(Ed. note: This is the first of three posts this week that launch a recurring series on teaching in a range of institutions.)
When the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles opened for business in August 2003, I was there. Armed with a highfalutin’ doctoral degree from UC Berkeley and a fair amount of adjunct teaching experience, I was thrilled to be the institution’s first music-history faculty. A division of the Colburn School, the Conservatory ranks with specialized institutions like Juilliard and Curtis in the area of classical instrumental performance. The environment is “boutique,” with a full enrollment of approximately 120, including undergraduate and master’s students; all students are eligible for full scholarship support covering room, board and tuition.
Coming out of Berkeley, I had hoped and expected to be hired as specialist, to leverage my research areas—opera, ethical and feminist criticism, and film music—in the classroom and in publications as part of a tenure portfolio. What a shock, then, when my first directive at Colburn was to create an 8-semester history survey. For several years, I was expected to teach the whole gamut, from Pythagoras to postmodernism, to every undergraduate. I became a damn fine generalist in the process.
Colburn Conservatory offers a peculiarly stimulating context for music-history pedagogy. Some of the obvious advantages, including the location in downtown Los Angeles, are practical. All the students read music and enter with a respectable knowledge of the classical repertoire, which makes it possible to look closely at particular pieces. Students are also real contenders for professional careers as soloists and orchestral players. Over the past 14 years, student concerts have not only enhanced my knowledge of the instrumental repertoire, but consistently offered listening delights. Of course, there have been frustrations, mostly the result of being an academic at a performance school. I've spent a good amount of effort trying to convince applied colleagues who hated music history when they were in college that my courses are not just accreditation requirements, but an added value in terms of artistic training. In order to thrive at Colburn, I’ve had to rethink my understanding of my field and my role as a teacher. Like Haydn at Esterhazy, flexibility and experimentation have been my rules of thumb. I’ve rolled with the growing pains of a new performance school, in particular the structural and philosophical evolutions that obliged me to retool curriculum and teaching strategies every couple of years.
Paradoxically, my generalist transformation has both complemented and counterbalanced the acutely specialized focus of my students. Colburn Conservatory students spend a lot of time in the practice room, alone, endlessly perfecting their technique for a ruthlessly competitive performance culture. They vie with peers for ensemble chairs, awards, and sometimes even the favor of an applied teacher. Orchestra and chamber music offer a more collaborative dynamic, but one that still centers on their primary skill set: playing like a boss.
I see my music-history classes as a different kind of ensemble performance: improvisation is encouraged, the work is open-ended and is not strictly defined in terms of a student’s instrument. The astonishing concentration that Colburn students bring to their craft sometimes causes a proportional narrowing of their perspective and comfort zone. Early on I discovered, for instance, that student musicians are often myopic score readers, zeroing in on their own part, an unconscious reflex developed over years. Scanning the whole score for interesting details (what’s up with the weird horn solo in the third movement of the Ninth Symphony?)—is a relatively new experience.
The hyper-specialized, competitive environment of the conservatory also generates a riptide of anxiety, fear of making mistakes, of being judged as less than brilliant, of doing anything that might interfere with their main objective. As an antidote, I encourage students to “practice” big-picture thinking, writing and discussion; in my classes, they engage not only as performers, but as listeners, conductors, critics, theorists, historians, and citizens of the world. Sometimes they flub the notes, so to speak; no problem, so do I (and they witness that!). It’s all good. The important thing is that they become more comfortable with debate and disagreement, with asking tricky questions like “Do we need another recording of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto? Why? In fact, why do people listen to classical music? Who pays for it? Who has power over it? Do I have a political responsibility as an artist?”
My favorite course to teach at Colburn is “Music since 1945.” I love the freshness of it—the music and ideas that are relatively unknown to my students, and the aesthetics that challenge their tolerance. The dominant concert repertoire at the Colburn Conservatory is staunchly canonic, concentrated on the Mozart–to-Mahler spectrum. A few relative outliers like Telemann and Shostakovich get attention, but more categorically early or contemporary works are notably missing from most applied-studio playlists. Even after all these years, the Colburn Contemporary Ensemble is still mostly a voluntary, student-driven initiative under the directorship of our percussion faculty.
This past fall, four intrepid and wickedly talented undergraduate string players decided—on their own!—to present Crumb’s Black Angels as part of the Contemporary Ensemble concert. I was over the moon, since my love for that piece goes back to my own undergraduate days when I studied composition with Crumb student, Andrew Frank. Every year, I dedicate a full lecture to Black Angels, my students gathering around the oversize score as we explore the musical, philosophical, and technical drama of Crumb’s string quartet in tempore belli. I was so excited to “coach” the violinist on her introductory remarks and written program notes; the group even invited me to the final rehearsal to give feedback. As one of few faculty members who attended the concert, I watched the performance with a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.
So there it is: one of my primary objectives as a teacher at Colburn is to nurture and bear witness to the authentic curiosity and sense of adventure that inspired those students to take on Black Angels. That’s what keeps me charged, year after year: encouraging students to take the steering wheel and even head off-road. I think of the violinist who became inspired after hearing Andrew Manze’s recording of a Marini sonata and studying baroque tunings in one of my classes. I supported her successful Fulbright application to go to the Netherlands, where she studied connections between avant-garde Italian music and seventeenth-century stylus phantasticus music. And there’s the trombone alumnus who asked me to edit his original script, an introduction to music for the very young, featuring his trombone ensemble. (He’s now collaborating on a musical graphic novel!.) Every undergraduate and most master’s students at Colburn will have come through my classroom. And, in the final count, they are all my students.
Kristi Brown-Montesano, Chair of Music History at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, with a specialization in 18th-century western European music. A trained vocalist, she is the author of Understanding The Women of Mozart's Operas (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2007). She has presented and published on opera, classical music in film, trends in marketing classical music to children, and the violin as a literary topic in late 19th-century England.