Judith Kogan Nothing But the Best.
Random House, 239 pages, $18.95
Harpist and lawyer Judith Kogan’s Nothing But the Best, an account of student life at the elite and prestigious Juilliard School in New York, is a story not of lives but of deaths. The individual deaths of which she writes are those of the minds and souls of many, if not most, of our best young musicians. The more general death her book all too tragically sketches is that of music as the source of a transcendent commitment and fulfillment.
In many ways, it is Miss Kogan’s subject, and not her treatment of it, which requires that what she writes be taken seriously. Nothing But the Best is hardly a work of art in itself. Written in a banal style, it is prevailingly sentimental, indulging in a characteristic tone of what can only be called mawkish nihilism, in which florid suffering and pain are undergone for no final purpose and with no final meaning.
Moreover, it is easy to dismiss the horror stories with which Nothing But the Best abounds as little more than the resentment that marks most books about the encounter between young people and the institutions that seek to mold them. It can also be said, and correctly, that it has never been easy to become a musician, or to remain one as the infirmities of age replace the energies of youth. The casualties of high-level music education can hardly come as a surprise to those who have known a great number of musicians, and many Juilliard students and graduates among them; in my own case, I was a student at Juilliard from 1959 to 1962, and my wife, the pianist Jeaneane Dowis, taught there from 1957 to 1968.
Nothing But the Best suffers, too, from an absence of a personal voice. Unlike Dancing on my Grave (1986), the remarkable memoir by the dancer Gelsey Kirkland, Miss Kogan’s book lacks the fully authenticated voice which can convey suffering without sentimentality. She has given us little hard information. Peter Mennin and Joseph Polisi, the two Juilliard presidents who served during the period of which Miss Kogan writes, are never mentioned by name or distinguished by their very different policies. The one section which describes a real adult musician— the conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczeski—is vapid and immensely complimentary. The one section which deals with a named student is more consequential, however. It describes Midori, a fourteen-year-old Japanese violin prodigy who can play flawlessly all the most difficult works of the violin repertory but who must always be accompanied offstage by her beloved stuffed Snoopy dog. Everywhere else, the book consists of vignettes of nameless students and teachers, with nearly all distinguishing features confused or obliterated (except in the case of an easily identifiable portrait of Midori’s teacher, Dorothy DeLay) to protect the guilty as well as the innocent.
Yet the horror stories have their effect. Here are students who practice in fear that someone may have planted a razor blade between the keys of a studio piano; here are students who use physical force to eject colleagues from scarce practice rooms; here are faculty members who practice psychological torture on their students and demand fees as high as two hundred dollars for the lessons which for many young people have come to be a requirement for success in the auditions (heard by the very same faculty members) which determine entrance into the school; here are parents for whom the education of their children for musical stardom becomes a cause more important than their children’s very existence; here are administrators who seem to have no goal beyond their own survival and who view the task of leadership as no more than one of creating an environment in which a very few students prosper mightily and the rest fall more or less quietly by the wayside. Here, in short, is a world closely suggesting the seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s description (in Leviathan ) of the state of nature: “a condition of war of everyone against everyone ... no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Miss Kogan makes clear that at Juilliard it is not the muse who rules but the bitch goddess success. Her words form an indictment of professional music education not just at Juilliard but wherever career goals rule the roost:
Those who play one of the big three—piano, violin and cello—focus practice on solo literature. They, at least at first, plan on solo careers. Anything less, they believe, represents failure. Those who play wind and brass instruments focus on solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts. They plan on careers in major symphony orchestras. Everyone practices to build facility and accumulate repertoire. Any other demands—even musical ones—are annoying distractions. Pianists fulfill the chamber music requirements with undemanding accompanying or soloistic sonata-playing. Theory and ear training are considered classes to be endured. Music history is considered worthwhile only when it deals with the pieces the students play. Little is expected in the classrooms. Teachers spoon-feed students and apologize for minimal demands. Tests insult the intelligence. Cheating is commonplace.
How are these lucky students selected for such a focused education? Just as the outcome of Juilliard study is judged by only one standard, the entrance requirement is single-minded. What Miss Kogan so devastatingly puts down on paper has been common knowledge for generations of talents:
Juilliard does not care whether they can tie their shoes, crack an egg or boil a pot of water. Juilliard does not care whether they can screw in a light bulb, mend a fence or feed a cat. Juilliard does not seem to care whether they can put an English sentence together either. Juilliard cares about whether they can do one thing: perform.
It must be said that in this regard, at least, Juilliard seems to choose well. The best of Juilliard students—-and Juilliard, it cannot be repeated too often, is only interested in furthering those whom it has chosen as the best—have an enviable record in making solo careers.
But even the best young people can hardly live by success alone. What about student social life, that carefree artistic paradise about which Henry Murger wrote so enticingly (and which Puccini, following him, set to music so lyrically) in Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1848)? Once again Miss Kogan paints a dismal picture:
Social life is strange. On the one hand, students are drawn to one another by common goals and problems. They are like members of a fanatic sect. But these devotees are not equal in the eyes of the Juilliard god, so alliances yield tension as often as solace. Talk of success rankles friends who always consider the news in light of their own circumstance. Sensitivity and suspicion are heightened. Intimates one day don’t acknowledge each other the next.
What happens to these students after they leave school? Here Miss Kogan, though conscious of the perils and miseries of adult artistic life, seems to waffle. Some former students, now on their own, discover themselves; some find deeper meaning in the music they have previously only superficially regarded; many find the embarrassment of not making a grand career difficult to admit to others (and, I suspect, even more difficult to admit to themselves). In predictable (and sentimental) fashion, Nothing But the Best ends with the story of an ex-prodigy pianist for whom success as a young artist has not made up for a feeling of inner emptiness. Then, the young pianist achieves a personal epiphany while
playing a Mozart concerto on the other side of the world .... During the concert he felt as if something—as if Mozart himself—were leading him by the hand. The force overcame him. He went with it, as if he were on automatic pilot. He had never felt anything like it. It was liberating .... He realized then that it was all worth it.
But the book ends as befits a book about people for whom the school experience is everything. Miss Kogan’s very last words describe how her Mozart-saved hero, needing to warm up before a Lincoln Center audition, manages to hold onto a Juilliard practice room in the face of a student’s attempt to take it away from him. After such victories, one might well ask, what salvation?
Like the sentimentality of Miss Kogan’s ending, the official reaction to the book at Juilliard has been predictable: the school bookstore, or so New York magazine tells us, has refused to stock the book, finding that it “inaccurately and unjustifiably portrays” the school. And indeed the Juilliard administration could hardly have been expected to like such an unflattering picture of its activities. Whether it is a good idea to call attention to the book by banning its sale on school property is another matter. Discount bookstores in the neighborhood will probably find a way to fill the Juilliard students’ literary needs—at least in this regard.
There can be little doubt, it seems to me, that Nothing But the Best is accurate in describing the joyless life of the best music students today. Perhaps Juilliard, given its location at the center of the American classical music business, is more airless than the Philadelphia-based Curtis Institute of Music and the numerous less high-pressured institutions (almost all associated with universities and colleges) across the country. Perhaps, too, the very success on the part of Juilliard in graduating glamorous students has further narrowed its educational scope and increased its already single-minded concentration on producing winners.
All this may be—and I suspect is—true; Juilliard is a tough place to study and teach, doubtless it is a tough place to run. And yet fairness demands that the misery at Juilliard be put in the context in which serious music is being done today. Under unparalleled attack from popular entertainment, the present product of the continuously increasing atrophy of a once bounteous creative tradition, and the target of a kind of praise from the ever more ignorant that can only be characterized as (in Arnold’s lapidary phrase) “the grand name without the grand thing,” serious music now places an impossible demand on its education. This demand, made by thoughtful musicians everywhere, is nothing less than that the shortcomings of music as an art and as a profession be made up through education, that every failure of ideals and practice be remedied through a pure training of the young.
As important as education is, it can hardly be expected to be more than the messenger that brings the news about life. The emptiness of a Juilliard education is no more than the emptiness of most lives in music; the brutality of the behavior of Juilliard students and Juilliard faculty is no more than the dog-eat-dog behavior of professionals who find fulfillment in glamour and career success, rather than in wisdom.
Judith Kogan has written a book about one aspect of musical life, a book that without advancing a remedy accurately describes the symptoms of the disease. The sad truth is that Juilliard is the best—the best of a bad situation. Because the problem of serious music is systemic, not local, the cure cannot be expected to come from one school, or from many schools. Increased attention to academic subjects, a wider knowledge of the musical literature, a lessening of the purely competitive atmosphere: all these, helpful in themselves, will not affect students’ perception of the world into which they must graduate. It is the world of music that must be changed, and this change can only come from those who have responsibility for music, and for civilization. As so often in art, change, to be effective, must come from the top.