With music school’s closing, what becomes of dreams?

As MPR News reported, McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul is closing.

“In the near future we hope to be able to collaborate in teaching contemporary music with one or more of these major universities. But for now, McNally Smith College of Music as a small private school of music will no longer be able to offer our programs in the current environment,” Board chair Jack McNally wrote in a letter to staff.

What will become of people who dream?

The school is located across the street from the World Headquarters of NewsCut and the students often cut through the MPR parking lot on their way to and from McNally Smith.

They were a constant reminder that people still chase dreams despite the odds and despite the cacophony from the 2017 economy that says those days are over; chase dreams on the side. What kids need are jobs that can support them. Passion is so yesterday.

Each student carrying a guitar case was like the man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, standing in front of a tank with only his briefcase, a comforting assurance of human determination.

I have no idea what the odds are that a well-trained musician can find a career in the field; given that enrollment has declined, perhaps the tank has rolled over the man with the briefcase.

I should have known that times were tough at the school; I haven’t seen that many students in recent months, accounting for my growing despair that we are a changing civilization and that our golden age of dreaming is vanishing.

Increasingly, it feels as if art — the only real yardstick by which an intelligent civilization can be measured — is being snuffed out. Dreams die hard, but they can die. Chasing one’s passion is exhausting.

There are other places to learn music, of course. But I’ll miss the occasional reminder that hope still fuels a generation that can’t make things any worse than mine has.

  • Kellpa07

    I think you’re too pessimistic about the status of art and music. The best stuff is usually found in basements and garages, not in institutions. Much of that gets put on the web, which has its own issues, but the closing of M & S, while sad for the staff and students is a sign of a shift of where music is being learned and created, not that it will stop being created.

    • No doubt the best stuff is in garages, but do the artists who create it just teach themselves?

      • Gary F

        Ask Springsteen, Strummer, and Westerberg.

        • Formerly Certain

          Or The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, etc. Heck, most well-known popular songwriters and performers. They did not go to a trade school to learn their craft.

      • >>do the artists who create it just teach themselves?<<

        Usually not.

      • Kellpa07

        Back when I had more time, I learned an astounding amount from Youtube. Many, many lessons are available, that is likely part of what led to the closing of M/S. Lots of musicians still teach private lessons, and friends in bands teach each other.

        • jon

          Youtube, and learning from a friend both relegate the arts back to a state of “chase dreams on the side” Bob mentioned above… (imho)

          When the economy moves away from the arts, the arts will find away to move away from the economy… but it’s not necessarily going to beneficial to either.

          At the same time we live an economy where many people going from paycheck to paycheck can’t afford to fund the arts… image the music scene the boomers grew up with had the boomers not had a collection of albums funding the bands making that music…

          Something had to give, and I’ve no doubt artforms will survive, some might struggle or even be left in the past to be rediscovered in the future… but surviving is a long way from thriving…

          • Kellpa07

            Beautiful art and music was created long before arts education was at all institutionalized. Starving artists have been the norm for most of human existence. The only way to avoid that is pay for it when you find it has value.

          • Jay T. Berken

            “Beautiful art and music was created long before arts education was at all institutionalized.”

            Two Things:
            1) In those times, markets weren’t even set up for restaurants and shops also.
            2) Which brings me to my main point, they were institutionalized because people were literally working for their food, clothing and shelter, and didn’t have the amenities today to produce art when it was dark.

      • Al

        Some do, but the networking that happened at McNally is the part you can’t get elsewhere.

        • RBHolb

          There is also the moral support of teachers and fellow students. Few things can kill a dream faster than a belief that you’re the only one who thinks it’s worthwhile.

        • crystals

          Yes – this is exactly it. My musical sibling has had so many amazing opportunities thanks to the people he got to know at McNally. He didn’t end up finishing there, but the relationships & networks from his time there have been life changing.

      • KTFoley

        The picture of artists as a basement group teaching themselves is optimistic for genres that are expected to progress from whatever was created before.

        To be sure, that’s where people seek out whatever comes after — skateboard moves, techno, anime. That’s the art that emerges by making its own rules.

        As sure as it can’t be dismissed, it can’t hold out much hope as a method to sustain and extend classical art forms. The music teachers and choral directors that bring music instruction to everyone else come from places like McNally Smith, as does the next generation of classical musicians & performers.

        Don’t go thinking that M-S is shackled to the past, though: Dessa and Jeremy Messersmith are both on the faculty there.

        • Jay T. Berken

          “That’s the art that emerges by making its own rules.”

          Can you honestly say this?! They had to get a base from somewhere, look at Pete Townsend. Yes you may have some prodigies that learn by themselves, but the Beatles didn’t, nor the Stones or Zeppelin. Everything is stolen in some sort from formal education other arts.

          • KTFoley

            I think we’re in agreement, actually, as captured by the phrase “expected to progress from whatever was created before.”

          • Formerly Certain

            Certainly the Beatles did teach themselves from listening to popular music. The Beatles did not go to a trade school to learn to do what they did.

  • John

    At one time, I had on my desk, somewhere in the rubble, a coffee table book of photos from Yugoslavia of concrete art installations/monuments created during the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s – commemorating WWII. The book is called Spomenik, after the name given to the monuments.

    I initially bought it because the idea was fascinating, the photos were well composed, and the massive hulking structures are interesting in their own way.

    What I eventually took away from it was the idea that no matter what suppression of the arts is happening (be it conscious and political, as it was there and then, or incidental to an absolute focus on monetary value over all other, as seems to be happening here and now), art will still happen. It’s never been an easy thing to be an artist – Even during the glory days of the Italian Renaissance, people like Rafael and Michelangelo (and the other Ninja Turtles) had royal sponsors that funded their lives and work. (That’s why all the people in the religious paintings of the time look an awful lot like the portraits of the royal families that commissioned them – a not so subtle nod to the hand that feeds you).

    Bottom line – artists gotta create. I have to believe that is true – because otherwise what’s the point? And artists are gonna create – whether they get paid or not. It’s just a question of how they’re going to survive while they do. And the beautiful thing about artists is that they’re infinitely creative, and will continue to figure out new ways to survive that the less creative among us (myself included) would never consider.

    • Formerly Certain

      So kids go into debt $40,000 a year and six years after graduation from McNally (according to Niche) they are on average only making $30,000/yr , and not even necessarily in music. Just working. That’s just above minimum wage.

      • John

        What does that have to do with anything I wrote above?

        Or are you agreeing with me that artists have traditionally, and continue to have, a difficult path when it comes to surviving as a creator of art?

        • Formerly Certain

          It was more a comment on the overall McNally issue. But I agree with you: earning a solid living as an artist has always been nearly impossible. Very high chance of poverty. Seems unethical to imply that spending $40,000 a year at a trade school will change that. You end up graduating as an artist, with nearly the same risk of poverty and in great debt as well.

          Now, if McNally could show that the majority of students went on to earn a living at performing, songwriting, record engineering after attending, that would be a different story.

  • Jim in RF

    It’s diminished but not all dead. There’s a good school (I’m told) in my adopted town of River Falls, and at least one in Minneapolis. There’s a role for this. When I was growing up in Southern Minn., my little town’s schools had 4 music instructors: 2 in the elementary and 2 in the high school. Try to find a district w/1k kids with 4 instructors now (don’t get me started on how many assistant football coaches they have). You have to learn notes and chords and fingering or the garage band is just noise and shouting. The private schools fill in where the public schools can’t, especially if the kid wants to learn something other than a traditional marching band instrument.

  • ec99

    Sorry to be the Grinch, but at a time when universities are viewed as job-training institutes, and any major which does not lead to a big starting salary is useless, it’s not surprising that the arts and music are underrated. Even Obama made fun of Art History. When school districts push bond issues, what is the explicit threat if they fail? “We’ll get rid of music and art courses.” Never we’ll dump football and hockey.

    • John

      So, threatening to drop music and art is an effective way to get bonds passed.

      Does that imply that they carry some weight?

      • ec99

        Among some parents, yes. But you can bet “We’ll, dump football” would assure a huge yes vote.

        • John

          Would it? Or would people call the bluff? Because, they’re not dumping football.

          • ec99

            I am unaware of the “football threat” ever being invoked.

          • John

            Administration doesn’t have the guts. They’ll cut Math and English classes first.

          • ec99

            Combine administration with guts and you have an oxymoron.

    • At least music and art won’t give you brain damage like football.

      • ec99

        True. Nor will it cost parents thousands in sports costs, believing their little Johnny is destined for the pros.

  • Formerly Certain

    A for-profit trade school. Tuition towards the end was something like $5,000 per semester. Students got government loans to afford the tuition. Did not seem to be any real proof available that most graduates of McNally actually got jobs in the industry or made a living as songwriters and performers. One figure I saw on Niche was that only 41% graduated, and after 6 years the average salary for a graduate was just over minimum wage, at $30,000. And just “working” not “working in their field of study”. I think this was a case where some good investigative journalism (MPR??) could reveal a different story. People spent a LOT of money. What did they get? Now they have to pay back the loans forever.

    • Knute

      Some info from the school’s website (http://www.mcnallysmith.edu/financial-aid-office)

      Total Estimated Cost of Attendance per school year (Estimated totals for two semesters, or eight months):

      Tuition: $28,400
      Fees (avg.): $900
      Books: $1000
      Room & Board: $6260
      Transportation: $520
      Personal Expenses: $2730
      Total: $39,810

      • QuietBlue

        That’s lower than most private colleges and universities in the state these days.

        • Formerly Certain

          But it is a trade school. Not a North Central-accredited university or college.

    • Jay T. Berken

      “Did not seem to be any real proof available that graduates got jobs in the industry”

      Tell Steve Jobs that arts schools have no real proof that graduates get jobs. He went to Reed College, and said the most important class he took was calligraphy.

      • John

        I could be wrong, but I don’t think Jobs was exactly sitting on the middle of the bell curve.

        • Jay T. Berken

          He is an example…a big example. There are many that we are not aware of.

        • Rob

          Tubular bell?

      • QuietBlue

        I can believe it. I’ve worked with a bunch of people with arts degrees of various types over the years who’ve gone on to have successful careers, even if what they end up doing is not directly related to their degree. The idea that you need to work in field X if you have a degree in X, or that you can’t work in that field without that degree, is often not how it works out in the real world.

        • Formerly Certain

          That might work for an accredited university or college; not a for-profit trade school like National American University or McNally.

          • QuietBlue

            It’s not about a particular school; it’s about an arts education in general.

      • Formerly Certain

        I meant there was no proof from McNally as to how many students who paid all that money actually made a living as songwriters and performers, or even engineers, in the music business. Google it. See testimonials from students, who now have to live with that debt.

    • crystals

      I think this is a case where multiple things are true. There were serious flaws with the school in terms of finances and operations, to the extent that I think many people who know McNally well aren’t totally surprised with this news (just really sad about how fast it happened and how students & staff are being totally screwed with zero notice) *and* there were really great opportunities for the students there to thrive and make critical connections in the music industry.

    • adammm

      I’m with you @minneapolismusician:disqus. I feel like people were strangely less wistful when Brown College closed its doors. They trained graphic designers even! Also, for the folks complaining about the current cultural devaluation of art/implications of this being cause by anti-intellectualism, I suspect the biggest factor here is the Obama-era crack down on students being able to use their federal loans to pay tuition a many for profit colleges (which was also a big part of why Brown College and many others closed their doors). Obama (rightfully, IMO) worked to restrict federal student loan money from flowing to for profit, often predatory, colleges asking Ivy League tuition prices for non-accredited degrees and pitiful job placement rates. As was noted elsewhere, $28K yearly tuition + everything else coming to nearly $40K total is nuts if the job placement isn’t there.

      • Formerly Certain

        Totally agree, adammm.

        This is about for-profit trade schools, which could not exist without government student loans to provide the cash for tuition. Many existed simply to siphon government loan cash.

        These for profit “colleges” often cited job placements counting any graduate who had a job, even if it was Starbucks. The Obama administration was correct to call a stop to this.

        I think this is what is closing McNalley as well. They have not been able to place students in jobs that they trained for at McNalley.

        • adammm

          I’d be curious to see what enrollment looked like pre- and post-Obama era changes. I suspect there is a strong correlation (and probably some causation too). I came up in the local music scene, and am someone who values art and music, and the contributions they give to society, so for anyone reading this please don’t think it is the case otherwise. I think this is honestly pretty much textbook predatory behavior (using someones dreams of making art to extract money from them) to expect someone to shell out $120K for a career that will be a struggle for sure. The love for this place seems to speak more to marketing and branding than anything else. Close ties with taste makers goes a long way I guess.

          • Formerly Certain

            adammm, I was part of the Minneapolis music scene starting in 1982. Pat Donohue of Prairie Home Companion auditioned for me when I was part of the Coffeehouse Extempore organization, one of the oldest coffeehouses in the United States, on the West Bank. I recommended we give him a gig.

            I know the music business and how hard it has always been to earn a decent living as a performer or songwriter. Seems like you do as well.

            Maybe that’s why both you and I are angry at the unethical business model at McNalley-Smith. Selling dreams for a life of debt. And pocketing the cash. The owner knew the reality.

      • The thread has gone from art to math. It’s very much a metaphor for the entire question of passion and self-worth.

        • adammm

          Funny you should mention that. As a for profit entity, it would seem that MS was using passion for music for (financial) enrichment purposes. Seems like by their math, it’s not worth it to the owners. Or perhaps they could have turned to a non-profit vs. shutting the doors. MacPhail has been doing pretty well as a non-profit for the last century or so.

        • Formerly Certain

          I am sympathetic to the dream since I am a professional musician. But McNally touted a dream and ignored hard reality, to the detriment of many who went into great debt. It’s a bit like Trump University if you really look at what happened. Maybe not from the faculty, but from the business owner. Unethical to take money for something you cannot deliver. And the owner had to know.

  • Jay T. Berken

    I am currently reading a really good book by Suzy Hansen called Notes on a foreign country. It is a kind of memoir that of moving to Turkey as a foreign correspondent after growing up in a suburban town in New Jersey, going to school at Penn and living in New York. She was interested in Turkey before she was assigned there based off her readings of author James Baldwin, a black gay man in the ’60s feeling more comfortable being himself in Turkey than New York City.

    Hansen had gone to Turkey with her prejudgments and her American education that “foreigners viewed Americans with admiration and longing…citizens would come to hunger for the advantages, the cars and fashions and prosperity, of the United States”. But as she lived and talked and experienced the people of Turkey, she became disillusioned of the “American Dream” as a propaganda and how it rang hollow in life.

    Hansen came across an academic Eric Bennett uncovering the history of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop which taught a “philosophy of fiction privileged the sanctity of personal experience -the preciousness of the individual- OVER the idea that our identities are shaped by the community or political systems or larger historical forces, but in the end undermined true artistic freedom.”

    The American society in a hole has mostly been about the expansion of land, wealth and personal identity, and we lack the moral high ground by believing that we are the end all be all of the highest society which everyone around the world strives for which we try to propagate to them. And it is hogwash.

    By selling a gadget with the ‘hand of the market forces’ to efficiently extradite said gadget into new expansion markets for the sake of selling more and more for shareholders does nothing for the evolution of our society. I helps some attain a living and “survival” to keep up our status in the American Dream, but all in all it rings hollow and does not give us passion for life.

    With the closing of McNally Smith will not effect most of us financially, but it does bring upon us the further hollowing out of the arts in pursuit if other degrees which are more market worthy of an American society. An American society that cares more about the mighty dollar than the beauty of life and how collectively as a society we can advance through experience and art.

  • Formerly Certain

    What becomes of one’s dreams of attending a popular-music trade school and then having a successful career as a songwriter or performer in the popular music business?

    Answer: The dreams meet the tragic reality: that it was the same odds as becoming an NBA basketball star. Almost impossible to do. And spending $40,000 a year tuition is not going to change your odds in a meaningful way.

  • Splish Splash

    If you have a federal loan for the school, the Minnesota Department of Higher Education says you can file a claim for a closed school discharge from your loan within 120 days after the closure. That claim is through the U.S. Department of Education.

    And as a lifelong artist, art has always been on the side, enduring along with my engineering, marketing and law degrees.