Interview with Susan Conkling

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Interview with Bill Cahn of NEXUS – September 28, 1999

by Susan W. Conkling, Associate Professor of Music Education

Eastman School of Music

Conkling: Describe your musical career:

Cahn: It’s important to know that I grew up in Philadelphia, which, at the time (1960s) had one of the most comprehensive public school music programs in the United States.

There were free instrumental lessons, and a weekly city-wide music radio broadcast. We were all given a music aptitude test. In third grade, I began to take lessons on the trumpet, which ultimately didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. So, starting in 4th grade I took drum lessons instead. In the subsequent grade school years I played in city-wide public school bands and orchestras, received free private drum lessons in school and also free tickets (and excuses from high school classes) to attend Friday afternoon Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. In my high school years, I formed a student percussion quartet that performed widely in the city.  I had the exceptionally fortunate opportunity to meet Fred D. Hinger, the tympanist of the Philadelphia Orchestras through the coincidence of playing in the All-Philadelphia High School Band along with Bill Hinger, Fred’s son, who was the same age as me. Through this connection, Mr. Hinger offered me a free lesson and this continued weekly for four years. I received virtually the equivalent of a Curtis Institute education in percussion performance.  Mr. Hinger never charged me for a lesson and was – along with the other members of the Philadelphia Orchestra Percussion section: Charles Owen, Alan Abel and Michael Bookspan – a wonderful role model.

I came to the Eastman School of Music in 1964 near the end of the famous Rochester City Schools era. As a freshman, I taught at Monroe High School, giving lessons to public school students. Many of us at Eastman did that kind of teaching then. I was a music education major with a minor in percussion performance. It was good advice then, and it is good advice now to get a music education degree so that if things don’t work out with symphony auditions, you’ll have something to fall back on.

I’ve come to believe that education is a primary function of ALL musicians. If you’re a good educator, you teach good things. If you’re a bad educator, you teach bad things, but musicians are always educators.

At the time I was at ESM, we had easier access to recital space, and so Ruth and I frequently put together student ensembles for recitals. We once organized a performance of the Bartok Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste in which we put a full volunteer orchestra together. However some teachers at Eastman believed that this kind of extra-curricular activity distracted students from their studio work, so that concert put an end to the formation of large ensembles for student recitals at Eastman, a restriction that lasted many years afterward.

I student-taught in Rush-Henrietta (NY) elementary and high schools.

I was the Principal Percussionist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1968 to 1995, and I have always worked with the orchestra’s education program. As a Board Member from 1995 to 2003, I chaired both the orchestra’s Education & Outreach Council and the Board of Directors of the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

Nexus was formed in 1971 with fellow percussionists who were good friends and who had performed together in the past. At that time, I was performing in Nexus, teaching in the Eastman School of Music’s community department, and performing in the RPO. There simply wasn’t enough time to do all those things well, so something had to go. I gave up private teaching at Eastman, even though I really enjoyed it. Education programs have not always been a part of what Nexus does, but I think I have influenced things in that direction.

I’ve recently taken on a teaching role again, both as a private studio teacher at the Eastman School, and as a visiting lecturer at schools and universities around the U.S.A. and the world. Percussionists are becoming more connected through e-net, CDs and certain publications. We’re making a world community. The rapid flow of information is changing the model of the private studio.

Conkling: How so?

Cahn: The studio teacher is becoming more of a mentor and home base. The studio may still be the primary means of disseminating musical information, but others – visiting artists and professors -have input. Percussionists are encountering a greater diversity of music styles and instruments. They may receive a great classical training at a place like Eastman, but as soon as they have an orchestra gig, they might have to play Indonesian percussion or Irish hand drum -in Pops or Classical concerts. No percussionist will master all of these instruments and playing techniques, but every percussionist has to have exposure – a working knowledge. This is a phenomenon happening worldwide.

Conkling: I hear you saying that you have taken on the role of performer and educator. What other roles have you taken on in your musical career?

Cahn: I’ve been a composer/arranger for Nexus, but at some point in a career every musician will probably also become:

a record producer

an accountant

a businessman

a publicist

a computer operator

a facilitator for others’ dreams

And, you still have to be a great performer to be successful.

Conkling: I read the other day about high-tech jobs and the article says that an education has a half-life of about 18 months before the technology processes and systems change. Do you think that music education is similar?

Cahn: I’ve read lots of articles that say a person’s average tenure in any position is about 5 years. Yes, I would say that the skills and knowledge a musician needs to have are being re-defined about every 9 months.

Conkling: How did your education prepare you for everything you have to do?

Cahn: I would say that the Eastman School prepared me well to be a performer. I also received from my education the ability to confront problems and to solve them. I don’t have any statistics to back that up, but I would say that I got that ability somewhere, and it was probably from my education at the Eastman School.

Conkling: Do you have any suggestions for ways in which the curriculum needs to change to help prepare tomorrow’s professional musician?

Cahn: The core curriculum has evolved over 300 years or so, and there are some things that are very good about it. I wouldn’t rush to throw the baby out with the bath water. However, I do I think that some aspects of the curriculum need re-tweaking.

For example, I always say to my students, ‘tell me about what you’re playing. Treat me like your mother or uncle, as if I know nothing about music, and explain it to me.’ I have heard students who were playing a Bach Chaconne on the marimba and didn’t know that it was a violin piece. If you can’t explain it in your lesson, how will you ever explain it to an audience?

As another example, nobody ever came to the members of Nexus and said, ‘we need a percussion ensemble.’ We formed it on our own. The existing ensemble model says to students: Here’s the music; here are the rehearsal times; here’s the performance date. A newer model would give students the freedom and the responsibility to put ensembles together by themselves and to organize performances. The New Eastman Symphony is a good example of a student ensemble doing just that!

It hasn’t quite hit the professional world yet, but musicians have to take more responsibility for the success of their ensembles. (Birmingham Symphony and Colorado Symphony are examples.) Orchestra members now have contracts requiring them to play in smaller ensembles and to give community concerts. Orchestra musician today also give pre-concert lectures and speak to government officials and public service organizations. Those are all ways of taking more responsibility for the ensemble and for its connection with the community.

Chamber groups are like small businesses. You have to have all the personnel involved. Virtually no one can say, ‘I’m the second violinist. Tell me what to play and when to be there.’ Maybe 1 or 2 groups every 10 years have that luxury. You have to decide as a group what you need to live and what are potential income sources. Once you have identified the income side, then you re-think the expense side. Then you have to decide where to most efficiently spend your money on publicity, marketing, and name recognition. Then you have to deliver a performance that lives up to the publicity.

For music schools it’s not a matter of just adding a course. Any changes will have to be systemic over time, and that can be painful. Old model school teachers say ‘why do I have to change? It’s worked for me for 20 years. Why change now?’ The answer is simply that the system of conservatory training that worked well 20 or 30 years ago simply will not provide most of the current students with the flexibility they will need to work in today’s musical environment. And, any systemic change will need to go beyond any one particular institution – into the educational culture, which is a big ship that turns very slowly.