The oldest independent music school in the U.S. has a new president. Tony Woodcock now heads the New England Conservatory. The NEC is one of the world's top training grounds for would-be professional musicians and offers hundreds of free concerts in Boston each year. WBUR's Andrea Shea takes a look at Woodcock's plans to bring the venerable Boston institution into the 21st century, including how to better prepare students for the dog-eat-dog world of music.
Sound of students talking in hallway and rehearsing in practice rooms
ANDREA SHEA: On a typical school day the corridors and practice rooms that line the perimeter of Jordan Hall pulse with students talking about and making music.
More sound from hallway and practice rooms
ANDREA SHEA: In his office the NEC's new President Tony Woodcock reviews his resume. Early on the Wales native ran orchestras in the U.K. He came to the States in 1998 and managed the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, then the Minnesota Orchestra.
TONY WOODCOCK: So I have switched career to a different part of the musical food chain into education.
ANDREA SHEA: The chain is Darwinian in education and orchestral life, according to Woodcock. Classical record sales lag and audience numbers continue to shrink. That's why he's focused on pushing NEC grads to the top of the food chain.
TONY WOODCOCK: The fittest are those people who have as many skills as possible to exist and survive and thrive in the cut throat environment of music.
ANDREA SHEA: Top-tier music schools such as the NEC feed the music industry with fresh talent. Woodcock says he's in a race to attract, train and retain the best students.
TONY WOODCOCK: The main competitors would be places like Julliard in New York, Manhattan in New York, Curtis in Philadelphia, a new school in L.A. called the Colburn school which has come in with a huge endowment from the get-go of about $250-$300 million dollars so they're able to offer scholarships at the highest possible level.
ANDREA SHEA: So how does a music school compete with free...or nearly free...tuition? Money. The NEC's capital campaign to raise $100 million by next June is on track with $85 million raised so far. Woodcock wants to update rundown performance and practice spaces, recording studios and dorms. And offer more competitive scholarships. This is what will lure top students. And keep them. Composer Galen Brown graduated in 2004 and would've stayed on for a Masters but says he couldn't.
GALEN BROWN: The education that I got was great, the faculty was great, the students were great and honestly the biggest reason that I didn't continue on was financial.
ANDREA SHEA: Brown hopes future NEC students won't have to do what he did. He works at the New York Philharmonic...not composing but in administration. That's a reality for many NEC grads not able to make a living making music.
Sound of orchestra rehearsing
ANDREA SHEA: Making NEC students more marketable is a top priority for Tony Woodcock.
TONY WOODCOCK: I'm very focused upon what happens to students once they leave.
ANDREA SHEA: That's why the new President is beefing up the school's orchestral program. The NEC has four student orchestras, and Woodcock is hiring a new director of orchestral studies. He's also gotten behind the school's new 'mock audition' program, which was designed to prepare performance students for survival.
TONY WOODCOCK: Talk about Darwinian, orchestras are brutal in the way that they select people so it's done as a blind audition behind a screen, nobody speaks to you really, and if you go in for the first time and you're not prepared, wow, you can fall apart.
MARK VOLPE: I've seen people forget to breath.
ANDREA SHEA: Mark Volpe is the Executive Director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has seen many NEC grads trying out.
MARK VOLPE: Forget about breath to play the instrument I mean breath to remain conscious. (laughs)
ANDREA SHEA: The school sits just a block away from Symphony Hall...and there's a fair bit of cross-pollination. Fifteen NEC grads currently play in the BSO. Twenty-three musicians from the BSO teach at NEC. Volpe says the school can work hard to prepare students for auditions and careers in music, but students better be prepared for disappointment. Most professional musicians who win jobs in orchestras stay put for twenty-five to thirty years. With 100 or so players in the orchestra Volpe says...
MARK VOLPE: You can do the math yourself. Only three people are retiring every year from the Boston Symphony. And the challenges these conservatories and music schools and universities are pumping out a lot more people than there are jobs.
Sound of orchestra rehearsal breaking up
ANDREA SHEA: During rehearsal break in Jordan Hall violinist and orchestral student Heather Wittels is pursuing a career in performance, but right now says...
HEATHER WITTELS: I feel more prepared to play in an orchestra than to win a job in an orchestra, those are two very different skills and learning how to take an audition successfully. It's such a short period of time and you're playing little snippets of music in different styles.
ANDREA SHEA: Regardless of the realities that lie waiting for students like Heather Wittels, she says this about her experience at the NEC.
HEATHER WITTELS: The quality of the music-making here can't be beat.
ANDREA SHEA: The NEC also has a cutting-edge jazz department...a dynamic outreach and training program for urban youth...and more than 600 performances a year...most free...including student recitals that are open to the public. This is violinist Heather Wittels performing last April.
Music: violin solo from Heather's recital
ANDREA SHEA: NEC President Tony Woodcock says the concerts help weave the into the fabric of Boston.
TONY WOODCOCK: The range of offerings in phenomenal so that you can hear the most challenging contemporary music through to the most glittering opera production and I want more people to hear that and experience it.
ANDREA SHEA: Woodcock says the repetoire...and what he'll bring to the school...will further boost the profile of the New England Conservatory of Music.
For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.
Music: violin solo from Heather's recital
This program aired on November 13, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.