When it's Time to Ask What's Next? the Answer is Dana Jessen

October 17, 2014
Conservatory Communications Staff
Dana Jessen
Bassoonist Dana Jessen has forged a bustling performance career. Now she helps conservatory students plan their professional lives. Photo credit: Philip Fortin

Dana Jessen became a bassoonist because nobody else had thought to. To the adolescent mind, no further justification was necessary.

“I wanted to do something different from everyone else,” she remembers thinking. “I wanted to be the rebel fifth-grader. I thought it would be cool.”

And so began the sometimes-precarious adventure that was Jessen’s daily walk to school, that monolithic bassoon case strapped to a luggage carrier out of necessity.

“Very quickly, cool went out the window,” she says with a laugh.

In the years since, however, Jessen has built a life in music that looks unmistakably cool. Straddling the worlds of classical and jazz—with countless stops in between—she has become a bassoonist in great demand, performing with a long list of accomplished musicians, from Han Bennink to Pamela Z. When her schedule permits, she also sits in with ensembles and orchestras around the country.

It’s a wealth of experience that renders Jessen uniquely prepared to help students thrive in her newly appointed role as the conservatory’s director of professional development.

“A lot of what I’ve done in my performance career applies to the Professional Development Office,” says Jessen, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., whose own educational path included an undergraduate degree in bassoon performance from Louisiana State University, as well as a master’s in performance from the New England Conservatory of Music.

“While I was at NEC, I started to realize that I wanted to take a different path in my performance career,” she says. “I really enjoyed performing in orchestras, but I was going in a different direction, toward chamber music, contemporary composition, and improvisation.

“I wanted to see how I could really turn my eclectic passions in music into a career—and at that time, it hadn’t been done by a lot of bassoonists.”

In 2009, she launched the New Music Bassoon Fund, dedicated to commissioning large-scale works for bassoon by established composers; its first creation was a 60-minute piece for seven bassoons written by Michael Gordon, co-founder of the acclaimed Bang on a Can festival and ensemble.

At around that same time, a Fulbright fellowship landed Jessen in Amsterdam to study contemporary music performance and improvisation. A grant from the Dutch government paved the way for further improvisation research, which led to another master’s degree—from Artez Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in the Netherlands—in improvisation.

More recently, she founded the San Francisco chamber ensemble Splinter Reeds.

Through it all, she has led master classes and workshops in top conservatories across the country, she has taught a class on digital audio skills at Oberlin, and she will begin teaching professional development in the spring.

If it seems Jessen has done it all, well, that’s sort of the point.

“I feel like I certainly can relate to a wide range of students because I have experience in the jazz world as well as freelancing in the orchestra world and in chamber music,” she says.

Born out of the Oberlin College Career Center, the Professional Development Office is geared specifically to the needs of conservatory students. In her first weeks on the job, Jessen is already helping students craft résumés, build websites, network with alumni and others, and secure internships, grants, and winter-term opportunities.

In addition, Jessen’s office offers a gig-referral service, a Tumblr page that matches Oberlin musicians to paid performance opportunities; and another page devoted to sharing news about career-advancement opportunities around the world. She looks forward to collaborating with other departments across campus to offer even more robust support.

“Students here are incredibly dedicated,” says Jessen, “and I want them to take those same qualities that make them great performers and apply them to their professional development: practice it, research it, and apply it to their own life.”

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