The Music in Our Midst


usa-001Kiyoe Wellington has big hands, calloused fingers, and strong forearms. It takes power to draw music from a double bass. She also has a hoop nose ring and spiky dreadlocks; unruly as the loose horsehair she yanks out of her giant bow. This twenty-one-year-old New England Conservatory student from Hawaii has travelled five time zones to spend Sunday afternoons practicing along Jordan Hall’s gallery of rehearsal rooms; a cacophony of sopranos, violas, clarinets, and basses. Her journey was years in the making. Kiyoe started playing bass at age six, won an international competition at 14 and played Carnegie Hall in high school before coming to Boston to study with Todd Seeber, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s renowned bass.

urlKiyoe is among the more than 5,000 students who attend three neighboring music schools within one square mile, the densest concentration of music students in the world. The New England Conservatory, The Boston Conservatory, and Berklee College of Music coexist in an area roughly bordered by Massachusetts Avenue and The Fenway, Boylston Street and the Orange Line. According to official City of Boston neighborhood designations, this rectangle falls within the Fenway neighborhood, but many people refer to area as Symphony. It’s not uncommon to hear strains of Brahms on Gainsborough Street, Bernstein along Hemenway, and Brubeck on Haviland, with unexpected fusions at the intersections. How this small precinct became a Mecca for music students is a tale of nineteenth century history and twentieth century moxie. How each school will adapt a pedagogical tradition of individual instruction to a world of massive online open courses will influence how the neighborhood evolves in the twenty-first century.

Each school has a different reputation: New England Conservatory is for classical musicians, The Boston Conservatory is for performers, and Berklee is for jazz. Like all generalizations, there’s fact behind these conceptions; like all generalizations, the descriptions are incomplete.

The New England Conservatory is the oldest independent school of music in the United States. Classes began in 1867 at the Boston Music Hall, site of the current Orpheum Theater near Tremont Street. When Henry Higginson created the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881, all nineteen BSO section leaders were conservatory faculty. That strong connection continues – half of today’s BSO members are faculty or alumni of New England Conservatory.

After the Civil War, Boston’s population expanded, along with its civic pride. Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace channeled the muddy flats into a discrete stream, lined the banks with parks, and created dry land for a new neighborhood. The Fenway became the preferred destination for Boston’s growing cultural institutions. The Christian Science Church, the Museum of Fine Arts, the YMCA, even the Red Sox, built in the new neighborhood.

Iimgresn 1900 the Boston Symphony Orchestra claimed the corner of Mass Ave and Huntington with its new Symphony Hall. Two years later, New England Conservatory moved to Jordan Hall, a block away. These landmark venues affirmed Boston’s commitment to serious music.

The Boston Conservatory of Music dates back nearly as far as New England Conservatory, though it was less encumbered by tradition from the start. In 1873, founder Julius Eichberg’s operetta, The Doctor of Alcontara, was preformed by America’s first African-American opera company. The school moved from downtown to the Fenway in 1928 and purchased additional buildings along The Fenway through the 1960s. (For those perplexed by Boston’s quaint confusions, The Fenway, capital ‘T’, is a picturesque street that winds through the Fenway, small ‘t’, neighborhood.) By 1982 The Boston Conservatory dropped the term ‘music’ from its name, since the school also taught dance and drama.

Although The Boston Conservatory continues to teach every classical instrument, it has become better known for training in popular mediums, particularly musical theater. While it doesn’t share New England Conservatory’s consistent place on top ten lists of music schools, The Boston Conservatory is famous for landing performers on stage – more than a dozen graduates from 2011 joined Broadway shows or national touring companies. Everyone below the rank of Associate Professor calls The Boston Conservatory BoCo, which adds Big Apple bling to the campus’ funky townhouse dorms and classrooms and their back alley shortcuts to their main theater on Hemenway Street. BoCo is not a campus of pastoral lawns that nurture reverie, it’s a hard-edged sliver of the city for students serious about ‘making it.’

Although the New England Conservatory and BoCo have developed different emphases over 140 years, each provides an elite environment for about 800 students immersed in music. Each scours the world seeking outstanding musical ability, while procuring balanced ensembles. An orchestra needs harps and bassoons as well as oboes and violins.

images-1When Lawrence Berk, an MIT-trained engineer as well as pianist, composer, arranger, CBS/NBC radio technician, and devotee of the Russian composer Joseph Schillinger’s mathematical system of musical composition, found Schillinger House along the industrial tail of Newbury Street in 1945, no one could have predicted the phenomenon that is now Berklee College of Music. Berklee was the first U.S. college to teach the popular music of its day and its success mirrors the trajectory of Post World War II American popular culture – casual, cocky, and irreverent. In the 1960s Berklee recognized guitar as a primary instrument; in the 1970s Duke Ellington nabbed the school’s first honorary degree; in the 80s Berklee offered a degree in music synthesis; in the 1990s hip-hop entered the curriculum; and after 2000, Berklee students could study mandolin, banjo, or music scoring for video games. However, not every Berklee student is a headliner; today’s most popular major is music business and management.

The campus has expanded along Mass Ave and gobbled up buildings throughout the Fenway. In 1994 the Berklee Center in Los Angeles opened to foster relationships in the music industry, while in 2011 Berklee opened its first satellite campus in Valencia, Spain.

images-1In just over fifty years Berklee has become the largest music school in the world. With over 4,000 students in Boston, Berklee’s now five times bigger than either of its elder neighbors. But it teaches five times more students – over 20,000 – online. Berklee is leading the exploration of how music education meets the digital age, offering online courses, certificates, and degrees.

From its conception, Berklee turned the traditional approach to higher music education on its head. While the conservatories accepted a small number of students with proven talent, Berklee adopted easier admission criteria. In the early years, when up to 80% of Berklee’s applicants were accepted, but 80% of entering freshmen failed to graduate, Berklee reflected our country’s post World War II shift away from college as an elite experience of intense study to one of individual growth and exploration available to many.

Today, Berklee looks more like a traditional college than it did fifty years ago. It offers sequenced curricula, well-appointed dormitories, and student activity options that rival any college experience. The school enjoys increasing graduation rates, and has become more difficult to attend – only 35% of applicants are accepted. Berklee navigates a precarious juggling act as a respected institution that maintains a counterculture vibe. It’s still famous for its dropouts, such as South Korean rapper PSY and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. Michael Wartofsky, Professor of Harmony, acknowledges, “the myth that you don’t have to graduate from Berklee, you just have to go for a semester or two and then drop out to become a rock star, may persist for another century.” Berklee would like to put that myth to rest sooner, and highlight its many exceptional graduates, among them Quincy Jones, Melissa Etheridge and Branston Marsalis.
images-1In this decade, each school is transforming its campus to update aging facilities, accommodate growth, and provide enhanced practice, recording, and performance space. Two years ago BoCo renewed Hemenway Street’s vitality with its renovated and expanded theater. This fall they will open a new studio building on Ipswich Street, overlooking the Mass Pike. New England Conservatory has announced plans to build a major dormitory and studio arts building that will link their current facilities along Saint Botolph Street.

imagesMeanwhile, Berklee’s recently completed student commons and dormitory is an eye-popping addition to Mass Ave. As the first new building the college has built in Boston, the 16-story tower proclaims Berklee’s ascendance as a major institution.

For prospective students, there are real differences among these three schools. Many conservatory students establish connections with specific teachers well before college. Kiyoe Wellington met Todd Seeber at a summer music camp in Hawaii. Similarly, New England Conservatory pianist Xiaopei Xu met piano faculty member Hung-Kuan Chen at music camp in Pennsylvania, while Goran Daskalov, a BoCo saxophonist from Macedonia, also met his mentor, Kenneth Radnofsky, during high school.

images-2New England Conservatory reaches promising secondary school students through NEC Prep. Every Saturday throughout the school year 1,400 high school students descend on Jordan Hall for private lessons, group instruction, and youth performances. NEC Prep provides a formal mechanism for high school students to discover the conservatory, while simultaneously giving faculty a close look at fresh talent. Gerald Kearny, viola; and Amit Rogel, trombone; two Brookline high school students who attend, experience a full day of music beginning with morning lessons, theory, and chamber music followed by afternoon band and orchestra. They both plan to apply to New England Conservatory for college, though Gerald is hedging his bets. “My private lesson teacher is Rictor Noren, on the faculty of BoCo. I’d be happy at either.”

Berklee also woos prospective students, in its characteristically freewheeling way. Berklee offers one-day to twelve-week summer workshops for kids as young as twelve. A typical offering promises three days getting “bass lines to groove” with Victor Wooten – no previous experience necessary.

Once accepted and living in Boston, students from the three schools interact through formal channels, informal connections, and geographic proximity.

images-3Berklee and BoCo intersect the most. Each is a member of the Pro Arts Consortium, six Boston-based art schools (Berklee, The Boston Architectural Center, The Boston Conservatory, Emerson, Mass College of Art & Design, and The Museum School) that allows students to cross-register for some classes. Berklee’s and BoCo’s campuses are indistinguishable; along one stretch of The Fenway brownstones alternately belong to BoCo, Berklee, then BoCo again. BoCo dormitory residents take their meals in Berklee’s dining hall, and can perform on Berklee’s Commons Caf stage. Berklee students take movement courses at BoCo, while Berklee musicians often fill out the band for BoCo productions that require rock or jazz musicians.

The New England Conservatory’s links to its sister schools are weaker. NEC is not a member of Pro Arts, though it plans to join in 2015, and its campus is a contiguous group of buildings a few blocks away from the other two. Still, musical connections bind. Classical music students at NEC are familiar with their BoCo counterparts, while students in New England Conservatory’s renowned jazz program attend performances of their Berklee peers, and vice-versa.

Informally, Students from all three institutions often socialize together, sometimes perform together, and occasionally even live together. Relationships are primarily collaborative, until they’re not. Kiyoe Wellington notes, “I haven’t seen too much competition, except maybe when it comes to auditions.”

Faculty and administration of New England Conservatory, BoCo and Berklee also view the three schools as distinct places. Richard Ortner, President of The Boston Conservatory, contrasts the two conservatories with their neighbor. “The principle difference is that at Berklee the education can be very broad and not very deep, while at either of the conservatories, the education is vary narrow but very deep. The kids are of very different kind, and indeed, the faculties are very different from one another. The Berklee faculty, who come from careers as jazz or pop musicians, have been living one kind of life. The Boston Symphony members who comprise much of the faculty at New England Conservatory and The Boston Conservatory, on the other hand, live in a very rarified and very different world.”

images-4Mr. Ortner is keenly aware of the new kid on the block. “With 4,000 students [Berklee] can try a lot of things; it’s a very rich faculty culture, with a lot of faculty development money, more than there is at either The Boston Conservatory or New England Conservatory.” But he sees advantages for everyone in their proximity and the collaboration it offers, whether it be operational, like dovetailing meal service, or artistic, like BoCo teaching dance and movement to Berklee students. Mr. Ortner envisions these affiliations evolving into a musical education model that mirrors how Partners Health links Boston-area hospitals. Each school will maintain its own identity and core curricula; yet share elements that can provide a richer, and more cost effective, experience.

One significant way the conservatories set themselves apart from Berklee reveals itself upon graduation. Since Berklee still suffers from the myth that just a stint may be school enough for stardom, a Bachelor’s from Berklee is usually a terminal degree. This may change, as Berklee recently started a graduate program and more of its alumni will pursue further study. Meanwhile each conservatory has strong, longstanding graduate programs and many of their students seek advanced degrees.

All three schools find greater competition beyond the Fenway. New England Conservatory competes with the most elite institutions: Julliard, Peabody, Yale; while BoCo competes with performance-based schools like Carnegie-Mellon, NYU, and Point Park. Increasingly, BoCo faces competition from state schools, including UMass, where a student can obtain a solid education for a fraction of the cost and, if their interest sustains, attend The Boston Conservatory for graduate school.

imgresBerklee’s singular position among music schools is acknowledged — even envied — by its peers. Richard Ortner waxes like a publicist when he says, “For the last twenty years at least, I can’t think of a single Grammy award that was given where one of the people up on stage wasn’t a Berklee grad. They are the producers. They are all of the people who know how to mix and use the equipment; they are ‘in’ the music industry.” Berklee’s competition isn’t other schools; it’s the rock’n’roll spirit to forego school altogether.

images-5Conservatory students need face time, practice time, and connections to land in orchestras and musicals, while electronic composers can do it all with a laptop. Online education will be part of music education’s future, but it cannot replicate the satisfaction of jamming with your peers or the excitement of discovering music beyond your computer’s bookmarks. Just as the Internet has not obliterated urban life; online learning won’t eliminate college campuses. According to Mr. Ortner, “YouTube is the lingua franca of all of these young people and everything that they do gets up there. It doesn’t matter whether it was produced in their dorm room or on the stage of Symphony Hall, if it’s good, that’s all they care about. But this ten square block area is the bull’s-eye for college-bound students in the United States. You want to be in Boston and you want to be in the thick of it.”

This is good news for Bostonians, who have hundreds of opportunities to enjoy these students’ incredible talent every year. This fall’s calendar at NEC, BoCo, and Berklee include dozens of performances, many free. Kiyoe Wellington and her peers know that quality music can be riffed and shared from a Macbook Air, but they choose to study music in Boston because there are still so many other facets to making music. A Boston Symphony Orchestra audition only comes from years of face time.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to The Music in Our Midst

  1. Tim Fallon says:

    Thank you Paul for that interesting view of a Boston neighborhood. It inspires me to look for music in my neighborhood.

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