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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 3

McGill: Balancing Performance and Research

by Danielle Dubois / November 2, 2004

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Universities are in the talent business and McGill's Faculty of Music is no exception. In its 100 years of existence, this leading Canadian music school has learned a thing or two about recruiting and fostering musical talent. "McGill has surpassed Boston and Yale," says Don McLean, Dean of the Faculty of Music. "It's on its way to becoming the go-to place for musical training." With a total of thirty programs being offered at the undergraduate and graduate level and a myriad of high-calibre performance groups – an opera studio, three jazz bands, two wind ensembles, a contemporary music ensemble, a baroque ensemble, three choirs and a Beethoven orchestra – it is not surprising that approximately 800 students choose to pursue their studies at McGill's Faculty of Music every year.

Award-winning scholars and the relative maturity of McGill's programs are not the only things drawing students to the university. Many of them come for Montreal and all the city has to offer, both inside and outside of the musical community. "The mix of people in this city is really interesting. There's always a bubbling and prickling – that kind of buzz," observes Douglas McNabney, chair of the performance department and viola teacher. Indeed, no other Canadian city can boast of such a number and array of high-quality music groups and professionals. Thanks to this breadth, the Faculty has been able to develop partnerships with performance groups such as the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), thereby providing students with unique learning opportunities. For students intent on finding the teacher capable of helping them perfect their art, there is no underestimating the value of working with faculty members or instructors who are also leading musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) or the Orchestre Métropolitain, for example.

The exchanges between professors and students, as well as the quality of the instruction available, are what attracted violinist Emmanuel Vukovich to McGill. After four years studying at New York's Juilliard School, this Calgary native spent one year working on an organic farm, where he developed an interest for the environment. Enrolled in the Bachelor of Music Interpretation program since September 2003, he has no regrets about his decision to come back to Canada to study with André Roy and Denise Lupien. "More important than the name or the reputation of the school is the feeling that you're supported by professors and fellow students. There's a real sense of community at McGill," says Vukovich, who adds that it is nice not to feel like just another cookie being cut out of the same mould.

A member of the Lloyd Carr-Harris Quartet, Vukovich declares he has many more opportunities to perform at McGill than he did at Juilliard. According to McNabney, the growth of the performance department – a trend observable in many North American universities – is one of the most significant developments at the Music Faculty since its creation in 1920. Half of the music students at the Faculty are enrolled in performance and participate in the 450 concerts the department puts on every year. "The stage is the best teacher," exclaims McNabney. Luckily for them, McGill students have a well-established and supportive public in Montreal.

However, reconciling performance studies with more traditional academic studies has not always been easy. "An ongoing challenge has been to make the case that performance studies belong in a university setting," explains McNabney. For Vukovich, studying performance at a university allows him to combine two of his passions – music and environmental studies – something he could not have done at a Conservatory. There is also no doubt that a university setting is essential to non-performance students enrolled in programs like music theory, musicology and composition. "Music students have transferable skills," says Dean McLean, who adds that many go on to study in other fields. He gives the example of medicine, a college where music students account for a large part of entering students.

If an increase in performing opportunities seems a matter of due course in a discipline where expectancy levels constantly increase, the graduates of thirty years ago, let alone those present at the Conservatorium's beginnings in 1904, would probably be astonished at the importance science and technology have come to occupy at the Faculty of Music. Central to the study of music, McGill administrators see the development of science and technology as essential for the future. The creation in 2000 of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) is telling of the multi-disciplinary direction in which music education is headed. CIRMMT consists of a group of researchers in science, engineering, medicine and music from four Quebec universities focusing on music and sound, and the perception of sound. For performers, the challenge will be to find ways in which these new technologies can be taken up and applied to their art. "We're constantly adapting in order to express ourselves," McNabney remarks.

Sustaining this sort of forward momentum at the Faculty of Music has not always been an easy task. In the 1960s, the Faculty faced hard times when a drop in numbers threatened its closure. Financial cutbacks in the early 90s also presented a great challenge. Yet, if McGill is enjoying a healthy dose of success at present, Dean McLean credits it to risk-taking and a continued commitment to foster excellence in specific areas by people involved at the Faculty.

"We're always going to be needing renewal," says Dean McLean, who sees the attainment of a balance between creative aspects and research as one of the elements on which the Faculty of Music will continue to focus. Nevertheless, its educational goal remains the same – the expression and understanding of great works of art. With graduates of McGill's Music Faculty occupying positions at various universities and performing in major orchestras and opera companies across the world, it would be hard to argue that this music school is not fulfilling its vision.

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