Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Critical to Creativity

By Bret McCabe

As Peabody students prepare to become citizen artists, a strong grounding in the liberal arts is crucial.

Illustration of a horn player sitting in front of large books and a ladder

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Andrea Westcot, a liberal arts instructor at the Peabody Conservatory, notes that Constitutional scholars and legal historians have wrestled with how to interpret this amendment over the years. One of the undergraduate musicians in her U.S. Constitution course last spring zeroed in one clause in particular: the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Does that mean that you have a right to assemble so long as you stay peaceable? Or does that mean that you have a right to assemble and be left peaceably alone?

Westcot says the student “landed on two words in the Constitution and wrote a paper about it,” bringing various experts into her research: historians, legal scholars, a Supreme court decision, and more. And the student made important connections to her musical studies. During virtual one-on-one meetings, the student compared this critical reading of a text to “how you lean on particular grace notes in a concerto and realize that that moment means everything for the piece of music,” recalls Westcot. “We discussed how a detail-oriented reading of a text and a score are similar, that there’s a process for doing historical research and forming an argument.”

Illustration of a cellist in front of a large book

Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, would argue that the liberal arts appropriately educate citizens to support a free republic, Westcot says. Performing arts students, she notes, are pursuing a profession that makes them citizens of the world. They need not only the strong communication skills that the liberal arts require, but the broader intellectual skills they foster.

The liberal arts — academic subjects such as literature, history, philosophy, the social sciences, and foreign languages — supplies young artists with a toolkit for navigating the cultural, intellectual, and political contexts of art. At Peabody, every undergraduate completes 30 credits of liberal arts coursework, including a two-year core curriculum aimed at developing analytic thinking, research methods, and intensive writing practice.

The goal is, ultimately, to engage young musicians’ minds in critical thinking skills that they recognize as part of the creative practice. “Everybody needs good writing skills,” says Assistant Professor Meryl Lauer. “Whether we’re talking grant applications, artist’s statements, cover letters, or CVs, we’re really after helping students understand that writing can be an art they can master and enjoy.”

“We’re ultimately trying to cultivate critical thinkers.”

Meryl Lauer
Meryl Lauer
Meryl Lauer is an Assistant Professor of liberal arts at Peabody.

“More than that,” says Lauer, “most of these students will always work in collaborative environments; that is the nature of their art forms. And collaboration comes in many different forms, so learning how to work within the humanities — a different kind of hierarchy than they’re used to — and how to convey complex ideas grounded in scholarship to other people is crucial. We’re ultimately trying to cultivate critical thinkers.”

Preparing artists who can wrestle with big ideas speaks to a specific aspect of the Breakthrough Curriculum that Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein introduced in 2017 to complement the larger mission to reinvigorate music education to prepare artists for the 21st century. The curriculum update includes better emphases on career development, for which the liberal arts provide a solid foundation, and citizen artistry, a term that entered performing and visual arts education over the past decade and refers to artists who use their creative expertise in socially conscious ways.

Westcot’s U.S. Constitution class became a place for students to think about American democracy’s founding documents and turn those thoughts into a writing project. She designed the online class, with assistance from the instructional designers in Peabody’s Learning Innovation team, as a cultural study of the Constitution. Students read specially designed e-Learning materials on the Constitution — including a focus on the relationship of the Constitution to the arts — on their own, and then were able to connect with Westcot over weekly Zoom meetings or one on one to discuss the ideas and their individual research projects.

Westcot says the class’ first few weeks were a primer on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid the groundwork for the students’ research projects. The second impeachment of former president Donald Trump was happening at the time, and the students were able to connect what they were learning in class to real-time events.

“These students are so deeply aware that they are living in a historical moment,” Westcot says. “One of the things that my students are asking for is a chance to think about what the relationship is of music and art to the public. It was important to them that they could immediately start using the tools they were learning to better understand what was happening — and for the international students, it was a vital introduction into how the U.S. works.”

Lauer points out that Peabody’s liberal arts classes offer one of the few classrooms where dancers, composers, violinists, jazz students, and others come together. “It’s good for them to be with people who don’t necessarily think the way they do,” she says, as it’s a first step toward thinking through the negotiation of difference.

“One of the things that my students are asking for is a chance to think about what the relationship is of music and art to the public.”

Andrea Westcot

“These students are so deeply aware that they are living in a historical moment,” Westcot says. “One of the things that my students are asking for is a chance to think about what the relationship is of music and art to the public. It was important to them that they could immediately start using the tools they were learning to better understand what was happening — and for the international students, it was a vital introduction into how the U.S. works.”

Lauer points out that Peabody’s liberal arts classes offer one of the few classrooms where dancers, composers, violinists, jazz students, and others come together. “It’s good for them to be with people who don’t necessarily think the way they do,” she says, as it’s a first step toward thinking through the negotiation of difference.

Andrea Westcot is an instructor of liberal arts at Peabody.

Lauer, who also leads a course called Bodies in Society, is trained as a cultural anthropologist and conducted fieldwork among ballet dancers in South Africa. She notes that what counts as evidence in her practice “is not that same as in philosophy, comparative literature, or history, and that’s really useful.

“In my discipline, I study the experience of gendered and racialized bodies, and their experiences are evidence and meaningful,” she continues. “But our bodies are not all the same, our cultural experiences aren’t all the same, and another student can have experiences that are totally different than yours. Both of those perspectives are valid, and the challenge we face is how to discuss those experiences through the textual and theoretical knowledge that we cover in class.”

“If music is going to thrive,” Dean Bronstein wrote in a letter to the editors of The New York Times in 2015, “we need trained musicians attuned to their communities, prepared for a changing landscape and leading the way rather than being led by it.” Like athletes, artists and musicians are often wrongly assumed to be mere entertainers, with an expertise in one area — such as the arts — that for some reason precludes a broader and more versatile intelligence.

“The long-term goal is to get students thinking about how the liberal arts can inform their art practice,” Westcot says. “In the classroom we’re trying to create a space for them to practice making humanist arguments that support their ideas.”