New dean: After two
To hear him tell it, Steven Baxter was saved by the oboe and
a music teacher named Charles Brill.
"I grew up on a farm in Michigan in the little town of Nashville not far from Battle Creek," said the new dean of the Peabody Conservatory. Baxter, who has been acting dean since 1994, accepted the position on a permanent basis April 14. "I don't know, maybe you grew up on a farm, but that's all there is. It's pretty quiet," he said.
Baxter's life was quiet too, until around the age of 10, when public school teacher Charles Brill began teaching him how to play the oboe. "Music was something special; it opened my eyes up to another kind of life, another way of doing things," Baxter said. "Like a lot of children, my access to music and the arts in general was through the public schools. If it hadn't been for my teacher, none of this would have opened up for me."
Baxter came to Baltimore in 1984 from Ithaca College, where he taught graduate and undergraduate courses in music education and conducting. At the Peabody he taught and coordinated the music education division before becoming an assistant dean for academic affairs in 1990. He became acting dean of the Conservatory at the departure of Eileen Cline, who left to become a fellow of the Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.
Throughout his career, Baxter has written and lectured widely on matters of public policy related to music education and music teacher education, making him something of an authority in the field. He has served as a consultant to national and local arts groups on the education of young musicians and the value of a musical education for all children, and will tell anyone who thinks to ask, why an education in music and the arts is so important for schoolchildren everywhere.
All of which, perhaps, is by way of his continuing the musical missionary work he was first exposed to as a boy of 10.
"Arts have intrinsic value to individuals, and this has long been recognized," he said. "But arts have value to the community as well. The struggle today centers around the question, What is the most appropriate way to teach the arts?"
Taxpayers, said Baxter, are frequently "feeling angst" that their tax dollars are being used for programs that are frivolous or inessential. "The feeling is often that what they see is not worth what they are paying, which has to do with the fact that it's very difficult to conceptualize the tangible benefits of arts education."
Helping professional educators, and the larger communities they answer to, understand those benefits has been a passion of Baxter's for some time. "Times are difficult, budgets are tight, and sooner or later it comes down to tough choices by individual administrators," he said. "I don't want in any way to indicate that these people are Philistines or uncultured. The fact is, they have really tough choices."
Especially difficult, he said, is the need to make a case for musical instruction as opposed to a simpler, and less expensive, course in music appreciation. "There is a difference between consuming art and making art," he said. "By and large people are OK with the consumption aspect of arts education, but the fact is, it's an entirely different experience when you are involved in making art. Making art has the potential for making life better. It means having a personal experience. We have kids with a room full of CDs, but that's not the same thing as being able to sit down and play something or compose your own song."
At the Peabody, of course, making music is a way of life. "You have to recognize there is such a thing as talent and giftedness, and it is undeniable that most of our students here have some kind of gift," Baxter said. "That, together with discipline and nurture, creates outstanding artists. Not that all of our students are pianists; we also train conductors and composers and recording engineers. They come to us with different kinds of gifts and one of my jobs, as dean, is to try to create a rich mixture of different types within the Conservatory."
The outcome of that mixture is not only great artists, but a greater appreciation for the arts. "In some ways this is the fruition of a career I started 25 years ago as the lone music teacher in the Leslie School District in rural Michigan," Baxter said. "It's my job to make sure good music education goes on here. The best reason to do this is to encourage more and better students who will go out and make sure that people understand the importance and joy of making music."
Baxter stops a moment and chuckles. "As you can tell, I have no lack of missionary zeal. My job as an administrator does not require that I give that up."
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