Reactive and Proactive Reform in Post-Secondary Music Schools

By Dr. Glen Carruthers

I. Reactive and proactive reform

I would like to begin by talking about my home institution, Brandon University, and not its School of Music, but its Food Services and Physical Plant.

In fall 2008, BU was a semi-finalist in a competition to identify Canada’s "Most Vegetarian-Friendly College." When the nomination was announced, via the popular peta2 blog, the local newspaper interviewed the University’s Food Services manager, who had this to say: "We’ve definitely seen changes in student’s [sic] food choices these days and [offering vegetarian options] was something we had to do" (Cosgrove, 2008).

At about the same time as the peta2 nomination occurred, BU received recognition for its energy efficiency. An Alumni News article explained that,

Today, thanks to its ongoing energy efficiency program, Brandon University has successfully reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the level of its 2020 emission reduction obligations under [the] Kyoto protocol (Department Profile, 2008, p. 25)

There are, of course, financial incentives, in both cases – some increased revenue for Food Services and government grants and annual savings for the Physical Plant.2 But this doesn’t explain why the Physical Plant is more than 10 years ahead of schedule and Food Services is, arguably, more than 10 years behind the times. Vegetarianism is not exactly a new phenomenon.

The real answer behind this disparity lies not in pragmatism but in vision. Food Services is reactive (they do what they do because, by their own admission, they have to). And this brings us to the topic of discussion for the next few pages.

This presentation gives me the opportunity to reverse a position I espoused as recently as five years ago. In a paper presented to the ISME Community Music Activity Commission in Tenerife in 2004 I adopted the view that universities should not impose economic, social or even research agendas on communities, but should respond to needs defined by the communities themselves (Carruthers, 2005). I now realize that encouraging universities or other institutions, including departments, schools and faculties of music, and conservatories, merely to respond to change relegates them to a reactive role. Even if conservatories are comfortable with this model, universities and university-based music programs cannot be. They, by their very nature are expected to effect change in the world. As more and more conservatories are subsumed by universities (the Australian model is particularly interesting; see Blom, D. et al, 2008), music programs internationally are poised to become increasingly proactive in terms of social reform and concomitantly, economic and other reforms.

The problem is that many university-based music programs are so deeply immersed in responding to change that initiating change is simply not a high priority.

II. Rethinking music schools

here are many books and articles about the protean musician and today’s job market. All of them warn intending and practising professional musicians that today’s world is different from yesterday’s world (and yesterday, in this context, means as recently as 5 or 10 years ago). A somewhat smaller body of literature speaks to musicians and quality of life issues. Researchers are documenting the extent to which young musicians seek alternatives to the one-job-for-life model of their parents and teachers. A still smaller body of literature, but an interesting one, speaks to the role musicology has played in reshaping our music programs – in reshaping what it is we teach and how we teach it.

All this research confirms what we have already known for a long time – that the status quo cannot prevail in our schools of music (see Lancaster, 2008). Bruno Nettl’s classic essay, "Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture," in which a hypothetical Martian records initial impressions of the "Music Building," is as compelling today as it was 15 years ago. Nettl’s Martian, making a return visit today, would find that much has changed. The hierarchies and canons that so many institutions valorized and championed have either been abandoned or, among our more conservative colleagues, are under scrutiny.

Nettl, in another essay, "The Institutionalization of Musicology," from about 10 years ago, explained the situation in this way.

If North American musicology even before 1960 exhibited an increasing emphasis on the history of European music to c.1860 thereby de-emphasizing recent, popular and non-Western music and, in particular, studies in systematic musicology, this may be related to the growing association of musicological research with institutions of higher education and, most importantly, with conservatory-like schools of music. The principal task of such institutions is the teaching – and indeed, advocacy – of the western art-music tradition. (p. 296)

The chicken-egg question has not yet been resolved – is musicology changing the way we look at music, or is the way music is, reshaping musicology? – but whether or not we buy Nettl’s argument that musicology spearheaded curricular reform, reform unquestionably occurred in tandem with the new musicology. This much is evident from even a cursory perusal of Rethinking Music, the 550-page tome in which Nettl’s "Martian" essay first appeared. Although the new performer, like the new musicologist, is wearing more hats than ever, and there seems to be general agreement among post-secondary educators that this is a good thing, all is not as simple as it appears prima facie.

III. Reactive music schools and ephemeral values

The following conversation from John Berendt’s book about the aftermath of the fire at La Fenice, encapsulates a dilemma that faces many arts organizations and arts teaching institutions:

"But I would suggest," Marcello went on, "that if they want to rebuild the place as it was in its prime – and by that I mean as a social place, a meeting place – they should make it into a great discotheque for young people."

An old man standing in front of Marcello turned around, aghast, tears rolling down his cheeks, "Girolamo!" he said. "How can you say such a thing? Anyway, who knows what the hell young people will want five years from now?" (Berendt, 2005, p. 15)

This dialogue raises a number of issues that I’ll reduce to three axioms.

1) La Fenice was an opera house and opera houses used to be social (or meeting) places.3 If the social function of La Fenice remains integral to its mission, La Fenice should not be rebuilt as an opera house at the close of the 20th century.

2) While a discotheque may seem to be the answer in the short term, it may not be the answer in the long term. What people want (or need) is always changing.

Had La Fenice been rebuilt as a discotheque, it would have had little relevance a decade later. In fact, discotheques were not particularly relevant to young people in the 1990s, but since the conversation cited above took place between older people, they can be excused for not knowing this.

This brings us to the final axiom:

3) It is difficult, even in the here and now, to identify other people’s needs. People are better, for the most part, at ascertaining their own needs than we are at determining their needs for them. This was, in part, the point made in my 2004 paper on community outreach that I alluded to earlier.

I think most people would agree that the decision of the then-mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, to rebuild La Fenice "com’era, dov’era," ("as it was, where it was") was the right one. La Fenice represents, not static values, nor ephemeral values, but enduring values. Static values have to do with inertia; things are the way they are because they have always been that way. Ephemeral values – discotheques, for example – are self-explanatory. Enduring values embrace cultural trust. La Fenice is the kind of trust an ethical and responsible society protects and preserves.

Every day, orchestras face the same dilemma as the mayor of Venice. They must preserve and adapt simultaneously. One of the objectives of most orchestras is to develop a product that has wide appeal. This is as true of the world’s top professional orchestras as it is of regional and community orchestras. I sat for many years on the board of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and the board, administrative staff and artistic director were constantly engaged into two tasks – increasing audiences and attracting funding. If an efficiency expert (who had no interest in the orchestra’s traditional mission) were to assess the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra’s situation objectively in light of Thunder Bay’s demographics, two observations would emerge as reasonable and obvious:

1) It is easier to attract crowds to hockey games than to concerts;
2) It is easier to raise money for health care than for the arts.

Would there be a way for orchestras to incorporate hockey and health care into its season schedule? We can all think of ways hockey and health could be part of the orchestra’s activities,4 but we would likely stop short of proposing that the orchestra become a hockey team or hospital. There is a tipping point at which the orchestra loses sight of its vision and mission and adopts someone else’s.

At what point does an opera house become a discotheque? At what point does an orchestra become a hockey team or hospital? Or, to bring our discussion back to its central point, when does a music school cease to be a music school and become something else? Defined narrowly, an opera house would cease to be an opera house when it stopped presenting operas and an orchestra would cease to be an orchestra when it stopped performing orchestral music. A music school would cease to be a music school when it stopped teaching musicians first and foremost.

But what is the purpose of all this teaching and learning? To what extent should the labour market determine what and how we teach? I have already mentioned the role of musicology in this regard and the relationship between musicology and performance, for example, is clear enough (for the purposes of the present discussion). But to what extent should "life in the real world" play a role in music school curricula? It could be argued that as soon as the job market determines what music schools teach, training supplants educating and a trained musician is a far cry from an educated one.

IV. Proactive music schools and enduring values

Theodor Adorno broached the issue of articulating teaching with society’s norms and values in 1940.

With every gesture the pupil is given to understand that what is most important is understanding the demands of ‘real life’ and fitting oneself properly for the competitive realm, and that the ideals themselves were either to be taken as a confirmation of this life or were to be immediately placed in its service. (Adorno, 1991, p. 53)

Wagner held similar views concerning art and commerce (Goldman & Sprinchorn, E., 1964, p. 37ff). Adorno and Wagner feared that, in responding to the world around them, artists would abnegate their role as leaders in society and become followers. Wagner distinguished between thinkers and prophets. " ...[T]he thinker is the backward-looking poet; but the true poet is the foretelling prophet" (Goldman & Sprinchorn, 1964, p. 52).

The prophetic musician clearly cannot ignore the way the world is in favour of how it should be. A more realistic response is to recognize that the way things are is not how they must be, and to plan for the unplanned. In attempting to anticipate the future, we run the risk of determining it (which may or may not be a good thing). In determining the future, we run the risk of limiting it (which is definitely a bad thing). That is the inherent peril in trying to anticipate student needs. We necessarily restrict ourselves to the imaginable, when it the unimaginable for which students and the institutions that serve them must be prepared.

Adorno raises this antimony in his brilliant essay on "Culture and Administration."

The antinomy of planning and culture results in the dialectical idea of absorbing that which is spontaneous and not planned into planning, of creative space for these factors and of a strengthening of their possibilities... Planning of the non-planned within a specific sector – that of education – was emphatically advocated by Helmut Becker; there are other fields that offer analogous situations. (Adorno, 1991, p. 110)

In Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel, The Secret History, the following dialogue concerns a murder:

"The first plan is too stylized. Design is inherent in it through and through."
"But design is preferable to chance."
Henry smoothed the crumpled map against the table with the flat of his palm.
" ... There you’re wrong," he said. "If we attempt to order events too meticulously, to arrive at point X via a logical trail, it follows that the logical trail can be picked up at point X and followed back to us. Reason is always apparent to a discerning eye."(Tartt, 1993, pp. 286-287)

Planning a murder and educating musicians have parallels beyond the most obvious (that musicians would do well to eliminate the competition). If we believe that Y necessarily follows X (e.g., that students should have entrepreneurial skills to advance their careers), we must also acknowledge that chance does and should play an important role in career development. But in the midst of acknowledging what we can and cannot control, we should not lose sight of the fact that artists are agents of change, not agents of accommodation.

It is interesting just how much controversy Neil Young generated a year ago at the Berlin film festival when he told an interviewer: "I think that the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age.

I think the world today is a different place, and that it’s time for science and physics and spirituality to make a difference in this world and to try to save the planet." ("Neil Young," 2008)
Mr. Young’s position is seems clear enough until the lyrics of his 2008 song, "Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World," are considered:

You can play my guitar
See it where it’ll go
Send this song
To a distant star
While the rhythm explodes
Just singing a song
Won’t change the world

Just singing a song
Won’t change the world
Just singing a song
Won’t change the world

The crux comes in the second and third verses.
You can drive my car
Feel how it rolls
Feel a new energy
As it quietly rolls
Just singing a song
Won’t change the world
You can sing about change
You’re making your own
You can be
What you’re trying to say
On a big wheel road
Just singing a song
Won’t change the world (Young, 2008)

Mr. Young’s posits that to contribute to the "new energy" you have to "be what you’re trying to say."5 There was a time when singing a song or playing a guitar to the exclusion of all else is what schools of music were all about. Today, that paradigm is hopelessly arcane.

V. Conclusions

What does this mean for our schools of music – to be proactive not reactive, and to embrace enduring values, not static or ephemeral values? In Wagner’s terms, how do we produce foretelling prophets, not backward-looking poets or, to use Neil Young’s solecism, what does it mean, "to be what you’re trying to say"?

In the same way that music theory and analysis is informed by cognitive studies, and the study of music history is informed by cultural studies, practical study in music needs to be informed by cognitive studies, cultural studies and much more besides. Musicologists recognize that music cannot be usefully divorced from its social context. So must performers. Emphasis on making music for, but not with the wider community was an invention of the nineteenth century and was relevant to it. This approach became less relevant during the course of the 20th century and in the 21st century it is largely irrelevant. Emphasis needs to continue to shift in our schools of music from developing better musicians to the exclusion of all else, to building better communities in which musicians are poised to play a major role.

Finally, intending musicians, practising professional musicians, and the institutions that bring them together must travel ahead of the curve and not along with it. Our schools of music must become increasingly proactive, like the Physical Plant, and much less merely reactive, like Food Services.


Adorno, T. (1991). The schema of mass culture (1942). In Bernstein, J.M. (Ed.), The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture (pp. 53-84). London: Routledge.

_______. (1991). Culture and administration (1960). In Bernstein, J.M. (Ed.), The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture (pp. 93-113). London: Routledge.

Berendt, J. (2005). The city of falling angels. New York, Penguin Books.

Blom, D., Wright, D. and Bennett, D. (2008). The artist as academic: Practice as a site of knowledge. In Hannan, M. (Ed.), Educating musicians for a lifetime of learning (pp. 5-9).

Carruthers, G. (2008) Educating professional musicians: Lessons learned from school music. International Journal of Music Education, 26(2), pp. 127-135.

_______. (2005). Community music and the ‘musical community’: Beyond conventional synergies. International Journal of Community Music, C, pp. 1-20.

Cosgrove, C. (2008). BU competes for vegetarian award. Brandon Sun (November 5).

Department profile: Physical plant (Fall/Winter 2008). Brandon University Alumni News, p. 25.

Gossett, P. (2206). Divas and scholars: Performing Italian opera. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lancaster, H. (2008). Change or you don’t survive: The evolving conservatorium. In Hannan, M. (Ed.), Educating musicians for a lifetime of learning (pp. 62-66).

LincVolt: Repowering the American dream. Accessed 28 April 2009:

Neil Young: Music no longer can change world (2008, February 8). Associated Press. Accessed 30 January 2009:

Nettl, B. (1999). The institutionalization of musicology. In Cook, N. and Everist, M. (Eds.), Rethinking music (pp. 287-310). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_______. (1992). Mozart and the ethnomusicological study of western culture. In Bergeron, K. and Bohlman, P. (Eds.), Disciplining music: Musicology and its canons (pp. 137-155). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Tartt, D. (1993). The secret history. London: Penguin Books.

Goldman, A. and Sprinchorn, E. (Eds.) (1964). Wagner on music and drama: A compendium of Richard Wagner’s prose writings. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.

Young, N. (2008). Just singing a song won’t change the world. Lyrics accessed 30 January 2009:

Biography Of...

Dr. Glen Carruthers, Professor of Music

His early training took place in Winnipeg, where he studied with Winifred Hardiman (piano), Filmer Hubble (harmony) and Gwendda Owen Davies (counterpoint). In 1972 he entered Brandon University and graduated with a BMus in 1977. After a year of private study in Halifax, he entered the MA program in Canadian Studies at Carleton University, graduating with distinction in 1981. His thesis, The Career and Compositions of S.C. Eckhardt-Gramatte, was the first comprehensive study of the composer’s life and works. After teaching theory and ear training in the extra-curricular music programs of the Ottawa Board of Education, Carruthers completed his PhD in musicology at the University of Victoria, graduating in 1986. His dissertation is entitled Bach and the Piano: Editions, Arrangements and Transcriptions from Czerny to Rachmaninov.

Carruthers has served on the national boards of the Canadian Music Centre and Canadian University Music Society, of which he was President 2001-2003, and continues to serve on the Prairie Regional Council of the Canadian Music Centre and several other boards. A pianist as well as a musicologist, teacher and administrator, he studied with Lorne Watson, William Tritt, Elaine Keillor, Bruce Vogt and Ronald Turini.


Carruthers has published on a wide variety of topics, from Bach and Mozart to Grainger and Rachmaninoff. His articles have appeared in the Canadian University Music Review, Grainger Society Journal, ARSC Journal, Piano & Keyboard, Clavier, Piano Journal: The European Journal for Pianists and Piano Teachers, Canadian Music Educator, Journal of Musicology and Music Review among others. He has contributed chapters to several books, including A Celebration of Canada’s Arts 1930-1970 (Toronto, 1996), which he co-edited with Gordana Lazarevich, Annaherung IX - an sieben Komponistinnen (Kassel, 1998), Reader’s Guide to Music: History, Theory and Criticism (Chicago, 1999), MUSICANADA: A Celebration of Canadian Composers/Un hommage aux compositeurs canadiens (Montreal, 2001) and Music Education Entering the 21st Century (Nedlands, Western Australia.

Conference Papers and Lectures

Recently Carruthers delivered invited papers in the United States, Canada, France, England and Spain. In August 2003 he visited Paris to speak on "Effective Arts Outreach: a non-prescriptive model for community engagement" at an arts management conference sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He returned to Europe in November 2003 to lecture on "The Ongoing Reappraisal of Rachmaninoff’s Music: Paradoxes, Contradictions and Fallacies" at the London College of Music and Media (Thames Valley University). In March 2004 he delivered a paper entitled "Rachmaninoff: The Case for a New (Re)appraisal of his Music’ to the American Musicological Society Midwest Chapter at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In July 2004 he delivered a paper entitled "Community Music and "The Musical Community": Beyond Conventional Synergies" to the Community Music Activity Commission of the International Society for Music Education (ISME) in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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