Hyper-Specialization in Performance Education

With the announcement of their new Contemporary Performance degree program this week, The Boston Conservatory joins a select few schools - including heavyweights Manhattan School of Music and University of California San Diego - that offer students the opportunity to study contemporary classical music in an academic setting. As a frequent - though not exclusive - performer of new/contemporary music, this excites me, but also gives me pause: I wonder, is a degree in Contemporary Performance (or its opposite, Historical Performance) too limiting?

It isn’t any secret that 21st-Century musicians in the United States face many obstacles to a successful career. Shrinking funding, antagonistic arts administrations, and aging audiences are just a few of the many challenges that recent graduates are facing. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities for the well rounded, agile performer, and I fear that musicians who pigeonhole themselves too early will end up failing to make a living with their art.

The Boston Conservatory’s new program offers a Master of Music degree in Contemporary Performance as well as a (pending) Graduate Performance Diploma and a Professional Studies Certificate. The description of the degree states that the program “is designed to expand and develop [the student’s] capacities to work independently and collaboratively in the area of contemporary art music.” UCSD says that “Experimentation is the DNA of UC San Diego’s Department of Music.” From a purely artistic standpoint, I think that it is outstanding that traditional conservatory programs are expanding their focus to include new music as a degree path. As a career-minded musician, I think this is, well, not so outstanding. 

Performance of classical music requires a wealth of knowledge of music from all eras; a great performance of Boulez requires knowledge of the music of Berio, which necessitates knowledge of Dallapiccola, which brings about Wagner and Debussy, who harken back to Beethoven and Mozart, and so on, and so on, and so on. In the best of circumstances, musicians struggle to realize an interpretation that incorporates centuries of classical music history and influence (how does Perotin relate to Muhly?). In the worst of circumstances, musicians ignore the history and interpret in a vacuum. This vacuum is why I don’t particularly care for the idea of a Master of Music degree in Contemporary/Historical Performance. As mentioned before, one’s undergraduate program only scratches the surface of all that a performer should (must!) know to be successful, and an immediate specialization cuts out a large portion of that knowledge - it's like jumping into a neurology residency after an undergraduate degree in biology.

My friend Jennifer Bewerse (who is currently knocking it out of the park with her stunning blog, The Endpin) is pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Contemporary Performance at UCSD after receiving undergraduate and Master’s degrees in (all-encompassing) performance. She did it right, fleshing out her extensive knowledge with two “traditional” degrees before pursuing a more specialized - and frankly awesome - degree. This is what should happen; students should be extremely experienced and knowledgeable before they begin to specialize. After all, doctors go to medical school before they operate on your brain.