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One Mother’s Outrage At Longy’s Decision

A protest outside of the Longy School after it closed a community music program. (Michael Kuchta)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I am no political activist. The last time I held a sign on a picket line … Well, I can’t even remember if I ever did. I’ve been a working journalist for almost 25 years and we don’t express political viewpoints in public.

But this weekend I helped lead a protest in front of the Longy School of Music. I emailed a few hundred people — and amazingly, more than 50 showed up. I drafted a petition that we offered to passersby and collected more than 100 signatures in under an hour-and-a-half. I emailed city council members and started a Facebook page to give us a place to share our ideas and frustrations. Sixty people have “liked” it in its first 36 hours. Now, people are calling and emailing and asking me “what should we do next?”

We’re all upset because of the sudden announcement last week that the Longy School, just outside of Harvard Square, will stop offering classes to kids and amateur adults, as of the end of August. It will become solely a conservatory, training college students to become musicians. This decision upsets me on a number of levels:

First, because of the way it was delivered. The 80-or-so affected faculty members and nearly 1000 families found out about the change via an email from the school’s president. Imagine finding out from an email that you were losing a job you had held for decades? That’s what happened to my daughter’s violin teacher and his wife. To me, that shows a flagrant lack of respect for these gifted musicians.

Second, I’m upset because it hits home personally. I’ve rushed into Longy’s gorgeous Garden Street building every week for five years with my daughter, toting first a one-quarter-sized violin, then a one-half and now a three-quarter-sized one. We both assumed we’d still be making those trips as she grew into a full-sized instrument. Taking lessons in a building like that, surrounded by so many talented musicians, sends a lesson I wanted her to learn: Music deserves respect, and plays an important role in the world.

Third, it hits me in my pride of place. One of the reasons I’ve loved living in Cambridge for the last dozen years is its obvious commitment to the arts. Having a music school open to kids, adults and professionals one block from Cambridge Common says a lot to me about the city — and makes me feel good about living here. Everyone I’ve talked to over the last few days has felt the same, even if they never set foot in Longy.

Taking lessons in a building like Longy, surrounded by so many talented musicians, sends a lesson I wanted her to learn: Music deserves respect, and plays an important role in the world.

The administration says it wants to continue its commitment to the community by reaching into the schools with a new music education program called El Sistema, based on the Venezuela program. I think that’s fantastic and I hope they succeed, but I don’t understand why it has to come at the expense of an existing program serving nearly 1000 children and adults across the region. Yes, many of the existing students at Longy are wealthy enough to pay for private lessons at an exclusive school, but many are not. The scholarship program has existed for decades and allowed many students to attend who would not otherwise. This is not about trading rich students for poor students.

Longy’s decision also confuses me. The school says it’s not a money issue. Longy was sold in 2011 to Bard College and is now officially called Longy School of Music of Bard College. We were told at the time that it was a merger that would guarantee the financial stability of the school, with no mention of what they’re now saying became inevitable with that move. The administration also blamed the lack of practice room space for now making a conservatory incompatible with a music school for kids and amateurs, though they have coexisted for nearly 90 years.

A protest outside of the Longy School after it closed a community music program. (Michael Kuchta)

A protest outside of the Longy School after it closed a community music program. (Michael Kuchta)

They say that the conservatory — training the next generation of professional musicians — is the core of Longy’s mission, not the programs that serve people who merely love music. I wish they’d told us that before the sale to Bard — a school in New York that obviously has little connection to Cambridge — and given the community a chance to try to come up with an alternative.

I don’t know what to answer when people ask me what we should do next. I want to do whatever we can to keep going into that building every weekend with our children. Many people say there’s no way the administration will change its mind, but I still hold out some hope, because the decision seems so damaging and so unnecessary.

If it is inevitable, I will join the effort to find a new home for the teachers and students. A few of us have already started talking about naming such a school after Roman Totenberg, the violinist and teacher who died last year at 101 after leading the school both actually and in spirit for nearly 35 years. I hope it doesn’t come to that. If it does, we plan to build a new school that will live up to Totenberg’s legacy, because the school he ran for so many years has just betrayed it.

Karen Weintraub is a Cambridge-based health and science journalist.

Andrea Shea’s report on Longy’s decision.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mortimerjulie Julie Mortimer

    Well written; thanks for expressing so well the feelings that many of us have.

  • Bj

    I love Longy, lived around the corner for years, and went to many student recitals. What a poor decision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ingrid.bock Ingrid Bock

    It sounds to me like you, and many of the other Longy lovers whose words I’ve read online since the decision, have the intelligence, passion for music, and respect for cultural traditions to found a really excellent music school in Roman Totenberg’s honor. I’m sure there will be people in your group with the necessary business skills and other resources. I wish you the very best. Maybe this is one of those oft-cited blessings in disguise.

  • http://www.justinlocke.com/author.htm Justin Locke

    Well with only a cursory glance at the data, i.e, limited space, and choice between students who pay $1,500 a year vs. those who pay $30,000 a year, for the school, it’s a no-brainer.

    What is a little more troubling to me is the bigger picture. Given that many of America’s full-time orchestras are struggling to stay afloat, and given that a typical major orchestra audition has about 400 applicants, do we really need yet another college-level classical music training facility?

    I am also troubled by the school’s stated mission of creating graduates who are capable of “making a difference.” Seems a little vague, and so I would like to know exactly what that means, also what courses in difference-making are being offered. I don’t wish to sound dismissive or flippant; I am speaking from hard experience, as someone who went to music school, decided to go and make a difference, and found that I had been given no training in such important items as how to create a non-profit organization, fund-raise, recruit a board, do marketing, event mgmt, etc.

    From my own experience, the real issue is not the need for more violin virtuosi. The pressing issue is the abysmally low level of artistic literacy of the average American adult. I often run into people with master’s degrees who cannot find the “1″ in a 4-beat bar. Our silo-d vertical specialized education leaves people lacking the basic ability to communicate in the emotional realm. If anyone wonders why we have become so acrimonious as a society, a big part of it is our lack of a sense of connection. We used to have a sense of social connection from the simple act of singing the same songs together. When you remove common language you remove social cohesiveness.

    I think our collective resources would be better spent on cultivating greater general artistic literacy, such as what the many non-professional-training toddler-12th grade programs develop. I am sad to see that aspect of Longy go, but there are others who will take up the slack, I hope.

    also fyi, re: making a difference, the Buffalo Phil is doing my “Peter VS the Wolf” in May, and for a look at the real life of professional classical music, I highly recommend my Pops memoir, “Real Men Don’t Rehearse.”

  • Mary Epstein

    Dear Karen Weintraub,
    I am sure that Longy did not enter this decision lightly but this decision brings tremendous loss not only to Cambridge but to the greater Boston area that is so devoted to the arts. I do not even live in Cambridge but I share your feelings of loss at a profound level. Those students and faculty all are deeply hurt. In fact I recently wrote to friends throughout the United States that this loss brings an opportunity to develop a new school and concert hall in Cambridge and I would throw my support behind such an effort. Cambridge needs, deserves, should have its own conservatory or music school for pre-school through adult education. Honoring violinist Roman Totenburg is a terrific idea. Please contact me.

  • Steve

    Look into the Learson Piano Studio. They offer in-home piano lessons and specialize in the Suzuki method.

    http://learsonbostonpiano.com

  • Camilla

    I studied at Longy years ago, when Lily Dumont was still teaching there.
    It was a special place, and it’s about to lose a good measure of what
    made it unique.

    This decision seems to me extremely myopic. Most thoughtful classical
    musicians are wondering who their audience will possibly be in years
    to come. But conservatories continue business-as-usual, turning out
    musicians for
    jobs that likely will not exist when they get out. It makes no sense
    to me that in 2011 Longy
    incorporated into the curriculum the Venezuela program for empowering
    communities through music, and then proceeded to eliminate the community

    aspect of their own programs.

    The audience for the music we love is shrinking. What
    Longy did– better than most anyone– is help to create a
    knowledgeable, sensitive, caring audience for the future. That seems
    to me (and many others) their most important mission.