Music Moguls

When Richard Levin’s Yale renovates, its architects tear buildings down and re-imagine them. And when the Yale School of Music’s Dean, Robert Blocker, imagines—with a $100 million gift at his disposal—he imagines shamelessly.

This July, the School of Music’s orchestra, the Philharmonia, will travel to China to perform with Beijing’s Central Conservatory—a full Yale ensemble, five hundred Chinese singers, and two Yale graduates flown in from the Metropolitan Opera, performing on one stage at the 2008 Cultural Olympiad, the artistic companion to the Olympic Games. But how, Blocker asks, separated as they are by seven thousand miles, will the entire group be able to rehearse together beforehand? Envision, for a moment, the rehearsal room at Hendrie Hall, one of Yale’s music buildings, which is slated for full-scale renovation in May. Blocker closes his eyes rapturously and shifts his weight, imagining how such a challenge could be tackled in future years. Suppose Hendrie’s May renovation could be completed in advance of the July performance: “On one side of the hall will be a screen showing a live video feed of the group in China,” he says, stretching his arms wide. “So we’re in Connecticut, they’re in China, and the conductor could be in London for all we care.”

This musician’s technological fantasy would be unimaginable to most of the classical music world, struggling to maintain its relevance in a modern age. So how did Blocker’s grand vision become a viable reality for the School of Music, which only a decade ago was a small and relatively poor, if prestigious, conservatory? First, the extraordinary: two years ago, a well-wooed, anonymous donor dropped $100 million into the School’s lap. Then, once tuition had been eliminated, applications doubled, the food at receptions gourmeted, and the School began to enjoy the compound benefits of attracting the best young musicians in the world, top faculty to teach them, and ever more attention and contributions for an array of bracingly visionary projects.

What remains astonishing is how little impact this growth has had on the opportunities available to undergraduate musicians at Yale. Students attracted to Yale College because of its outstanding music program are still regularly denied access to professional music teachers and concert spaces. The Department of Music, whose professors hold degrees in music theory and history rather than performance, and which is far less moneyed than the professional school, is responsible for the College’s sixty music majors, every music class available to undergraduates, and all of the undergraduate ensembles, including the Yale Symphony Orchestra, the Glee Club, and the Concert Band. The University provides them little financial support—smaller ensembles often struggle to raise funds and the YSO resorts to charging performers for their own travel expenses on foreign tours and selling ten-dollar tickets to the annual Halloween show.

The University attaches enormous value to promoting performances and maintaining a vibrant music culture. Yet as the School of Music rockets happily skyward, undergraduates who came to Yale for its music find themselves low on resources, short on institutional commitment, and going nowhere.

Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music, is a heavyset South Carolinian whose white hair has receded far back from his ruddy face. He is a living legend among musicians at Yale. Blocker has the disarming manner of bygone gentility; his face is a screen of optimism, his voice full of throaty conviction.

In 2005, Blocker left the School of Music after ten years as its dean, a departing champion who had enlarged the once-paltry $30 million endowment five times over. Today, the Robert Blocker Room, a portrait and plasma screen-filled space dedicated in his honor, sits beside the Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, the red brick building on College and Wall Streets whose renovation he oversaw in 2003. Blocker’s tenure, marked by rapid fundraising, facilities renovations, and an accompanying influx of highly regarded faculty and students, was considered remarkably successful.

After Blocker left Yale to become the Provost of Southern Methodist University, the alma mater of Laura Bush and Harriet Miers, he and Levin quietly continued to communicate with a donor who had expressed interest in offering a large gift to the University. He or she had been impressed with the School of Music under Blocker’s stewardship, and Blocker and Levin suggested that giving to the comparatively small program would have an outsized impact.

The payoff of their efforts was almost inconceivable. Thomas Duffy, the School of Music’s acting dean, announced the news on the stage of Sprague Hall on October 28, 2005, moments before students were set to perform a selection of scenes from lesser-known operas. He explained that the school had received $100 million from an anonymous donor and that new students would never pay tuition again. After a gasp and euphoric release from the assembled students, faculty, and audience, Duffy took his seat and let the opera begin.

A year ago, Robert Blocker returned to Yale like a conquering Roman general. At one performance across the hall from the room that bears Blocker’s name, Aldo Parisot, a spry, octogenarian cellist and longstanding member of the faculty, turned around between pieces he was conducting to sing the Dean’s praises. “It turns out our problem all these years was money,” he shouted. “And thanks to Dean Blocker, we’ve solved it!”

Despite Parisot’s accolades, the $100 million is less than it appears. According to a Yale policy, only 5 percent of all endowments—in this case, $5 million—can be spent in a given year. The total annual tuition of the School of Music’s 215 students is almost precisely $5 million. Though the school is no longer responsible for the generous financial aid packages it distributed before the gift, it has more or less committed itself to a single use of the $100 million, at least for the time being. As Margot Fassler, a former dean of the Institute of Sacred Music and current School of Music professor, admitted, “You can dream, but we’re right on the edge of having it all spent.”

It is difficult to imagine a single investment in the school that could have achieved more objectives at one time. Subsidizing tuition instantly benefited students. “It was the decisive factor,” says pianist Jessica Osborne of her decision to enroll at the School of Music in 2006. “I owe a lot of debt. I went to Juilliard and Indiana, and neither was free.”  While debt is hardly an anomaly among graduate students of any stripe, the problem is typically more severe for music students, whose futures are particularly precarious.

Classical musicians, even those from the most prestigious schools, are not guaranteed a job, let alone a good one. “Music is just—how shall I say it—difficult,” says Michael Friedmann, a professor of theory and chamber music at the school. “People go into music because they can’t imagine doing anything different, not because it is necessarily a lucrative career.” Yet this problem is no easier for students at Yale’s renowned Drama School, which can offer only need-based tuition to its students, men and women generally headed to uncertain freelance careers in theater. Nor is it so different for graduates of the Divinity School, which, despite its phenomenal $300 million endowment, does not subsidize its students’ full tuition.

The School of Music saw free enrollment as particularly necessary for its students because of the enormous start-up cost of an instrument. A pianist like Osbourne will likely begin her career with an additional thirty thousand dollars of debt in order to buy a decent piano. Violinists and other string players might spend forty to one hundred thousand dollars on their instruments and regularly maintain them at the cost of several hundred dollars a year. And a young musician, even a great one, will typically have to scrounge up this capital while working several freelance jobs, flying to international competitions, and striving to capture the attention of a major orchestra or agent. “If I’m at the right place at the right time, hopefully someone hears me,” said Osbourne. Until then, she shrugs, “I could probably make a decent amount doing odd jobs.”

Subsidizing tuition has also served the University’s grander strategy of gaining international prominence—and attracting more international students to Yale. Juilliard, the world’s most famous conservatory, has always cast a long shadow over the School of Music’s headquarters, Leigh Hall, from atop Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Highly endowed, located in the heart of New York City, it attracts top talents who are willing to pay. “How are you going to get the attention of someone in Japan next to the Juilliard?” Duffy asks.

A hundred million dollars might do it. International media quickly picked up the story and the New York Times ran articles debating the gift’s impact on the future of classical music. In the fall of 2005, the rate of applications to the School of Music doubled to nearly fifteen hundred a year. Its admit rate halved to 8 percent while its yield rose from 70 to 83 percent. Over 40 percent of the School of Music’s students are now international, far more than at any other school within the University.

Aside from Yale, only a single conservatory in the country, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, offers free enrollment, and many music schools around the world are heading in the other direction. “Most of the prospective applicants we meet during our recruiting efforts are already aware of the full-tuition scholarship, so it is usually not necessary to even mention it,” said Daniel Pellegrini, the School’s director of admissions. Levin himself has noted the effect, saying that “free tuition has made possible attracting international students who would not have considered Yale without strong financial support.”

To some degree, the quest for international students is a search for quality musicians. “Our goal has always been to find the best and brightest in the world and bring them to Yale,” Blocker said. “There’s no question that the standard is different,” said Friedmann of the post-donation admissions. “The quality of every single instrument—they’re more polished, they’re more proficient. We have some superstars here. This was out of the question in the past.” But it is impossible to ignore the School of Music’s place in Yale’s ongoing embrace of globalization. The gift has enabled the University to expand an already impressive collection of partnerships with institutions around the globe, among them a concert series with the Royal Academy in London and a slate of programs in Asia (especially China) that includes this summer’s Cultural Olympiad. Levin is confident that these collaborations will raise the University’s profile—“in the music world, but also more generally.”

Other perks of the increased endowment have come effortlessly. “All these things start drawing together,” said Blocker. “You get a big gift and you have resources that enable you to see how those opportunities might open up.” The School of Music was able to take over Yale’s Collection of Musical Instruments and began to hold classes and concerts with students playing on Wagner’s piano and 17th-Century virginals. In July, there will be a musical theater and jazz program for New Haven public schools. The School is holding a yearlong series of concerts by students and faculty at Carnegie Hall in New York—already the subject of multiple rave reviews by the New York Times—presenting students with life-changing opportunities to be seen and heard.

Hendrie Hall is the last of the School of Music’s unrenovated, run-down behemoths. This relic, from an era in which Yale was, as Fassler described it, “the land of the peeling paint,” is the School’s last egregiously necessary project. Once it is completed, the school’s next aim appears to be to raise enough money to award significant cost-of-living stipends to each of its students. “I would imagine another $100 to $200 million will solve the stipend issue,” said Duffy. Blocker—who in his time at Yale has brought in at least $200 million in endowment money—is a born fundraiser. When I asked him what motivates a donor to give $100 million to the school, he smiled at me ingratiatingly and said, “I think there’s the same motivation for a young alum such as yourself. When you graduate, Mitch, start giving right away.”

Undergraduates lost their claim to all of this in 1940. The School of Music, which was founded in 1894 through a gift from some of Yale’s great 19th-century benefactors, the Battells, initially awarded degrees to undergraduates, doctoral students, and performers. Music schools, however, are notorious cesspools of acrimony, especially between professors of competing disciplines, and Yale’s was beset by frequent complaints from undergraduates, historians, and theorists, who felt they were underappreciated next to the performers. Luther Noss, a School of Music dean in the 1950s, who later became its unofficial court historian, recalls the state of the split of 1939. “For over a year there had been audible grumblings in the Yale College community over what was felt to be, rightly or wrongly, the School’s lack of interest and cooperation in tending to the academic and practical musical needs of the undergraduates.” David Stanley Smith, the dean at the time, recommended that the School of Music satisfy its undergraduates by expanding its library of phonograph records, enlarging its faculty, and permitting students to study a broader liberal arts curriculum.

Instead, Yale President Charles Seymour established the Department of Music, moving the scholars and their graduate students, along with all the undergraduates, to the new department. The professional school was left, as it remains, a home for professors of performance, composers, and graduate musicians. Even today, few will argue with the separation. “It’s absolutely a good division,” said Daniel Harrison, the current chair of the music department. At schools without separate departments, Harrison said, “the scholarly components are generally undernourished compared to performers. They’re the breadwinners.”

One irony it that, despite the firewall between the two schools, outsiders are generally unaware of the difference; in the weeks after the School of Music received its $100 million, the Department of Music fielded dozens of calls from prospective applicants confusing it with the professional school. The department has also encountered significant fundraising difficulties now that donors mistakenly believe that Yale’s entire music program is already fabulously wealthy.

In reality, the department is by far the less wealthy of the two. “Financially, we’re a poor stepsister to the School,” said Harrison. The music department enjoys only a tiny piece of the University’s endowment and must rely mainly on the generosity of the central administration and on targeted grants for its research and special projects. Sarah Weiss, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology, described the “treasure hunt” of winning University grants, petitioning the central administration, asking the department, and discovering hidden pockets of resources to fund projects, events, and performances. “It’s one of the things I like best about Yale,” she said. “It means that no one has ultimate control over something except the person who puts it together.” A further irony: while the School of Music made news worldwide for granting free enrollment to its students, it has always been de rigueur for the University to award full tuition and cost-of-living stipends to every one of the more than three hundred doctoral students it admits annually, six to twelve of whom are music theorists and historians.

The greatest irony, however, is the fate of undergraduate performers, music majors or otherwise, who are drawn to Yale by its well-deserved reputation for a rich musical culture. Overseen by the Department of Music, undergraduates have limited interaction with the wealthy professional school and soon discover that too few of the benefits trickle down to their own educations in music. Nearly seventy years after their secession from an uncaring professional school, undergraduate musicians are still seeking the respect they deserve.

Consider undergraduate ensembles at Yale. Junior Kate Swisher is assistant conductor of the Davenport Pops Orchestra. The group, founded by students in the spring of 2005 and modestly supported by Davenport College, is an integral part of what Harrison called the “fairly developed spectrum of music at Yale.” An upstart group just as the Yale Symphony Orchestra, Yale Concert Band, and Glee Club once were, the Davenport Pops offers someone like Swisher, who hopes to pursue a career in performance, invaluable opportunities to conduct a full orchestra. Unfortunately, Yale offers her hardly anywhere to do it.

“The School of Music won’t rent space to undergrads,” Swisher said. “If you want to perform in Woolsey, it eats up your entire Sudler fund for the semester.” The cost to reserve Woolsey for a night is, in fact, closer to $1,800, far more than the five-hundred-dollar Sudler grants available for student concerts. Battell Chapel is not much cheaper. Swisher addressed her criticism toward the University: “You want us to perform, you want to support the arts, but you won’t give us a space to perform or rehearse.”

Though the Yale Symphony Orchestra is one of the best undergraduate orchestras in the country and a group that several undergraduate musicians identify as the reason they chose to attend Yale, it does not fare much better. The University generally supplies around 30 percent of YSO’s annual budget of approximately $100,000, which does not include travel expenses. “We are expected to raise money for ourselves,” said Toshiyuki Shimada, the orchestra’s professional conductor. “We have to rent Woolsey Hall, believe it or not.” Funds for YSO come from benefit concerts, regular fundraising, and ticket revenues. Shimada said that Harrison is “very helpful spiritually, morally. But we do not get a tremendous amount of money from the department.”

Shimada and his orchestra would like to tour annually, but the group can only travel once every other year; fundraising can pay for only so many $250,000 tours to Europe. Student volunteers must pay out of their own pockets to travel, something many Yale a cappella groups, well-endowed and profitable, would never dream of doing.

In theory, Yale does care about these ensembles. According to Duffy, the current director of university bands, “Richard Levin is a tremendous supporter of music.” It was Levin, after all, who played an indispensable role in steering the $100 million toward the School of Music, Levin who can take substantial credit for the magnificent facility renovations the school has enjoyed. Weiss insists, moreover, that the University is far more eager to fund undergraduates than graduate students or their professors in the music department. It is unlikely, however, that the University’s substantial fundraising apparatus, currently engaged in a multibillion dollar capital campaign—the very apparatus that was able to launch the School of Music to the sky—would not be able to stop charging its ensembles for a concert space that it allows the New Haven Symphony Orchestra to use for free.

The more widespread complaint among undergraduates is how few music faculty are available to offer them private lessons. An undergraduate voice student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of harming her relationship with several campus ensembles, was surprised to learn upon her arrival at Yale that there simply were not enough faculty members to teach her. “When I came to Yale, I was under the impression that I would study with someone on the faculty. That’s kind of what they told me,” she said.

Private lessons for undergraduates are run by the School of Music in cooperation with the Department of Music. Yale has only hired faculty to teach highly skilled undergraduate pianists, violinists, and cellists; each year, professors may choose to take on a handful of exceptionally talented students of other instruments, but the numbers are always small. These lessons are apportioned on the basis of auditions and offered for course credit; students who fail to get a professor may pay graduate students for not-for-credit lessons.

Though this voice student is among the few undergraduates in the Schola Cantorum, a well-paid, highly selective, predominantly graduate voice ensemble, she was assigned a graduate student and was dissatisfied with the result. “Sometimes you have a teacher who isn’t very interested in teaching,” she said. “I had a teacher last year who was notorious for that.” While graduate students at the School of Music, especially in the wake of the donation, are among the best young musicians in the world, they are often unqualified to instruct top-level undergraduates, some of whom will attend conservatories themselves after graduation. Of the approximately ninety voice students who apply for lessons each term, only about 15 may expect to receive lessons with faculty members. In other instruments, particularly woodwinds and brass, the number is closer to zero.

Sophomore Daniel Schlosberg, a top-level composition student and pianist who studies with Wei-Yi Yang, a School of Music faculty member, has noticed similar flaws in the lessons program. “There may be some grad students who are good, but it depends, and they cycle through so quickly,” he said. “I believe they should provide professors for undergraduates.” The composition program, in which Schlosberg said available courses are minimal and private lessons extremely rare, is similarly limited for undergrads, as is the conducting program, which, according to Swisher, has only two faculty conductors despite the fact that “there’s so many of us who want to conduct.”

The School of Music is the reason that many of these undergraduates come to Yale in the first place. “Can you imagine,” Margot Fassler asks, “what the musical culture would be without the School of Music?” Indeed, the spillover effects undergraduates enjoy by studying beside the School of Music are numerous: the School of Music holds four to five concerts on any given week; its graduate students fill the ranks of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, Concert Band, and Glee Club, as well as countless other smaller ensembles like the Schola Cantorum, the Camerata, chamber groups, and shared graduate-undergraduate music classes. The School of Music is not only responsible for most of the lessons that undergraduate music students receive—and even the most inept students receive the very best graduate students as teachers—but also for the use of top-notch practice spaces. When the School renovates Hendrie Hall, Concert Band musicians will no longer need to lug their instruments up six flights of stairs because the building will finally have an elevator.

These benefits, however, are no more than spillover, focused on the School of Music and largely peripheral to the needs of Yale’s undergraduate musicians. Those priorities are clear enough. “We teach all applied music for undergraduates,” Blocker said. “The School of Music has an integral responsibility and commitment to this.” The School of Music undertook this responsibility and now, finally enjoying the use of its unprecedented resources, has let its contribution to undergraduates remain static in order to direct its resources outward, fighting for global attention and attracting an ever-finer crop of international graduate students. The University itself, which demonstrated its substantial commitment to music by supporting the School of Music’s growth, has remained notably frugal in its support of undergraduate ensembles. Some of the very best young adult performers in the country already study here; why should their education be any less than exemplary?

The contrast between the institution’s commitment and the resources it offers is stark, and no one wants it this way. Levin has suggested that the University will increase the number of students taught by music faculty. For his part, Blocker sings the right tune: “I believe firmly that those of us who are privileged by the opportunities provided for us have an obligation to provide opportunity for other people,” he said. “What a great joy and opportunity it is to have, in the hands of a young adult, music, which is able to bridge cultures like nothing else.” Undergraduates will believe him once they see a bridge or two of their own.

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