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.
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.
Your opera program has a collaboration with the improvisation students, which is unlike anything at any other music school. In these programs, students perform works that are about social relevance: issues like gun control, diversity.
What was the inspiration for this program?
I’m glad you asked about this, because it is an off-shoot of our award winning opera program.
Our Micro Operas initiative tackles socially relevant issues while nurturing our student’s creative artistry. The idea came from a collaboration between professors in the opera, improvisation, and dance departments.
The first micro-opera stemmed from a main stage opera performance of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. This opera is about an insular community that reacts to a stranger that appears.
After the performance, we passed out surveys that asked “Has there ever been a time you felt unwanted? Have you ever felt like a stranger? What did this feel like?
What CAN we do as a society to be more welcoming and inclusive?”
We had stacks of amazing responses from community members…
The following fall, students in the opera studies, improvisation, and dance departments got together and used the surveys as the impetus to create brand new chamber operas!
It became about dealing with alienation…
So how do you make art on this theme?
This is a great question.
Each of thirteen groups of students had to struggle through the frustrating, difficult, inspiring process of collaboratively creating a completely new work of art.
The performances were fantastic, but the process of experiencing this collaborative cauldron of creativity was invaluable for our students.
We performed the 13 operas simultaneously in all of the non-traditional performance spaces of Appleton’s Performing Arts Center. Students were performing in the foyers, balconies, elevators, lobbies, and even bathrooms!
Audiences filed in through the stage(!) and into the reimagined performance spaces!
We also had another purpose…
We want to redefine the stereotypes that the public might have concerning opera.
It’s not necessarily Brunhilde with the horns, the breast plate, all of that…
We want to show that opera can be something very accessible, something you can experience up close…
Something you can engage with in unique and personal ways.
What kind of student is Lawrence a good fit for?
Lawrence is a good fit for many types of students.
If I were to categorize who comes here and really thrives…
It’s the student who wants an extremely high-level of music education but doesn’t want to give up their exploration in the intellectual, academic realm.
The blend of conservatory with a liberal arts college allows students to do both.
Over half of our incoming freshman class each year pursues a double degree. They are getting a Bachelor’s in music, and a Bachelor’s in another field, such as English, Biology, or Anthropology.
The students who are not coming to pursue a 5-year double degree are still incredibly interested in expanding their mind and increasing their intellectual capacity.
Even our performance majors, who are spending the most time in the practice rooms honing their craft, are also taking writing courses, language courses, and pursuing study-abroad opportunities.
We believe that increasing intellectual capacity is a vital part of reaching one’s full musical potential.
Exceptional musical training combined with outstanding academic training is the ideal preparation for a world in which today’s musician needs to be musically excellent as well as smart, creative, well-spoken, and innovative.
The intellectually curious, passionate musician who wants both rigorous music training and intellectual engagement is our ideal Lawrence student.
Lawrence is one of the few reputable music schools that is an undergraduate-only music institution…
Right, and this has tremendous advantages for the music students at Lawrence.
There are no graduate students competing for seats in the orchestra, choir, wind ensemble, jazz bands…
All of our students study with our professors, not graduate students.
This primes students to be engaged in high-level music making from the time they are freshmen.
You have an entrepreneurship initiative your school is embracing. How does Lawrence prepare students for a 21st century career in the arts?
It’s a multi-faceted approach…
There is the core of the liberal arts and music education. This helps our students become the creative problem solvers that the world so desperately needs.
I like to think of this training as “dancing between disciplines.”
This is when you can look at the world through the lens of various disciplines– as a historian, as a musician, as a composer, as an artist, perhaps as a biologist… so you are efortlessly dancing between ways to understand the world.
But more importantly, you can occupy the liminal space between multiple disciplines, being influenced by each–literally dancing between disciplines.
This is where innovation happens, where creativity happens, this is where the magic happens.
This is part of our core liberal arts training that we are enhancing through the addition of our Entrepreneurship program.
We have a course called The Entrepreneurial Musician, in which we help students find their own musical path.
By the end of our class, all students create a full business proposal, website, a business card, a toolkit for everything they need.
But more importantly, this class is about taking the time for an undergraduate student to really figure out what they love, and give them the tools to make their dreams a reality. It is also about practicing innovation and overcoming the persistent feeling that they aren’t good enough to succeed. The single biggest block to success is never putting your dream into motion.
Besides this class, there are 8 other entrepreneurship courses that Lawrence offers to help students get to the next level.
How have some of the faculty taken to these new initiatives, which to a more conservative teacher may be considered new and innovative, yet unorthodox?
That’s a really good question…
The Lawrence faculty are at the heart of creating our innovative initiatives. Music for All was originally created by Flute professor, Erin Lesser and Piano Professor Michael Mizrahi, but now over a dozen professors contribute to the program.
Our partnership with our local prison arose out of the tireless efforts of our Piano Professor, Catherine Kautsky.
The Micro-Opera program grew from a collaboration between Opera Director, Copeland Woodruff, Dance Professor, Margaret Paek, and Improvisation Professor, Matt Turner.
On the other-hand it is important to realize that there are many aspects of a music education that aren’t constantly changing and pushing boundaries. Becoming a truly great musician requires rigorous practice, painstaking attention to musical detail, an expansive understanding of theory and musicology. This foundation is a critical part of preparing our students to be able to then push boundaries. We take the development of core musicianship very seriously, so we deeply value our faculty who may be more focused on that core aspect of a student’s music education.
At Lawrence, we are creating an environment where faculty can come together, knowing that growing their own musical potential is integral to the success of the school.
It’s not just about teaching trombone, or whatever you were “hired” to do…
Can you partner with a program outside of your own? Do you want to collaborate with the math department, computer science, or film-making?
We want to support and nurture the growth of each faculty member, because the faculty will then bring students into that beautiful learning process.
This is the most powerful kind of education.
What would you like to accomplish in the next 5-10 years for this program?
A lot of people have a doom-and-gloom attitude about the future of classical music, and music education, but I am infinity optimistic about the vast potential that exists in these areas.
We just need to shift the paradigm.
If students are coming to a conservatory thinking that playing in an orchestra is the only path for professional musicians, they should realize that while this is a great profession, there are other amazing musical careers as well.
In fact, for many musicians, it can be more rewarding to build one’s own unique path, or maybe redefine more traditional ones.
My dream for this conservatory is to continue to combine the highest level of musical training with the highest level of academic training so our students have as many career options as possible in our rapidly changing world. I want our graduates to be musical change agents, defining new musical paths and careers.
A key aspect of this paradigm shift at Lawrence is to provide opportunities for students to develop their creative potential as composers, improvisers, and collaborators.
If you are a string player at Lawrence, there are extraordinary studio lessons, a nationally recognized orchestra program, and rigorous chamber music instruction; but there are also opportunities for composition classes, improvisation classes, world music ensembles, and even an improvisation ensemble.
Helping all musicians achieve their musical goals through our unique melding of world-class music training, exceptional academic training, and a willingness to draw outside of the lines is the dream.
We are also strive to keep the joy and wonder in our music-making. We can be seriously playful and playfully serious at the same time.
We are committed to producing the creative, collaborative, intellectually engaged musicians that will define the future of music-making.