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October 27, 2008
A contrarian speaks out...


These days there's nothing more refreshing than the voice of a contrarian.

It's a sign of the times.

And one of the more interesting contrarians is conductor and academic Leon Botstein. He's conductor and artistic director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra which will perform at Mondavi tonight. He's also conductor and artistic director of the New York-based American Symphony Orchestra.

And he's president of Bard College.

Botstein has always had a great many things to say about classical music. And a great deal to say about education - some of it running contrary to popular views.

As a president of Bard College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, Botstein has proved himself an able contrarian.

In the past, Botstein has advocated for the abolishment of the last year of high school. He did so in his 1997 book "Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture".

His gist?

Encourage high school students to voluntarily graduate in three years. It's a policy that he believes fits in well with the learning curve at a crucial age of educational development.

It's a policy that he has couched with the added benefit that such a move could also save property owners billions of dollars in taxes.

He called the current paradigm of high school outdated and leading to boredom and delinquency.

How's that for a refreshing take on education?

And so, it's no surprise that he is also a contrarian about music education.

"I see how little music education there is and I'm concerned about that, and I'm concerned we're not doing a great job with music education and music history," he said.

"I see how little a place music has to professors of the humanities at universities," Botstein said. "They often know a lot about art and literature but much less about classical music."

Botstein believes music education these days does not capture the imagination of young people. But he knows that classical music will not be an easy sell to a young demographic.

"It was never a children's affair," he said. "The question is: can we convince young adults to join in?"

When Botstein speaks of these issues it's not idle talk from a college president whose institution is content on resting on laurels.

An example of what Bard is doing with music education can be seen at its two Bard High School Early Colleges in New York City, where getting a diploma means you graduate with two years worth of college credits.

Some of the programs at the schools offer distinctive curriculum options. Botstein said that in its arts component adolescents are introduced to working music, visual arts and theater artists. In the program there are no music teachers. Emphasis is on the experiental.

One of the experiments that the program offers is teaching young people who do not know how to read music to improvise and to compose.

"One of the things that has been a mistake in the past in the teaching of music is the trend to teach music by rote," he said.

"What students really need to do is to learn how to improvise and they need to begin to compose early on."

He believes it is such an approach that can seed an interest in classical music among the young.

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