Classic Myths Debunked at Convocation

Photo of President H. David Stull at 2019 Convocation

On September 27 at SFCM’s 2019 Convocation, President David H. Stull made a quantum prediction: Creativity, he ventured, will be the most prized asset in the 21st-century work force. Tackling issues facing new and returning students, his talk, “Manufacturing the Future of Music: Can We End our Love Affair with Crisis?” debunked some myths and perceived ideas about music education, while making an impassioned case for its essential place in the life of every child.

In a packed Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, Stull challenged students to consider how their musical path and training actually provides the core skills and preparation that every successful person and artist must have for the future. “We believe in professional training. That means we see your skill sets as adaptable to your opportunities.”

“You might think ‘I just came here to study with my teacher,’’’ said Stull, but there is much more involved. The blueprint for what he outlined as “the spectacular education you are embarking on at this institution” focuses on developing each aspiring musician as artist, intellectual, professional, and individual—the four pillars of SFCM’s transformative educational model.

The complex process of becoming an artist, said Stull, entails more than being technically proficient: “It’s about being a great story teller and raising your voice and imagination.”

To nurture the professional, “we require business courses,” because, he says, “everything that you will do in this world that has any professional context will rest on an economic platform—non-profit, for profit, as a freelance artist—all of it requires a knowledge of business.”

For Stull, what ultimately distinguishes SFCM as a music school is its emphasis on the individual: “The modern conservatory must be about your creativity,” he told students, “not placing you in a mold that simply stamps you out, but that allows you to recognize the things that are special about you, so as you pass through your time here, you discover a path.”

With a nod to past jeremiads predicting the imminent demise of classical music, Stull offered up a New York Times article reporting dire straits at eight of the nation’s leading music schools—among them SFCM, Juilliard, and the Curtis Institute—with some in that august octet proclaiming they would all be out of business in six months.

“The reason you may not have seen the article,” said Stull, “is that it was printed in 1970. We’re officially in our 50th year of crisis, folks, here at SFCM and at the Juilliard School and at the Curtis Institute of Music.”

The obsession with crisis in music has a long history as a narrative trope “because we like to write about it,” said Stull, citing a laundry list of catastrophe articles heralding the demise of the symphony, the crisis of music in America, and even a scholarly article entitled “The Crisis of Music: 1470 to 1530.”

“Six hundred years of crisis in classical music, and here we are today,” said a bemused Stull, “and amazingly so,” as laughter erupted in Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall.

The hackneyed old saw of crisis notwithstanding, most SFCM students have, at some time, struggled with how to answer the question: “Really, you’re going to study music? Are there any jobs in that?”

Stull was reassuring: In the 21st-century workforce, the requisite skills are the very ones musicians excel at — creativity, discipline, teamwork, motivation, advanced problem solving, accountability, focus, and attention—and to a degree that far exceeds many college graduates. It’s a risky business, and risk taking, he added, is built into the Winter Term experience.

Taking another (and possibly literal) quantum leap, he cited Einstein’s explanation for his revelations about music, time, and space: “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin by the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

But the greatest quality musicians have, said Stull, is “a capacity for empathy and beauty. This isn’t just for you, it’s for those you will teach. Music is about transmission from generation to generation. And each and every one of you has a responsibility for that.”

“What resonated with me,” said bassoonist Michelle Ward, a second-year master’s student, “was when he talked about how music can change a person’s destiny. I came from a middle-class family that was hit hard by the 2008 recession. I came to music somewhat by chance, but it helped me overcome my family trauma. I loved hearing him talk about that. So often it’s a matter of access. My first instrument was pulled out of a dumpster, but I later got a better one from a program called Music Boosters. That changed the course of my life. I would not have made it otherwise.”

“What spoke to me,” said singer Christina Yun, also a second-year master’s student, “was our responsibility to pass this on.”

As a voice and piano teacher at the Merriam School of Music in Oakville, Canada, Yun believes that becoming a complete musician is not just about technique, it’s about the person. “That’s essential,” she said, “and especially important for pre-teens who are struggling to learn to accept their bodies and emotions. Half my classes turn into therapy sessions. Singing unlocks emotions and the creative side of life, and I’ve seen how it can change lives. What Stull said about aiming for excellence and perfection is really true. We never get there, but every day you aim to do a better version of the music and create a better version of yourself.”

In the end, Stull made his most persuasive case for the “Future of Music” by giving students a virtual tour of the new Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center for Performing Arts. Opening in October 2020 at 200 Van Ness Street, the Bowes Center is the fruit of the largest single gift ever made to a conservatory or music school for a new facility. Before a slide show of renderings of the twelve-story space, Stull paid homage to William K. Bowes Jr., a visionary venture capital pioneer, founding shareholder of Amgen, and SFCM trustee until his death in December 2016.

“He believed in the value of investing in arts and education,” said Stull of Bowes who once told him: “I see investing in students as venture capital of a far different kind. It has a far better return.”

For its abundant 24/7 rehearsal and practice spaces, Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) studios, dorm rooms, and state-of-the-art performance settings, Stull’s tour of the Bowes Center earned yet more student accolades. “It was awesome seeing the views from the performance spaces,” said Skylar Nolan, a sophomore tenor sax player in the Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM) program. “It’s pretty crazy to be performing and right behind you is City Hall and the street.”

“It’s amazing what this school is doing for us,” said Mari Ronimois, a third-year TAC undergraduate from Estonia. “It’s inspiring and pushes me forward to do my best. The Bowes Center location and the fact that there are quiet study halls, rehearsal spaces where we’ll be able to practice 24/7, and also the meal plan—it’s wonderful for students in this city. It’s expensive to live here. I’m not currently living in a dorm, but I’m really considering it.”

Fourth-year TAC undergrad Jessica Mao lamented that she will graduate before the building will open. “I remember the first time [President Stull] showed us some renderings, I thought it was amazing, but this time it was mind blowing. I am just starting my graduate school application, and I’ll be honest, this building is motivating me!”

Welcoming students at the Convocation, SFCM’s Dean and Chief Academic Officer Jonas Wright announced the faculty’s choice for the 2019-2020 curricular theme “Music and Nature,” which will inform both planned repertoire and academic classes. Wright also announced the winner of the Presser Undergraduate Scholar Award, senior Omar Akrouche. The award is given annually to an outstanding senior, recommended by faculty for their extraordinary musical and academic accomplishments. Studio Director and TAC faculty member Taurin Berrera described the winner as “a composer and audio-engineering nerd supreme. Omar exudes an exemplary love of music and sound. Omar is above all a leader—one who cares deeply about creative authenticity and building a greater artistic community for his colleagues,” values at the heart of President Stull’s Convocation address.