Why it's time to change the music education system
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An hour into our conversation with Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, a Greek-born composer and professor at Cornell University's Department of Music, we try to define the term 'smart'. Trying my best to come up with an explanation detailed enough to cover all the aspects of human existence, I scramble my thoughts to look something like this (in order of how these ideas entered my head):

1. Someone who is aware of what is going on around them and the world — Marianthi finds a better word — well-informed
2. A person who has a passion and is a professional in one's field — Marianthi nods her head and mentions expertise
3. A socially-aware individual who is kind and accepting of other people, cultures and different viewpoints — Marianthi adds open-mindedness and respect to complete the list

While I listed my thoughts in order of how they came to me, it wasn't a coincidence: we often prioritize knowledge when describing someone smart, leaving kindness and respect in the bleachers. "We always go from knowledge and then to the person," the Cornell professor says. "Let's turn this upside down." As a first step, she suggests talking about people's dedication and how much they offer to their discipline instead of judging whether they are good at something.

It would be great to flip this mindset and start looking more at people's kindness, but the education system, and even the application process, is built in a way that focuses a lot on the academic achievements of a student.

Looking at the application procedure, of course there are the personal statements and interviews which allow you to look farther than academics, yet test scores and other number statistics make up a bigger portion of it. "If I had the choice, I would love to skip many of those steps. I'm not interested in numbers," Marianthi admits. "What does an A+ mean? Those things or information may not be relevant."

During her first semester as a new professor at Cornell, the faculty had a meeting that was discussing a particular case. In the United States, you can be admitted to a university with an undeclared major, which allows you to choose your career later on. This student came in undeclared and expressed interest in joining the music department, and although some of Marianthi's colleagues were impressed by his creativity and imagination, they were very unsure because he had a few C- and B+.
Photo of Marianthi, provided by Marianthi
The professor couldn't understand the logic and spoke up, and her colleagues appreciated the fact that she voiced her opinion. In their words, it has always been a struggle of evaluation. If you were wondering, just like me, whether the student got accepted into the department in the end: he was.

Marianthi has developed her own way of finding original voices through thousands of applications. The simple answer would be going straight to the music. "I don't care where this person is coming from, I read the name and go straight to the music, not reading the exams scores or where the student studied before," she shares. Equipped with a good set of speakers and a fresh mind, she begins by trying to sense if there is potential hidden behind the notes. "I am not concerned whether the piece is going to do great, but if this person is daring and taking a risk, and is trying to do it in their own formula," the professor tells me.

After getting a taste of the music, Alexandri reads the personal statement. "I have issues with statements where [the applicants] would outline [their] life from early childhood," she laughs. "You have to understand the proportions, and the first sentence has to shake me in some ways." There are two types of personal statements Marianthi loves to see: the first is a description of what you do and what your work is about, the second being you not knowing what your work is about, wanting to find out what it is about, and giving reason as to why you want to embark on this journey with her in particular. Whatever statement you decide to write, be direct and honest.

The next step is recommendation letters. "There I dig because I'm so skeptical when it comes to 'amazing work, wonderful musician', but there is no explanation what makes this music worth it, or what makes this person so wonderful," Marianthi explains. Since these letters often reflect back the feelings one has about a student and why one is listening to that student's music, she says it is very valuable when the recommender shares his experience with that student because that is something only she or he can do.

With the tests that students take in order to apply to Cornell, graduate students also have exams when they enter the school. "I'm completely against that. I understand why we have such a procedure, [which is] shaped around how smart this person is. We want to find your weak points," Marianthi states.
Photo of modular | nº 3 by Marianthi Papalexandri Alexandri and Pe Lang, which consists of 136 miniature speakers acoustically activated by a rosined motor driven mechanism. Gallery Mario Mazzoli, Berlin.
To change that, she is currently coming up with a list for students once they enter the school — a list where they would write down their choice of composers, artists, ensembles, the festivals they've been to, and the directors they met — just to get to know the person outside of this application process and learn about his or her experience. Here, we talked about the idea of replacing the typical listening test that involves a melodic and harmonic transcription with a guess the sound survey where students are invited to listen carefully to identify sounds and noises. "I want to know the way they think, the way they relate to sound," the professor elucidates.

At the same time, change should not only come from institutions, but also from the students. When Alexandri applied to Goldsmith, she didn't know about Stravinsky's work, but that was the reason why she wanted to go there: she wanted to learn about it. "You might have somebody who knows about Stravinsky, but he just happened to know because it was a part of the things he was supposed to do," she explains. As an educator, she wants to surprise her students, push them into different directions, and be critical. "I love the musicians that ask questions and I love to have a statement of somebody who comes and says: 'Here is what I'd love to ask you in our very first meeting and I can't wait to discuss things like this with you'," the professor conveys. To put it simply, professors want people that make them curious.

Although it would require a lot of re-thinking and years of systematic change, Marianthi thinks the education should be free and available to everyone. "I'd prefer to have a system where it actually welcomes people and gives them a year to come, explore, and try things out," she says. Within this year, students would have a chance to understand whether this is still something they would want to do with their education in the years to come.

The professor takes this idea even further and suggests the concept of people applying to universities not as an individual, but as a group. "What if two people want to be composers together and collaborate as a duo?" she asks. "Can you imagine what you could do if you would apply with two other people, one that has the mind for something, you having the soul for that, and the third having the passion."

While Marianthi knows that some people might think she is crazy she is still looking to introduce the idea in the future. As Steve Jobs said in Apple's famous 1997 Think Different campaign, the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
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