Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 46
 
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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Westminster Conservatory Celebrates 40 Years of Teaching and Sharing Music

Ellen Gilbert

It isn’t 2010 yet, but Westminster Conservatory has already begun celebrating its 40th anniversary. A gala on November 1, featuring a special faculty concert, reception, and silent auction, kicked off a year of festivities with particular panache as students of piano teacher Ena Bronstein Barton donated $10,000 in her honor for a new endowment to support piano instruction. Other proceeds will benefit the student scholarship fund, faculty development, and instrument upkeep at the Conservatory.

Established in 1970, Westminster Conservatory, which is part of the Westminster College of the Arts of Rider University, calls itself a “community music school.” It serves the central New Jersey/eastern Pennsylvania area with private and group instruction, utilizing the facilities of the college, as well as extension locations in Newtown and Yardley (Bucks County, Pa.), Lawrenceville, South Brunswick, and Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Study at the conservatory, which is a member of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, may include individual or group piano instruction; voice group instruction; classes for young children; group instruction in music theory; performing choral and instrumental ensembles; an honors program, summer camps; and instruction using Suzuki techniques.

“Everyone benefits from being exposed to music,” Westminister Conservatory Executive Director Scott R. Hoerl observed recently. “You don’t need to become a music major,” he added.

Besides training students, Mr. Hoerl also aims to “train audiences,” worrying that “if we don’t, we won’t have audiences for classical music.”

Mr. Hoerl points to the nine-year-old “Opera Outings” program as evidence of Conservatory efforts at community outreach. Each season the Conservatory buys 50 subscription seats to Saturday matinee performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Participants can purchase a season’s worth of tickets, or seats to one or more individual performances — but that’s not all. The deal includes a round-trip bus ride into the city, with Saturday morning pick-up at the Conservatory, and late afternoon return. Although college students and faculty take advantage of the offering, the major ticket holders tend to be area residents, said Mr. Hoerl, noting the “nice camaraderie” that evolves among the regulars.

A community orchestra consisting mostly of adults from “other professions” that meets once a week at the conservatory is looking forward to doing a concert at the Princeton University Chapel this year. A chamber music reading group that began two years ago includes violinists, cellists, clarinetists, and flutists who don’t necessarily want to take lessons, but who enjoy playing a varied repertoire on the second Tuesday of each month. Mr. Hoerl also points with pride to an expanding music therapy program that works with children who have autism, cerebral palsy, brain injuries, and other neurological disorders.

The Philip A. Campanella Princeton Vocal Scholarship for Children was already in place before the current economic downturn, offering free private and group vocal instruction on Saturdays at the Henry F. Pannell Learning Center to Township or Borough students who are between 8 and 16 years of age and who are eligible for the free lunch program at their schools. Classes meet every other Saturday, and a concert for family and friends is presented at the end of each semester.

The economy definitely took its toll, however, as the Conservatory “reached out” and offered scholarships to students they “sensed” might be dropping out for financial reasons. Although they were delighted to “save a lot of families,” Mr. Hoerl reported that it “put a strain on our friends.” Budget cuts in music programs in local schools also magnify the role of the conservatory. “Music is just too important,” Mr. Hoerl observed, happily noting that at some point during the week “every space in the conservatory is being used for teaching,” including an office, periodically vacated by staff, because it happens to house a piano.

Buoyed by memories of the November 1 event, Mr. Hoerl recounted how, not wanting to fluster her, he kept the news of the new endowment from Ms. Barton — ”a much-loved figure at the Conservatory” — until the end of the program. She was “knocked sideways,” he recalled, quoting her as asking “What greater honor could I get?”

For more information on Westminster Conservatory, see www.rider.edu/887.htm.

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