Conference Explores the Fine Points of Teaching Music History

In today’s musical world, the name Juilliard hardly needs an introduction. But if the School is rightly famous for its performing activities, few outside of its community are aware that its emphasis is no longer on performance alone, but has spread to encompass broader forms of scholarship. As Jane Gottlieb, vice president for library and information resources at Juilliard, put it in her welcome address to the College Music Society/Juilliard Institute for Music History Pedagogy, held at Juilliard during the first week of June: “Under [President] Joseph Polisi’s extraordinary leadership, the School has embraced the concept of the ‘Artist as Citizen,’ and every student understands that as superb performers they must also be able to write about music, to speak eloquently about their art, and to be effective communicators about the role of the arts in society.” While the goal of the conference was to delve further into topics related to the teaching of music history to student performers/composers, it also provided Juilliard with a wonderful opportunity to open its doors (regardless of where they were to be found due to construction) and share its philosophy with the outside world.

Participants in the College Music Society/Juilliard Institute for Music History Pedagogy were given a tour of the Metropolitan Museum's musical instrument collection by its associate curator, Herbert Heyde (pictured), and curator, J. Kenneth Moore.

(Photo by Fred Fehleisen)


The 67 participants, hailing from 23 states and 6 countries, gathered from June 4 to 8 to listen to talks and panel discussions prepared by eminent scholars. In addition to oral presentations, live performances were also very much an integral part of the institute, which kicked off with a much appreciated all-Carter concert presented primarily by members and alumni of Joel Sachs’s New Juilliard Ensemble.

Day one was spent at Juilliard and began with welcome addresses delivered by Michael Griffel, chair of the music history department at Juilliard; Gottlieb; and Karen Wagner, vice president and dean for academic affairs. Bates College’s James Parakilas’s talk followed immediately afterwards. While the emphasis was at first on the relationship between scores and performances, it quickly became clear that, for Parakilas, scores ought not to be the alpha and omega of music history. In fact, he posited that “there is more to music history than notes can tell,” and advocated for music histories that “foreground what [historian Donald] Grout calls background”—the cultural environment of the period, including what the audiences, concert halls, and instruments might have been like.

The next presentation, given by Michael Beckerman of New York University, seemed to be closer to an experiment than to a formal talk. In Beckerman’s own words, we were embarking upon a “journey into a performer’s brain.” Indeed, Beckerman studied how historical background information influences (or not) the performance of a given work—in this case, Gideon Klein’s String Trio, a work that included “many musical references that created a ‘Kingdom of Death,’” and was finished in Theresienstadt nine days before Klein was sent to Auschwitz. Participants heard three performances of the work, two of them filmed during the weeks preceding the institute, as well as a live one. Background information was disclosed to the performers (violinist Keiko Tokunaga, violist Elizabeth Beilman, and cellist Andrew Yee) in stages, so that they knew much more about the work at the end of the process than at the beginning. Whether or not this accounted for the remarkable performance they gave on that morning is (and will remain) arguable, as Beckerman observed at the very end of this presentation.

In the afternoon, Jane Gottlieb treated the participants to a tour of the Juilliard library, which gave them the opportunity to see some of the manuscripts recently donated to the School by Bruce Kovner, chairman of Juilliard’s board of trustees (as well as some that had been at Juilliard for a longer period). While the excitement of the participants was palpable, it was nonetheless mixed with a hint of envy—surely to be expected! The afternoon ended with a talk by Yale University’s Craig Wright, during which he shared a number of humorous tricks intended to grab the attention of students, and with a panel discussion on cultural literacy.

The participants gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the second day of the institute, which took off with a performance/workshop given by Juilliard’s Attacca Quartet and music history faculty member Fred Fehleisen. The ensemble’s magnificent rendering of Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 387, set the tone for the remainder of the day. Next in line were Mark Evan Bonds (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), who gave us a crash course in the assembling of an anthology, and Barbara Russano Hanning (CUNY), whose talk focused on “Teaching Music History Through Art.” While some of the connections she drew between visual artworks and musical pieces (i.e., Monet and Debussy) were familiar to most of the participants, some of her insights proved to be eye-opening; for example, one could very well imagine how her comparison between organum and the architecture of a Gothic cathedral would enhance the students’ grasp of the stylistic characteristics of Perotin’s Sederunt. The day continued with a talk by Mark Pottinger (Manhattan College), who explained how music history surveys can benefit from being taught outside of a classroom; this was followed by tours of the Met’s musical instrument collection given by the collection's curator, J. Kenneth Moore, and associate curator, Herbert Heyde, as well as a panel discussion on the “Role of Performance Practice in the Music History Curriculum.”

The participants were back on the Upper West Side for the third and final day, but this time across the street from Juilliard. The day started with a virtual tour of the New York Public Library presented by George Boziwick, chief of the music division, followed by a panel discussion on “The Changing Music Library,” during which  Gottlieb and Paula Matthews (Princeton University) advocated for print (in addition to digital) sources and for libraries as physical places; in fact, Matthews even commented that she “always imagined paradise as a sort of library!” The remaining two talks were given after a lunch break; the first one, James Briscoe’s “Rising From the Slough of Despond, or, Teaching by Context,” reinforced some of the topics introduced by Hanning the previous day. The highlight of the afternoon was the presentation by J. Peter Burkholder (Indiana University), during which participants felt as if they had gotten back to undergraduate classes. They got a first-hand opportunity to try his “bottleneck” approach, which ultimately led them to the conclusion that “students must earn their insights,” instead of being spoon-fed by the teacher. For many participants, the day ended with a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony given by the New York Philharmonic.

From comments made during the final session, it seemed obvious that most participants felt as if they would teach—and also envision—music differently as a result of the institute. In an interesting trade-off, though, the most important insight gained by the participants may be that, while music majors are more and more called upon to be teachers and scholars in addition to performers, we, as teachers, are also performers. If anything, the teacher-as-performer may be just another take on Juilliard’s artist-as-citizen; from that point of view, it would be hard to deem the institute anything else than a complete success. Our thanks go to the faculty members of the music history department, who organized and hosted the institute: chair L. Michael Griffel, Fred Fehleisen, John Muller, Anthony Netz, Joel Sachs, and Martin Verdrager.


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