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High Performance
At the most recent Association of Yale Alumni Assembly, panelists and delegates considered the role of the performing arts in a liberal education.

It was a polite and high-minded presentation typical of the Association of Yale Alumni’s twice-annual Assemblies: Representatives of Yale’s music and drama programs stood up in the Law School Auditorium to recount the history of the performing arts at Yale. But halfway through the talk by Thomas Duffy, the director of University bands, the calm was shattered by a brassy rendition of “Bulldog” by a company of the Yale Precision Marching Band, which had burst through the rear doors to pay raucous tribute to its leader.

The episode helped to illustrate two of the central points of the Assembly, which took place October 26-28 and focused on the performing arts at Yale. First, the existence of top-flight arts programs in a University setting acts as a kind of tonic, offering a creative counterweight to the kind of analytical activity that characterizes much of academic life. Second, and more simply, the Band’s invasion confirmed Yale College dean Richard Brodhead’s assertion that “there is a will to performance on the part of Yale students. They’re willing to be spectators on occasion, but they want to perform most of all.”

Delegates to the Assembly attended three panels on different aspects of the performing arts at Yale. They also were treated to behind-the-scenes tours of arts-related spaces, including theaters, the new Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, and the School of Drama’s costume and set shops and saw special after-dinner performances in the residential colleges. The Assembly also featured appearances by two distinguished alumni: School of Music graduate Joseph Polisi '83MusAD, president of the Juilliard School of Music, addressed the Saturday night dinner in Commons, and former Yale Glee Club director Fenno Heath '49, ‘52MMus, conducted the delegates themselves in an impromptu chorus.

As more than one speaker pointed out, the histories of both theater and music at Yale predate by decades their introduction into the curriculum.

Undergraduates began making music in more formal ways with the formation of the Glee Club and the Beethoven Club after the Civil War. Later, music instruction began to be made available to students under Gustave Stoeckel—although they did not receive academic credit. Stoeckel became the first professor of music in 1890, and the School of Music was founded four years later.

Drama came into the curriculum later, but followed a similar trajectory. While in the 18th century students could be fined for performing in or even attending plays, the 19th century saw a rise in student interest in theater as an extracurricular exercise, culminating in the founding of the Yale Dramatic Association (the Dramat) in 1900. Then, as English, French and German literature began to enter the curriculum, drama “sneaked in,” as Dramat member Graham Norris '03 put it. What became the School of Drama began in 1925.

If the presence of the Schools of Drama and Music help distinguish a Yale education from those of its peer institutions (no other Ivy League university has a school of music or such a prominent drama school), the converse is also true: Being in the midst of a university helps distinguish the schools from the conservatories with which they compete for students. School of Music dean Robert Blocker said the opportunities the University affords are critical for his students. “We need educated musicians broadened in their intellects so they can be cultural leaders,” said Blocker. “A higher percentage of our students than ever now take courses in Yale College.”

While both schools have had a dramatic impact on their respective fields—28 of the 46 winners of the Pulitzer Prize in music have been Yale faculty or graduates, and the School of Drama’s list of alumni is a Who’s Who of American theater, film, and television—they both face financial challenges in order to continue to attract top talent, their leaders said. Unlike the Graduate School, Yale’s professional schools do not offer full funding to their students. While some financial aid is available, most music and drama students must take out loans in order to pay for their education—a daunting prospect, said outgoing School of Drama dean Stan Wojewodski, when the average starting salary of his graduates is $14,500 a year. Competing drama programs are now offering more generous financial aid, and students at musical conservatories such as Juilliard and Curtis get free tuition, room and board, and a stipend. In response to a question from a delegate, Blocker and Wojewodski estimated that each school would need an endowment of about $150 million in order to fully fund their students’ educations.

In addition to discussing the state of the professional schools, participants also examined Yale College’s undergraduate programs in music and theater studies. Brodhead noted that the arts are “the one extracurricular activity at Yale that is also a curricular activity,” wondering aloud why there is no major in “hockey studies.” Director of undergraduate studies in music Leon Plantinga talked about the need to balance performance and musical analysis in undergraduate education, so that “the performers are grounded intellectually, and so that on the other hand nobody studies music as simply an adventure on paper.” Theater studies director Marc Robinson described how his program has swelled in size since a cap on enrollment was lifted, noting the strain this growth has put on Yale’s performance spaces.

Performance space and other facilities was described as the other major issue facing the arts at Yale. Blocker said that “when I came here, I told the President these were absolutely the worst music facilities I have seen anywhere. We have since improved them—with paint.” But Yale’s music facilities—including 435 College Street and Sprague, Stoeckel, and Hendrie Halls—are now slated for a major overhaul that will provide more practice rooms for both undergraduate and graduate musicians. New theater spaces are included in the University’s Broadway redevelopment and in many of the residential college renovations, and the School of Drama will see its facilities renovated as part of the $250-million Arts Area Plan.

But Brodhead said he was skeptical that even these plans will put an end to the space crunch that Yale’s performing arts institutions have long experienced. “The arts require more space and more money all the time,” he said. “By building new facilities, we only create more desire. But which would you rather have, no desire or infinite desire?  the end


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