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Mark George, President and CEO of the Music Institute of Chicago, on the importance of apprenticeship

Mark George

Mark George

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Updated: May 9, 2014 2:10PM

When I was a young pianist, I was surprised to find my playing improved after I turned pages for my teacher in a series of concerts. What I learned was mostly intangible, but momentous nonetheless.

The notion of apprenticeship is sometimes obscured by our contemporary impulse to professionalize the training of the artist. A well-organized curriculum and the structure of classes and ensembles have their advantages — especially for the student with a more scholarly or academic disposition — but there is something more vital about communicating through music that must be passed on to our young musicians. Seeing up close how music is made, or better yet, participating in the making of music at the highest level is a far more profound enterprise.

The Academy program of the Music Institute of Chicago is a pre-collegiate training ground for very talented young musicians. Academy students regularly matriculate to selective conservatories such as the Juilliard School. But in order to shape the musical artists of the future, the inheritors of a great oral tradition, exposure to the creative process through a kind of professional apprenticeship is imperative.

Close and regular interaction with a dedicated artist faculty is standard. Weekly visits from guest artists, who are often in the midst of touring, are a necessity. However, the most important ingredient, the Holy Grail of artistic training, is when students have the opportunity to work on stage with performing artists, participating deeply in the creative process.

It was absolutely thrilling when cellist Yo-Yo Ma jumped on stage to perform with Academy students at a recent Music Institute Gala, an experience they will never forget. To ensure that meaningful interactions with performing artists are not mere aberrations, the Music Institute of Chicago forges partnerships with such entities as Chicago’s world-class Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The Harris recently co-commissioned a work from the Trey McIntyre Project, a leading force in contemporary dance, and then invited the Music Institute into the process of making the work. Music Institute faculty suggested a number of chamber music works in response to Mr. McIntyre’s artistic vision. A trio for piano, violin and cello by Shostakovich was ultimately selected and students began collaborating with the Trey McIntyre Project in November of last year. “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” inspired by the drawings of Edward Gorey, premieres at the Harris Theater Thursday.

Our students also will join the Trey McIntyre Project in June at Jacob’s Pillow, the epicenter of contemporary dance in the Berkshire Mountains, to perform the work six more times. Experiences such as these are invaluable to aspiring artists. They not only get to perform alongside established masters, but also feel the pulsating energy when a work of art is brought into the world. There are also further, more subtle opportunities to observe the pragmatic aspect of making art, the singular focus, the informal code of ethics of performers and how to treat one another.

Making art matters. It is the art produced by a society that provides the deepest insight into the question of who we are as human beings. It’s my wish that collaborations like these offer hope that life’s most important questions will continue to be explored.

For tickets to “The Vinegar Works” ($25+), visit

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