New England Conservatory uncensored
Credits: Photomusix/Cristina Marx
Anthony Coleman is a New York- and Boston-based composer and improvising keyboardist. Graduating with a B.M. from New England Conservatory and M.M. from Yale University, he has 20 CDs under his name and played on over 100 CDs. Anthony has been awarded scholarships from New York Foundation on the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and Meet the Composer, and received residencies from institutions including the Djerassi Colony and the Frei und Hansestadt Kulturbehörde of Hamburg, Germany.

Coleman also teaches at his alma mater, NEC, working with NEC's Contemporary Improvisation students. We invited the professor to talk about the institution, its distinction from other music schools, and share advice for future applicants.

What makes New England Conservatory stand out: Starting the interview with Composium, the first thing Anthony tells me about is that NEC included music other than classical long before most conservatories — approximately 50 years ago, to be exact.

  • "A lot of conservatories in the last few years have decided to include music that's outside of classical music because they are playing catch up," he says. "New England Conservatory has been doing this since the 60s."
  • That creates a different environment for those who want to participate in it.
  • "In all honesty, I find it a little bit sad when someone comes [here] and doesn't pay attention to that aspect," the professor admits, explaining that even if you are a classical violin major and want to play in the orchestra for the rest of your life, limiting yourself as an artist isn't conducive to your growth.
  • The departments speak very well with each other in general, so as an applicant, even if you aren't accepted as a piano major, the piano department might recommend you to the Contemporary Improvisation professors if they see you're a good fit.
  • You can also split your studios, as Anthony calls it, and study half-time with a CI teacher and the other half-time with a classical piano one -- some students go as far as to switch their half-time all the time and end up studying with eight different people until they get their degree.
Third stream department

  • The department was created by Gunther Schuller, who dubbed the meeting and mingling point of classical and jazz music the "third stream", in the '50s.
  • "If you look at Third Stream music, it became a bit of a limiting way to describe what was being done in this department because [it] can engage with all other kinds of global music [and] folklore traditions [that] at a certain point there was a decision to change the name," Coleman shares.
  • The current name, Contemporary Improvisation, was an attempt to express the richness of the kind of work being created, but it isn't always about improvisation. "What you do have is people that are working in different ways that are engaging with a mixture of traditions and trying to make their own personal music out of that," the professor says.

How the department has been changing

  • Because it doesn't have a particular background in genre, every year the students coming into the department are very different. "One year we had seven cellists audition; one year we had several banjo players," Anthony recounts. "The main difference is that the department was really small and now there are around 50 students. It has gotten much bigger and because of that, it's gotten much more diverse."
  • He also conveys that NEC is confronting diversity issues. Being a private conservatory, it has palpable tuition costs. "If you want a more diverse student body, you're going to have to find a way to have more money for scholarships," he explains.
  • While it's hard to say where the discussion will lead to, Anthony hopes it will result in a more diverse student body and that student body being more engaged with the diversity of the musical aspect of the school.
How NEC is turning its ship around

  • Some music schools are "on the technological cutting edge. NEC is like an old school conservatory in so many ways," and, in the professor's words, the idea of moving it into the 21st century is a little torturous. Of course, it's happening, but it's happening slowly.
  • "I don't know if you've ever watched old movies from the 40s where they have conservatories in the movies, people are practicing Beethoven, and there's someone with a big baton going like: 'No, no, no'. NEC still has that staunchiness of an old school conservatory to some degree," he says.
  • "As far as I understand, we don't really have the set-up to guide people in that way as much as a school like Berklee does. But we're changing because we have to change."

A reminder for music majors

  • "I think one thing I needed to learn — and I'm going to give myself advice for a second before I give anybody else advice, I needed to understand that not everyone is built for a 24/7 performing or composing career," Anthony says, adding that this was hard to accept and took 15 years of teaching to learn.
  • Some people are going to be in music in a different way, other than through a performing career. Some might become involved in community teaching, others may create their own ventures in the music business.
  • Getting an education at NEC and Yale School of Music, Coleman decided to move to New York instead of pursuing a DMA. "It was awful living with my mother again after being on my own for six years, but I was living in a very hip neighborhood around very hip people," he tells me. The musician gradually got to know some of them and got included in their projects.
  • "Before I knew it I was playing with some of the most important people on the cutting edge of a New Music that was combining Composition and Improvisation in this key moment at the end of the 70s," Anthony continues.
  • This wasn't the plan, but it changed his life — he ended up making records and touring the world with these people and spending the next 40 years trying to figure out how composition and improvisation relate to each other. "I was stubborn, I wasn't going to give up. That's some advice I often give to students: don't give up."
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