An open letter to President Joseph W. Polisi

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Dear Mr. Polisi,

I am a student at the esteemed Juilliard School, where I am proudly and happily ensconced in a master’s degree program. I admit, I have found a happy home at Juilliard and many of the stereotypes of this illustrious institution have proven to be false. I had similar experiences at Cambridge University, where I completed my undergraduate degree, and at Oberlin Conservatory where I pursued graduate studies. One school supposedly full of Tory toffs, the latter a bastion of champagne socialism, both institutions’ outer perceptions were proactively challenged by my fellow students and faculty alike by creating more inclusive and fair environments. I take great pride in identifying as both a Cambridge man and an Obie. I must admit that my current institutional pride waned upon reading your letter to the editor in the New York Times this morning. Today, Juilliard unfortunately lived up to a long-held reputation.

While I can appreciate your willingness to defend the place of music in society, I beg to disagree with several of your assumptions about the comparisons between the arts and sports. If music were such an intellectual enterprise, more brain, less brawn, then why do students at Juilliard spend hours and hours a day in practice rooms perfecting physical aspects of performance including intonation, rhythm, stamina, etc.? I’m not positive that the dichotomy between the physical and the intellectual is so salient.

Another question: why not a degree in sports? Is Juilliard competing with major public institutions for students who can both play quarterback and the bassoon? Surely holding academic standards for athletes in colleges around the United States would in fact help temper the issues of academic integrity that face the NCAA at the moment.

The greatest point I have to confront though is the manner in which sporting events or feats of athleticism do not “communicate intellectual and emotional truths.” Do athletes not send messages with their achievements? What of Joe Louis and Mohammed Ali, winning championships in the face of racial segregation in America? What of the importance of class and ethnicity in baseball, and the ascendance of Irish and Italian sportsmen to the highest ranks of major league sports? Do these not communicate an eternal truth about the ability to succeed based on one’s ability, and not background? That participatory citizenship can be attained through athletic performance? The opportunity to use achievement to affirm one’s existence as you identify it is a key aspect of human experience generally and the core foundation of the American Dream.

Sure, Knicks tickets and a night at the Met both cost a lot. I don’t know many people who could afford to go to either – such a choice is a luxury afforded to few. But I do know people who can stand on bleachers, on apartment roofs, turn on their television and become absorbed in a collective experience. People identify with athletes, just as much as they worship them. The rags- to-riches narrative is all too compelling, for better or worse, but is not terribly prevalent in the classical music world. Perhaps this is the reason that people are comfortable spending more money on sports tickets if given the choice. Think about it – playing on your local high school football team and getting into a public university with a sports scholarship happens more often than someone only playing in their high school band and getting into Juilliard. Firstly, I’m not sure this is a matter of intellect, but of class and geographic privilege. Race definitely comes into it as well, but the racial implications of your op-ed are worthy of a separate response. Secondly, what evidence do you have that the amount of thought that goes in to playing sports is less than that of playing a concerto?

To be perfectly blunt, today you represented the Juilliard School in the media, but I’m afraid it was perhaps a misrepresentation. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I must say you did not represent me as a student today. It was a personal op-ed yes, but in signing the editorial “JOSEPH W. POLISI President, The Juilliard School, New York,” institutional weight was brought in to lend gravity to your message. You are of course free to do so, and I would not criticize the principle of doing so, I fear your opinion may only confirm the suspicions about elitism both in the classical music world and at the Juilliard School.


Parker Ramsay (



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