President’s Desk Q&A: Andrea Kalyn on the Conservatory’s 150th Anniversary
October 8, 2015
Approximately once per week, I write the President’s Desk column for the Source to share my thoughts on campus happenings. Beginning last semester, I designated one column per month as a President’s Desk Q&A. In these Q&As, I share conversations I’m having with people from the college and the conservatory about a variety of topics relevant to the wider Oberlin community.
In my first President’s Q&A of this academic year, I bring you a conversation with Dean of the Conservatory of Music Andrea Kalyn. Our conversation began with Andrea telling me about the many wonderful ways in which conservatory faculty, staff, students, alumni, and special guests are celebrating its 150th anniversary and continued to cover topics including the newly approved jazz voice major and the new partnership with the International Piano Academy Lake Como. Andrea asked me a few questions, too, including a question about my performance in Kurt Weill’s opera Street Scene back in 2014.
Marvin Krislov (MK)
During this academic year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. I know there are many special activities planned, but please tell us about some of the highlights.
Andrea Kalyn (AK)
There are two big events that will anchor the year. First, we are taking the orchestra and the contemporary music ensemble to Chicago during winter term. This will be a great opportunity for our students to gain professional experience and a great chance for us to tell our story of the importance, the significance, and the place of the conservatory out in the world. The second will take place during Commencement, when we will take a careful look at celebrating music and creativity within the college through the lens of the conservatory.
There are a lot of other events. We had a phenomenal event in Chicago this past weekend with the National Brass Ensemble, which was supported by Joe Markoff ’65. Professor of Piano Peter Takács is going to New York to perform three concerts on the Key Pianists series presented by alumna Terry Eder. Our oboe professor, Robert Walters, will premiere a concerto by Bernard Rands—commissioned by Oberlin—with the Cleveland Orchestra in November.
I’m also excited about the performance of The Landing, a collaboration between John Kander ’51 and Greg Pierce ’00.
Ian Axness’ 09 will be playing with them as well.
The Kohl Building is about five years old now. How has it changed things?
The Kohl Building has been a phenomenal addition to Oberlin. Building it was a really important moment in acknowledging the place of jazz in the conservatory. We have a world-class jazz faculty and program, but they were housed in a broken down gym. As [previous dean of the conservatory] David Stull said at the opening ceremony, “It was a wrong that needed to be righted.”
Even more than that, though, it has created an opportunity for the jazz students and the classical students to come together in much more intentional ways. The building physically was created to advance intersections among programs and to break down barriers, including the third floor, where our composers, music education faculty, and academic faculty all live.
So this is not just a separate building devoted to one particular program. All of our students, including many students in the college, cycle through that building. And so again, it physically enables and facilitates interactions among the various programs of the conservatory, and the conservatory and the college.
And the recording studio…
The recording studio is brilliant. One of the things we really strive to do is to bring Oberlin into the world, as well as bring the world to Oberlin. The recording studio is a really great professional link for our students. Along with the archives, it is also the thing in the building that was completely new, that we didn’t have before. It’s a world-class recording studio, just wonderful technology and capability in there. Our students can use it to self-record, so they can produce their own recordings or start their own labels, they can record their own performances for auditions and so on. It’s also used as a classroom for the jazz ensemble and improv classes. The other side is the production aspect. A number of students take audio engineering classes from our phenomenal engineers. These are really important professional experiences for our students on multiple levels.
I was very pleased to hear that the faculty has approved a jazz voice major. When does that program launch?
We’re doing a soft launch this year. We will be opening up admission for jazz voice for next year, but we will be doing a real push for the following year. Each year we have great demand for jazz singers, and we haven’t had a program that we’ve been able to offer. It’s something we’ve known that we’ve needed for a long time. There have been jazz voice students, actually many of them from the college, but we haven’t had a dedicated faculty member to teach that program. This will really amplify the educational experience for all of our jazz students as well as increase our offerings for Oberlin students.
You, Dean Elgren, and I have been spending a lot time engaged in the strategic planning process. One of the recurring themes has been our institution’s unique combination of college and conservatory. Tell us how you think the conservatory enhances the arts and sciences experience and vice-versa.
First, there is the breadth of the people you interact with and speak with every day—that’s really significant. I think the multiple modes of learning—the ways we approach undergraduate education on both sides of the street—brings a particular power. The sense of exploration and multiple disciplines in the college coming together with very professionally orientated, vertical approach to education in the conservatory. When you put those two things together, it creates different sorts of learning possibilities for students and different approaches to teaching for faculty. That’s a really powerful element of it.
For the conservatory, to give our students the chance to develop their intellectual life, to think about what they do musically from an academic perspective, to have the chance to go in really deeply via the double degree program, or to focus in other ways academically, deepens their perspective and launches them on an artistic path that I think no other conservatory can rival. Conversely, I think the fact that college students are in an environment where their colleagues are not just exercising creativity but exercising a rigorous process of creativity and curiosity toward a culminating experience, whether it’s a recital or some other significant performance. That’s a very different perspective that I think enriches the college students as well. Not to mention the fact that college students have opportunities to engage in music in a range of ways, whether it’s singing in a choir, performing in an ensemble, or taking a theory class.
Another of the things I know you’re very focused on is the relationship between the faculty and the students. How would you describe that relationship in the conservatory?
It’s a deep mentoring relationship. The performance faculty are responsible for recruiting students into their studios, so they are very typically engaged with their students even before they come to Oberlin. They are in the world performing, meeting students, giving master classes and lessons, working in festivals… they are wholly involved in bringing the students to Oberlin. They are very invested in making sure there is a fit; they often know a lot about the students when they bring them in, and so there’s a very close relationship in that regard. And the studio, which is usually 12 to 18 students, sometimes 20, is a strong cohort that really engages with the entire college from that lens—of being a cohort. The faculty also are really thinking right from the start about what their students might do professionally and how they can best prepare them. So there’s a sense of modeling, of mentorship, of engagement in their well being. It’s a very close professional relationship built on shared artistic ideals and shared commitment to the future of these students.
My sense is that these relationships often go well beyond the student’s time at Oberlin and continue even if the student doesn’t end up becoming a performer. These are life-long relationships.
Absolutely, they are. I think that’s really important for us. It’s not a failure if students don’t end up in a performance career; there are lots of applicable skills. This is a mechanism for teaching, and for students to develop themselves. Our students and faculty do stay connected long beyond their time together on campus. When you’ve nurtured a student and you’ve worked so closely together in developing the thing they care most deeply and passionately about, there is a close bond that is forged.
You and I know there’s a lot of anxiety about economic success for people in the arts. This is not new, but it seems to be even more pronounced in recent times. How are we helping conservatory students to think about life after college?
I actually think the rest of the world has finally caught up to musicians, because musicians have been told from birth that we’re never going to have a career or make any money, but we have to do this simply because we love it.
This is also related to your question about the beneficial relationship between the conservatory and the college. I would hope to some extent that it is comforting for college students to be able to see their conservatory colleagues care so deeply about something and figure out how to make a professional life out of it. The musicians are inherently entrepreneurial in this sense. They have a vision and they work through a very systematic process to deliver that vision to an audience, to a market. That requires communication, it requires discipline, it requires technique, and it requires the capacity to collaborate. Those are all highly transferable skills that can be used in one’s professional life, whether that’s a musical life, or a business life, or an activist life.
Oberlin students are extraordinarily well prepared for an uncertain professional future, and I think that’s reflected in our alumni. Oberlin alumni are people who create careers. When Claire Chase ’01 and Lisa Kaplan ’96 started ICE and eighth blackbird, respectively, it was not even remotely considered viable to have a career in contemporary music. Or Jeannette Sorrell ’90 starting Apollo’s Fire… you simply didn’t have careers in these areas. And yet Oberlin students coming out of their work here didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be able to do that. It’s an extraordinary thing to see students who are not afraid of trying, to be able to give them the opportunity to learn through failure and repeated success, and to help them put those things together into an interesting life that has impact.
Are there certain events or experiences at Oberlin that are sort of your “a-ha” moments, the ones that really motivate you?
Those happen all the time, but I have to say—not to sound a little hokey about the whole thing—that Oberlin itself is kind of my “a-ha” moment. I grew up in Canada and had a varied academic experience. Looking back on it, though, I think I tried to create my own double degree program. I tried to create an Oberlin at an institution where you weren’t allowed to play in the intersections.
I deeply love music, and I deeply care about training and teaching students. That’s why I do what I do. Seeing students struggle to figure out who they are, and what their artistic voice is, and to push themselves, and then to see that come to fruition in a recital, or on a concert stage, that’s an “a-ha” moment.
I remember there was one moment on one of the first Carnegie Hall tours. The students weren’t quite sure why they were being invited to do this, and a few of them had said, “No, I’ll pass. I don’t need to go.” There was one student in particular, a cellist I called into my office. I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this, but are you sure you want to miss this opportunity?” He stepped back and he said, “You’re right, that doesn’t make sense.” And he came up to me after the concert and said, “I just want to thank you for making me do this. This was the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had in my life.” It was a moment in which suddenly he saw himself as a professional musician. That student—Steuart Pincombe ’09—has gone on to do really amazing things and has created a phenomenal career for himself.
It’s these moments in which students realize they can do more than they thought they could do. It’s seeing the deep relationship between students and faculty. And it’s seeing the power of music in the world. It happens every day in so many ways, big and small. We all love music; it’s a community that just loves the work and is completely dedicated to the work and is completely committed to seeing the next generation of students advance that work. And that’s truly exciting.
So what’s on the horizon?
There are a lot of really exciting things. The Oberlin-Como relationship really advances not just our piano program but our string program as well, in the collaborative relationships that the students will have. We’ve done a lot of work on the intersections, things that move beyond genre, like the PI program, not necessarily to create majors in those areas, but to give students a chance to move outside of their corridors of expertise into something that’s a little unsettling and then to be able to bring those experiences back to their work.
The American Roots Program and the Punch Brothers residency has been one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen. And going back to your question about transcendent moments in the conservatory, the first jam session for the Punch Brothers where we came out of an Artist Recital Series Cleveland Orchestra concert and had half the orchestra come over to the conservatory lounge along with a number of students and faculty, just reveling in the sheer joy of music—that was a transcendent moment.
The intersections have always been fascinating to me, and I think that’s definitely what‘s coming next—to look at how we can take advantage of those moments and develop programming around them in support of and complement to our core work, and to increase our programs for college students, particularly in the area of popular music styles and songwriting. We have a fabulous new composition professor, Stephen Hartke, and he’s exploring expanded upper-division options for students that include things like music for media, songwriting, and intersections with jazz. We are expanding the definition of our music education division to include community engagement, where all of our students are thinking about the place of music in the world and their role in bringing music to children in particular, but to communities more broadly. All of those are things we are working on pretty emphatically, in curricular and co-curricular ways.
Terrific! Do you have questions for me?
As somebody who isn’t a musician primarily, what do you see as the power or importance of a conservatory within a place like Oberlin?
To me, the most powerful thing about music is that it brings people together. There’s something very primal about it. I thought the Punch Brothers jam session really epitomized this, with people from all different backgrounds, including the orchestra members, students, faculty, and community members coming together.
Oberlin is extraordinary in terms of creating that kind of community, and I would love to see us do even more to bring people together from different backgrounds and different areas. I’ve been pleased with some of the collaborations we’ve had, such as the winter term with the Cleveland Public Theater that involved dance, music, theater, and so forth. I think the institution can do even more to support these projects. And there’s a real hunger out there for it.
You performed in the opera last year and you did a great job. I’m curious what you learned from that experience, or if you had your own “a-ha” moment?
In the past, I’ve been involved in theater, including musical theater. Jonathon Field and I were talking and he said, “I have roles for you and your wife if you’re interested.” I’m a big Weill fan, so it was particularly nice. My wife and I really enjoyed not only getting to know the students but also just seeing the amount work involved.
I have performed in many shows earlier in my life, but to see these full-time students doing this on top of their other work was truly impressive—not just the singers, but the musicians, the stage managers, everybody. It takes an extraordinary amount of time, and both the commitment and quality were superb. The opera is performed at a level that professional companies would be very proud of.
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