By Cristina Schreil

Often, conservatories are associated with philosophies from years past: intensive artistic training that’s anchored in years of tradition. This hardly means that conservatory programs aren’t looking to the future.

For Eden MacAdam-Somer, a department co-chair at the New England Conservatory of Music, adaptability amid today’s eclectic musical landscape is a vital trait for a modern-day musician. “In the 20th century, as a people we became very focused on specialization. For a while that was working and serving us really well, especially for the recording industry,” she says. As time has passed, however, “versatility and individuality, combined with a really strong grounding in fundamental skills” have become new ideals. Broad training is also vital for young musicians who need to tackle whatever gig comes their way. “In addition to being so much more rewarding, I think it’s also important for the purpose of surviving as a contemporary musician,” MacAdam-Somer says.

Plenty of programs are geared toward preparing students to be innovative 21st-century performers—offering hands-on training that helps students sink deep into their craft, while providing them with an arsenal of different skills.

We take a look at a few tracks that do so: Peabody Institute’s chamber-music program, NEC’s contemporary improvisation program, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new concertmaster track. 

Peabody Chamber-Music Program

Peabody Chamber-Music Program. Photo by Richard Anderson

Peabody Chamber-Music Program

The chamber-music program at Peabody, in place since the institute’s founding in 1857, is a key example of balancing both old and new. For one, the degree of musical languages that a student encounters is different from decades past. “The number of styles that a real musician needs to be fluent in has exploded,” says cellist Michael Kannen, the program’s director for 16 years. On top of Baroque and Romantic, there’s a panoply of classical sub-genres that evolved in the 20th century in particular—not to mention jazz, rock, and world music. “A working musician’s going to encounter all of those,” he adds. The chamber-music program, therefore, aims to bring students in contact with these many forms while offering options to go deeper. Students can branch into an “authentic exploration,” as Kannen says. He directs this program with this in mind. Students should feel supported in whatever intrigues them.

For example: Several years ago, Kannen heard that one of the program’s chamber ensembles—a piano trio—was arranging Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” He was fascinated. “I coached them on it just like I coach them on Beethoven or Mozart,” he says, adding that he connected it to a classical piece. In concert, the trio began with a Bach Prelude before morphing into this unique rock arrangement. At Peabody, where performance is central to this chamber-music program in particular, creative programming is often a vehicle for this investigative spirit. In another concert, several ensembles—renaissance, jazz, and computer music—improvised variations on Death and the Maiden. They created their own variations before everyone performed together. “Those concerts are emblematic of what I think the 21st-century musician should be like and how I, at least in my little part of the world, am trying to promote that,” Kannen says.


The structure of the chamber program itself reflects professional post-conservatory life. For one thing, students must form their own ensembles upon signing up, taking initiative to seek out or form a group. (If students don’t know anyone, Kannen helps match players.) Unlike some chamber-music programs, Peabody faculty encourages students to follow their interests and choose their own repertoire. There’s more to this, however: It forces students to listen to a trove of repertoire to decide. This process also exposes them to negotiating with one another—a crucial skill in chamber music. Kannen reminds students that professional gigs often require repertoire a musician might not enjoy. “You’re trying to breed flexibility,” he says. 

New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Improvisation Program

New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Improvisation Program

New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Improvisation Program

NEC’s contemporary improvisation program also supports students seeking ways to creatively adapt all of their passions. “The CI department is all about addressing the unique needs of musicians who are seeking to move beyond traditional boundaries,” says MacAdam-Somer. It’s not a genre-based department; students with backgrounds in rock, classical, jazz, folk, and beyond rub shoulders while digging deep into the musical techniques underpinning improvisation. “They all tend to be folks where it’s hard to say, ‘I’m just a bluegrass musician or I’m just a classical violinist.’ They are people who have a lot of interests,” she says. MacAdam-Somer herself once felt fragmented as a violinist, having a foundation in both classical and Appalachian fiddle. At NEC, she found her tribe. “I could walk in and say, ‘Wow, these are the people I’ve been looking for—they get what I do. They may never have heard it before, but they totally get it.”

The department, supplementing the conservatory’s traditional classical-music course program, was established by NEC founder Gunther Schuller. Schuller was a pillar of the jazz-and-classical-fusing Third Stream Movement. It’s a small program of 52 students, compared to the overall student body of around 800. Students walk away being able to read music well and—naturally—pick up things by ear. There’s a strong emphasis on ear training, oral training, and vocalization. “In our ear-training classes students come in and they are working with repertoire right away. They are listening to a piece of music by, say, Miles Davis and they are analyzing the chords,” MacAdam-Somer says. “They’re figuring out how to hear what the harmonies are, they’re transcribing those chords, they’re learning his solo by ear, and they’re singing the solo back by ear.”

After graduating, the idea is that students can adapt to anything and, therefore, say yes to any gig. They’re well-equipped for the 21st-century landscape. MacAdam-Somer also emphasizes that the CI program breeds a positive, collaborative atmosphere that penetrates the rest of the student body. Students compete more with themselves than with each other, and there’s plenty of cross-
department cooperation.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Concertmaster Track. Photo by Carlin Ma

San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Concertmaster Track. Photo by Carlin Ma

SFCM’s Concertmaster Track

There’s also a choose-your-own-adventure spirit at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where several unique programs supplement traditional classical training. Several courses provide a critical thinking–based approach to music making. There’s a new professional-development program comprising courses in health and wellness, technology, community engagement, and business. The winter term is dedicated to student projects—a deep dive into a certain subject or a risk-free chance to realize their own dream productions, such as operas or concert series. “We’re not training students to do one particular thing; we’re training them to do a range of things and inspire them to do what they want to do as an individual,” says Kate Sheeran, provost and dean. Via interconnected courses, there’s a conscious balance between practical approaches and pedagogical methods, she says.

One example of a deeper, more specific plunge that previews real-world experience is SFCM’s recently formed concertmaster track, within the violin major for graduate students. It’s a small program: There’s only three students in its first year, with three more coming in. The program is the brainchild of San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who is a faculty member along with San Francisco Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Cordula Merks and San Francisco Opera concertmaster Kay Stern. The idea, Sheeran explains, was “to pass on the knowledge of great concertmasters and the specific skillset [they are] using.” Concertmaster students serve as principal players in SFCM’s large ensembles. They also tap into the day-to-day life of a 21st-century working musician: They observe rehearsals, perform beside professional orchestra players, study orchestral repertoire in private lessons, and receive career-specific coaching from their concertmaster mentors.

“They’re seeing everything in real time and then getting to talk to their teacher about it,” Sheeran says. The program also encourages them to be interesting thinkers. For instance, they learn how to problem-solve the best ways to lead a section and exude leadership, in the music world and beyond. Their studies culminate with a mock audition simulating a real-world experience. “They can apply what they’ve learned in leadership both on and off the stage,” adds Sheeran. “Whether it’s a brand-new piece by a composer or a new chamber group, or they’re a sitting concertmaster in an orchestra, these confidence and leadership qualities really shine through.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.