers, improvisers…

And we are encouraging our students to become more socially engaged musicians; how can our students impact the world in a positive way through their art?

To that end we have also added courses in entrepreneurship and audience engagement.

We also want to produce thoughtful musicians. Musicians who question the status quo. Musicians who are constantly asking “why?”


You’ve talked about helping your students impact the world at large…can you describe more about how you are helping students make the world a better place?

This can take a number of different directions at Lawrence…

One initiative we have is called Music for All. This program focuses on training student chamber groups to bring their art to areas and populations where live performance is rare or nonexistent.

We have an on-going initiative where chamber ensembles perform at a nearby prison.

Our students have performed in transitional housing facilities, food banks, and schools.

Some of the students are even serving the food at a shelter while others are playing, and others are eating with and learning from the people in these programs.

We have applied this same approach to our signature Presto ensemble tours.

We wanted to redefine what a music tour looks like; instead of it just being a band-on-a-bus, playing from place to place, we instead wanted the tour to be socially relevant and impactful. Last year our Wind Ensemble traveled to the Minneapolis, Saint Paul area and partnered with 5 organizations that deal with mental health as well as mental health awareness.

Our goal was to partner with these organizations. We asked how can our music-making uplift their mission and shine a light on what they are doing?

Presto is not just about exceptional music-making, but how music can impact a society.

We went into an elementary school that focused on children on the autism spectrum, spending a day of working in small groups with autistic children. This was an amazing experience for all involved.

In March our choirs head to Chicago to make beautiful music and make a positive impact with local social service organizations.

At Lawrence we challenge our musicians to ask: How can we impact the community at large in a positive way.


On the next page, we talk about Operas with a social justice theme…