Differentiating Music Education from Entertainment Arts

Changing the semantics in the narrative of music education

by Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts for Trinity Wall Street in New York City, took time out of his busy schedule to sit down and speak about music education. Trinity Wall Street has a rich history of public school outreach and has seen first hand the power that music has to transform lives.

Julian points to a glaring misconception in the minds of many as to what constitutes music education. To many, music is perceived as an add-on to the entertainment arts rather than a vastly meaningful part of student learning. There needs to be differentiation, according to Julian between what people see as entertainment arts and music education. More emphasis needs to placed on the impact that music has on the overall pedagogical environment.

The ancient Greeks and Romans perceived music to be just as vitally important as mathematics and languages, and they understood that it activated the learning senses differently. In many respects, Dr. Julian Wachner is calling for a return to the original design of music’s involvement in the education of the mind.

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:  Julian, it's nice to spend some time with you today. I will start off by saying that I am continuously fascinated with the arts and the way in which they can impact communities, young people, regions, and areas of the entire world. We're trying to understand the changes in the world around us through the arts and exploring the ways in which we can engage at different levels with each other.

So talk to me about the obvious power of music in your life. What was that moment like when as a young person you said, “This is what I want to dedicate my life to.”

Julian Wachner:  I come from a musical family. Dad was a professional musician, a conductor, and my mom was a pianist. That meant that they actually didn't want me to become a musician. (Laughter)

But I fell in love with music at a very young age. Specifically, I fell in love with sacred music when I walked into a cathedral in Buffalo, New York when I was as a boy chorister about six or seven years old just starting out. I heard the director there improvising, and I just thought that it was the most incredible thing.

There was no turning back at that point. And even though my life is both in concert music and sacred music, this has been the trajectory that started when I was almost a baby.

RB:  In your professional career in the arts you’ve always reached out to local schoolchildren. Tell me a little about the way in which you've experienced the power of outreach from the musical community.

JW:  Absolutely! The first time that I ventured into the public school system was when I was the university organist and choirmaster at Boston University. We went into the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods in Boston with a choral program. At that point, the school system there didn't have the funds to support that kind of program, and we had a couple of hundred kids immediately involved as soon as we walked in the door.

It's incredible how the short-term teacher feedback is not so much about “Oh, the kids are really musicians” but rather that their interaction with the arts radically transforms their behavior and aptitude in other fields; specifically in our case, with music.

Here in New York City at Trinity Wall Street, we have a massive outreach program with many schools. It's similar to what it was at Boston University; we're not so much interested in people becoming professional musicians. We’re interested in how music impacts neurological development and how it impacts learning and developing skills in terms of problem-solving and getting along with one another. All the ways that music has traditionally, over thousands of years, been utilized in the pedagogical environment.

RB:  I recently spoke with a representative of a district on the West Coast that lost their arts program for over six years. How can the music community or the arts community better support the music and arts education programs around the country that often seems to be cut on the heels of slashed budgets? How can the professional community do more or provide support in ways where we're communicating the value of the arts in the development of a young person?

JW:  I think the first thing that's very important is that there needs to be ─ from the top ─ a differentiation between entertainment arts that is happening for instance at the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic (which is wonderful and great) and music education and how music impacts the pedagogical environment.

The ancient Greeks and Romans and even into the Medieval Period, everyone knew that music was as vital a course of study as mathematics and grammar and languages. It activates neurological patterns that other sciences do not.

One of the issues is to stop talking about the arts as if it's some kind of elite type of entertainment activity and return to the original design of the purpose of the music as described by Plato, Socrates, Luther and other thinkers throughout the millennia.

That's one major issue in which just the semantics of the narratives need to be redesigned.

Specifically, I think the more that artists can bring themselves into public, private or whatever school programs the better. Forget the whole “People who can't do, teach” thing ─ get rid of that mentality completely. To have somebody like renowned opera singer Renée Fleming walk into a public school somewhere in the Bronx and get down on the ground with the choirs where the real learning is going on.

RB:  Julian, do you see ─ from the music side  ─ technology impacting the way that you can engage the next generation of musicians or the layperson who wants to enjoy music? When we speak about education broadly, engagement is a keyword that we're focusing on. How do we perk the interest of students so that they stay engaged for extended periods of time and hopefully, impact their learning?

JW:  I think one of the things that we know about all creative processes even if it's some mundane work task at a corporation is that if people are actively involved in the creation of “X” project, they are more interested in staying connected to it.

The more we can have musical performance and musical nourishment be interactive so that people can actually be involved in the creation of the art, the better. In a way that's not just receiving information in a classroom, but it’s actually DOING it. That's a little bit against what we're dealing with, with social media and so many screens giving people information as fast as they want it. It's about having a way that we can interact with art and music so that people are connected to it in a creative way themselves.

RB:  Julian, for those who don't know about Trinity Wall Street outside of New York, give us the backdrop of Trinity Wall Street and its mission.

JW:  Trinity Wall Street is really a fascinating place because, at the very core, it's just an Episcopal parish like any other Episcopal parish. But because it was endowed by Queen Anne several hundred years ago and because the resources there were carefully nurtured through great stewardship over the centuries, there is a rather large portfolio from which our budget is derived.

Our mission is multifaceted but, historically, we've been part of the narrative that for instance, helped South Africa. In the apartheid era, we were providing support for Desmond Tutu, as an example. The list goes on in terms of our outreach into the world.

But in the local arts community, there has always been an incredibly active free concert series at Trinity, and it's really a gift to the community and to the city.

I've been there now for seven or eight years. When I came, the charge was to combine the liturgical offerings with the concert offerings; so now, we have a single vision. The mission is all about the aesthetics of beauty and the power of beauty to transform lives, and then the power of education in educating the next generation and giving it to the public schools and doing that kind of work.

The peripheral issues are:  We've commissioned a number of works. We make a number of recordings. We have a couple of Grammy nominations during the past five years. Two of the works we helped developed have both won Pulitzer prizes: Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields which is about the coal mining industry in rural Pennsylvania and then Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone which deals with a very difficult issue of human trafficking, particularly sexual human trafficking.

We hit difficult issues head on, and we try to make transformative moves in the community.

RB:  It's incredible when you talk about that, the outreach and the impact that you have.

Let's close with this, Julian. What genre of music would the audience be surprised that Dr. Julian Wachner would be listening to outside of composing? Is there a genre of music that we would be surprised that you enjoy on a Saturday while you're driving?

JW:  I don't know if the people would be surprised. Probably, my go-to is Depeche Mode and The Cure. I’m a child of the eighties.

RB:  I think that might surprise some people. They're very lucky to have you there at Trinity Wall Street. It has been fantastic to spend some time with you today. Thanks, Julian.

JW:  Thank you so much.

About Julian Wachner

Dr. Julian Wachner is the Director of Music and the Arts for the Trinity Wall Street Church in Manhattan, New York City.

Named one of New York City’s “10 Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing Artists of 2014” by WQXR, music director Julian Wachner continues to enjoy an international profile as a conductor, composer, and keyboard artist.

Wachner’s extensive catalog of original compositions has been variously described as “jazzy, energetic, and ingenious,” (Boston Globe), having “splendor, dignity, outstanding tone combinations, sophisticated chromatic exploration…a rich backdrop, wavering between a glimmer and a tingle...,” (La Scena Musicale) being “a compendium of surprises,” (Washington Post) and as “bold and atmospheric,” while having “an imaginative flair for allusive text setting,” and noted for “the silken complexities of his harmonies” (New York Times). The American Record Guide noted that “Wachner is both an unapologetic modernist and an open-minded eclectic – his music has something to say.”

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