Carnegie Mellon University

School of Music

Where artistry and innovation share center stage


March 28, 2012


By Joshua Falk, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
Tickets: $12-$25; Online or 412-456-6666.


When Andrew Carnegie established his technical school in 1900, it offered brick-laying classes and didn’t even award academic degrees. But it wasn’t long after that the arts found their place.

The School of Music was founded in 1912 at Carnegie Mellon University’s predecessor, Carnegie Institute of Technology. It will mark its 100th anniversary with a gala concert with the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic and Choirs at the Benedum Center, Downtown, with a repeat at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

“Throughout the 1890s there was a sense that Pittsburgh needed to match its cultural offerings to its financial and industrial offerings,” said Robert Fallon, assistant professor of musicology at CMU. “It needed to pick itself up and dust itself off a bit.”

The school began as a department of music, attracting a much more regional crop of students than it does now. Especially in the past few decades its scope of recruitment has increased.

“The students nowadays are from all over the world,” said Denis Colwell, an associate professor who served as assistant head of the school from 1988-95. “Back when I was a student in the 1970s that was less true.” He also said the quality of the student body has improved dramatically since the ’70s.

“We’ve got some of the strongest music students in the nation and abroad,” said Marilyn Taft Thomas, a professor who served as head of the school from 1988-96. “The level of the student body is very strong.” Its admission rate is around 28 percent.

“Initially our student body was primarily people focused on engineering with a strong presence of the arts,” she said. “Early on we were one of the few places that had all of the arts plus this whole strength in engineering. We fit right into this industrial city. We kind of paralleled the transition, if you would, of the entire city.”

The program rebranded itself in the early ’80s as a “conservatory in a university setting,” Mr. Fallon said. It expanded from a department to a school of music in 1997.

“Performance has always been the focus of the school,” Mr. Fallon said. “And that’s to a certain degree in line with the focus of the university. It made perfect sense for the university to also offer courses in painting and sculpting and creating things.”

The school’s relationship with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been essential to its success as a performance program. Currently 22 members of the PSO are on its faculty.

“For the students to be able to hear their teachers perform under world-class conductors is incredibly valuable,” Ms. Thomas said. “This mentor relationship with some of the leading orchestral players in the country is vitally important to us.”

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