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COMMENTARY | Closing The McGill Conservatory Is An Historic Mistake

By Arthur Kaptainis on June 29, 2022

The Strathcona Music Building which houses the Conservatory's downtown campus (Photo: Jean Gagnon/CCOC 4.0)
The Strathcona Music Building which houses the Conservatory’s downtown campus (Photo: Jean Gagnon/CCOC 4.0)

“In Canada notable institutions are the conservatories of Montreal (McGill University) and Toronto.”
Such was the modest recognition given Canadian music education in 1938 by Percy Scholes in the once-widely-consulted Oxford Companion to Music.

More than a few words would be needed to bring matters up to date, but it can said with confidence that the Royal Conservatory is thriving in Toronto while the McGill Conservatory, in Montreal, is not. Indeed, at the end of the summer the latter school will be the subject of a patricidal closure by the degree-granting faculty to which it gave birth about a century ago.

The announcement last week led to some confusion as to what was being shuttered. Not the Schulich School of Music, so-called since 2005 in recognition of a donation of $20 million by mining magnate and philanthropist Seymour Schulich. This faculty is humming along reasonably well. It has an excellent symphony orchestra and an array of reputable departments, including an acclaimed graduate program in sound recording. It also boasts links to a high-end music/media research centre, CIRMMT.

What is being deep-sixed (apparently with almost no advance notice to the teachers) is the venerable community school where parents sent Johnny or Jennifer for lessons in piano, guitar, violin, clarinet (or just about any other standard instrument), voice, rudiments, theory and ear training. Those students could receive instruction in English — a point that has been ignored in much of the coverage despite its pertinence in the eternally complicated province of Quebec.

A certain amount of tension is natural between community music schools and full-blast university faculties with common historical roots. The Royal Conservatory of Music has competed openly with the nearby University of Toronto Faculty of Music for performance students since an administrative divorce in 1991. There is still a community component (now called the Oscar Peterson School) at the RCM, and a profitable examination system that services Canada and beyond, as well as an elite division (the Glenn Gould School), and a high-profile concert series in handsome 1,135-seat Koerner Hall.

The McGill Conservatory (founded in 1904 with Germanic gravitas as the McGill Conservatorium) operates on a quieter plane, sharing space on weekends and evenings with the faculty in its downtown late-Victorian pile of a music building and on McGill’s Macdonald campus (in the primarily anglophone West Island region of Montreal) and going about the business of teaching the basics, sometimes in ensembles and Suzuki-style, sometimes one-on-one. The McGill Conservatory long ago gave up publishing gradebooks (they once proliferated in Atlantic Canada as did RCM publications in Ontario and points west), but it continued to offer carefully organized syllabi and give examinations that formally recognized various levels of accomplishment — elementary, secondary and collegial.

One reason for the relatively low profile of the McGill Conservatory in Montreal is the robust condition of the province-wide (and provincially funded) Conservatoire established in 1942, modelled after its namesake in Paris. This institution accepts only students who pass an audition. The language of instruction is French, as it is in the École de musique Vincent-d’Indy, a school founded by a congregation of nuns in the 1920s, from which emerged the music faculty at the Université de Montréal.

These francophone schools lay claim to distinguished alumni. The honour roll of the McGill Conservatory is not so august since its primary function has been to provide community music training, mostly in English, to youngsters who are denied it in public school and even adults who never had the chance.

This undertaking is by no means inconsequential. Apart from activating the enthusiasm of major talents at an appropriately early age, community schooling trains the ears and refines the minds of future listeners. While there is no room here to expostulate on the therapeutic benefits of great music, something of the importance of the McGill Conservatory can be gathered from an eloquent op-ed in the Montreal Gazette by Deborah Corber, an alum who went on to earn a degree in piano performance before pursuing a career in constitutional law (and serving on the board of the Orchestre classique de Montréal).

The McGill Conservatory Suzuki program orchestra performs the 3rd mov from Vivaldi’s Concerto grosso op8 no12 (2014)

A notice jointly signed by outgoing music dean Brenda Ravenscroft and her successor Sean Ferguson claimed space constraints and reduced admissions owing to COVID as the main reasons for cancelling the McGill Conservatory. Space is indeed tight in the wake of a university-wide post-Me-Too policy forbidding the use of home studios for teaching.

Still, Schulich and the Conservatory have spent decades making do. The union representing the Conservatory teachers (who will soon be unemployed) insists that there is in fact much mothballed and underused space on the McGill campus, including properties near Schulich. It is hard to believe that some accommodation is not possible, even if certain teachers must do without a piano.

As for COVID, there is no reason to suppose enrolment would not bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. Many music schools adapted to the pandemic with online teaching and have added this option, productively, to their offerings. By all accounts, the McGill Conservatory was one of them.

As I mentioned, there is a natural tension between conservatories and the faculties they spawn. A faculty tasked with teaching composition, musicology and performance at a high academic level understandably has less time for scales, arpeggios and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. But the role of such instruction is crucial in a city as richly endowed with music as Montreal. We need to cultivate audiences to listen to all the professional-level talents we produce.

The McGill Conservatory in its quiet way has also formed a bond between one of Canada’s great universities and the citizenry it likes to suppose it serves. The role of McGill (and Concordia University) in affirming the experience of English speakers in Montreal — and in contributing to the city’s status as a world capital — is hard to overstate. Headlines related to the fallout of Bill 96, Quebec legislation that restricts the workplace use of languages other than French, suggest that this support is more keenly needed than ever. Yet here we have an abrupt rupture of a community link that has lasted more than a century.

Criticism of the proposed closure has been swift and widespread. Contrary to the old saying, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

For McGill, the embarrassment is national, even international. If there is one thing universities abhor more than negative news coverage, it is the need to admit to a mistake. It will be a tough move for McGill to make. It is also clearly the right one.


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