Why the Humanities Are Vital to Music Education

Colburn Conservatory Class
Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

In partnership with The Colburn School: Located in Downtown Los Angeles, the institute provides the highest quality performing arts education at all levels of development in an optimal learning environment.

St. Louis Symphony violinist Melody Lee is passionate about modern art, and attributes the origins of that passion to an art history course taken during her time at the Colburn Conservatory.

On one level, that doesn't seem so surprising. Why shouldn't a professional artist in one field have a deep appreciation for another? The life of a musician, though, can be an isolated one: hours alone in a practice room, focusing on perfecting technique, with little time for non-music pursuits.

In Lee's case, the interest started with a mundane journey: a walk across a pedestrian plaza from the Colburn Conservatory of Music to the Museum of Contemporary, Los Angeles in Downtown L.A.

"I'm kind of embarrassed to say it," she says in a telephone interview, "But I was an undergraduate at Colburn and never visited MOCA until close to the end of my four years there."

An art history course taken as an upper-classman there "forced me to step off campus... even just next door."

And that opening of her eyes to more than musical scores is one of the things Lee treasures about her experiences at the Colburn Conservatory of Music.

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It is tempting to think of the Colburn Conservatory, one of the top conservatories in North America, as a kind of artistic trade school for young men and women who have decided to forgo a conventional college education in favor of a single-minded focus on developing their performance skills.

But all of Colburn's 60 to 70 students in the bachelor’s degree program and some of its graduate students are required to do course work in the humanities as part of a curriculum that includes music theory, ear training, keyboard studies, studio classes, private lessons, and seminars offering deep dives into career-related topics.


While Lee isn't ready to say that her interest in and knowledge of modern art has somehow transformed her playing, she acknowledges its importance to her. "There's a parallel between modern art, new music, and their respective historical lineage, and my interest has made me think of how we could contextualize that for our musical audience," she says.

Colburn faculty member Dr. Gwen Robertson said she has challenged her students to define what constitutes success in performance. She said they agree that it means "being different in some way that makes you stand out." She said they acknowledge that technical proficiency comes first, but "the one that gets the solo is better in some way." They tell her that means the excellent player "can bring more passion, more emotion, more performance to the music." Asked how a performer can attain those things, she said they mention among other things "knowing what the music means, knowing why it was written, knowing how it's been received."

According to professor Dr. Douglas Smith, one of five members of the Colburn School's humanities faculty, “there's tremendous value to a broad liberal arts education in terms of skills like critical thinking, writing, and speaking. No matter what you're doing, whether it's playing a violin or writing code, those skills are invaluable."

And this is where the two professors agree that the broadening effect of the liberal arts education helps Colburn students most. As Dr. Robertson puts it: "I believe every democratic citizen needs a well-rounded education. No matter what these people go on to do, they're going to be citizens of this world. If they don't have the capacity to think for themselves, they can't contribute to the world. What humanities coursework does is ask you to think for yourself. In this world, now more than ever, we need that."

Colburn Conservatory Class 2
Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School.

Smith, a historian by training who has taught graduate courses in urban studies, notes the reality that for some of the students "the time they spend in humanities is time they don't spend in the practice room."

Robertson, an art historian who teaches freshman English and upper-level art history, agrees. "Many of them arrive on campus and say 'I just want to play,' but when they leave they want to think critically as well. They're realizing the performers who bring a lot to their music are able to draw on other experiences. That starts to make an impact on them."

Most of the undergraduate students at Colburn want to emerge with a bachelor's degree rather than a performance diploma, because, says Robertson, also a humanities professor at the Colburn School, "If they want to go on and get a graduate degree, they may need a bachelor’s degree first. And many of them just want to have a degree, or their parents want them to have a degree."

Although the extreme focus that music students have on their craft presents distinct challenges, the two professors note a couple of advantages:

"They know what it means to work really hard," says Smith, and Robertson notes that they are much better with presentations, perhaps because they are so used to performing in public.

On the other hand, says Robertson, "You have to be very careful with instructions because they are very good at following instructions. In order to be a skilled musician at 18, you've learned to follow the examples provided to you by your teachers, and to learn from their feedback to do things the correct way."

Violinist Melody Lee followed up on her undergraduate studies, earning a professional studies certificate at the Colburn School in 2012. Now that she’s out of school, Lee has become her own humanities teacher, seeking out modern art exhibits wherever she travels, even contacting Robertson for suggested reading on her artworld finds.

The Vancouver native valued her humanities courses while in school. "They helped put my musical struggles in perspective," she says.


Top image: Portrait of Melody Lee, St. Louis Symphony violinist. | Photo: Phillip Pirolo, courtesy of The Colburn School.


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