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Arts education pulled in two directions

Photos from a rehearsal of Pandora's Locker, an opera written for a high school audience, that was commissioned by the Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Are students better served by professional training or general education? The debate is particularly lively in the fine arts where the two models are sharply defined: As Canada's art colleges reinvent themselves as universities, its performing-arts conservatories maintain narrowly focused programs where students spend long hours practising rather than studying.

"As the parent of a 13-year-old, I lament the decline of the BA. I think people are forced to specialize way too young," said James Anagnoson, dean of the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. "As the dean of a music school, it's the opposite: Our students are going to become professional musicians and they need to practise six hours a day."

Mr. Anagnoson questions whether university music programs, with all their course requirements, can really provide enough hours of practice to graduate the best players.

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At the National Theatre School in Montreal, CEO Simon Brault says the students have already chosen their profession and that ideally all graduates will work directly in theatre as actors, directors, playwrights, designers, stage managers or technical directors.

"There is something narrow in what we offer in a good sense. You can't experience it if you are a tourist, if you are shopping around for the meaning of life," he said.

NTS graduates leave with only a diploma, but the school provides the most sought-after theatre training in Canada and the competition for admission is fierce. That's partly because the school never expands: There are only 60 first-year spots, for which about 1,200 people apply.

At Glenn Gould, where the student body numbers only 130, graduates can turn their diploma into a bachelor of music through an agreement with Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. The students need the bachelor's credential so they can teach, Mr. Anagnoson said. Besides, their parents want them to have the piece of paper.

"You can't stop that freight train," he said.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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