Harpsichord instruction in US Music Schools

The magazine Early Music America reports here about a controversial decision of the Dean of the College of Music at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, TX, not to renew the contract of its Lecturer in Harpsichord Performance, but to combine the position with organ teaching. This is made possible because of the retirement of Professor Jesse Eschbach at the end of the current semester after 40 years service there.

The links in the article are worth reading, particularly the memo from the Dean to the music faculty, in which he states, among other interesting statistics, that in 2022 only 18 harpsichord majors were enrolled in all of the USA’s NASM accredited music programmes. UNT itself had “a total of only 6 harpsichord majors over the entire period from 2014 to the present”.

How the situation in Europe and elsewhere compares with these statistics, I do not know. But if these numbers are about right for the available amount of gainful employment, they go to show what a small profession this is.

I recommend reading of the EMA article and the linked documents.

David

A tough reading. I assume the figures given in the Faculty’s response are true. I quote the response (from UNT CoM HARPSICHORD MEMORANDUM TO THE FACULTY.pdf - Google Drive):

• The total number of harpsichord majors we have enrolled in the UNT College of Music
during the decade of 2014 – 2024 is 6 students. Please understand that this is not 6 students
per year. This is a total of 6 harpsichord majors over the enOre period from 2014 to the
present.
• During that decade, we have graduated 3 of those 6 harpsichord majors – 1 DMA, 1 MM,
and 1 BM.
• According to the most recent available data (2022) from the Higher EducaOon Arts Data
Services (HEADS), the total number of harpsichord majors enrolled in music programs
accredited by the NaOonal AssociaOon of Schools of Music in the United States is 18
harpsichords majors – 11 DMA, 3 MM, and 4 BM. Again, and for clarity, this is not an
average of 18 harpsichord majors enrolled per accredited insOtuOon. Eighteen (18) is the
total number of harpsichord majors enrolled in accredited music programs in the United
States.

Sure there are many more (how many?) students who study harpsichord as their secondary instrument, however those figures say harpsichord is dead again in USA.

Situation in Europe is much better, fortunately, but I have no statistics - I’d love to read actual figures. Probably this “better situation” is only better in a handful of countries so it could change in a few years: I could say Italy, France, Netherlands… but what about Switzerland (excepted the Basel Schola Cantorum), Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, etc? I just don’t know.
Let’s hope in the future. Sad this news comes in JSB’s birthday.

STATE OF THE HARPSICHORD ART IN ITALY:
I read somewhere a few years ago that there were 72 chairs of harpsichord (mostly in a Conservatorio Statale, a few in private Accademia) in Italy, where the average number of students was about 6. This makes for 432 harpsichord students at any one time. So far so good.
Over the last 20 years (even when I lived in Ireland I travelled almost yearly to Italy) I have met a few teachers and advanced students in Italy.
They all learn to play with early fingerings (good), then they leave those aside and play all Bach, all Couperin, all Rameau and more with modern fingerings (bad)! This said, the hand and finger movements are mostly very stylish/historical.
Unfortunately, interpretation is mostly poor: even in fast pieces the tactus is never kept, lots of Romantic-style rubato, lots of “stay in some notes forever” (I do not mean a few notes in a piece where a Couperin would write often a fermata, I mean a note in almost every bar!), wrong interpretation of ornaments, no inégales in German composers in French style, and even in music by French composers the harpsichordists who play decent inégales are only a handful.
But then, in most of Europe we have the same problem don’t we?

Is every institution that teaches music in the NASM association? Perhaps not.

This is particularly painful for me because I know the people involved. I have been worried that this might happen since my dear friend Leonora McCroskey retired. UNT has a very fine collection of early keyboards, and it is indicative of the dean’s lack of understanding that he thinks he can find a single person qualified to maintain both early instruments and pianos. Such people must be vanishingly rare. I am not optimistic about the future of either the keyboards or the program.

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Possibly this is an unwanted effect of Emilia Fadini’s school. She was a great musician and teacher and had some of the best Italian harpsichordists as pupils, like Dantone and Baiano. Fadini was a strong supporter that music rhethoric must be expressed by the player, even by “elasticizing” the tactus when necessary. Fadini’s playing seems to me already a bit too much tactus-waving, here and there, I prefer much more Baiano and Dantone’s playing. And I don’t appreciate at all stiff and metronomical playing.
Of course, it’s all a matter of taste and measure. Once spreaded outside her school, Fadini’s style of playing can easily get out of control. “If a little bit of something is good, a whole lot of the same thing will be great”. Hence rubatos which aren’t true rubatos (which shouldn’t alter the basic tactus) but true alterations of the tactus etc.

However I am happy to read situation in Italy isn’t so bad compared to the rest of world. In fact there are many young Italian harpsichordists among the top players today: Andrea Corti, Paolo Zanzu, Andrea Buccarella (winner at Brugge competition), Anna Paradiso and others.

What about other European countries?

The NASM is the agency that accredits the programmes and degrees of tertiary music schools in the USA. A school has to be in good standing with the NASM to be taken seriously by outsiders. I was part of the committee that prepared the IU School of Music’s report for the ten year inspection c. 1990, and this was taken very seriously. A large document was compiled, with statistics on every area of music teaching and a committee of three deans from other comparable institutions visited for a week to inspect classes and work done. I doubt whether much serious harpsichord/figured bass instruction goes on in US musical institutions that are not members of NASM, Most such schools are generally band-oriented. I also note that similar inspections are carried out in the UK annually by a single external examiner from a comparable department in another university.

In the USA, reports of such investigations are presented to higher committees and administators of the university and to State bodies, all of whom determine annual funding. So, in short, one can trust the accuracy of statistics that come from the NASM.

I was also a professor at UNT while Lenora McCroskey and Lyle Nordstrom were leading members of the Early Music program, and recorded several CDs with its faculty and students. I can vouch for its high quality under that faculty, even though it was not funded as well as it might have been, and am sad to see the possibility of their achievements being dismantled.

David

Domenico wrote: " Fadini’s playing seems to me already a bit too much tactus-waving, here and there"_

Indeed Domenico thanks for your observations!

Domenico: “I prefer much more Baiano and Dantone’s playing.”

Indeed I also do!

Domenico: “And I don’t appreciate at all stiff and metronomical playing.
Of course, it’s all a matter of taste and measure”

Well, well, it depends!! Leonhardt famously said that, and played like that … as a young man, but became almost metronomic as a more mature musician: I saw it!
And if we mean to reproduce harpsichord-era aesthetics (which some Italian harpsichordists openly declare not to, and are surprised when I suggest them to play the piano instead!), then we have to follow what they wrote back in the harpsichord era. At the time we find scores of written directions to play measured pieces strictly following the best (i.e. metronomic indeed), not changing the tempo. When they felt otherwise, F. Couperin for one would write a fermata, and in quite a few pieces it is obvious that there should be a fermata, or just a slight hesitation, e.g. when in a Rondeaux piece we replay the Rondeau after a Couplet. Hesitation between well-differentiated sections of a piece, not every two bars or so!

Just to mention one of many sources, when Rameau in L’Enharmonique suggested a ritardando before the fermata, he wrote “this will seem to many in poor taste”. It was obviously very unusual.

Domenico: ““If a little bit of something is good, a whole lot of the same thing will be great”. Hence rubatos which aren’t true rubatos (which shouldn’t alter the basic tactus) but true alterations of the tactus etc.”

Indeed! :slight_smile:

Domenico: “However I am happy to read situation in Italy isn’t so bad compared to the rest of world. In fact there are many young Italian harpsichordists among the top players today: Andrea Corti, Paolo Zanzu, Andrea Buccarella (winner at Brugge competition), Anna Paradiso and others.”

One of them once came home to take a lesson … indeed we have some very good teachers and players, and others that are not so good …

Le 21/03/2024 13:43, Domenico Statuto via The Jackrail écrit :

What about other European countries?

France is privileged. There are some 220 harpsichord classes in France,
not counting of course all the private lessons. Many world-famous
performers, and countless very gifted younger harpsichordists.

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Hello All,

Sad statistics concerning recharging the store of professional performers here in the U.S., but a related problem at least as troubling is the demographic of audiences. Here in Berkeley, every single performance no matter how large or small we attend will have no audience in not much more than fifteen years unless younger people start getting interested in early music. I always scan the audience wherever we go and the demographic is essentially over seventy (mainly the same folks you see at every event). Sometimes someone will bring a young person and there are some middle age people, but mainly a sea of white before an ensemble of often younger performers.

I know Europe is better off, but seeing the same trend as far as I can tell. Every time we’ve attended the Beaune festival in the last five years it’s the same thing, though the Côte-d’Or isn’t exactly a young person’s vacation destination. I also scan the audience in video performances when possible and see the same thing. It’s a sea of white. It is definitely not like it used to be.

James

Demographics apart, & notwithstanding the hope that today’s middle aged rockers or rappers become tomorrows HIP loving pensioners, can admissions policy be at blame here? In France, the advanced students I deal with all have one big gripe, the very very few admissions consented to by the upper levels of music study which is run on the ‘concours’ system. This determines the number of places beforehand, sometimes as little as one or two admissions in an entire early music year -all instruments included !- at Licence = Bachelor or Master level. It’s like a job application, no matter how competent, there’s only one job / study position available. So many French students then go to Belgium, Holland, Switzerland or further abroad, where they are admitted according to their skill (and purse), and more teachers have full time jobs. A lot of half-time or double-instrument positions here in France. There may be 220 classes, but these are small and 90 percent of the pupils are quite young and beginner level who do not go on to be professionals. Moreover, a goodly percentage of them are there because the piano classes are full up! However, it has become easier to tell parents that starting on the harpsichord is a good thing for small fingers…and perhaps easier on the ears ; ) This does inject a nice level of awareness, thus liking and appreciation, of Earlier Music into the younger societal strata, thus there’s hope for the future. And a good deal of Baroque on Le Radio! FWIW.
Carey,: lovely 5 mm pins!! Will they be on offer on your site?
Thomas Murach

Apart from the statistics of student numbers, which themselves are dire enough, I would like to know what the picture is actually like on the ground. Larry Palmer has taken a well-earned retirement from SMU and there appears to be only an adjunct appointment in his place. What about the other large schools in Texas: TCU in Fort Worth, UT Austin, etc? Who is teaching there now? How about San Francisco, where there were several notable teachers in the past, now that I believe Davitt Moroney has retired from Stanford? Perhaps some members could report about these and other states, like Michigan, Indiana, Massachussetts, Ohio, to name only a few that have had active harpsichord teaching in the past? What is the state of the HKSNA, which replaced MHKS, SEHKS and WEKS? Is it flourishing? When I lived there, 1983-2013, North America was a powerhouse of early keyboard performance.

And what does this mean for the builders’ business?

More reports would be welcome. Let us hope that the decline in teaching and playing that seems to be ubiquitous is just a normal, but temporary, swing of the pendulum.

As far as audience demographics are concerned, I suspect that “young people” equate the concept of music with streaming through earbuds (no wonder there ae so many shops here in Vienna selling hearing aids!), though a reasonable number of new CDs are still being marketed.

This item on the often disreputable Slippedisc website talks only of Bach on the piano. Nobody in the discussion has even mentioned that JSB never met a modern piano. Have we lost the battle of reclaiming JSB’s keyboard music played on the instruments for which it was written? The same goes for Couperin, not to mention the FWVB.

It is time for a full appraisal of the state of the early keyboard scene and the formation of a counter-movement!

David

Given the collapse of interest in harpsichord playing I still fail to understand how there can be more than 10,000 followers of the infamous Facebook harpsichord group. Surely some of these must be students? Or else this touted figure is simply false.

In the past I have asked members to recommend our forum to their students and colleagues, with net response nil as far as I can see, even with the published reward of a Freddo Frog for bringing new members into the fold.

As for building, in Australia, in Melbourne at least, there has been no new work for harpsichord builders for 20 years or so, and of the four or five past full time builders here, none are currently making, and any still around are, like violin makers, reduced to repairs and restorations.

Facebook is a complete irrelvance to real life! I think there must be people who spend their time signing up for Facebook and other sites, just so they can put it on their résumés: there is no other sensible explanation for the phenomenon.

As to the lack of new building in Australia, this is surely a sign of the times, but actually how active was harpsichord building there forty years ago? The names of Mars McMillan and Bill Bright come to my mind; but how many others were building then?

Perhaps Carey could comment on the situation then and now in South East Asia, apart from him (and I have no idea what his new output is), I only know of Willard Martin, who is currently living in Korea and building instruments there, though I suspect not very many.

David

As for harpsichord making, the decreasing in numbers partly unavoidable unless there was a steady growth rate of new players. In the last 30-40 years a great number of good-to-great harpsichords have been built, with good actions, good tone, historical framing, materials, scalings and so on, and those harpsichords outlast the professional/amateur playing life of their players, so a good deal of second-hand harpsichords are put on the market every year. That’s good for new students who usually can start purchasing a second-hand harpsichord without waiting months or years to get theirs custom-made (I had to wait a bit less than 6 years to get mine!).

Makers’ situation in Italy isn’t as good as players’. In 2010 I made a file with all the Italian or Italy-based professional makers, and they were 38. Well, let’s say about 30 as there were organ makers who only had built a couple of harpsichords, or not truly active, etc. So 30 professional harpsichord makers in Italy in 2010. They are about 15 today, but maybe only 8 still truly active (i.e. making a couple harpsichords a year), and only a couple younger than 60 years old. Depressing.

I see again Andrew Bernard and David Pickett talking about the “infamous” Facebook HARPSICHORD group. It is an amateurish place, sure, just harpsichord lovers. It serves the amateurs mainly.
When I have an important observation or question, I come to Jackrail.
This said, the Fb HARPSICHORD is run by a player of good reputation, Ketil Are Haugsand, and many excellent professionals (let me mention Douglas Amrine, Owen Daly, Andrew Appel, and many others) regularly intervine with their knowledgeable opinions.
And again, when any of us wishes to publicise a record or a new book/edition, HARPSICHORD sells. Jackrail does not.

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Yes, indeed, and what has helped the harpsichord, as well as historical string and wind instruments in France is the network of municipal conservatoires in many cities. Many of them have early music classes which make this music known to the general public. Paris alone has 16 municipal conservatories for 20 districts. They are funded by city taxes.

I only mention it as it would seem to indicate a VAST interest in harpsichords, which I find puzzling, given the sorry state of affairs we find today. That’s all.

Le 22/03/2024 09:58, Andrew Bernard via The Jackrail écrit :

Given the collapse of interest in harpsichord playing

There’s no such collapse in France, and probably elsewhere in Europe,
quite the contrary. There have never been so many children studying the
harpsichord.

In the past I have asked members to recommend our forum to their students and colleagues, with net response nil as far as I can see, even with the published reward of a Freddo Frog for bringing new members into the fold.

The language is an obstacle for many Europeans… unless you encourage
people to post in their native language.

Oh, no, Andrew I never meant that. This 10,000 number is made up mostly of “group spammers”. No idea whether Ketil or other admins active filter new group members, and anyway for a time now Facebook does NOT allow Admins to stop membership, only posting!! Therefore who knows!

However, Facebook DOES allow Admins to ban members! And in the “Early Music Performance Practice” of which I am the Admin, for years now every day actively I search the daily list (ave. 5 candidates, but sometimes suddenly many more) and, unless they answer a few basic questions, they are not allowed to post. If they are already members, they are expelled. Yet we have more than 3,000 members (growing about 1,000 since I took over), and these are legit: of course, some are early-music lovers who do not play, others are modern guitar players who love to see once upon a while post about the lute and decide whether they will start that instrument, opera singers interested in comments or ads about baroque singing, and the like.

In my Early Music group most of the posts are ads about forthcoming recitals, editions and books.

In the HARPSICHORD group most posts are somebody who likes a harpsichord video on YouTube, less frequently discussions on harpsichord making or playing, and these are responded by always the same group of about 30 players/makers, say.