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Creating Strong Connections Between Conservatory & Community: The Case of Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música
Bolivia
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Creating Strong Connections Between Conservatory & Community: The Case of Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música

Authors: John Connolly (UK)

ABSTRACT

The Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música (CPM) in La Paz, Bolivia, functions as a traditional music conservatory while actively facilitating social inclusion in the community. This case study suggests additional opportunities for social innovation. Recommendations include a teaching internship program in local public schools; inclusion of popular art forms within the conservatory curriculum; closer collaborations with existing popular performance organizations; and outreach to CPM alumni. This study also considers ways in which the CPM might maximize its social impact by addressing the disconnect between the art music taught at the conservatory and music from Bolivia and other parts of Latin America, highlighting the potential to use Bolivian music (traditional, art, and popular) in the conservatory as a pedagogical tool for current and future students.

FIELDWORK CONTEXT
2-9 July 2017 | LA PAZ

In July 2017, we spent a week teaching masterclasses and workshops, leading rehearsals, and attending performances at the Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música (CPM) in La Paz, Bolivia. This case study seeks to identify difficulties faced by the institution and offer potential solutions, and is based primarily on interviews that we conducted with CPM staff and students. We also consulted online sources and asked the Academic Director and Rector follow-up questions via email. The CPM is currently in a major transition period, and we hope that the timing of this case study may serve it well.

SUBJECT BACKGROUND
EL CONSERVATORIO PLURINACIONAL

El Conservatorio Nacional de Música de Bolivia, or the National Conservatory of Bolivia, was founded in 1907 under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice and Instruction. It was the country’s first music institution and from its earliest years included a choir and symphonic orchestra. In 1945, the latter would become the National Symphonic Orchestra of Bolivia.

In 1995, the Conservatory received a donation of instruments and other equipment from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. Three years later it moved to its current location, in downtown La Paz, after the former building was evacuated to make way for the construction of the Plaza Consistorial; supporters of the Conservatory had collected 20,000 signatures to ensure its survival. In 2013, the Conservatory changed its name to Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música, offering for the first time an undergraduate music degree to its students.

The school is currently transforming as it becomes more institutionalized. As music has only recently been recognized by the Bolivian government as a professional degree option, the current teaching staff was not required to have music degrees upon hiring. These teachers are expected to be recognized officially as professional musicians after a two-year accreditation process led by the current CPM directors, Beatriz Méndez (Rector) and Sachiko Sakuma (Academic Director), and supported by the Ministry of Education.

While the CPM functions as a traditional conservatory, it actively facilitates social inclusion in the community. The socioeconomic circumstances of most of the students are lower than that typically found at peer institutions in Latin America and the Americas at large. Additionally, some aspects of the pedagogical approach and academic structure at the CPM allow it to play a greater role in student development than at peer institutions. For example, students do not currently receive an accredited degree, and they may study for an indefinite length of time in order to benefit more fully from the mentorship of the conservatory’s faculty. The conservatory is currently working toward accreditation of a pedagogy degree program, as a means of supporting social innovation in Bolivia through their offerings.

CASE ISSUE
CREATING STRONG CONNECTIONS BETWEEN CONSERVATORY & COMMUNITY

The disconnect between the greater La Paz community and the conservatory population presents itself via a multitude of issues—lack of accreditation, isolation from the local musical performance culture, lack of opportunities to impact music education in the public school system—which together have the cumulative effect of isolating the conservatory from its surrounding environment. This disconnect presents significant impediments to the potential development of the conservatory and its students.

The CPM lacks accreditation as an institution of higher education because music has historically not been considered an official degree in Bolivia. While the conservatory strives to provide the highest quality education possible, it has had difficulty establishing itself on an equal footing with colleges and universities that offer significant career advancement opportunities through accredited degree programs. As noted above, the CPM is currently working with the Ministry of Education towards the institutional accreditation of a pedagogy program.

“The conservatory is isolated from what appears to be an active and thriving performance culture in the musical community of La Paz.”

The conservatory is isolated from what appears to be an active and thriving performance culture in the musical community of La Paz. During our short stay, we observed public performances on a daily basis. These performances came in a range of styles, often including instruments taught in the conservatory, and consistently drew sizable audiences. The conservatory, on the other hand, struggles to garner concert attendees even from its own student population. Other performances of art music faced similar challenges in La Paz; for instance, a professional operatic production which premiered during our field assignment was poorly attended despite a strong marketing campaign.

At the intersection of these educational and musical communities, of course, is the network of music educators and music education institutions in La Paz. Given the high standards and intensity of its programs of study, the CPM is well positioned to assume the helm of a unified music education structure for the city. However, the current music education environment in La Paz is not connected in this way. Although professors at the conservatory expressed their concerns regarding the level and methodology of music instruction in the city’s public school system, at present there is no apparent avenue through which they could intervene to inspire improvements.

The CPM has the opportunity to assume a role of institutional leadership in La Paz. Although the city has a vibrant musical life, the conservatory appears to have little relevance for many musicians and audiences. Greater interconnectedness between the conservatory and its cultural environment could inspire mutually beneficial growth for all involved.

ANALYSIS

The following analysis endeavors to consider as many factors as possible that may have influenced, or may influence in the future, the development of the conservatory. This array of internal strengths and weaknesses, along with external opportunities and threats, is commonly known in the management field as a SWOT analysis. It offers a substantive framework by which to view the problems the conservatory faces and assess the impact of potential remedies on the larger system. In general, the conservatory has developed many resources for positive growth and it has the capacity to address several weaknesses immediately.

Strengths

  • Large number of dedicated faculty members invested in students’ success
  • Organized and hard-working program directors
  • New director and rector have the capacity to adapt the current program for long-term success
  • Government support for the arts is moving the conservatory toward a degree program
  • Currently developing its first standardized curriculum
  • Large number of students
  • Central location and long history, well-respected institution
  • Programming of Bolivian compositions in ensemble concerts supports development of cultural identity

Weaknesses

  • Lack of adequate practice rooms and performance space
  • Facilities are not optimized for use as music institution
  • Currently not accredited; Bolivia has no post-secondary music institutions which grant degrees
  • Existing resources not maintained
  • General culture around importance of concert attendance can be improved to include more varied, larger audiences
  • Emphasis on ensemble playing has limited students’ opportunities to develop individual technique; improved technique would benefit ensembles as well

Opportunities

  • CPM is one of very few post-secondary music institutions in Bolivia
  • Brass bands in popular culture generate enthusiasm for instrumental study and performance
  • Potential to work with the public school system to encourage the government to support teaching degree program
  • Training of teachers, and the development of a music education program, would improve the musical training of younger children, feeding more students into the conservatory and allowing them to begin degree programs with stronger fundamental skills
  • Inexpensive options are available to optimize facilities: add space heating, install cost-friendly acoustical treatment so sound from neighboring activities doesn’t interfere, empty rooms currently used for storage and use them for teaching

Threats

  • Opportunities to work in the popular music business draw students away from the conservatory
  • Access to quality instruments, sheet music, and other materials is limited and expensive
  • Local schools do not have adequate music education programs to supply the conservatory with well-prepared new students
  • Low societal opinion of art music in Bolivia leads to a lack of interest in attending, and paying for, live performances

The relationship between the conservatory and popular music activity in the surrounding city is multifaceted, presenting both threats and opportunities. Within a few semesters of study, many instrumental music students have developed sufficient skill sets to be employed as musicians in parades and other professional activities. This creates conflict within the conservatory’s wind departments, as the lure of income and performance opportunities has made it difficult to retain students. Many students do not have the financial security to elect for more advanced studies at the conservatory when such rival opportunities exist.

However, this threat should not be colored entirely negatively. While parade bands may draw some students away from their studies, the same bands are also responsible for inspiring many students to begin their musical pursuits. Furthermore, the popularity of these bands in La Paz presents an opportunity to develop audiences and participants from an already enthusiastic base, rather than building a culture of music appreciation and activity from scratch. With an effective approach, musical rivalries in La Paz may be tapped for the mutual benefit of the conservatory and the society it serves.

The relationship between the conservatory and the La Paz public school system presents another opportunity. In many communities around the world, public schools provide children with early experiences as musicians. These experiences may serve as the inspiration for students to pursue their study of music more seriously at a specialized institution. Schools in La Paz allow students to begin instrument study around the age of eight, creating the possibility of a healthy feeder system of schools sending new students to the conservatory. However, some conservatory faculty members claim that many music teachers in area schools are not well qualified to teach instruments and are therefore not producing effective results. After the conservatory develops a music education curriculum as part of its accreditation process, it should seek to connect schools in need and music teachers in training.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música has been responsible for the formation of many successful Bolivian musicians. The following recommendations may strengthen the present-day work of the CPM and build towards long-term improvements.

As a contextual note, it is important to recognize that CPM offers a specialized area of modern music within its curriculum, which includes the study of popular music. However, the observations in this case study and the recommendations that follow are directed at the need to recognize the potential to use Bolivian music (traditional, art, and popular) in the conservatory as a pedagogical tool for current and future students.

Rather than forbidding interaction with popular music and exclusively encouraging art music in its core academic curriculum, the CPM can harness popular and traditional music as a pedagogical resource. This would be a strategic means of keeping students enrolled in the program and would also hopefully serve to augment the perceived artistic value of, and appreciation for, local music. Many interviewees mentioned that brass students have the highest dropout rate at CPM; linking the academic and popular music scenes could help with this problem. By accepting and valuing popular music, the CPM could also attract more people from the general public to its performances.

“Rather than forbidding interaction with popular music and exclusively encouraging art music in its core academic curriculum, the CPM can harness popular and traditional music as a pedagogical resource.”

As the CPM enters its current transition period, undergraduate students in music education must have the opportunity to apply the skills they develop while studying. An internship requirement in the public school system or in the community would ensure the formation of effective teachers for future generations of CPM students. Taking advantage of the country’s band network, CPM could use teaching internships to create real-life, practical training experiences for its students. Beyond the immediate goal of training future teachers, these internships would help build strong futures for the conservatory and the artist culture of La Paz. The internships would help students develop local networks and would increase the likelihood that they remain in La Paz to teach after graduation. Over time, these teachers would raise the standard of music education throughout the community and bring the schools and conservatory into closer cooperation. Teaching interns might also present solo and chamber music concerts in the schools in order to effectively model musical achievement for their students. These concerts would also motivate CPM students to develop performance skills as solo and chamber musicians, and focus more on technique and artistic presentation.

Strategic partnerships with the community are essential if the conservatory aims to develop a local professional realm in which students and faculty may participate. Creative forms of integrating the community into the CPM could include high school recruitment concerts, community concert series, or church concerts with CPM ensembles. The CPM has put much effort into developing various chamber music ensembles, including Pre-Band, Pre-Orchestra, Symphonic Band, Orchestra, Choir, and Contemporary Music Ensemble. However, the great majority of concerts are held in the conservatory’s Central Hall. By bringing musicians into the community for performance, CPM could provide more opportunities—both educational and professional—to students and become an integral part of the identity of the city, thus transforming the general public’s opinion towards the arts.       

The majority of the CPM faculty, and of the National Symphonic Orchestra, were educated in the conservatory. In order to celebrate alumni success and show current students the potential for long-term music careers, the CPM should track musical opportunities available at the local, national, and international levels and document alumni careers. This information could be gathered and stored in a database at a low cost and would greatly help inform any changes to the curriculum. Once this data has been obtained, the CPM could solicit performers for reunion concerts and invite alumni to donate personal and material resources to current CPM students. To promote mentorship and networking, reunion concerts might include side-by-side performances with alumni and current students. Additionally, recent graduates could give career development workshops in order to outline how alumni have obtained success and provide current students with the practical tools and skills that are essential for professional growth within the Bolivian context.      

CONCLUSION

The Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música has a number of notable strengths but is isolated from the wider cultural, educational, and societal networks of La Paz. This case study identifies a number of areas for improvement, including the lack of accreditation by the Bolivian government, a lack of quality instruments, and the need to cultivate, within the student and local populations, an appreciation of the value of the work being done at the conservatory. Recommendations include the development of an accredited teacher training program in the public schools; inclusion of popular art forms within the conservatory curriculum; closer collaborations with existing popular performance organizations; and outreach to CPM alumni.

The Conservatorio Plurinacional de Música de Bolivia has the potential to become a driving force behind a large network of collaborative partners seeking to improve the cultural scene of La Paz. It is recommended that the CPM focus on addressing the needs of the community and incorporating traditional art forms into the existing curriculum as a gateway to the appreciation of other genres of music.

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