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What I Learned

November 4, 2014


It is common knowledge that deans are great at expounding upon what they did or what they taught. After our two-week Dvořák  Festival, I am overwhelmed at what I learned. It was the opportunity to return to the role of learner that I relished the most about our most recent effort in the School of Music here at DePauw.

This is the welcome I wrote for the program book. It explains why we took this on. Here is the program book itself. It outlines exactly what we took on. (It was a massive undertaking so the how we took this on would take too many words to explain.)

So here, in no particular order, are a few of my epiphanies—the things I learned, reinforced, remembered or discovered during our “Dvořák and America” Festival. As expected, many of them are about Dvořák  and Classical music in America. But my learning was not limited to the past.

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Kevin Deas’ is the voice you hear when you die and go to heaven. Every now and then I come across a performer that uniquely captivates me. Such was the case with Kevin. His gracious demeanor on stage led to a strong bond with our students. He was incredibly honest—talking about hauling furniture after graduating from Julliard, about paying his own airfare to called auditions, about wondering if he could make it in this field. “You have to love this—it must be your passion,” he told us and he demonstrated that passion in every note. When he sang “Goin’ Home,” I was hoping I got to go with him.

Roundtable Discussion with Dvorak Faculty

Joe Horowitz’s curmudgeon persona hides a sensitive and caring man. Oh, he earns it with his “standard rants” but underneath is a brilliant man still eager to learn and engage and excite. At our first forum in our ethics center, as cultural appropriation was introduced, Joe seemed bothered. As students related their present day challenges in small-town America, Joe became engaged and the students at my table taught as much as they learned going toe-to-toe in discussions with one of the great cultural historians of our day. Joe’s passion for and belief in what he espouses makes a believer out of nearly everyone he contacts.

Joe’s deep and illuminating work on this subject is so powerful that I learned new ways to hear the music of Dvořák and perhaps more important and tellingly, I came to lament his loss. What if he had stayed? I love Copland but through this I found him a less than authentic substitute for what Dvořák might have been. I mourned the reality that American classical music is different than it could have been had Dvořák’s mantle been successfully picked up or—even better— he had stayed and finished the work himself.

Students’ ability to rise to the occasion never ceases to amaze me. We are used to seeing and hearing students as performers. Here they were that but producers and presenters as well. They dove into this topic and presented ideas and hypotheses and commentary that was provocative and enlightening. For students used to hiding behind an instrument or music score when on stage, having to stand out front and present your thoughts on the works presented is a different challenge altogether (especially in an undergraduate institution.)

Audiences love the deep dive. In a world where much of what we as musicians do is shorten, lighten and otherwise present our music to try to find a way to keep folks engaged in an art form when they are used to three-minute songs, 144-character messages and ten-second commercials, one would think a deep dive into one composer is too much for our severely limited attention spans. Not so. Throughout our time I had community members, students and even faculty say how much they learned and appreciated and even how they had become believers in this way of presenting concerts and festivals.

Music schools are better when they focus on supply and demand. This festival was a reach across the lawn to our colleagues in the liberal arts school and the entire university. Our ethics center was quick to collaborate and our English department chair took an active role—even something seemingly distant from music—athletics— joined in. Our Athletic Director and Head Football Coach moved schedules to join our friends in multi-cultural student services to create a fascinating roundtable entitled Dvořák and the NFL that brought Jon Stewart, Daniel Snyder and American sports together with our 19th-Century musical hero. All of this drove demand for our concerts and recitals. Some people found themselves surprised that these issues were relevant to our lives today. And this music will never lose its relevance.

Doing this is hard. And that, I believe, sadly, is the reason we continue to do the same things year after year hoping things in classical music in America will get better. But they won’t. Not if we don’t change. And change, as we all know, is hard. Music schools are no different from any other classical music producer in our country—we have schedules to fill and audiences to attract and tickets to sell. And we have been doing it for a long time (in DePauw’s case, for 130 years). It is easy to do it “the way it has always been done.” But as we see more and more, though easy, this method is no longer successful.

This festival brought together so many disparate elements of our campus and wider community. It took months (and in Joe’s case, years) of planning and hard work. It was complicated and messy and beautiful and fascinating and worth every moment of every effort.

I learned a lot in the past few weeks thanks to Joe and Kevin and our staff and our faculty and our students. I learned a lot about our past but perhaps more importantly, about our future. And a hopeful one, at that.



(A video summary can be found here)

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