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The 21st-Century Conservatory Needs to Challenge Itself

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Abra Bush:  Conservatories now are offering courses in hip hop, they're offering courses in K-pop, there are many degrees in commercial music.

Alex Chambers:  The new dean of the Jacobs School of Music says, "Music schools are going to have to go beyond the western canon if they want to stay relevant to a new generation of musicians."

Abra Bush:  So I think those of us who want to hold true to that traditional western art canon are going to be deeply challenged to do so, if we don't think about how we're relevant, not only to the students coming into the school, but also to the communities of listeners that want to engage with us.

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, a conversation with Dean Abra Bush about music education for the 21st century. That's coming up on Inner States, right after this.

Alex Chambers:  This is Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. I was involved in classical music in the 1990s, and I remember worries going around that classical music was on the edge of irrelevance. Audiences were going to shrink or disappear, no-one would want to study it anymore. Thirty years later, there are still plenty of people seeking out classical concerts, taking lessons, keeping the music alive. On the other hand, a lot of the music world has changed. Computers are central to composing and performing, there are new outlets for commercial music, from video games to podcasts, there are new kinds of music to contend with. How do you prepare for this new world? Do you just put down your head and practice, practice, practice? I mean, you still have to play all the notes. But, should you learn to improvise, maybe take a class on business for musicians? I would have turned my nose up at that when I was 20, but in retrospect, it turns out paying the bills can be complicated.

Alex Chambers:  Conservatories are trying to figure out how to prepare their students to be musicians in the 21st century, and one of the top conservatories in the world, the Jacobs School of Music, has just hired a new dean to help them do that. Abra Bush came on in June of 2022 and our own Aaron Cain sat down with her, to talk about her career in music and how she sees the Jacobs School changing to meet the needs of the new century. That is going to be our show for today, so here's Aaron.

Aaron Cain:  Abra Bush, thank you for joining me today.

Abra Bush:  Thank you for having me, it's a pleasure.

Aaron Cain:  Something I can't help but ask musicians when I get a chance to speak with them is, what was your first musical memory?

Abra Bush:  Music was always around in my house. We spent a lot of time singing when I was a child, and making up songs, and various family members played the piano, and so we would stand around in a very Midwestern way and sing together in my family. That was always part of everyday life for us. My grandparents were often singing, my mom was often singing. I had relatives who studied music, so there was just a lot of music around. I started playing piano when I was about six, and I really was quite terrible and I really didn't enjoy it at all. I just wasn't ready. I think I didn't, at age six, have the ability to focus in the way I would have needed to in order to begin real piano study. It just wasn't something that I wanted to spend my time doing at that age.

Abra Bush:  As I got older, I grew to love to play and, through the time I was teaching singing in particular, I played every day, all day long. So I kind of grew into it. I was, I guess, a little bit of a late starter with it in that way. I love it now and I truly enjoy attending the piano recitals of our colleagues and hearing guest artists and I enjoy the instrument very much. I have a great appreciation for the instrument. But, when I was six, I wasn't there yet.

Aaron Cain:  So when growing up, and you're sitting around with the family, always singing and making up songs, was this in Ohio?

Abra Bush:  Yes. So I'm from Ohio, I'm eighth generation Ohio, actually, Ohioan. My family is originally from southeastern Ohio, just outside of a little town called Gallipolis, right along the Ohio River. My entire family lived in that region until I was in about eighth grade; my family moved to Columbus and so that's where I attended high school.

Aaron Cain:  Speaking of high school, let's talk about that moment when the study of music and the love of music collides with the formal teaching of music, if it hasn't already. Maybe at junior high, middle school or high school, there comes a moment when suddenly it's not just this thing that you do, it's this thing that your friends do - some of your friends think it's great, some of them think it's dippy. So what was that like in your upbringing in Ohio?

Abra Bush:  I was really lucky to have incredibly talented teachers and dedicated teachers. The Ohio Music Education Association is a really strong organization and, in point of fact, many of my teachers were actually IU alumni. I know that now, I didn't know it then, but my children's chorus directors and others, a lot of my voice teachers over the years, were always IU alumni. There was a constant thread of that. I remember saying, when I came to interview, that while I had never attended school here, many of my most influential mentors and teachers have, and I feel like I'm a product of this place as a result, in some ways.

Abra Bush:  When we moved from there to a large city, and I was attending a suburban school district, one of the things that I was able to continue doing, in a very positive way, was music making. You know, there are always the questions of your placement exams, your tests, your math levels, those kinds of things, but in music I was able to continue that progress forward. So in eighth grade, I would say, when that move occurred and my mom got me involved in children's chorus through the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and youth orchestra programs, and taking flute lessons, and eventually voice lessons a little later, that was sort of what kept me grounded all through middle school and high school.

Aaron Cain:  That was the constant.

Abra Bush:  Yes, absolutely.

Aaron Cain:  And was it the same with friendships? Were a lot of the friends that you made musicians? Did you stay in that circle, or were you able to interact with other humans?

Abra Bush:  [LAUGHS] I interacted with other humans, but I have to say, my dearest friends to this day are the people that I was in choir and band and orchestra and theater with. I was lucky to attend a high school that had a very strong repertory theater program. We had orchestras and bands and fantastic choirs, and so I received a very strong, fundamental, core music education there. And then, as a senior in high school, I actually attended Ohio State, doing what was called at the time, post secondary options. So I took a couple of classes at the high school, but then I would head down to Ohio State and enrolled in music theory and I took an entire freshman year there basically - psychology and calculus and all kinds of things - because I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do. So all of that really kind of culminated in me eventually deciding to study music really.

Aaron Cain:  Tell me a little bit about that decision too, because that's the crux of the matter. Music as a career, music as something that's beyond recreational, it's beyond something that is edifying and good for the soul, but something you're going to do with your life. So tell me about when that decision was made in yours.

Abra Bush:  It was a complicated decision, I would say, because I came from a family that had single parent. I have a single mom, my dad was never in the picture. And so the idea of studying music was a very risky maneuver for me. If you would have asked me at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I would have said "I'm going to go study premed somewhere, do a little bit of music in college, and then, eventually go to medical school." That was the plan. I think, at that point, I didn't have any reasonable thought of studying music. Somewhere in the middle of my senior year, and I honestly can't pinpoint how or when this happened, I came around to the idea that music had taken a hold of me in a way that I didn't anticipate maybe or didn't know. I also realized that, while I was a good, strong flute player, I really loved the marriage of words and music. And I think as I grew as a singer, I realized how much I could touch people by standing in front of them and singing using words, that melding of poetry and music.

Abra Bush:  It was around, probably Christmas time of my senior year of high school, that I started to think, "Hm, this medical school thing might not be for me." And, my family was very supportive, I was very lucky, even though we were not a family that might have traditionally have been okay with me running off to a private conservatory to study music, they were all in. I had that incredible foundational support from my family. I'm grateful for that to this day.

Aaron Cain:  The realization that there was something uncommonly powerful about this marriage of words and music, that is singing, was there a moment, was there a performance back around then, in your senior year of high school, a specific time when you remember, wow, this is alchemy, this is different, this is something that I think I can do, this is for me?

Abra Bush:  I could make something up for you and tell you that it was, but I can't, today, sitting here, pinpoint and say that there was. I think it was a series of performance opportunities that I had. I had the opportunity that year that I was at Ohio State to sing Carmina Burana with the very influential conductor, Robert Shaw, and the way Mr Shaw talked about music, it was so heightened for him, that was hugely impactful. And, being able to really study in a collegiate environment, voice, and hear music around me every day, was so powerful that it was something I just simply didn't want to give up.

Abra Bush:  I'm always amazed when people say to me that "At the age of eight, I knew what I wanted to do." I wasn't one of those kids. But definitely, by the end of senior year of high school, I knew, when I stood up in front of a group of people at commencement to sing The Star Spangled Banner, I knew that's what I was going to do. And, I'm so glad I did. I'm so glad music has been this constant in my life, because I do truly believe that my life would have been very different without this, and it has led me to some amazing places and meeting amazing people and doing amazing things, and I'm grateful every day for that.

Aaron Cain:  So, speaking of amazing places, amazing people and amazing things, then you were off to a school which I'm told is pretty darn good, Oberlin.

Abra Bush:  Yes, it's alright. [LAUGHS]

Aaron Cain:  It's alright, it's okay. So what was that like? You're staying in Ohio, but you're really going--

Abra Bush:  It was like being on Mars. It was so different. You know, people from Oberlin are from everywhere, so while I was technically in the same state, I was forced to confront different ideas, different cultures, different ways of thinking about everything. I've often said that there are a lot of good music schools in this country, a lot of great music schools in this country, but there are very few music schools in this country that will change you as much as Oberlin. And I definitely left there a more thoughtful, forward-thinking person with different kinds of expectations about my path and about how I fit in to the world in general. It was so cool to be there.

Aaron Cain:  How much of that, do you think, has to do with, if you'll pardon me for putting it this way, the impossibility of Oberlin. There are a lot of music schools like this and a lot of, if you zoom out, there's a lot of universities and college towns like this, where they kind of exist as a Brigadoon. They're a separate sort of entity, they don't really belong, necessarily, to the surrounding area at large, and it strikes me anyway, that Oberlin is a bit like that. Was that part of what made you come out of there feeling so changed and so forward-looking?

Abra Bush:  We used to say it was like an incubator. It was like you went into an incubation chamber for four or five years and you came out the other side a little bit different. There was a gentlemen at Eastman who I worked with named Paul Burgett. Many of you listening to this may know of Paul Burgett - he was the Dean of Students at Eastman for decades and then went on to the University of Rochester to be the Dean of Students there. And Paul used to talk about music study as being as though it was a fiery furnace. All of these regional treasures show up at music school and they get there and they think, you know, "I was the regional treasure of..." wherever in the world you're from, right, you've had all the accolades from those places, and then suddenly you realize that everybody around you were also the regional treasures, and many of them play or sing much better than you do. So you spend the four, five, six years you're in music school, almost compressing like a diamond might, right, like a piece of coal might, so that when you come out the other side, you come out this differently shaped, differently formed person.

Abra Bush:  Musicians listen to music differently. Musicians confront music differently. We use left and right brain when we think. I'm so grateful I had the consummate liberal arts education by studying music. I studied art and literature and poetry and theater and languages, history, I mean, it's an amazing way to form yourself as a young person.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a quick break. When we come back, Abra Bush talks about graduating with a music degree and being part of the gig economy. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. WFIU Music Director, Aaron Cain, is talking this week with Dean Abra Bush of the Jacobs School of Music. Here's Aaron.

Aaron Cain:  So we're being shamelessly chronological here, but I see no reason to stop that, and I apologize if it starts seeming a little too much like Abra Bush, This is Your Life, but the eight-year-old Abra Bush did not know what she wanted to do with hers. What if we take a snapshot now of Abra Bush, an undergraduate at Oberlin. Did she know what she wanted to do?

Abra Bush:  Absolutely. I was going to be a singer. I was absolutely on a track to be a performer. So I did an undergraduate and a masters degree in five years. My undergraduate degree is in voice performance, my masters is in opera theater. I had every reason to think that I was going to continue to sing professionally for the rest of my career. I did that for a while. I cobbled together a variety of jobs. It wasn't called this at the time, but you know, I was definitely a part of the gig economy, in the early days of the gig economy. I did something that resembled a young artist's program with Opera Columbus, actually, in Columbus, Ohio. I was honored to be able to sing both comprimario roles and main stage roles there, and then also, I continued to do auditions for several years.

Abra Bush:  At some point in that process, a couple of years after I was a gigging musician, I was asked by Ohio State to actually come study and come work on my doctorate. There was a fantastic voice teacher there who, at the time, I had been studying privately with, and they needed somebody to teach the diction sequence, the Italian, German, French, English sequence for singers. And, I had done some of that work at Oberlin as an undergraduate, I had been a teaching assistant for those classes, and so I sort of jumped at the chance because I thought, "Well, this is a way for me to study, continue to defer my student loans, and spend more time coaching and preparing for auditions."

Abra Bush:  At first, when I started it, I didn't think I would finish it. I took some time off in the middle of it, I spent some time in Houston and had a contract with Houston Grand Opera, and then really came around to the idea that I hated the gig life. [LAUGHS] I didn't like to not know where my next pay check was coming from. I didn't like the insecurity of being a soprano and not knowing how I was going to continue through the career. I would show up for an audition and three-fourths of us would be sopranos, all auditioning for the same role. I wanted a little bit more autonomy and I wanted a little bit more of a sense of my own agency in how I moved forward.

Abra Bush:  And so I buckled down and I finished that doctorate, and I'm really glad I did. At the time, Ohio State had an incredible program that was sort of an early version of a program in vocology, so I spent a lot of time in speech and hearing science. I shadowed otolaryngologists at the hospital, spent a lot of time with alaryngeal patients, learning about anatomy and physiology and really the structure of the voice and how to teach. And, for someone who eventually became a college professor, learning how to teach was exactly what I needed. So it was a good experience to be close to home and study with a teacher I adored and, you know, have the ability then to springboard into an academic life.

Aaron Cain:  Now, you've hit upon something that, if this were a story, a film or a play or an opera instead of a conversation, would have been a plot point, I think, which is teaching diction, to be better understood and more precise as a singer. And, you were interviewed for a book called Beyond the Conservatory Model: Reimagining Classical Music Performance Training in Higher Education. One of the things that you spoke about in that book was the importance for young musicians, budding musicians, young professionals coming out of their education, to be able to communicate better. You defined it broadly, but you also specifically talked about durability to advocate for their art. I'm just sort of, for the moment, filing that under communication. So, could we fast-forward towards the end of the movie and talk about how this formative experience you have in communicating, in diction, is informing your current thinking about what's important for students in music now?

Abra Bush:  Thank you for that question. I have never tied those things together in my head, so it's interesting to have you tie them together for me. When I was speaking with the author of that particular book that you cite, I was thinking about how, in the arts, we so often, especially in music, aren't great at explaining or communicating with our audience, or meeting our audience where they are, so that we bring them in to the performance, or to the conversation, right? I was enculturated to give song recitals in which I never spoke from stage. I was enculturated to walk out in a ball gown, sing my Schumann songs - we always had various sets by nationality and composers and eras - and then walk off the stage and greet people behind the scenes. And today, when I attend a recital, I actually feel like I am missing something when the work is not contextualized from the stage.

Abra Bush:  Our jazz colleagues do this beautifully. They stand there, they talk about the tunes, they talk about who wrote them and when and how they're important in the overall story of the jazz tradition. I've been to plenty of concerts and recitals where that is part of what occurs, and I think that, as an audience member at least, I feel as though I'm somehow in on the story, I'm in on the secret. You know, we've done a really miserable job in this country, of maintaining music education in our schools, and we now have generations of students, and generations of people, who don't know who Bach and Brahms and Beethoven are, let alone Elliott Carter and Barrio and whoever else you want to name today. So I feel like we owe it to our audience to bring them into this thing that I think far too often is considered rarefied, and help them navigate what this all is.

Aaron Cain:  What you're saying sounds a little bit like fixing the barn door after the horses come home, because, as you say, these days there is this chronic underserving of young students in music. It's disappearing from K-12 curricula all over the country, it just keeps getting trimmed back and back and back and back, and so, when someone is finally studying at the collegiate level, or at the conservatory level, you know, it almost feels like it's a little late, that there's not much we can do about that here.

Abra Bush:  Well, but I think there is. So I would say two things about what you just said. First of all, it is interesting, in conservatories and schools of music, that we now have a generation of students who we cannot reasonably always expect to have ever played the piano, many of whom come in and don't read music, and they are coming into our music schools. And so we owe it to those students to continually rethink how we're delivering education so that they can come up to speed quickly, in a way we didn't used to have to. Even when I went to school, there was sort of an unwritten expectation that most of us played a keyboard instrument, we read music, we had some general knowledge of world literature, [LAUGHS] including the Bible as a book of literature. That is not necessarily the case today.

Abra Bush:  So the other thing I would say about this is that this is a campus of, what, 45,000 plus students. We have thousands of faculty members. And, you know, I think, at Jacobs we have done a good job if we work to educate new audiences for the future of the field. I would love to see more of the university students in our concert halls. I know that, when you've never been in that situation, it's a little scary. You know, you sit down, the orchestra starts making a bunch of noise, and then, all of a sudden, especially at the opera, people start applauding, but if you're far enough back, you can't see why. Then you suddenly realize this little head pops up from under the stage, which is the conductor of course. How odd that would be for somebody who's never experienced that. Or, like, in a jazz concert, if you've never been, people start randomly applauding. Well, why is that, right? Somebody has just finished a solo.

Abra Bush:  And why don't they at a classical music concert?

Abra Bush:  Right, why don't they? Why is that not okay? Or, why does that happen at the ballet? And, I really hope that, as students leave Indiana University, they've taken the opportunity to come over and see what it is like, be a part of that environment, so that when they leave, they know what to expect when they're in a situation like that in the future. And, frankly, we owe it to those future audiences. Who's going to come watch opera if we don't develop new audiences for it?

Aaron Cain:  Okay, so, impromptu strategic planning meeting. How do we do that? Because what you're talking about is something a little bit delicate, and it makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable or a little bit depressed, which is that audiences are aging out of classical music in may ways. A lot of the donors, a lot of the patrons, they are not young, at least not enough of them. And, this is a way to reinvigorate the audiences, get younger people to take advantage of the opportunities they have in a place like Bloomington where there's some amazing music being played, a few blocks from you, every single night.

Abra Bush:  Yes, and that's relevant. So the problem I think we have is that we're not always relevant, and we have not moved forward in a way that is relevant to the students around us. Last year I had the opportunity to attend Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera. You may know that it was the first time an opera had been done at the Met by an African-American composer. I mean, what does that say? It was 2021 and that was the first opportunity for that. I have attended operas at the Met quite a lot in the last few years, I've been living on the east coast, so it was easy to get to New York and spend a day at the opera. And, in this particular case, I was absolutely struck by the diversity of audience members who attended that event, by the excitement in the air because the story was relevant and contemporary, because it felt like it was of the moment and not of the 19th century.

Abra Bush:  It was such an exciting evening. There was a moment at the beginning of, I think, the third act, where there is a dance line on stage, as though it would be a historically black university, Greek organization doing it, and while that moment was a little bit problematic to some, I have to say that I have never seen more electricity at the Metropolitan Opera in my entire life. And when that moment concluded, that dance line concluded, literally people leapt out of their seats applauding and yelling and screaming, which again, is not something that always happens at the Metropolitan Opera.

Abra Bush:  When I speak to students today, and in the strategic planning work that we are doing right now at Jacobs, our students are desperate to perform work, hear work and engage with work that is of today, that is written by contemporary composers, that is written by underrepresented persons, that is relevant to them, and is something that they can kind of latch onto with their own cultural identities as well. I'm always struck by that. I was speaking to a group of students just today, who came in and said, "We want the opportunity to invite these composers to campus, will you help us?" And, yes, I'm going to do everything I can to help them, because that is something that is exciting for them.

Aaron Cain:  You mentioned the gig economy and how it wasn't really called that when you were growing up.

Abra Bush:  It was called underemployment I think. [LAUGHS]

Aaron Cain:  If Franz Schubert was not part of the gig economy; if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not part of the gig economy, I don't know who was, historically.

Abra Bush:  Exactly.

Aaron Cain:  You mention relevance, current composers, things that students are excited about now and listening to now. At many points in western music history, that's all that music was.

Abra Bush:  Yes.

Aaron Cain:  And, at many points in music history, we weren't calling it art music or music of the western canon or classical music, it was called music, it was even called popular music. So, at the heart of this, we have this desire for things that are relevant, that are important, that are moving, that are changing, that are evolving, and we have things that are going back, potentially as many as 1,000 years in some cases, that we're also saying is vitally important. How do you think about that, that at the heart of music there is this storm of contradiction between us saying "It needs to change, it needs to grow," but we also have to protect something that is beautiful and important enough to border on the sacred, that goes back hundreds of years of tradition, performance practice and just convention?

Abra Bush:  There are people that are going to be much more articulate about this than am I, so I am definitely not an expert in this area. But I will say that in the 19th and the 20th centuries, we have segregated "popular music" from "art music" in the western classical tradition, more than, I think, ever before. And, we have made value judgments about that music in ways that have not been healthy for the music. I remember hearing Ron Carter, who was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, talk about how, when he was a student, he and his friends were not allowed to play jazz at Eastman. They actually waited until the faculty left the building and went to this particular corner of the basement and would set up their drums and their amps and they would play jazz at night. Even just incorporating jazz into a school of music was not something that came along quickly.

Abra Bush:  We also, in the more traditional art music world, have excluded and/or not considered quickly, what it means to have degree programs such as music engineering, music production, commercial music. How are we training people for that? The most recent statistics I saw were that about 0.9% of the music field is about western classical music and about 0.8% is about jazz, 30% is about R&B and hip hop. I imagine country is another huge percent of that and then the rest of the kinds of music that exist, or that we monetize, frankly. So I think that those of us who want to hold true to that traditional western art canon are going to be deeply challenged to do so in the coming years, if we don't think about, again, how we're relevant, not only to the students coming into the school, but also to the communities of listeners that want to engage with us. We have to figure that out in a new way.

Abra Bush:  Conservatories, now, are offering course in hip hop, they're offering courses in K-pop, there are many degrees in commercial music. It's not just the Belmonts and the Berkeleys and the Frost School of Musics that are doing that. It's much more a part of the future, I think, of music, and higher education, and how we're educating musicians for real 21st century careers. I don't think they can all just focus on their orchestral excerpts or their five audition arias. I also think they need to be flexible and be prepared to perform in idioms that are more popular in style, or have improvisational qualities to them, or are just, frankly, different than the western classical tradition.

Abra Bush:  Here's an example. When I was a student, music theater was forbidden. I wasn't ever allowed to sing a musical theater piece. Yet, many of my colleagues went on to significant careers on Broadway. But yet that wasn't something that we were ever taught to do, and I think that was a miss in our education. I think that if you have a strong vocal technique that is well supported, you can absolutely sing in a variety of styles. The most money I ever got paid to sing a piece of music was to sing a Sarah McLachlan song at a funeral. Ridiculous. I asked for an obscene amount of money and they paid it. I didn't want to sing it so I asked for a ridiculous amount of money! They paid it.

Abra Bush:  So, whether you're singing early music or you're singing contemporary music, or you're singing musical comedy, or you're performing in a folk band, or you're singing blue grass, whatever it is you chose to do, I think you should have a healthy enough technique in order to be able to do so. I also think that singers should know how to use microphones. It is something that we started to do during the pandemic, in much more systemic ways than we ever had before, and I really hope we don't lose, because I think that a singer needs to know how to manipulate this thing in front of me, so that she can be successful in whatever one of those modalities she is engaged in at any point. I also think that that's good for her career, because I think that she's probably going to need to have that stylistic flexibility in order to earn a living, frankly.

Aaron Cain:  In 2013, when you were named the Director of the Music Division of the Boston Conservatory, the oldest performing arts college in the nation, you were the first vocalist, the first singer, to lead that music division. When you started making your way into more administrative corridors in the arts, how did being a singer affect how other administrators and other music faculty interacted with you?

Abra Bush:  I'd like to think that being a singer wasn't the differentiating factor. I think the bigger differentiating factor is just being a woman. You know, when I was a student at Oberlin, there was a dean there named Karen Wolf. She was a dean at Oberlin through the '90s and then she went on to be the dean at the school of music at Michigan for about five years before she retired. And when I was a student, I never realized that there were so few women in the field of music higher education leadership. After I taught for a number of years and I started down an administrative path, I was actually shocked by how few there were. Those of us that were in the field were all at the assistant dean or associate dean level, we were in the trench, we were doing the day-to-day work. Most of the leaders of the major American music schools were men. There have been a trickle of women over the years, but there still are so few.

Abra Bush:  I can count on one hand, and have fingers left over, for the number of women running major American music schools today, and one of them is about to retire. It is even worse if you think about African-Americans or Latinx people. We have a real problem with diversity in music higher education leadership. It's an atrocious problem.

Aaron Cain:  You mentioned that there's a diversity problem in music education, which is certainly the case, but there is also, historically, a diversity problem in western music, and the diversity problem in music education, it seems to me, reflects that pretty directly.

Abra Bush:  Absolutely.

Aaron Cain:  And so this gets us back to the topic of ways in which music should change. Because, it seems that if you're going to be teaching music at any level, but especially at the highest level, you're asking yourself, on a semi-daily basis, "What about music mustn't change and what about music has to change?"

Abra Bush:  Well, part of it is who delivers the instruction. When I was at the Peabody Institute, we went forward on a really intentional path of ensuring that we were recruiting a very diverse student body and faculty body and staff body. And at some point during my time there - it was year three, four, somewhere in there - there became a critical mass of black and brown faculty members. It also made everything come alive in a way that it hadn't before. There was such a variety of ideas and thoughts and people that were around those tables, that it made all of the decisions we made, it made all of the new directions for the school, that much more exciting.

Abra Bush:  I'll never forget an African-American student, a masters student, walking up to me and saying to me that he had noticed that things were different at Peabody that year, and that he had never had an African-American male teacher in his entire academic life. This was a second year masters student. And he said, "Now, I have three of them. I have an orchestral conductor who is black, I have a music theory teacher who is black and I have one other professor who is black." And he said, "For the first time in my life, I can see myself in those positions and I can see myself in this career." I will never forget that young man. He is still making music, he's a conductor. He's doing extraordinarily well.

Abra Bush:  But I hope that young women don't just see themselves in the work I do, I also hope that all of our students can see themselves in some form of a pathway in this career. We've lost so many people along the way, because we either didn't keep the doors open, we didn't provide equitable opportunities for them, we didn't cultivate them and we didn't look out for them. It's very different when you look at the profession over the age of 60 than when you look at the profession who are in their 30s and 40s. We have a generation of people coming who are highly skilled and highly competent, and are going to be fantastic professors because they are fantastic musicians. They are waiting their turn and we need to continue to keep that pipeline going.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a break. This is Inner States and we're listening to a conversation with Dean Abra Bush of the Jacobs School of Music. When we come back, she has some things to say about improvisation, in your career, and with your instrument. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Let's get right back to Aaron Cain's conversation with Abra Bush, Dean of the Jacobs School of Music.

Aaron Cain:  Earlier this year, I don't know if it was over a Zoom or in person, but you chaired a preconference in higher education that was in Hanover, Germany, and one of the charges of this conference was to find excellent musicians who can engage with new audiences, and that higher education and employers should kind of join forces to make sure that the graduates of music education institutions are better served. So, what sorts of things game to light during that preconference that you've carried forward since then? Because this was before you came to the Jacobs School.

Abra Bush:  Yes, so I was partnering there with a gentleman named Stefan Gies who is the Executive Director of something called the Association of European Conservatoires, for a conference called Classical Next. Classical Next is the largest classical music gathering in Europe and it involves people from higher education, from the orchestral sector, from industry. It kind of brings a lot of people together to mix and mingle and share ideas and share ways of moving forward. And in Europe, I have found that this question of how industry and higher education sort of impact one another in the music space is much more defined and much more talked about than it is here. They really have been cultivating that there much more specifically.

Abra Bush:  So, I led a design thinking workshop around some of these ideas and there were a number of things that sort of popped to life, but many of the things are the things we've been talking about today - relevance, flexibility, the ability to improvise, not just on your instrument, but kind of in your life and in your career. There was a time during which improvisation was de rigueur, you would have just done it as part of your training, in a particular kind of way, with particular kind of rules. I think that, today, one of the foundational pieces that we are missing in the training of young musicians is this improvisatory piece. There's something so freeing when you start allowing yourself to get away from the score and trust yourself enough to make the music you want to hear.

Abra Bush:  In my last job, one of my biggest failures, I would say, was that instituting an improvisation requirement for all of our students was something we tried to do. We tried to deliver it three different times in three different ways, and we never could quite figure out the secret sauce of how that was going to happen within a conservatory education. I still think that's important. I don't know how to insert that in a way that doesn't just be additive, instead of something that becomes a core foundational piece of the work. We have a tendency to just keep adding things, we don't often subtract things and, I think, unless we can talk about what we're going to do at the same time we talk about what we're not going to do, we're not going to be able to modify that traditional training very easily. We say that there is no better place to conserve things than the conservatory, and I posit that the Jacobs School of Music is one degree separated from that. [LAUGHS]

Aaron Cain:  As music changes, as audiences change, it seems to me that it's kind of terrifying to be out there, justifying your existence as a musician, which is probably why parents might be reluctant to recommend it for their children as a career. How, in this day and age, in this historical moment, do musicians, young musicians emerging into the market place, how do they better advocate for their art?

Abra Bush:  I think part of it is advocacy, but I think also part of it is flexing your creativity in a way that allows you to sustain the craft. I think every musician who leaves a music school today, or any kind of performing arts major, should have a digital portfolio so that they can show their work. I think that those performing artists should be able to write grants. I think they should be able to give an elevator pitch about their work. I think they need a music business class. I think they need to know something about contracts, even if it's "Call your lawyer." Something about accounting, even if it's "Call an accountant." And I think they need to know that there are pathways into the profession, through citizen artistry, through cultural entrepreneurship, through different kinds of teaching opportunities, not just in the K-12 space or in the higher education space.

Abra Bush:  There are musicians working in hospitals, there are musicians who become music producers or who become performing arts lawyers or who become music administrators. Those are all viable career paths forward. I think that we have a real challenge at the Jacobs School of Music, because we have so many students. Scaling that to meet all of our students is super tough. That's one of the things that I have been challenging our team to think about. How they can make sure they are interacting with all of our students in order to best prepare them for those pathways forward.

Aaron Cain:  You mention a team and, writ large, that team is always going to be the faculty. How do you keep them engaged? How do you stay on the same page about all of this stuff?

Abra Bush:  I've been having a lot of conversations with them. One of the very first things I did when I got here was open up my calendar to meet with all of the faculty and the staff.

Aaron Cain:  Wait a minute, that's a lot of people!

Abra Bush:  It's a lot of people. Just under 200 faculty members and then about 50 or 60 staff. Many more of those folks I have met through group meetings, but I've held space for half-an-hour meetings with all of them, just to get to know them and hear where they think the strengths of the school are, where are the challenges, where are opportunities? And I've actually asked all of them for advice. What piece of advice would they give me?

Aaron Cain:  What sorts of things are they telling you?

Abra Bush:  Oh, I mean [LAUGHS] it's a little bit of everything, from "Make sure you get some sleep" to "Make sure you take care of yourself," I hear that quite a lot. You know, there are a lot of concerts at Jacobs and one could go to 1100 of them a year, but one might not ever get anything else done if one did. There are a lot of faculty who really know that change is coming and that change is important for the institution, while there are other faculty who desperately want to cling to the tradition. I keep saying in my work that I think my job is to preserve and maintain all of the wonderful things that the Jacobs School of Music has stood for, for the last 100 years, while managing today, and the challenges of today, and dreaming big about the future, and what it could hold, and being innovative in all of that work, so that we can best prepare students for what their careers are going to mean moving forward. So, it's all over the map. [LAUGHS]

Aaron Cain:  All of these things we've been talking about, all these exciting ways in which music is changing, all of the challenges, the things that we need to try to do to help it grow, to help it evolve. If you were an undergraduate now, at this historical moment, studying singing, you're at the Jacobs School, what sorts of things would you hope you'd leave here prepared to do, that you weren't prepared to do when you got your advanced degrees as a younger student?

Abra Bush:  I hope I would leave with the ability to have a career in music. And when I say it, I also imply that we're preparing students not only to be incredibly strong performers, because that has to be at the heart of this, or at the very least, musicians, scholars, thinkers, but that, again, they have digital portfolios and they feel comfortable monetizing their work, not just giving it away, that they understand that there is more than one path to success. In my generation, the only path to success, really, was as a performer. That's absolutely not the case, and I hope that more and more students understand that there are a multitude of paths to success in the performing arts and that they have a sense of wellness about all of the things that they do. I'm not sure that was something that was ever first and foremost in my training in the last several decades.

Aaron Cain:  When we first sat down, I asked you about some of the musical memories you had, as you decided to pursue music as a performer. And so, now, since you've become a music administrator, someone who has helped safeguard music, that has helped guide music education at some of the oldest and most respected institutes of musical learning in this country, what memories have you come to cherish now?

Abra Bush:  I love when I see students go out into the world and live their greatest dreams. I've recently been in touch again, quite a lot, with a young conductor named Jonathan Hayward, who is about 30, and just became the new Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony. Jonathan was a student at the Boston Conservatory when I was there. He was always an incredible student and a great musician, but, knowing what I know about Jonathan, to see him flourishing, is amazing for me. To see people at Eastman, from my time at Eastman, who were my advisees, who are now playing jazz all over the world, or conducting all over the world, or writing compositions that are being played in incredible places, is wonderful for me.

Abra Bush:  I think I have taken to this life as a music administrator because I have the ability to impact the education of more than just my own voice studio. As a voice teacher, I had 18 chicklings and I was able to guide and lead them and be supportive of them and work with them and mentor them. But, in my role as a music administrator, I have the ability to impact the education of, now, almost 1600 students every day. That, for me, is an awesome responsibility, and something that I think is so important for the future. In my role now, I frankly don't see enough students, so I guess if there are any students out there that hear this, I hope to connect with you more. I've held some student town halls and I've been trying to engage with students. I have a theory that they are busy and life is good, or they'd be banging on my door, so I hope I can do that more in the coming weeks. But, along the way, there have been some people that I'm just so proud of, and I'm so happy to see their success, and for me, that makes all the difference.

Aaron Cain:  Abra Bush, I'm a little late in saying so, but welcome to Bloomington and thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Abra Bush:  Thank you. It's been my great pleasure.

Alex Chambers:  That was WFIU's Music Director, Aaron Cain, in conversation with Abra Bush, Dean of the Jacobs School of Music. You have been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Abra Bush, Aaron Cain and Easton Hensley for editing help on that interview.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was the halls, the Music Annex at the Jacobs School of Music. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.

Abra Bush

Jacobs School of Music Dean Abra Bush (Courtesy of the Jacobs School of Music)

Abra Bush became the Dean of the Jacobs School of Music in June, 2022. She says conservatories are going to have to go beyond the Western canon to stay relevant to up-and-coming musicians in the twenty-first century.

This week on Inner States, WFIU’s music director and host of Morning Music Aaron Cain talks with Dean Bush about the moment she knew she wanted to be a singer, the stress of the gig economy, and how conservatories can best serve a new generation of musicians.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music

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