Retuned: Boston Conservatory's Music Division Sets a New Tone for Classical Music Training

December 20, 2018 STAGES Magazine

Michael Shinn joined Boston Conservatory at Berklee in 2017 at a remarkable time in the school’s history: it had just celebrated its 150-year anniversary; joined the larger Berklee organization to sit alongside Berklee College of Music, Berklee Online, and Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain; and enlisted the visionary Cathy Young as the school’s first-ever female leader. Needless to say, Shinn’s introduction to the school was nothing short of exhilarating. “The possibilities were and still are limitless,” he recalls of his first months settling in as dean of music, the school’s largest division. “Boston Conservatory’s rich tradition of excellence serves as the bedrock on which we can then harness Berklee’s innovative spirit to reimagine conservatory music education.”

A year into the job, Shinn has set some impressive initiatives in motion, having had the time—and support—to evaluate the Music Division’s strengths and develop a long-term strategy capitalizing on the Conservatory’s unique advantages.

“What I observed was that Boston Conservatory was already doing a lot of what other conservatories are just now aspiring to do: weave entrepreneurship into the curriculum, bring diversity initiatives forward, encourage a sense of global citizenry, elevate flexible and innovative chamber ensembles, and rethink the concert experience for students and audiences alike. We are already leading classical music education in this regard,” Shinn explains, referring to initiatives that the Conservatory set in motion years ago. “Having had a year to ‘explore and discover,’ we’re now moving full steam ahead to realize our vision for a new model of classical music education.”

And for Shinn, that new model means pursuing initiatives that reach beyond academic enhancements and opportunities.


Conservatory training is traditionally characterized by discipline and focus, with the preservation—or conservation—of performance technique as the foundation of its methodology. Conservatories have tended to prioritize this training over all else—including providing career preparation for students and encouraging the breadth of perspective necessary for successful lives in music.

However, Boston Conservatory at Berklee is changing all of that.

“Boston Conservatory was founded in 1867 as an advanced training program for string players,” Shinn explains. “As you can see, we’ve evolved quite a bit over the past 150 years. In 2018, Boston Conservatory doesn’t just train—we educate the complete musician and foster our students’ growth as artistic leaders and radical innovators.”

To Shinn, this means not becoming complacent with certain expectations about conservatory training that have become antiquated in the modern age, such as the notion that students should be focused exclusively on their time in the practice room. It means embracing a new model of education designed to both maintain focus on craft and to build skill sets that empower developing artists as intellectual thinkers and conduits for change.

Boston Conservatory’s commitment to providing a dynamic education that humanizes the arts and teaches agency is driven by Berklee’s guiding principles: diversity and inclusion, integration of technology, and openness to new ideas that have the potential to innovate the performing arts. Decades ago, Boston Conservatory popularized the concept of the “artist citizen,” which recognizes compassion, empathy, and cultural awareness as an essential foundation for artistic development. Now, with Young and Shinn’s leadership, Boston Conservatory is giving its music students the skills lead successful careers in the modern age.

“We are guiding our students more effectively than ever before to broaden their perspectives with a global cultural lens, to utilize creativity and versatility in their artistic pursuits, and to think like entrepreneurs as they navigate their careers,” Shinn says. “They are going to have the courage and the preparation to unleash original artistic expression and disrupt the classical music world for better.”


To get everything in motion, Shinn first had to assemble a team for the ambitious task of reimagining conservatory music education.

In fall 2018, after a nationwide search, he secured Matthew Marsit as Boston Conservatory’s new chair of instrumental studies. Marsit was uniquely qualified for the position: he was a Boston Conservatory alumnus who has made a name for himself in the music world as an esteemed conductor and clarinetist. He also had a reputation for getting audiences enthused about classical music.

Marsit joined a strong team of Music Division leaders that includes 2018 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Composer-in-Residence Jonathan Bailey Holland (chair of composition, contemporary music, and core studies) and esteemed musician Patty Thom (chair of voice), who helped build Boston Conservatory’s opera program into one of most respected in the country.

Shinn also recruited conductor and 2013–2014 Fulbright Fellow Vimbayi Kaziboni to lead Boston Conservatory’s wind ensemble and conduct the contemporary classical music ensemble, contraBAND. Born in Zimbabwe and recognized internationally as one of the foremost interpreters of modern and contemporary music, Kaziboni brings a unique global perspective to his work that has inspired students and colleagues alike.

His first major performance at the Conservatory did not disappoint. On October 30, to kick off the Conservatory’s new Center Stage curated performance collection, Kaziboni conducted contraBAND in a program featuring all African contemporary composers. “This was Vimbayi at his best,” Shinn reflects. “The way he contextualized and shaped the music for Western audiences who may not fully understand all the cultural influences behind the pieces was just breathtaking. Our students loved this experience, and it was a treat for our audiences too.”


Performances like contraBAND that challenge students to expand their repertoire with culturally diverse works are some of the many ways Boston Conservatory is equipping students to think globally. Shinn explains, “Celebrating multiculturalism and the rich histories and traditions of groups around the world gives our students a global perspective that will inform their own artistic choices and forms of expression.”

One important step toward providing students with that immersive cultural experience was to offer study abroad opportunities. Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, located in the iconic City of Arts and Science alongside the renowned Palau de les Arts opera house, represented an ideal setting for a Conservatory study abroad program. Beginning in the spring 2019 semester, Boston Conservatory instrumental students in their third and fourth years have the opportunity to study abroad at Berklee’s Valencia campus, an opportunity that the Conservatory is working to expand to all students in the coming years.

Study abroad is a monumental development for Boston Conservatory and one that further sets its music programs apart from others. And Shinn is just getting warmed up. “Between Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, and its robust Berklee Global Partners network of dozens of organizations worldwide, this is just the beginning of what we’ll be able to offer our students in the future.”


(Left to right): Artists from the Grammy Award–winning Silkroad Ensemble: Sandeep Das (tabla), Maeve Gilchrist (Celtic harp), and Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese shinobue flutes/taiko drums)

(Left to right): Artists from the Grammy Award–winning Silkroad Ensemble: Sandeep Das (tabla), Maeve Gilchrist (Celtic harp),
and Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese shinobue flutes/taiko drums)

To further enrich the Music Division’s curriculum with a global perspective, Shinn sought out an artistic partnership with Silkroad, the Grammy Award–winning organization that Yo-Yo Ma founded in 1998. The kickoff to this long-term collaboration, which will include master classes, seminars, and workshops in spring 2019, was celebrated with a performance on November 16 in Boston’s historic Symphony Hall that featured Boston Conservatory Orchestra with Silkroad artists Sandeep Das (tabla), Maeve Gilchrist (Celtic harp), and Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese shinobue flutes/taiko drums) in genre-bending works by composers from around the world. The performance was nothing short of magical, and a powerful demonstration of what is possible when artists of different backgrounds, styles, and strengths come together in creating a musical experience.

“Yo-Yo Ma started the Silkroad Project 20 years ago as a way to understand how globalization was causing cultural divides, and how those divides could be bridged through worldwide artistic collaborations that celebrated differences,” Shinn explains. “That project has now grown into an organization with international roots that shares the Conservatory’s values of diversity, cultural awareness, and creativity.” 

Shinn is dreaming big about what Boston Conservatory and Silkroad can do together—not just with music, but with dance and theater, too. With one remarkable performance turning heads and a handful of classroom engagements mapped out for the year, this is one of the many vibrant relationships Shinn is building to support Boston Conservatory’s new model of classical music education.


Students participate in a master class with
Time for Three members Nicolas Kendall and
Charles Yang, September 2018.

Elevating contemporary classical music as a primary focus is another bold shift from convention that Boston Conservatory is embracing.

“We have a 150-year tradition of rigor and craft, and for years have been celebrating contemporary classical music by premiering hundreds of new works a year,” Shinn says. “We want to embrace that and use our expertise to raise the profile of contemporary classical works and the art music of the future. It benefits our students, and with our access to Berklee College of Music, we can deliver in a way that no one else can.”

The first major collaboration in this spirit was Boston Conservatory’s September 30 performance with Time for Three, the wildly popular string trio comprised of Nicolas Kendall (violin), Charles Yang (violin), and Ranaan Meyer (double bass), best known for their fresh and catchy interpretations of everything from Mozart and Brahms to the Beatles and Kayne West. Their performance with Boston Conservatory Orchestra featured a mix of traditional and contemporary: Beethoven, Debussy, and two works by award-winning contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon, one of which was composed specifically for the famed trio. Collaborating with Boston Conservatory students to contextualize these works in their signature Time for Three style, the trio spent time on campus rehearsing in preparation for the extraordinary concert. They also presented inspiring and energetic master classes to Boston Conservatory students, encouraging the school’s young musicians to push the boundaries of their artistry.

“In addition to performing at the highest artistic level, Time for Three was able to connect with our students on a deeply personal level, through both their engaging master class and in rehearsals for the concert,” says Shinn. “They were endlessly supportive to our students, who all told me how thrilling it was to collaborate with the band.”

Luckily for Boston Conservatory music students, the entire year is filled with equally energizing projects. In February 2019, the school presents its annual New Music Festival, a week-long celebration of new and contemporary work, and will perform Steve Reich’s notably challenging Music for 18 Musicians, which promises to be a “spiritual” experience for audience members. “Our students are more than up for the task,” Shinn promises. “Being able to perform such epic works as Music for 18 Musicians is a rare opportunity that I am so pleased our students will get to experience.”

February will mark another major collaboration for the Conservatory, one that will challenge students to tune in to yet another style: the Blackstar project. The project, formally called Bowie Symphonic: Blackstar, is composer/conductor Evan Ziporyn’s orchestral arrangement of cultural icon David Bowie’s complete final album, Blackstar. The project brings together internationally renowned cellist Maya Beiser, Ambient Orchestra, and Boston Conservatory student musicians to perform the arrangement in a national tour that includes concerts in California, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

In addition to being an incredible experience for the students, the project is highly unusual for a conservatory. “You just don’t see these types of collaborations at traditional conservatories,” Shinn says. “It speaks volumes about how Boston Conservatory students are held in high esteem and trusted with such deeply personal works. Evan reported back to me how immensely impressed he is with our students, as they performed in the opening concerts brilliantly.”


With these endeavors in full swing, the 2018–2019 academic year is one of the Music Division’s most thrilling periods in recent memory. As Shinn leads change at a high level, the Music Division continues to welcome perks of being part of the Berklee family—Boston Conservatory students minoring in Berklee College of Music’s specialty areas, such as American roots music, acoustics and electronics, and instrument repair; taking Berklee College of Music courses for Boston Conservatory credit; joining pan-institutional performance groups; traveling the country for performance tours; and so much more.

“All these opportunities that being a part of the Berklee organization affords, combined with these powerhouse partnerships that we’re setting up this year with leaders like Silkroad, are allowing for rapid movement at Boston Conservatory,” Shinn says. “And it’s all in the right direction. We’re light years ahead—in thinking and in practice—from any other conservatory out there.”

"Retuned: Boston Conservatory's Music Division Sets A New Tone For Classical Music Training" first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of STAGES, Boston Conservatory's bi-annual magazine.