Sounds of Change

Associate Dean Chris Jenkins wrote the book on conservatory reform.

November 10, 2023

Erich Burnett

Chris Jenkins in a panel discussion.
Chris Jenkins, the conservatory's Associate Dean for Academic Support, has played a key role in a wide range of initiatives aimed at increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion at Oberlin.
Photo credit: Jacob Strauss

By the time Chris Jenkins got to Oberlin, he had already experienced conservatory education from just about every angle you might imagine.

The year was 2014, and the conservatory’s new associate dean for academic support was stepping into a role nobody had previously held—at Oberlin or just about anywhere else. A classically trained violist, Jenkins earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard, which he followed with graduate studies at New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia University. Today, he’s completing a DMA in viola performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music and a PhD in musicology at Case Western Reserve, with an emphasis on African American musical aesthetics.

Chris Jenkins.

Jenkins works closely with Oberlin students experiencing challenges of all shapes and sizes. Often, they are people of color—like Jenkins—or identify as LGBTQ+. And often, they share frustrations Jenkins himself can trace back to his own conservatory days.

For generations, music conservatories—like the outstanding schools Jenkins has attended and the one where he works—have clung to ideals of the Western classical canon at the expense of other musical traditions. For some students, this pervasive lack of diversity and inclusivity leads to feelings of marginalization.

Oberlin is not immune to these challenges—and the criticisms invited by them—says Jenkins. But he also praises Oberlin’s proactive, ongoing initiatives aimed at bringing equity to the conservatory experience—moves, he notes, that align with the institution’s historical commitment to expanding access. In recent years, Oberlin initiated a significant rethinking of its music theory curriculum, created a minor course of study in African American music, established new faculty positions that focus on these traditions, and significantly expanded repertoire selections to be inclusive of a multitude of cultures and experiences.

Jenkins himself teaches two courses that once might have seemed unimaginable: one on the racial politics of classical music and another on hip-hop. And his Oberlin experiences inspired his new book, Assimilation v. Integration in Music Education: Leading Change Toward Greater Equity (Routledge Press/College Music Society), which examines longstanding issues among U.S. conservatories and recommends strategies for addressing them.

We caught up with Jenkins recently to discuss the book, his motivations for writing it, and his reasons for optimism in the future of music education.

You have experienced pre-professional music education as a student, teacher, and administrator. Across those experiences, how did your passion to pursue research—and to be an agent of change—in this area take shape?

My desire to talk about how conservatories should change really comes from my experiences with students at Oberlin. It was Oberlin students, and to an extent other faculty and staff, who encouraged me to think differently about conservatory education and consider the negative impacts of this educational model on students. I will say I never had any thought that I would become a musicologist, which probably speaks to the extent to which that field is generally unappealing for people of color.


In the book, you assert that the issue of diversity should be approached through the lens of aesthetics. In conservatories, that generally refers to musical ideals that are directly related to Western classical music—everything from how a note should be played to how a musician should dress. It’s about what various groups value about art over time and why. How can examining aesthetics lead us to a more equitable and inclusive educational model?

I started working with the American Society for Aesthetics in 2016, thanks to Professor of Africana Studies Charles Peterson, who invited me to be part of a panel at one of their conferences. I feel obligated to take a moment and point out the importance of Black people supporting other Black people in academia because, literally, everything I’ve done professionally since is a result of Charles’ invitation to present at that ASA conference.

I subsequently won a grant from the ASA to write about the aesthetics of African American classical music. It was because of that publication that I was invited to apply to be a musicology doctoral student, in addition to earning a DMA. But this was also the impetus for me to begin viewing conservatory education through the lens of aesthetics.

Basically, the realization I arrived at was that the aspects of the conservatory environment that many people find alienating—that I find alienating, for sure—relate to the concept of aesthetics: what people find ideal or most beautiful. Music students are always oriented toward a type of aesthetic idealization in their performances. But that idealization extends beyond music into our speech, dress, bodily movement, and all aspects of personal expression and conduct, on stage, in studio class, in lessons, and in peer-to-peer interactions. It is the pressure to align with these unspoken aesthetic codes that cause a lot of distress for students of color in conservatories.

If the intention in any given conservatory is to increase its percentage of Black students, then perhaps our musical language should also change to reflect the cultural backgrounds of those students.

The general theme of the book is that the aesthetics of conservatories do not resonate with many members of communities of color, and that if we aim for demographic change—to recruit more students and professionals of color into orchestras and conservatories—we’re essentially approaching diversification as a project of assimilation. We actually have to change our institutions—to change not just the repertoire, but also how we think about making music, to include other traditions, harmonic and melodic languages, and ways of approaching music. I don’t mean this in an appropriative way, but rather, for example: If the intention in any given conservatory is to increase its percentage of Black students, then perhaps our musical language should also change to reflect the cultural backgrounds of those students. Right now, conservatories are trying to make those demographic changes without changing internally.

Your book might be considered an examination of music education aimed primarily at those in charge of shaping and delivering that education. What would you hope a student of that education might take away from the book?

I actually address this issue in the third chapter of the book, by saying that students have far more influence and power than they perceive, but this change is usually beyond the horizon of their graduation. Change in academia is really slow. This is true and not just a stalling tactic by the faculty and administration. But change is possible; it’s just on an extended timeline. Oberlin has been around for almost 200 years, so the reality is that nothing substantive and irreversible is going to happen in a timeline of two or three years. Students—especially undergraduates—sometimes struggle to fully exploit their potential as change agents because it’s hard to spend time agitating for change that will not affect your own student experience.

I’d say that it is important for students to consider how to improve conditions explicitly not for themselves or even their peers, but for future students whom they will never know. I’m not saying students don’t ever do that—just that it’s not the most common approach, in my experience. Students are capable of exerting significant influence over the institution if, through the leadership of student groups and continual peer education, they can sustain activism for a single goal and cooperative negotiation with the administration over a timeframe of five, 10, or more years.

Also, I would love for students to take away from the book the message that people who work at their schools can experience long-term growth and change from interactions we have with students. When presenting about this book, I talk about the journey that I went through to arrive at the place where I am now, and my own journey was very much precipitated by conversations with students. I can definitely think of situations nine or 10 years ago that I would handle completely differently now, and that’s because of the long-term impact of my experiences with generations of students. That’s a big part of why I wrote this book: to impart some of what I’ve learned from those experiences. And I would invite faculty and administrators not to be reflexively dismissive of student input and activism.

How have you seen the key takeaways of your book taking shape at Oberlin?

Especially following the summer of 2020, there were several exciting developments in the conservatory. There are many aspects of the curriculum that have changed fundamentally, especially in the area of music theory. And it wasn’t that I was leading those efforts or that my book was responsible; key members of the faculty and administration perceived they had a vested interest in doing things differently. The new African American music minor is one such example. It’s exciting for me because at industry conferences, there are conversations that focus on Oberlin and what we’ve been doing.

And it’s not a matter of that usual line that I really hate: We’ve made some changes, but we acknowledge we have much further to go… Obviously, the general conservatory environment remains alienating to many students. But also, some of the changes that have happened over the past few years are really fundamental and unprecedented in conservatory education. I don't see any of our peers doing analogous work. And some of the changes that are still in the works are, frankly, even more disruptive to that standard model in really positive ways.

These changes are especially exciting because they link the process of creative development, of becoming a creative musician, to diversity. There is a tacit acknowledgment that the standard model has evolved to inhibit creativity, partly by suppressing the individual artist’s connection to their own culture and promoting cultural assimilation and homogeneity.

What gives you hope that the state of music education in America is improving and will continue to improve?

The two driving factors in the evolution—or stagnancy—of music education and classical music performance are ideology and finances. It’s ironic, because there are deep conversations that have been proceeding for years on both of these tracks, but the tracks are completely parallel and non-intersectional. It’s difficult to nurture ideological change when doing so seems to invoke existential financial risk, and it’s difficult to invest in new areas when there is ideological opposition. As long as financial models aren’t failing, the incentive is to stick with them, and I totally understand this impulse. Somebody has to be responsible for keeping the lights on; that’s the definition of the bottom line.

However, because America is diversifying rapidly, tastes are changing. As that happens, more conservatories and orchestras will feel sufficient pressure to experiment with new models. If those models are more financially successful than the old one, the old model will be jettisoned. I think the ideological currents have evolved faster than the financial pressures, so there is all this pressure and frustration built up behind a dam.

It’s still not certain what will happen. People have been predicting the demise of American orchestras for decades—actually, since at least the 1950s. Most of these orchestras were founded in the late 19th century, at the very earliest. That means that we’ve been expecting them to go under for the majority of the time they’ve been around. But the demographic change predicted in this country over the next few decades is more radical than anything we’ve seen before. Maybe the change that overtakes conservatory education over that time period will be just as radical.

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