Gunther Schuller and Music Education

Susan Calkins

Part 1

As a boy, Gunther Schuller attended private schools in Germany and New York, benefitting from an education that was rich in liberal arts and musical studies. He was a talented and serious young musician who left school at the age of sixteen to accept a position as French hornist with the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra. Though he may have described himself as “a high school dropout,” it is evident that his departure from a formal education prior to graduating from high school did not hinder his thirst for knowledge nor his growth as a musician. And it was certainly not the end of his association with academia. Schuller went on to gain notoriety as a performer, conductor, composer, record producer, author, and music publisher. He also became an outspoken advocate for music education and an influential academic administrator at New England Conservatory of Music.

 Schuller’s immersion in such a broad range of professional roles provided him with unique insights into a variety of musical topics. When it came to sharing his ideas, he was an enthusiastically dedicated teacher, an articulate writer and public speaker.  One of his first books, Horn Technique (1962), was written as a comprehensive guide on French horn technique. It is still considered an essential resource for developing horn players. He also wrote extensively about jazz theory and history. His books on jazz—Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1986), and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-45 (1991)—continue to serve as definitive resources for serious jazz scholars and musicians. In 1997, he published The Compleat Conductor, an unabashedly pedantic treatise on orchestral conducting. 

The second half of the twentieth century (the 1960s and ‘70s, in particular) was a period of civil unrest and racial discourse in the United States. Educators and school administrators were questioning almost every aspect of traditional pedagogical approaches and practices that had, for decades, served as the foundation of public school education in America. During this period, Schuller seemed to become increasingly interested in issues concerning civil rights and more involved in discussion about music education policy. He believed that music education was an essential element of a well-rounded curriculum. He also recognized that children living in “underserved” communities seemed to lack opportunities or access to quality music programs, in or out of their neighborhood schools. He was outspoken in his conviction that a high quality musical education should be available to every child, regardless of socio-economic or racial background, and he advocated for increased support of general music programs in K-12 schools.

In 1967, Schuller was one of a select group of musicians and educators who were invited to participate in the Tanglewood Symposium, an event sponsored by the MENC (Music Educator’s National Conference). This event took place at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts and consisted of a series of six panel discussions. The purpose of the Symposium was to examine contemporary issues in music education and to define specific curriculum standards that would provide a foundation for public school music programs. The final product of the Symposium was a document entitled The Tanglewood Declaration. It called for comprehensive music programs in public schools and included a list of guiding principles meant to be followed by music education professionals. The Tanglewood Declaration set the stage for the creation of a more comprehensive curriculum guide, the National Standards for Music Education, published in 1994.

In his exchanges at the Symposium, Schuller emphasized the importance of including jazz as an essential element of the music curriculum. Calling jazz an “American Treasure,” he asked school music educators to begin teaching jazz history, theory, and performance practices in their programs. He noted that this would also help in fostering the development of “future enlightened jazz audience[s].” He called upon American educators to establish the study of jazz “as a legitimate academic pursuit.” Participants of the Symposium appeared to have taken Schuller’s recommendations to heart, as a statement in The Tanglewood Declaration strongly encouraged the inclusion of jazz studies in American K-12 school music programs.