Supporting Music with a Sense of Purpose

May 20, 2019 by Sarah Achenbach

This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Peabody Magazine.

“The arts have the power to shape society, to give us a sense of purpose.”

Equal parts personal creed and public mission, Nancy Grasmick’s words have inspired her storied career in education — she was state superintendent for Maryland schools from 1991 to 2011 — and her recent $1 million pledge for Peabody’s innovative new Breakthrough Curriculum.

The Breakthrough Curriculum, which is required of every undergraduate music student and combines traditional performance training, career development, and citizen artistry, is educating a new type of conservatory graduate, one Grasmick, PhD (Edu ’80), says will be able to “integrate the arts into any endeavor and [experience] the impact of the arts in every field.”

For Grasmick, arts education pivots on opportunity and access.

“Having artists develop practical skills in entrepreneurship and in using the arts in all kinds of diverse ways, we create citizens who are engaging people in our state and country. This isn’t about coming to Peabody. It’s about Peabody going out into the community,” she says.

Grasmick has served on the Peabody Institute Advisory Board since 2013, but her association with Peabody actually began when she studied piano as a child in the Preparatory, where she currently continues to study the harp. Early training in thinking creatively helped spark a career noted for innovation. The first female state superintendent, she led Maryland’s public schools to a national No. 1 ranking (Education Week, 2009-2013). At the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where she is president of the board and a faculty member, she co-directs a pioneering fellowship program that prepares administrators as leaders in special education. (Her first teaching job was working with hearing-impaired children in Baltimore’s William S. Baer School.) With her generous Peabody gift, Grasmick continues to steer education toward a needed new course.

“The Breakthrough Curriculum is redefining higher education for 21st-century artists in America. Given her long and distinguished career as an education leader, Nancy Grasmick’s gift takes on even greater meaning, demonstrating a firm belief in Peabody’s academic direction and in the importance of this work,” says Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein. “We could not be more grateful to Nancy for her wonderful support.”

As far as Grasmick is concerned, there is no time to waste. “I am concerned about the future of community interest in the arts,” she says.

“Having artists develop practical skills in entrepreneurship and in using the arts in all kinds of diverse ways, we create citizens who are engaging people in our state and country. This isn’t about coming to Peabody. It’s about Peabody going out into the community.”

Nancy Grasmick, PhD (Edu '80) Peabody Institute Advisory Board member

The Breakthrough Curriculum’s cutting-edge approach teaches artists a new flexibility and mindset to expand and build new audiences and musicians. Launched in fall 2017 and already receiving national attention, the program infuses its citizen artistry component with collaboration, entrepreneurial thinking, and leadership skills.

As students progress through the curriculum, they develop and implement a community-based, mentored project. Initiatives have included performances at several branches of the Enoch Pratt Library, city schools including Mary Ann Winterling, Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, the Walters Art Museum, Black Cherry Puppet Theater, and Penn Station.

It was at one such student-led performance in October that Grasmick’s support for the Breakthrough Curriculum was catalyzed, she says. For their community outreach project, seven students planned, rehearsed, and executed an interactive performance in collaboration with community nonprofits Touchpoint and K.E.Y.S. Empowers. The performance location the students chose — Mondawmin Mall, located in the neighborhood so hard hit in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray — was as intentional as their chosen focus for the concert: expressing emotions through music.

After meeting with community leaders in West Baltimore and through their own group planning and research, the musicians discovered that children were not being exposed to different types of music, particularly live performances.

“Emotions are such an important part of music,” explains voice and musicology master’s student Henry Hubbard. “We wanted to create a program about the role of emotions in music and how the children can listen for them.”

They chose nine pieces rich in emotion — including the lush cello solo, “Swan,” from Carnival of Animals by Camille Saint-Saens — and, using emojis printed on the program, encouraged their young audience to circle what emotions they were hearing in the music. The group also led the enthusiastic audience in a rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and post-performance, the children played the instruments and spoke with each Peabody artist.

“How you feel about your own music when you are practicing the same two bars over and over again is very different from when you can see your work reflected in a child’s face,” Hubbard reflects. “The Breakthrough Curriculum reaffirms what I believe — no matter what musicians’ goals are for music, they need to use it for a social good. Music suffers if it is kept in an elite, conservatory setting.”

Grasmick concurs: “I was excited about this because it was so tailored to the community. Many of the young people who watched have talents, and [these performances] can influence them in important ways. That’s why I love the Breakthrough Curriculum. I want our students and the communities they’re serving to know what the possibilities are for the arts and for artists.”

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Topics: Alumni, Peabody Institute, Strengthening Partnerships, Support Scholars