Bienen School of Music Strategic Plan

In December 2011, the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music unveiled a new strategic plan that will guide the School’s efforts to enhance its position as one of the nation’s leading music institutions. The product of a collective undertaking that benefited from the participation of Bienen School faculty, students, staff, alumni and advisory board members, this far-reaching document outlines the School’s vision for the coming decade.

The Bienen School’s strategic planning process commenced in spring 2010 with a series of School-wide forums seeking to identify issues of fundamental importance to its future and to formulate a planning framework. Next, relevant data from a wide range of internal and external sources was collected and synthesized. After the School’s broader community provided feedback on the strategic framework, two workgroups were formed: Identity and Areas of Distinction and Preparing the 21st-Century Artist-Scholar: Curriculum, Leadership, and Musicianship. The Identity and Areas of Distinction workgroup assumed responsibility for engaging the question of institutional self-definition to delineate the School’s greatest current and potential strengths. It was hoped that this body would suggest ways for emphasizing or enhancing these areas of distinction as a strategy for establishing, amplifying, and communicating the School’s uniqueness within the ranks of elite music institutions. The broad concerns of the Identity and Areas of Distinction workgroup were, in turn, complemented by the more precisely focused inquiries of the Preparing the 21st-Century Artist-Scholar group. This committee was charged with the task of determining how the School could improve the training of its students so they are optimally prepared to succeed as musicians of the 21st century.

The two workgroups met throughout the 2010-11 academic year and submitted white papers to Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery in October 2011. The analyses and recommendations generated by these workgroups laid the foundation for the School’s strategic plan, which Dean Montgomery completed by developing a series of initiatives in response to the white papers. Organized in accordance with the main topics addressed by each committee, the plan is summarized below. 

I. Identity and Areas of Distinction

Creativity and Analytical Skills

Northwestern provides Bienen School students with an education of substantial scope and superior quality, a combination that attracts the most academically elite students. This pairing of an outstanding academic education with renowned musical training reflects the University’s dual emphasis on creative work and research, as described in the University’s recently published strategic plan. It also illustrates the NU branding and communications workgroup’s conclusion that Northwestern, unlike many other innovative world-class institutions, is distinguished by its strengths in both creative and analytical thinking.

Northwestern’s embrace of excellence in creative and analytical endeavors is well exemplified by the dual degree programs and double majors offered by the Bienen School and pursued by many of our students. Although the option to pursue dual degrees and double majors has consistently appealed to bright students with multiple interests, it has become an even more powerful differentiating factor today. Within the current educational marketplace, students (and their parents) seek curricular flexibility as a strategy for cultivating varied skill sets that will be applicable to a broad range of career paths. Similarly, within the increasingly fierce post-graduation competition for desirable jobs and spots in graduate or professional schools, students possessing multidisciplinary backgrounds are valued due to their ability to address complex problems from myriad perspectives.

Because the academic flexibility offered by the Bienen School stands as one of our signature features, we must cultivate an environment that actively supports students interested in pursuing dual degrees and double majors. To encourage students to maintain multiple academic interests, we will reaffirm the importance of this option at every level of the School, from the ranks of our senior faculty to our incoming freshmen.

Brass Program

As the Identity and Areas of Distinction workgroup unanimously agreed, Northwestern’s brass program represents an area of excellence for the School. To draw increased attention to this program, the School proposes to sponsor a brass festival featuring Bienen School faculty and students along with brass musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. The festival will attract leading professionals and students from across the globe, strengthen collaborative relationships between the Bienen School and two leading Chicago cultural institutions, and bring renewed acclaim to the brass program.

Institute for New Music

Perhaps the most exciting idea to emerge from the strategic planning process was the realization that the Bienen School is poised to claim the field of new music as a major area of strength. We will accomplish this objective by launching an Institute that will create a physical, intellectual, and performance hub for the new music community within and beyond Northwestern. In developing its Institute for New Music, the School will expand the range of music it addresses by engaging the full spectrum of contemporary music. Eschewing the conventional distinction between “art” and “popular” music, the Institute will explore the persistent but not readily apparent dialogue between musical genres that are often perceived to inhabit antithetically opposed aesthetic worlds.

In heightening its focus on new music, the School proceeds from a strong foundation and already possesses several key assets on which it has yet to capitalize. These include a large corps of talented performance students; the Contemporary Music Ensemble; a respected composition faculty; an internationally renowned Music Library that contains unrivaled holdings in the area of contemporary music; the biennial Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, which regularly brings highly acclaimed composers to campus; and proximity to Chicago and its thriving new music scene.

Employing a variety of methods to establish itself as a significant intellectual and artistic force, the Institute will sponsor concerts and festivals, organize lectures and symposia, host residencies, commission new works, and encourage new music performances by students, faculty, and guest artists. The benefits of such an initiative will be enormous. First, because no other leading music institution boasts a program or institute dedicated to the study and performance of new music, the Institute will help the School secure an identity that is fully distinct from those of its competitors. Second, it will yield important educational advantages for students by exposing them to a variety of musics and enhancing their training in new musical techniques. Third, by equally engaging our performance andacademic units, the Institute will stimulate frequent interactions between these departments and foster a more coherent sense of community within the School. And fourth, the Institute will augment the School’s ability to speak powerfully to new audiences by increasing interest in and attendance at its events.

Voice and Opera Program

Following recent additions to the voice and opera faculty and increased efforts to provide master classes by major guest artists, the School’s voice and opera program has been significantly strengthened. To accelerate the program’s upward trajectory, the School will pilot a new opera fellowship initiative that will invite post-master’s-degree singers and/or veteran opera performers to sing special roles in the School’s winter and spring operas. This program will provide two main benefits for our students. Most importantly, it will expand the School’s repertoire by casting guest singers in roles that our voice students are unable to sing because their voices have not sufficiently matured. Further, because our guest singers will also act as mentors, our students will have the opportunity to learn directly from more experienced performers.


As with voice and opera, piano is a program critical to the School’s overall success. The Bienen School currently boasts a strong piano faculty, and the recently instituted biennial Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance has enriched the program by providing performances and master classes from world-class artists. The piano program hasn’t reached its full potential, however, because it lacks resources for attracting piano applicants from Asia, which has become the world’s leading producer of elite piano students.

According to Music Trades magazine, China’s population of more than 1.3 billion contains an estimated 40 million piano students, and piano sales in China are the strongest in the world. Additionally, fervent interest in the piano radiates through much of the Asian continent, where piano study is regarded by parents as a noble venture that may help improve their children’s lives and is supported by political leaders through the creation of government-subsidized conservatories. This interest, and the elite artistry that has developed from it, has been widely recognized at many leading American music institutions, which successfully recruit top Asian piano prospects by offering special scholarships specifically designated for international students. This dynamic is reflected in the piano enrollments at peer institutions such as the Eastman School of Music, where approximately 75 percent of the piano student population hails from Asia, and Juilliard, where the figure is about 50 percent. Yet in the Bienen School, international students (not all of whom are necessarily Asian) account for only 35 percent of total piano enrollment.

Due to the University’s limitations on merit-based scholarships and aid to international applicants, the Bienen School does not currently offer sufficient financial support to attract a significant number of outstanding Asian pianists. If the School were able to provide merit-based financial support as an integral part of the piano program, however, we are confident that we would quickly become competitive in vying for many of the best piano prospects from Asia. We therefore propose to establish four full-tuition undergraduate scholarships for these students.

This initiative would generate significant dividends for the School. Most obviously, it would substantially raise the caliber of our piano students. Additionally, once we have committed resources to the sustained recruitment of the best Asian piano prospects, we believe our effort to fill a long-standing vacancy on our piano faculty will be addressed. The recruitment of gifted Asian piano players will thus initiate a chain reaction that will elevate a good program to a greater level of prominence.


Recognizing that racial minorities are severely underrepresented in the Bienen School’s enrollment, we will use our string program as a platform for pursuing a more diverse community. Here the School will initiate an effort to attract minority string players to the School by partnering with the Sphinx Foundation, the brainchild of Aaron Dworkin, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient who currently serves as a member of President Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee. Since its inception in 1996, the foundation has reached more than 85,000 elementary and high school students in its quest to increase the participation of blacks and Hispanics in the world of classical music. Beginning in August 2012, the Bienen School will join Oberlin Conservatory as one of two national host sites for the Sphinx Performance Academy (SPA), an intensive two-week, full-scholarship chamber music and solo performance program for talented, precollege black or Hispanic string musicians who lack resources and access to quality musical training. Because SPA has proven enormously successful in preparing many of its alumni for entrance into the nation’s top music schools, we believe the Bienen School’s status as a “home base” for the program will provide us with an eventual advantage in recruiting promising minority string musicians.

Webcasts and Touring

The Bienen School has long sought to extend its reach beyond the Northwestern campus in an effort to engage theoutside world. Through our pioneering Davee Online Media Library, we already lead our peers in using technology to disseminate performances and master classes via webcasts and online archives. In the coming years, these efforts will be expanded, as will our search for special student performance opportunities, such as our annual Millennium Park concert, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts performance, and WFMT-FM radio series broadcasts. We will also amplify our presence off campus by providing financial and organizational support for student ensembles invited to perform in major national or international festivals, conferences, and other high-profile events.


II. Preparing the 21st-Century Artist-Scholar: Curriculum, Leadership and Musicianship

Business and Entrepreneurship

Based on feedback from the alumni survey, we have concluded that the School must provide improved training in music business. Among graduates ranging from 2001 to 2010, 88 percent identified the acquisition of a solid foundation in this field (including areas such as finance, contracts, negotiations, and fundraising) as either “important” or “very important” for the development of 21st century music careers. Yet when asked how well the School prepared them in music business, the vast majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the School‘s performance.

As a strategy for enhancing our business training, the School will pursue solutions within and beyond the classroom. First, we intend to require a business course for all of our undergraduates. While the completion of a business course will not be required for graduate students, they will be encouraged to enroll in an elective course on this topic. Second, the Bienen School has also initiated discussions with a local arts administrator regarding teaching a course in entrepreneurship next year; the course would be coordinated with career workshops and performances. Third, the School will also pursue discussions with the Kellogg School of Management regarding the possibility of offering a business course or certificate program in arts administration and entrepreneurship. The Kellogg brand would significantly add to the value of such offerings for students while also providing a means for the School to differentiate itself from competing programs.

Outside the classroom, the Bienen School has enhanced career advising for our students by partnering with University Career Services (UCS). This collaboration will broaden the spectrum of career advice currently offered to students and assist the School in meeting the needs of students pursuing careers inside or outside the world of performance. Toward that end, UCS will organize a variety of workshops (on topics such as résumé writing and interviewing skills) to support general student career development while the School will provide expert guidance in music career development through faculty counseling and a year-round series of presentations by prominent alumni and other nationally recognized arts leaders.

To further amplify our work in the area of career planning, the School will encourage the implementation of formal student internship programs with the Ravinia Festival, Grant Park Music Festival, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and other major area arts organizations. In the past, such internships have emerged on an ad hoc basis through student initiative. Because such internships can mutually benefit Northwestern and its partner institutions, we believe the opportunity exists to expand the quantity and quality of these positions.

Music Technology

Surveys and discussions also indicated that the Bienen School must provide improved training in music technology. Of students graduating from 2001 to 2010, 74 percent rated music technology as either “important” or “very important” in preparing for a music career in the 21st century. But only about 50 percent of that cohort registered satisfaction with the School’s efforts in this area.

To address this deficiency, the School has revamped its introductory music technology course. During the winter and spring quarters of 2012, MUS TECH 259, Introduction to Technology, will be offered with revised course content that will address a broad array of topics, including notation software, web technology, and sound recording. To ensure that the course is meeting student needs, the School will evaluate it on a quarterly basis by using varied criteria such as enrollment figures, student comments (CTECS), and faculty observations. Similar assessment methods will be utilized for MUS TECH 322, Recording Techniques, which will be offered in fall 2012.

Last modified on 2/4/14