New England Conservatory

Full Biography

A cultural icon approaching its 150th anniversary in 2017, New England Conservatory (NEC) is recognized worldwide as a leader among music schools. It is renowned for the excellence of its rigorous training and a creative curriculum remarkable for its wide range of styles and traditions. All this takes place in an inspiring, intimate, nurturing community for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the globe. With an illustrious history as the oldest independent school of music in the United States, NEC looks towards the future, actively preparing its students for the changing arts world of today and tomorrow, while drawing upon the musical lineage and talent of its 225 member faculty, which boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars.

With plans for a state-of-the-art campus redevelopment to be completed by 2017, NEC is located on Boston’s Avenue of the Arts in the famed Fenway Cultural District. Currently more than 750 young artists from 46 states and 39 foreign countries attend NEC on the college level, 1,600 young students attend on the Preparatory level, and 325 adults participate in the Continuing Education program. On the college level, NEC features training in classical, jazz, and contemporary improvisation. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, it offers lessons, classes and performing opportunities for children, pre-college students, adults, and seniors.  Through its community engagement projects, it allows young musicians to connect robustly with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation.

NEC alumni fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide. NEC has a longstanding connection to the globally acclaimed Boston Symphony Orchestra that reaches all the way back to the orchestra’s formation in 1881. BSO founder Henry Higginson, seeking to establish a world-class ensemble, turned to the NEC faculty for 19 of his original section leaders.  Today, half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty.

The only conservatory in the United States to be designated a National Historic Landmark along with its primary concert hall, Jordan Hall; NEC presents 1000 free concerts each year.  Many of these take place in Jordan Hall, which has been renowned for its beautiful interior and nearly perfect acoustics since its opening in 1903. The programs range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to big band jazz, contemporary improvisation, and opera scenes—which keep more than a dozen performance spaces at NEC busy most nights of the week.  Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre and Paramount Theatre in Boston as well as a semi-staged performance in Jordan Hall.

NEC students, including Prep student ensembles, not only perform in Boston, but in the surrounding area and on tour to concert halls in the U.S. and overseas.  NEC-trained singers perform in major opera houses both nationally and internationally, and student and faculty chamber ensembles appear regularly throughout the U.S, Europe, and Asia.

The Conservatory was established in 1867 by Eben Tourjee, an American music educator, choral conductor and organist. Tourjee was instrumental in developing uniform standards for music education in America and organized the first U.S. meeting of music teachers in the early 1870s. Since its founding, NEC has forged a reputation as being on the cutting edge of education. In 1902, Conservatory director George W. Chadwick oversaw the establishment of NEC’s Opera department. In 1924, NEC became a charter member (founder) of the National Association of Schools of Music, and in 1933 introduced its Master of Music program.

In 1967, NEC’s centennial, Gunther Schuller was inaugurated as president and introduced several groundbreaking programs. In 1969, he launched the Jazz Studies department, the first fully accredited jazz curriculum in an American conservatory. As a measure of its eminence, the Jazz Studies faculty has included six MacArthur “genius” grant recipients (three currently teaching) and four NEA Jazz Masters, and alumni that reads like a who’s who of jazz and numerous Grammy winning composers and performers. Then, in 1972, Schuller created the Third Stream Department (now called Contemporary Improvisation) under the direction of pianist Ran Blake, and currently chaired by Hankus Netsky. This revolutionary curriculum teaches students to synthesize diverse musical traditions by developing their aural skills, vocal and instrumental techniques, and familiarity with a wide variety of musical idioms. Thus equipped, they are ready to become the leading composers, improvisers and performers of today.

In 1977 NEC established a double-degree program with Tufts University, a combined program of study resulting in a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree from Tufts and a Bachelor of Music degree from NEC. To this, NEC President Daniel Steiner in 2005 added a double degree program with Harvard University, an elite five-year program leading to a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Master of Music degree from NEC.

In 1995, NEC graduated the first class of students from its Doctor of Musical Arts program.

NEC co-founded in 2000 the long-running weekly radio program From the Top, which celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country.  With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States (NEC remains an educational partner).

As part of a plan to burnish the reputation of NEC’s string training, President Steiner engaged some of the world’s most outstanding string players to the faculty, including violist Kim Kashkashian,  three-quarters of the original Cleveland Quartet—Donald Weilerstein, violin; Martha Strongin Katz, viola; and Paul Katz, cello. With the latter as its director, NEC launched the Professional String Quartet Training Program in 2001. A year later, it established the Professional Piano Trio Training Program under pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. The graduates of those programs, including the Jupiter Quartet, Parker Quartet, Ariel Quartet, and, the Trio Cleonice have gone on to win important chamber music prizes and to establish international careers.

Also in 2002, NEC became a co-founder of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA), the first youth orchestra to bridge together North, South and Central America through youth, musical education and cultural interaction. This project set the stage for a new and ongoing partnership with Venezuela’s El Sistema, the famed social action through music program.

To give NEC students an opportunity to engage with the wide variety of audiences they will encounter in their careers, the Conservatory created an outstanding Community Performances and Partnerships program in 2003. It matches student musicians, including all Artist Diploma candidates, professional string quartet and piano trio ensembles-in-residence, and Honors Ensembles, with opportunities to embed themselves in Boston-area communities. Over the course of a single academic year, approximately 250 students offer nearly 400 programs in a variety of settings from libraries to museums to senior centers, schools, hospitals and historic landmarks. The events range from performances, lessons, sing-alongs, musical story-telling and interactive events. In 2013-14, the students reached 14,000 people including more than 6500 school children and 7000 public or adult audience members through 120 partnerships.

In 2007, international orchestra administrator and violinist Tony Woodcock assumed the NEC presidency. One of his first priorities was to enhance NEC’s program of orchestral studies, recruiting acclaimed conductor Hugh Wolff, the Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, to lead the orchestra program and re-launch the graduate program in orchestral conducting. Shortly thereafter, he hired longtime Memphis Symphony music director David Loebel as Associate Director of Orchestras. Alumni of the orchestral conducting program now hold positions at the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra.

Having led a group of educators, government officials and trustees to Venezuela on a 2008 study tour, President Woodcock established the Sistema Fellows program, a five-year project to train 50 (10 per year) outstanding musicians with a passion for social development to lead El Sistema-inspired programs throughout the United States. Creation of the program was jump-started by support from the TED organization, which had bestowed its prestigious TED Prize on El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu in 2009.  NEC welcomed the first class of Sistema Fellows in October 2009 and graduated the last class in May 2014. Alumni from the Fellows classes are currently directing or working in outstanding programs from Juneau, Alaska to Durham, North Carolina and from Los Angeles, California to Boston, Massachusetts. In 2010, when the first class of Sistema Fellows entered the field, their programs served approximately 600 children. By spring 2014, close to 5,000 children were being served in programs in 25 cities, and spending close to 10 hours per week in El Sistema-inspired programming. In 2014, NEC also announced the creation of the Sistema Fellows Resource Center, a program through which the Conservatory will continue to invest in the professional development of the alumni Fellows.

Consistent with the Conservatory’s history of always looking to the future, President Woodcock launched the Entrepreneurial Musicianship program in 2010. It prepares conservatory students to create a gratifying life in music in a challenging economic and cultural environment.  Through classes, performance projects, grant programs, mentorships, workshops, and individual advising, the program helps equip students and alumni with the skills they will need to create careers. In just four years, over 78% of the student body was participating in the program.

As with the orchestral studies program, President Woodcock is also focusing on the opera and voice curriculum to transform it into one of the Conservatory’s signature offerings. With a small but elite group of students, the program is designed to provide the best possible educational experience through increased performing opportunities, coaching, and partnerships with professional companies such as Opera Theatre of St. Louis.  Internationally renowned conductor Stephen Lord (named one of the 25 most powerful people in American opera by Opera News) serves as Artistic Advisor. Stage director Joshua Major is Chair of Opera Studies. Karen Holvik is Chair of Voice. The faculty boasts numerous renowned singers and directors including dramatic soprano Jane Eaglen, singer-director-acting teacher Steven Goldstein, soprano Lisa Saffer, Patricia Misslin, and Lorraine Nubar.

Under President Woodcock’s leadership, the Conservatory determined that redevelopment of the campus was a priority if it was to provide students with the best possible educational experience. More than 200 stakeholders were convened to identify the needs of a modern student-centric campus. Ann Beha Associates was chosen as architect and designed a two-phase project: the Student Life and Performance Center (SLPC) and the Learning Center. The former will house a new residence hall, library, rehearsal halls, a black box theatre, commissary and common areas. The latter will provide more practice rooms, classrooms, and studio space. In summer 2012, the proposed project (Institutional Master Plan) was approved by City of Boston regulatory agencies, after meeting with acclaim in community presentations. NEC hopes to break ground in summer 2015 with plans to open the SLPC as part of the 2017 celebrations for the Conservatory’s 150th anniversary.