What a Conservatory Education Should Be: A Reflection by Cathy Young

December 19, 2018 Cathy Young for STAGES Magazine

Every now and then, a student will ask me about my experiences in college or at the start of my performance career, hoping that I can share some wisdom to help them launch their own careers. Although I do hope that I have wisdom to share, I always begin by saying it is impossible to compare my experience to theirs, because when I was at the start of my performance career, there was no internet, no email, no YouTube, no social media; there were no cell phones! It was truly a different world.

Over the past 25 years, there has arguably been more change in the way we experience life than at any other time in history. Our art forms are not immune to these changes. In fact, technology has not only radically impacted how performances are disseminated and experienced by audiences, but it has also transformed the art forms themselves and the very ways art is created.

How do we, as a performing arts conservatory, respond to this new world? Conservatories have long been recognized as centers for traditional performing arts education, with long-standing curricula and pedagogical practices, and with one primary goal: to prepare talented young artists for careers as performers.

I believe that our rapidly changing world requires us to reimagine conservatory education for the 21st century—to rethink how we are preparing our students for careers as performing artists, and to also amplify and celebrate the innumerable transferable skills that are developed through a rigorous and immersive performing arts education. Indeed, a primary goal of a Boston Conservatory education is to teach the skills and capabilities that support success in any field or endeavor, and give our graduates the capacity to respond with flexibility, confidence, and resilience to thrive in an ever-changing career landscape.

Certainly, we will continue to prepare our students for careers as performing artists; many will aspire to play with symphony orchestras, star in Broadway shows, or perform with major dance companies. But Boston Conservatory graduates should also be able to start their own film production companies, or become successful television producers, or start their own 3D printing company for clarinet parts, or create and run a community arts organization, or teach dance to children on the autism spectrum, or become successful professional photographers… and anything else they can imagine and aspire to become.

It may seem impossible that any education could prepare students for all of these possibilities, yet everything on that list is something that Boston Conservatory alumni are already doing, and they are able to do these things largely because of what they learned here. Boston Conservatory has been quietly reinventing conservatory education for many years, and our graduates are the proof.

People often talk about “conservatory training.” Our goal as an innovative, contemporary conservatory is to provide an education, not simply training. We educate the “whole person” with a goal of unlocking potential and building a springboard for our extraordinary students to create the lives they imagine, using they skills they have learned through their work as artists—creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, self-discipline, and hard work—to succeed in any field they choose.

To do this, a Boston Conservatory education encourages growth and exploration, and builds a sense of personal agency and empowerment—the foundation for an entrepreneurial mindset. We offer our students opportunities to create, produce, and present their own original works, such as when graduating dance students present their senior performance project annually in New York City. We encourage our students to create across artistic disciplines and genres, such when our contemporary theater students participated in Merge/Emerge, a creativity workshop co-led by theater legend Tina Packer and jazz icon Danilo Perez, with actors, musicians, and movement artists. We engage world-class arts innovators to collaborate with our students, such as when Time for Three and artists from Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award–winning Silkroad Ensemble performed with our student musicians.

A conservatory education should offer opportunities, both academic and artistic, for new experiences, new ways of thinking, and new possibilities. This year, our students can access new minors in areas from entrepreneurism to spoken word to psychology; they can also learn in nontraditional settings, such as national touring for our contemporary classical music students, spring break in New York for theater students, a China exchange program for dancers, and a semester abroad in Valencia, Spain for instrumentalists.

What should a conservatory education be? I believe that our alumni are the best answer to that question. A Boston Conservatory education should give our students the skills and ability to build meaningful, lifelong careers. And our alumni—who are playing electric cello in Celine Dion’s Las Vegas band, creating theater and dance with children in Guatemala, pursuing master’s degrees in sports nutrition, writing books, starting businesses, and, of course, performing on Broadway—tell me that we are succeeding.

"What a Conservatory Education Should Be: A Reflection by Cathy Young" first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of STAGES, Boston Conservatory's bi-annual magazine.