Photo by Richard Frasier
Dean Stull talks about the latest developments at one of the nation's outstanding music conservatories. [28:07]
Josephine Reed: You're listening to "Shoo-Fly," written by Wendell Logan. It's from the album, Beauty Surrounds Us, which is composed and performed by the faculty members of the renowned Jazz Studies Department at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music is the oldest in the United States, and certainly one of the best, with an outstanding faculty of professional musicians, and more than 500 concerts on campus each year. Its graduates have gone on to illustrious careers in all aspects of the music world. They can be found in all major orchestras, and opera companies, and include many Grammy award winners, and two Pulitzer Prize recipients. Little wonder, then, that the Oberlin Conservatory of Music was chosen to receive a National Medal of Arts, for, and I'm quoting President Barack Obama now, "Preparing young musicians to become great cultural contributors, and as a model of music education." Accepting for the Conservatory, was its Dean, David Stull. I was fortunate to talk with Dean Stull when he was in Washington, D.C. for the medal ceremony. Here's our conversation.
Reed: First, congratulations.
Dean Stull: Thank you very much.
Reed: Here's the question, and I'm going to start with the big one first. Why do you think the Oberlin Conservatory of Music is so successful?
Dean Stull: Well, Oberlin is successful for many reasons. At its core, I think it's tremendously ambitious for itself, and that comes from both the faculty and the students. These are individuals who believe in the power of what they're doing. They see music as an enterprise that they need to invest in. As they think about the role of music in culture and art in culture, it's our faculty and students see it as a way of not only providing a tremendous resource for people in this country, to engage art, and particularly children to engage art, but a way of connecting us internationally. The Conservatory spent a great deal of time touring in China, we have programs in Italy, so our students really travel the globe working in music, and because of that, they have a real sense of its power. A concert in a country where no one speaks the language, and literally, in China, there is no translation between English and, say, Chinese, the way you might find between, if you've studied French, Latin and English, somewhat of a similarity, but the music transfers, and I think the students understand that. And because of the level of excellence that is there, truly world class faculty, and students who come from across the globe. Where we're selecting about 130 students out of over 1,400 applications, it's an incredibly competitive environment, but it brings a certain kind of student, students who are very intelligent, and that's because the college is there as well as the Conservatory, and students who really believe in giving back. It's long been part of Oberlin's mission, that as a graduate you serve your communities. That's not just a paradigm in the college, but one in the Conservatory. So it's a particular kind of student that finds themselves at Oberlin, and I think, because of those characteristics, qualities and specific talents, they become very successful when they leave.
Reed: You know, we've been hearing for years about the graying of audiences for many of the fine arts. Yet, at Oberlin, you don't seem to be experiencing that at all. The enrollment in the school has never been better, and the concerts that you, yourself present do very well. How do you account for this?
Dean Stull: Well, you know, it's interesting. The concerts we produce, whether it's in Los Angeles, New York and Oberlin's campus are almost always sold out, almost completely. One of the things that's unique about those concerts is the fact that the cost barrier is quite low. And so you see an audience that you otherwise don't see. You have to remember, for many of the major orchestras in the country, in order to propel themselves, it's a 500 dollar evening for the average couple. When do people have the opportunity to, first of all, spend that kind of money and have that kind of time? As the father of a nine year old and a six year old, I can tell you, my wife and I are certainly-- have the affluence to attend the concerts, and, as highly trained musicians, a great interest in attending those concerts, but even for us, it can be a stretch. What we're finding, though, is that, for these pods of students who are now graduating, smaller ensembles, like Eighth Blackbird, which just won a Grammy last year for best Chamber Music Performance, who are based out of Chicago. They are getting tremendous crowds, and you're seeing that this new invention of a fusion of classical music, jazz, contemporary music, world music coming together, is really building an enormous audience. And you're finding it now in smaller venues. You're finding it in sort of club-like environments, what have you, where people can feel a bit more casual and yet the music is serious, and it's music they're very interested in. So we see that there's a tremendous demographic out there emerging, as far as the audience is concerned, and as people find themselves working on their own, or they find themselves now, working as consultants, or as private contractors, where the notion of the corporate infrastructure of a 30 year employment band is starting to fade, you find them needing this, this opportunity to escape, to go to a live concert, to engage art, to engage people separate from the two dimensional environment of, say, a recording. So in fact, I would say we're very hawkish about the audience. We think the students who are coming are compelled to do what they do. They feel a need to study music at the highest level, and they're ambitious to continue to do it, and because of that, they're very good at building audiences. So, I would have to say, I'm tremendously optimistic, and, from results we've seen, it's not something I'm terribly concerned about. There is something I worry about, it's that making sure the great orchestras can be sustained, but quite honestly, I think if you found that there was a way to endow them for two or three times what their endowment is, which is, frankly not that much money, you could see a reduction in ticket prices, and if you saw that, I think you'd be very surprised of who you would see in those concert halls.
Reed: You know, I'm so glad to hear you say that, because in this discussion, I really do find ticket prices being the element that people just don't talk about very much.
Dean Stull: Exactly, exactly. An example is the Met broadcasts now, which stream out across the country. They're filling these movie theatres, and the tickets are quite a bit more than a movie ticket, you know, 20 dollars, 19 dollars versus, at least 10 dollars in the area I'm from, in the Cleveland area. And people are paying that extra price, but they're not 150 dollars, they're not 125 dollars. The Met's not charging that price because they're making money, but the reality is, there's a tremendous value to the enterprise of what they're offering to people, and when we say what should be accessible to a populace, is that they have places to go. Because I think art gives back to us who we are, and at times when we need to know that most. People go to concerts, and they often go to museums, of they find things there, stumble upon epiphanies about themselves, or about the world that are critical, it's the time we're most reflective. And I think when you look at rapidly changing economy, a great deal of uncertainty in the United States, about what the future is for this country, one of the things that's defined this nation is that it made a great investment in its concert halls and its artists. And by sustaining that, I think you'll find that return is very significant, so it's something we all need to do in going ahead.
Reed: Oberlin isn't really near a major city, and I--
Dean Stull: Well, it's near Oberlin.
Reed: And it is. I mean, Oberlin is a destination point.
Dean Stull: It is indeed.
Reed: But I would imagine that has both challenges and rewards.
Dean Stull: You know, it's interesting. We find it has a far higher number of rewards. Of course, occasionally we will tell you that it also has challenges. It's about 25 minutes from Cleveland, and it's 20 minutes from the Cleveland International Airport, so for me, it's terrific, because I travel quite a bit, and we love living there. It's a place where, in a single year, you will see, for example, Newt Gingrich and Tony Kushner, and Maya Angelou, and you will see Josh Bell, and you will see the Cleveland Orchestra, and you will see Lang Lang. This is a museum that has masterworks from around the world, Monet and Renoir and Picasso, and not to mention the contemporary artists as well. It's an incredibly vibrant location. One of our great pianists on our faculty described it at one time, saying, "You know, it's truly the world in miniature." And this is a woman who grew up at the Paris Conservatory, living in Paris. And I think that the reality is that for students that we attract, the real objective we have is creating focus. We want them to come and to retreat in a place like Oberlin, because the point is to transform them. We do not want them to be distracted, we do not want them to remain who they are when they arrive. We don't want the landscape of an urban environment to be constantly drawing them into a standard routine, versus engaging what it is they're there to do, which is to become quite a bit better as an artist, as a person, to hone their intellectual skills, to develop a real capacity to focus and achieve. And Oberlin provides that. It's a remarkable place where, despite its bucolic surroundings, it creates this great intensity and that's, when the New York Times wrote about it, they did an article on the Contemporary Program there, saying we've seen so many great artists coming from Oberlin, you know, what happens there? In interviewing artists they said, "You know, they said, when you're there, you recognize that anything is possible." There are concert halls that are open 24 hours a day, there are these great musicians around you all the time, there's one of the most phenomenal libraries in the whole world, there's a recording studio, and there's a culture amongst the faculty, saying, "Yeah, you know, I like the idea of you commissioning that piece and trying that. Why don't you do that?" Or saying, "You know what, you put that together, it's really good. We'll send you on tour." And because of that, become confident in being ambitious. They don't become squashed, and they leave with that confidence and just that edge is something that, when they get to the city of New York, or the city of San Francisco or Chicago, which is where they're certainly going to go, it gives them success. And so, in the end, it's really quite phenomenal. We had people in-- we always have people in from New York, we have a great fusion Asian restaurant there, who say, I cannot believe that I'm buying this incredible shrimp tower that I would find in a restaurant, in the city of New York, for seven dollars. And we say, exactly, there's just a range of things there. So there are terrific restaurants, and terrific culture, and certainly terrific people across the board. So for us, we love being near Cleveland, it's our city. We love being there, and
Reed: But do you love the Indians?
Dean Stull: Oh, you know, absolutely I love the Indians, to the end, to the end I will be an Indians fan, even though that's almost like being a Cubs fan now.
Reed: It kind of is, isn't it? International students account for, what, 20 percent?
Dean Stull: Almost 20 percent indeed, yes, of our student body. We could, literally populate the entire Conservatory from China right now, very easily, alone. It's an incredible phenomenon. We tour in China extensively, we have students coming from Taiwan, Korea, Japan, all throughout Europe, the former Eastern Bloc countries. It's a real beacon relative to drawing those students in. I think it's important that the standard be one of a world standard. In other words, we have international competition with the Cleveland Orchestra for youth competitors under the age of 18, called The Cooper Competition, in the summertime, for piano, and then for violin, it alternates. And this is a way for us to put a beacon in the air, and say, "Bring your best, let's see who's there." And those are the students that are at Oberlin, and for the domestic students who are there, they realize they're not just working against and working with, and seeing the great talent of every state in the country, they're also seeing the great talent coming out of the world, and that's important, and it changes their perspective, because, for example, they go off and work internationally. One of the most incredible things we've seen is the explosion of jazz in China. We took a tour there. We have students who are double degree students in East Asian studies and in, say, jazz trombone performance, and they're fluent in Mandarin. Well, two of these folks went to China. Now he is contracting all the clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, hiring his buddies from Oberlin who go and live there for six months, in large numbers, and make enough money, in fact so much money they come back to the states for six months, without the need to continue to work. And then they go back to China again. And he has his own radio show in jazz, in Mandarin, and everyone who meets him doesn't believe that it's Andy Hunter with his pony tail, and this kid from Iowa, because they're all convinced he's Chinese when he's on the air, because his Mandarin is so good. So the international market is a place where musicians need to work, need to understand the standard, need to navigate those cultures, and it's important for us to draw students from there, because if we're not serving a world musical community, we're really behind.
Reed: Your emphasis is on undergraduates.
Dean Stull: Absolutely.
Reed: Why that decision?
Dean Stull: You know, so many institutions, when you have graduate students, it's a phenomenal commodity, if you will. They're more advanced, they're more mature, they play at an exceedingly high level, but the reality is, you can also lose your focus in that direction. The faculty become focused on graduate students, graduate students, for the sake of economy, and this is fully understandable, start teaching courses, what have you, in the program, and many schools are successful in that way, mind you. It's not to say that this isn't utterly functional. But it's not consistent at the level that we'd like to see. You know, Oberlin really is focused on three objectives: having the highest performance standards, making sure that the students we have receive that standard of education, meaning all undergraduates, except for very, very, very few master students, you know, about 15 out of 600. And that there's a phenomenal college of arts and sciences there, because for us, the full artist is about not only having the professional training, but the intellectual skills and the knowledge and context that comes from liberal education. And because of that, we really see ourselves as educating these students. It's not simply professional training in music, it's a full education, because if students decide to go on in other fields, they may leave music in 10 years or 15 years, and decide, "I want to become an attorney immediately upon graduating." That is not something that we would shy away from. The point is for this education to last 100 years. For the full duration of their life, this education is constantly there to serve them, and to make that possible, we have to focus on the undergrads. And that's really how we've defined our mission, it's how we've defined our niche in the world, it's something that's very meaningful to all the faculty.
Reed: Let's just broaden the conversation out a little bit, both to liberal arts education and then arts education, because we really see a decline in both in the United States.
Dean Stull: Exactly, and you know, and that's really unfortunate, because I think we're moving into a stage of our economy, when the resources that people glean from those experiences are most necessary to individuals, and I'll very quickly explain both those things. One, I think that we're going to be seeing a time when entrepreneurial endeavor is ever more needed, small companies are more successful than large ones, people working in very highly focused teams in which there's a lot of creative work that needs to be done. Where do people develop their creative intellect? Where is that going to occur, and how is that going to happen? And if, from an educational point of view, we don't see that as necessary. We're already behind on that front. Liberal education is about critical thinking. It's about stepping back from a problem and being able to not only see the problem, but what the opportunities are, and then playing those opportunities and those challenges into the future, being able to create what Einstein would refer to as a thought experiment, and I think we're all interested in the thought experiment. Meaning, how do you look at something as an opportunity and project out what it might be? It's that moment of reflection that you find when you read, say, John Locke, or perhaps reading D. H. Lawrence. It's those times when you engage language and art, literature, science in ways that are not only about teaching about the elements and the information, but holistically how it comes together to create knowledge, and as someone who partakes of knowledge, what does that mean? Those are the things that are going to be necessary for people to be really successful. And fundamentally, I would come all the way back to the education of our children. I think keeping music in public schools is critical. I just came off of a sabbatical where I spent time in both, some of the most challenged high schools in the United States in funding, and some of the best in funding. But the common denominator is that there was great teaching going on. I was in a school in Camden, New Jersey, which has, if not the highest murder rate per capita, one of the highest murder rates, and you go to the school, the buildings are burned out around it, it's behind a large fence with razor wire. It's a concrete block, there's a metal detector at the front door. But inside that building, there's a gentleman named Jamal Dickerson, and he's been running a band program there since about 2002, where these kids are all focused on going to college. He binds them to the school through music, he runs evening programs for them, even created a summer program where he received funding, 6,000 dollars to pay them so they wouldn't have to work fast food, as peer mentors to eighth graders, they began teaching music. And in these classes, they learn that they can be successful if they work on a problem, they can solve it, that they work together as a team, that they become expressive, that they become focused, they become disciplined. And he openly says, "This is not about turning into a professional musician, I want you to do whatever you're going to do, but it is about you recognizing you can be successful, and that there's hope that you'd be focused on going to college." And because of the incredibly vulnerable nature of music, meaning you are working with somebody, you're playing and you're revealing yourself in a very significant way, this becomes a family. Most of these kids are in single parent households or have challenges at home that are hugely significant. This becomes home base, and then this propels them into college and success. And when we think about taking away the programs in those communities, I suppose we have choices, we could build schools or we could build prisons, and the reality is, as soon as we decide to build schools and support people like Jamal, then we're going to find a much greater return rate on our investment. So we think about education, we have to think about this holistically. Reading, writing and arithmetic are critical, but without the applications that provide us how to utilize those skills, how to think about how we express ourselves, how to use our imaginations productively in the form of design, we're not going to find a path. And so that's why it's critical they remain intact, and that's what we talk with our students about all the time, because, as musicians, as well educated as they are, every community they go into, they have to begin to advocate, start, run and support these kinds of programs. It is critical, it's a mission.
Reed: Well that's where I was going to go next, because you do, as you say, have a lot of community outreach associated with the Conservatory. Can we touch on that a little more specifically?
Dean Stull: Absolutely. You know, the orchestras go on tour quite a bit, and they play in major venues. We've had terrific success at Carnegie Hall with rave reviews in the New York Times. We've been here at the Kennedy Center, the Washington Post was very kind to us, and citing the Conservatory as a national treasure, it's really terrific. And those kinds of high profile events remind our students of how talented and capable they are, and that they should always be working on a world stage. But I think the thing that, perhaps I'm most proud of, is when our students go into schools, like the Cleveland Arts School, or in high schools, they're on tour during the winter term, and they work with children. We really, really encourage them to learn how to, for example, not only give a concert program in Alice Tully Hall, but that very same morning, play a movement, say, from a late Beethoven quartet, for one of the public schools there in Manhattan or the Bronx, and introduce it to a group of elementary students, to bring them along about why this is interesting. And for those kids to see, students who are, frankly, not very much older than they are, playing at that level, is a huge inspiration. It says, I can do this, this isn't somebody who's in the New York Philharmonic that I admire and think they're like gods to me, but honestly, I don't see myself there. They can't imagine themselves being 45 and playing an instrument, but 18, 19, playing at that level, that's inspirational. So we really, really push on that. We've also started a community music school that has no cost barrier. Students are eligible up to full financial aid, with the idea that the children in our community, regardless of resources, can attend and study, and it's been hugely successful. And I think every community needs one, certainly as a Conservatory working in Oberlin, actually we have a very poor community that surrounds us. And it's something we're able to give back. And I think for every arts institution, it's important not to be just working internationally, but to remember that they have such a tremendous resource locally, there's an equal obligation there. And you use that to fuel communities. So our students, again, I think they're coming to Oberlin because they sense within themselves, a desire to give back. It's important for us to cultivate that through these experiences.
Reed: Oberlin has been on the vanguard of so much, and that includes jazz in music conservatory.
Dean Stull: Absolutely. We're very pleased, that on May 1st, we're going to be opening the Litoff Building, at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. This is a remarkable facility. It will be the premier facility of its kind anywhere in the world. It's the first fully LEEDS rated-- I should say LEEDS eligible, since we're now seeking our gold rating, dedicated music facility in the world.
Reed: Explain what LEEDS is.
Dean Stull: And LEEDS is Leadership in Environment and Energy Design Systems rating, and basically, it means you're using sustainable materials, you've built an envelope for the building so the energy consumption is very, very low, and that it leaves essentially a green footprint, and this building will contain a world class recording studio, it will house our phenomenal jazz studies department, as well as departments of music history and theory, the largest privately held jazz collection is coming to us from James and Susan Neumann more than 125,000 recordings, which will entirely be digitized over time, so it will be a resource for everyone who is very interested about the early beginnings of jazz, all the way to the present. In addition to terrific programs from Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, just an incredible collection of iconography and paraphernalia. And this building, what is quite unique about it is, it's really about music production and work in taking music to the world. It's wired with technology in such a way that we can do distance learning and produce events from anywhere in the building, and the recording studio truly is world class, relative to its acoustics and the equipment there, it will be unsurpassed. There will certainly be equals to it in New York and LA, but I would argue that none that are going to go beyond it. And so it's really an incredible thing for us. We've got our own record label at Oberlin now. All of our students are encouraged to start their labels before they leave. We load things up directly on iTunes, it's a remarkable environment now for musicians to work in. So this building is exceptional, and we're looking forward to opening on May 1st with Stevie Wonder, and with Bill and Camille Cosby coming out to give a convocation the day before, so this is a really incredible time for us.
Reed: Talk a little bit more about the record label. Why that decision?
Dean Stull: You know, a while ago when we were producing discs and still looking at jewel cases, this was when Tower Records was still in business, and we went to Cupertino and met with the iTunes folks, because specifically, I said, "What if we just went to an electronic label, and why not go directly to iTunes?" And they were excited, because this was at the beginning of iTunes U and other things they were working on. And we said, "But we really want the commercial side. You know, we love the iTunes U concept, but how do we launch a label and load it up commercially?" They said, "Well, you could do it like anybody else." And so consequently we worked quite a bit on that, it's one of the pioneering efforts on our side, where we realized it was very easy to be done. And so we realized the point now in music was no longer about jewel cases and discs, it's about marketing, because the great thing about iTunes or any electronic medium now, is that you can take a work of music, and for nothing, make it available to everybody. Literally worldwide, as many downloads as you want, in perpetuity. But the key is, how do you market it, how do you get that out there? And so now the focus has moved from getting onto a shelf of Tower Records, as it used to be, into how to get the word out. So we know that in preparing students to go off into the world, it was critical to understand that now you're not working with a middle person, you create your own label, and then what you really do is market yourself versus venues. How do you get reviewers to a concert, how do you get the bloggers who are really in the scene into that environment? What music are you commissioning, what people are you performing with? How do you constantly build that resume? So every recording that you launch, you're able to put out and people begin to listen to, because that's the key, and this has been an important educational piece for us that we've brought back into the curriculum. And it's one that's really critical for musicians to understand, not to mention the fact that it's great music. I mean, now conservatories produce recordings. We just had a Grammy nominated recording this year with our students. We co-produced it with Telarc, as a matter of fact, and our students were behind Yolanda Kondonassis, and Josh Smith from Cleveland Orchestra and Cynthia Phelps from the New York Philharmonic, and Oberlin 21, which is 21 Oberlin students who played in an orchestra and we did music of Debussy and Takemitsu, and the disc came up for a Grammy nomination this year. So the model works, and it's one that we think our students need to know about.
Reed: Well, the Washington Post called you a national treasure, now it's official, because you've been awarded a National Medal of Arts. Can you talk about that? What does that mean to the Conservatory?
Dean Stull: You know, it's such an extraordinary honor it's difficult to even articulate it. I remember when Rocco Landesman called me, I was on sabbatical. I'm a pilot and I was flying my plane across the country seeing these schools that I'm telling you about, such as in Camden and elsewhere in Texas. I was sort of shell-shocked for a moment, and was just really taken aback. It's such an incredible thing, to have work recognized, and for me, what was great is, I work around this group of faculty, this group of students, I see our alumni all the time, I see what they're doing, I see the contributions they're making, and essentially it's nearly invisible. As with so many people that you find, say, working in healthcare or business, or people who are just constantly working to make something better. Often, if you really find out what they would be most thrilled about, it's recognition for what they're doing, and recognition for the quality of their work. And for the people who have graduated from Oberlin, for the faculty, I see there literally seven days a week, and in the evening, doing that extra coaching, doing that extra lesson, doing that extra conversation for a student who really has questions. And I've seen it for so many years. To be able to say to them, "Your work is recognized, and not only by me, or by our Board or by our alums, or by the New York Times, but by the President of the United States, at the national level, for what it's done for this country," is an incredible thing. And yesterday, even though this information was embargoed. We had a meeting. I tried to figure out how I could possibly arrange so that they wouldn't read about the National Medal, since it's being awarded to them. So we brought them into a closed room with no students or anything, and it was a special meeting. They were nervous, thinking we were, I don't know, going to cut half the budget or something. We had them take a vote of absolute confidentiality, and if they couldn't vote yes, they had to leave the room. Of course everyone voted yes, because who's not going to. And so we had-- we were in the Warner Concert Hall, and we dropped a panel that is often behind a chamber ensemble. Behind it were 120 glasses of champagne. And I said, "ladies and gentlemen, I am privileged to be going to Washington, D.C. to accept, on your behalf, the National Medal of Arts. It's a recognition of your work in contribution to these students and this nation." And they jumped to their feet and they cheered. And then they began to cry, many of them. And then we had a toast. So that's what it means. And for people that work that hard in serving students and education in music, it's pretty incredible to see, and it was a privilege to see it. So it's an honor.
Reed: And so well deserved. Dean Stull, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Dean Stull: Thank you very much Josephine.
Reed: That was Dean David Stull who accepted a National Medal of Arts for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Oberlin's new home for jazz, the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, has its grand opening this weekend on May 1st.
The music is "Shoo-Fly," written by the Chair of Oberlin's Jazz Studies Department, Wendell Logan. It's from the album, Beauty Surrounds Us, produced by Oberlin Music. The Arts Work Podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, nature and art meet at Wave Hill, a 28 acre public garden and cultural center in the Bronx. To find out how art works in communities across America, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow the NEA on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Wendell Logan's "Shoo-Fly" (Beauty Surrounds Us, Oberlin Music, Â© 2007) used with permission.