A Different Tone

Music Department Strives to Educate the "Whole" Musician

Richard D. Savage '01 transferred to Harvard from Oberlin, where he spent most of his time studying piano and composition.

At Oberlin, he was able to focus on his musical interests. Other classes--if he wanted to take them--came second. At Harvard, he says he found a new emphasis. Because of the demands of Harvard's music and academic departments, he had to re-order his priorities.

At Harvard, he quit the piano to concentrate on composition after deciding he couldn't do both.

"My first priority was always composition in music," Salvage says. "I couldn't balance practicing piano every day, composition and classes. But I don't regret that."

Salvage says he doesn't think the fact that Harvard doesn't have a performance major is detrimental to the musical environment, and that the fault of Harvard as an intense academic institution does not lie with the music department.

But he acknowledges that leisure time is hard to come by for Harvard's music concentrators.

The relatively few students here who want to be professional musicians face a difficult set of requirements and challenges if they want to succeed in the department.

Most budding symphonists go the conservatory route. Harvard's department smiles upon on music theory and composition classes.

Professor of Music Thomas F. Kelly, who is the department chair, says the undergraduate program is not geared to creating performers alone. Rather, he said, he'd prefer to graduate well-rounded musicians.

"I've spent a fair amount of time talking to people who are thinking about coming to Harvard, and there's an enormous difference between conservatory programs and our program," Kelly says. "Harvard's approach is that this is pre-life, rather than pre-professional training, and we try to make that clear to students."

He notes that there are many musicians who have come to Harvard and then left to be highly successful. Unlike students at some conservatories, they also have the advantage of having had a sound liberal arts education, he said.

But Kelly says that students who want to pursue music know that they compromise in their musical training by choosing Harvard. Others, he said, might well benefit from being part of a smaller program that concentrates on performance and practice.

"I think they've chosen to make a sacrifice, and that mostly means their personal time," Kelly says. "Once they're here, the standards of performance are things they need to set for themselves."

Balancing Act

The difficulty of attempting a concentration in music at Harvard is left to the most dedicated students.

In interviews, music concentrators said they are willing to give up their free time, their other interests and even their social lives in order to make time for music.

"Students should know that if they want to get their undergraduate degree in music, they should know about the music department they have chosen. Harvard doesn't have to metamorphosize itself to fit your needs," Salvage says.

Salvage says he has benefited from the music department because of its strength and focus in the areas of musicology, music theory and composition.

Despite the fact that Harvard is not a conservatory, Salvage says that there are many places a musician can turn.

"There's so much more music on the Harvard campus than a place like Princeton," he says. "We are very fortunate on this campus. The question is whether you can balance your instruments with your academics."

Sarah C. Darling '01, who took a year off from Harvard to study violin performance at Julliard, says that performance opportunities at Harvard are even more numerous than at the famous New York performing arts college.

"Performance opportunities on campus are great, but you don't have the same chance to practice and focus," Darling says. "Here it is totally normal for me to play two to three concerts a week, but at Julliard everyone practice for at least five hours a day."

And though she benefited from her time away, she says she missed the diversity of Harvard's campus and the opportunity to socialize with non-performance specialists.

"People at Julliard for the most part are interested in being good at what they do, but they've spent so much of their lives refining and honing that one thing that they don't even know why they do it anymore," she says. "You know that the actual person isn't involved in what they're doing at all."

At Harvard, Savage and Darling say they have more of an opportunity to exchange ideas with their fellow students and create a real musical community.

"I'm very happy with the composition training I have had here. I really know my professors," Salvage says. "We have a student lounge, a student face book, student teas....Good relationships tend to happen. There's a high degree of departmental bonding."

Kelly says that though students likely feel the time crunch, the department does everything it can to foster their growth.

"We have made some adjustments in our concentration to allow students more flexibility than they used to have," Kelly says. "But most people who are music concentrators are in it because they love music."

Music Professor Robert Levin says that the department has no plans to establish a performance major, simply because of the logistical difficulties involved.

"It is our view that everything that we offer here gives an extraordinary education to performers who do and don't concentrate in music," Levin says.

The creation of a performance major, he says, would require quadrupling the music department faculty and tripling of the size of the music department.

"The amount of time that such a major would take from the academic obligations from these various undergraduates is staggering," Levin says.

Not A Conservatory

Harvard's music department has a very different set of priorities than a

conservatory, with surprising results.

"We're not a conservatory, so we will never offer the breadth of Julliard

or the New England Conservatory," says Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. "But even if you are tone deaf, Harvard allows you to take a course by a wonderful, distinguished professor."

Christopher M. Trapani, a composer who transferred from the New England Conservatory (NEC), says that the instruction that he has received here is broader and more comprehensive that what he got at NEC.

"The classes here are just so different, even for music concentrators. The objective at NEC is to give as little work as possible so you can practice six hours a day....They expect you to know how to play the violin and if you don't know when Palestrina died its not a big deal."

Kelly agrees, and says that Harvard's commitment to give students a real--as opposed to cursory--music education is what makes the music department worthwhile.

"There is the general perception that very often academic courses in conservatories are service courses, giving general knowledge to students who really just need to practice a lot," Kelly says. "We expect absolutely first rate work and really attention to the courses. It raises the bar for everybody."

Although Harvard doesn't want to become a conservatory, a number of years ago, the possibility arose of a joint program with NEC.

But Levin says music department didn't want to do that, for fear of losing Harvard's best performers to NEC orchestras and music classes.

"At issue in the end would be whether students from both institutions would benefit from such a program," Levin says. "If we had to sacrifice HRO, it would devastate the Harvard musical community," he says.

Department administrators realize there is work to be done. With an expanding faculty and a growing understanding of students needs, Kelly says improvements are not far away.

"Things are changing," he says. "Over the past decade we've given a lot more attention to performers, and we're integrating performance into a lot more of what we do."

--Kirsten G. Studlien can be reached at studlien@fas.harvard.edu