Kate Sheeran: Provost and Dean of the San Franciso Conservatory
Early in January of this year, I interviewed Kate Sheeran. Since the majority of the people I've interviewed thus far have been men, I wanted to hear a female administrator and educator's perspective on the future of classical music and music education. Kate Sheeran is not only Provost and Dean for the San Francisco Conservatory, but an accomplished performer in her own right. She has performed with such cutting-edge ensembles as the Wordless Music Orchestra and Alarm Will Sound and has recorded for the Tzadik, Warp, New Amsterdam and Nonesuch labels, among others. Sheeran has served on the horn faculty at Mannes Prep, Dickinson College, Susquehanna University and Bucknell University. She earned a B.M., Performer’s Certificate and Certificate in Arts Leadership from the Eastman School of Music and an M.M. from the Yale School of Music.
LS: When you were at Mannes as an assistant dean to the preparatory and continuing education programs, you helped to modernize curriculum. In what ways did you modernize the music curriculum?
KS: I have different answers for three different areas that I had to deal with at Mannes.
I oversaw pre-college the entire time I was there, so for eight years. At a certain point, we added a few things that involved the community, and I oversaw those areas. Towards the end of my time there, I was also working on curricula initiatives for the collegiate students at Mannes.
The typical Mannes Prep student, then and still now, is someone who doesn't just do their major; they'll take a deep dive in conducting or in composition or in improvisation ensemble. That's not always the case in pre-college programs.
Beyond pre-college we did a few different things. We started a program that is in conjunction with The New School that still exists there which is ESL plus music—a hybrid of an intensive English language skills program with music curriculum for international students. I have since designed a similar one here in San Francisco. It's a bridge program for international populations to help them be more successful when they start their degree programs.
We also started the New School Chorus, which consists partly of university students at The New School and partly of community members in New York. The focus of that group was on communal singing and exploring music. When we originally started the New School Chorus, it was led by Caroline Shaw and Eric Dudley; two members of Roomful of Teeth. Right around the same time they won a Grammy and Caroline won the Pulitzer. It started with 100 people and it's been really successful. That kind of spirit of exploration that Roomful of Teeth has still exists, and is currently lead by director and multi-instrumentalist, Nathan Kosi.
LS: If I’m not mistaken, Caroline Shaw is currently one of the most popular female composers.
KS: She happens to be a friend of mine since childhood, so I'm lucky to be in good company. We went to Kinhaven Music School together when we were teenagers, and we both have an affinity for communal singing, so that was an easy outgrowth of that.
Right before I left, I was working on some initiatives for New School Students both at Mannes and outside of Mannes in the other divisions of The New School to take minors. In addition to their major area, they would take a different area of study. We developed a composition one, and also one called post-genre music.
LS: Right, so you launched a post-genre degree. Could you explain that? Does post-genre assume something beyond genre? Is that a kind of term that you use to distinguish the standard categorization of conservatory students as classical players?
KS: Yes, that's true. I come from a world where the musicians surrounding me have to play in Indie rock bands, and then the next day they might play in a baroque orchestra, sing in a Church choir. It was a nod towards that--that musicians have to transcend genre; their skills have to transcend genre.
The credits in the post-genre program had touch points in entrepreneurship but also composing, arranging, technology, and then musical context courses. Every semester, we rotated things from folk music to rock opera.
We wanted to ask the question, what would happen if students had the skills to arrange, compose, had touch points with the technology, and then a broad view of many kinds of genres? Those kinds of requirements and “choose your own adventure” are a lot of my approach to curriculum. Now in San Francisco, there are a lot of parallels to the types of curriculum we're developing here.
LS: How do you think our current culture- of taking art to digitization, increasing multimedia and visual content- how have those mediums shaped music education in the last 10 years? What changes have you noticed both as a musician and as an administrator?
KS: I think I can tend to be kind of Pollyanna about these types of things. There are certainly challenges, especially with how music is licensed and distributed and the way that technology factors in there.
It also has great strengths that our students now have grown up with YouTube and been able to Google everything they want. They can see music on the other side of the world at any point in time. They can see every sound, every performance. It broadens the realm of what's possible and the types of styles they might be interested in.
Part of the reason I came to San Francisco is because right when I got here, the Technology in Applied Composition program was starting. It works really well in a city like San Francisco because we're so connected with the tech community and our neighbors are Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Sony PlayStation. We’re harnessing the points of connection with the tech community here in San Francisco.
Technology in Applied Composition program is a hybrid between a traditional track of composition, and the skills you need in technology including fluency in different kinds of software. In that program, students create everything from projects with Sony PlayStation creating demos of video game music to recording sessions with their peers. They create EDM for fashion shows.
If we're doing our jobs correctly in overseeing schools, then we're helping to plant seeds so that the students will have ideas that we don't even think of. If you think of the pallets available to students both at performers and composers now, and include technology as well as traditional music education, really---the sky is the limit. Imaginations are the only limit. If we the administration and faculty are doing it right, we're not going to think of everything our students will do in the future because they're going to take it further than we expected.
LS: Right. This next question is one I’ve been curious about for a long time. I've known a lot of music students who are probably over $100,000 in debt from conservatory training. They're playing in regional orchestras and they're barely making it. While many probably know that they'll be in debt after they graduate, oftentimes that orchestra job will take them 3, 5, 10 or maybe 15 years to achieve. From my perspective, it seems there is little to no adjustment for the projected job outlook of musicians and the cost of tuition for conservatory training. San Francisco is one of the more expensive conservatories in the US. So, what are your thoughts on the cost of education versus projected job outlook from the perspective of a music administrator?
KS: Of our peer schools, we're not one of the most expensive. In terms of tuition, the cost of living in San Francisco is one of the biggest factors. In 2015, we opened a residence hall which does help control housing cost for students.
We are in the planning stages of a new residence hall right down the street from us here in San Francisco that will also help us to control costs for students in terms of housing. That’s a building that will open in 2020 with new facilities, and concert halls, and also beautiful living spaces for students and a way for us to control housing costs in San Francisco. That's the biggest expense in San Francisco, obviously, for everyone no matter what your industry. But right now we’re developing a strategic plan in terms of increasing scholarship and controlling housing cost for our students.
On the curricular side, we have a different approach to educating students and helping them design their own careers. The most concise way for me to explain this is that we have what we call our four pillars. We frame everything in our education around these.
We think of students as 1.) Artists, 2.) Intellectuals, 3.) Professionals and 4.) Individuals.
Obviously, as artists, that's very traditional and that's how we all think of our students--- as artists. We uphold the highest artistic standard with a world-class faculty and are continuing to build the faculty profile here.
As intellectuals, we align our curriculum to the requirements you would get in a liberal arts education (critical thinking and writing skills). We've revamped our curriculum to have robust writing courses before starting other sequences in music history and Western civilization because we know that's A) It's a critical B) it's a really important life skill no matter what your path.
As professionals, we have an embedded professional development curriculum for all students. In some places professional development curriculum is opt-in. You might choose to take one course that has something to do with entrepreneurship. But here, it's an entire academic department called Professional Development. That started last year and consists of required courses for all undergraduate students. One is called Professional Fundamentals which is an introduction to thinking about how you want to shape your career and using the rest of your four years at SFCM to help you get there. It's very practical skills and also introducing all different kind of career paths. The second course is called Finance for Musicians, and that's required for an undergraduate student.
LS: Praise the Lord.
KS: Yes. That's so you can build your personal budget, but also so you understand how business works in terms of building a budget from an organization or how you would start to get things off the ground in that way.
LS: When was that formed? About two years ago?
KS: Yes. The department started two years ago. We had some classes, but then we organized that as an academic department with requirements for all students. Started two years ago, and the curriculum launched this fall. This year’s undergraduates are going through this now.
Those are the two required courses. There are two other credits that can be fulfilled in the four areas of professional development.
The four areas are—1) Business and Finance, 2) Health and Wellness 3) Education and Engagement, and 4) Technology.
The two courses I just talked about are required, and then the other credits can be fulfilled in any of those areas of interest.
In Health and Wellness, we have faculty member Jon Kretschmer (a Julliard-trained trumpet player who's now a physical therapist) teach classes about injury prevention and playing with healthy techniques. We also have courses on music cognition taught by Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist and singer who does amazing work.
The education engagement connects to our conservatory in the schools program and our community service programs. Its touch points are in everything from teaching artistry (how to successfully go into any setting whether it's a classroom or a nursing home), to skills on how to set up a private studio as a business.
In technology, we have Introduction to Recording Arts. There's an Intro to Music Technology. That's a kind of bridge course for performance majors who are interested in taking advantage of our resources and facilities for technology in composition.
The other one is a Business and Finance course that I already mentioned. We also have a course for graduate students called Musical Startups. It's kind of a nod to our San Francisco startup culture. Once you have an idea about everything from starting an app to starting a string quartet, it gives you practical steps to be able to do that. We also have grants available for students to fund those things. That’s the professional side of things.
The last pillar that we think about, and this also relates to your question about career, is that we think of students as individuals. We want students to be able to design their own careers and also have the skills to get there.
You might be a violinist in an orchestra, but you also might start the next most amazing music app and be the CEO of the company that runs that. You might start an upper company, design a new instrument. The key piece there is that we have something called Winter Term. In Winter Term, it's really a laboratory for ideas and risk-taking. We take three weeks every January to have students propose their own projects or have faculty-led projects where they really are trying out something they're going to be doing as professionals.
Students have put together orchestras by themselves with minimal involvement. They learn everything from acquiring the parts, to conducting the orchestra, to booking a venue. They've put on their own operas, built instruments, worked with guest artists. taken courses on management, run concert series in their hometown, and traveled to other countries to learn different styles. When you think of the successful new music or startup ensembles or companies in our current music landscape, you usually can- if you ask the person where they had the idea or what launched that--- trace it back to school.
Certainly, that was the case for us and members of Alarm Will Sound. It was supported by an Eastman student, and grew out of Eastman connections. You can think of lots of different instances of this. We're formalizing that to build in this laboratory for students to try out their ideas and hopefully they connect it with the curriculum and the skills they acquired in those areas.
Ultimately, we're trying to think about the ways students can be most successful either as musicians or whatever path they choose because all of these things apply to music, but also to life and business.
LS: What prepared you most for your career in arts leadership? Did you always know you wanted to do something beyond just playing the French horn?
KS: Yes, I think so. I can remember times around probably my second year in college at Eastman. I am grateful to have had wonderful experiences as a student all the way from when I was in elementary school through grad school. I always pictured education as a strong part of my aspirations in terms of career, but I also want to be a performer, and little by little I put those pieces of the puzzle together.
When I was at Eastman, I took some courses in Arts Leadership, and also did some internships with young audiences, building curriculum, and working with artists in classrooms. When I graduated, I went to Yale, got great performance experience and was thinking about what to do afterwards.
Because I had done arts leadership at Eastman, I did an internship with Alarm Will Sound who were my friends and whom I had played with in undergrad. We had a residency at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. I started teaching adjunct at a lot of colleges around there, played in a lot of the local orchestras in Pennsylvania and did administrative work.
That's when that formula started to feel right to me--doing some playing, some administration, and lots of things centered around education.