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An Interview with Dean Dodson

by Linda Shockley | Photograph by Ramon Owens


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For almost 50 years, Robert Dodson has studied music, performed music, taught music and worked for institutions dedicated to the future of music and music education. In this Conservatory News interview, our new dean discusses the rewards and challenges of his lifetime in music.
You have an interesting family history in music and music education. Tell me about that.

At least three generations of my family have been involved in professional music. My maternal grandfather, Barrett Stout, was born in West Virginia in 1890. Orphaned at the age of six by a typhoid epidemic, he moved about from one farm to another as far from home as Oklahoma and Missouri. One of his host families sent him off to college in Kirksville, Missouri, where he eventually settled, started a family, and opened a music store. During this time he began to sing seriously and to consider a career in music beyond the music store, which led to his completing a master's degree at NYU and, ultimately, a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. He began his academic career at what is now Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville and eventually became dean of the School of Music at Lousiana State University. He also participated prominently in the affairs of two national associations, MENC and NASM.

My uncle Kemble Stout was a fine pianist and composer. He completed a Ph.D. in music composition at the Eastman School and for most of his academic life was head of the School of Music at Washington State University. A few months ago, a surprise package arrived in the mail containing a CD of Kemble's most recent piano recital, which he recorded in his eighties.

Although my parents were not musicians, they shared a love for music. My father didn't have musical opportunities in his childhood (although his maternal grandfather was a fiddler). He discovered music through my mother, and it became a centerpiece of their life together. They assembled a large collection of recordings and by the time I finished high school, I had heard most of the major symphonic and chamber music repertoire and many operas. Through my father's work as a scientist I met some passionate amateur musicians in the scientific community. Two became particularly influencial: a fine pianist who played Beethoven cello sonatas with me, and an admirable cellist. As you can see, my musical opportunities were abundant.

Let me share one particularly life-changing experience. I had been studying cello with Signe Sandstrom, a student of Maurice Eisenberg and Pablo Casals, and whose influence has been very important to me. It was the fall of my junior year in high school, and I learned that the great Pablo Casals would be making his first public appearance after a life-threatening heart attack, at the Casals Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I begged so often to attend that I eventually gave up; but on my birthday a few months later I discovered on my bedside table a round-trip ticket to San Juan, a full season subscription to the Festival, and a rehearsal pass. So I played hooky for three weeks; had an incredibly wonderful adventure; attended every concert and rehearsal; heard Casals play all of the Beethoven Sonatas with Serkin, Horszowski and others, and even met the master.
It has been said that musicians who have the most diverse careers are often the ones with the most successful and gratifying careers. You seem to be a shining example of that. Please elaborate on the rewards and challenges of your almost 50 years as musician, educator and administrator.

An interesting hypothesis, but one that might not stand up to scrutiny as a general principle. I know many people who have followed narrow and conventional paths and have had satisfying careers. That notwithstanding, young musicians today will need to respond and be receptive to a multitude of challenges and opportunities, and they will tend to have more complex, lively, even turbulent careers, than previous generations.

Music has been very kind to me. One of my teachers said that when he plays he reaches hundreds; when he records he reaches thousands; but when he teaches he reaches generations. Much satisfaction also comes from helping to shape institutions that enable others to teach and to learn and make music. It is difficult to balance my competing interests in performing, teaching and in what I think of as building learning communities. I have tended to move from one to another in bursts of concentration, but I hope with a unity of purpose to serve the cause of music as well I am able.

My best advice for young musicians is this:

  • Ignore all advice; follow the wisdom of your heart.
  • Don't make limiting assumptions about the ultimate shape and direction of your career(s).
  • Serve music passionately.
  • Remain open-minded about how to do that and be as prepared as possible. Know that an important part of luck is being ready to recognize it and to embrace it.
Be amateurs, in the true sense of the word, entrepreneurs and provocateurs on behalf of music.
What is unique about Oberlin that attracted you to this position?
I feel privileged to be part of this great Conservatory of Music, and to enjoy that privilege in a great college of the liberal arts and sciences. The union of these two in a single institution is a rare and precious accomplishment.

Where better could music continue to occupy its time-honored position in the liberal arts, uniting scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge, social discourse and the pursuit of justice, and the arts and the pursuit of freedom of the spirit through disciplines of the body, mind and heart?

The level of musical achievement at Oberlin is exceptional and the double-degree opportunity is very important. To appreciate the depth of Oberlin's offerings in the arts, consider also the riches of the Allen Art Museum. One need only see the current exhibits of German Expressionists, Renaissance prints, and examples from the Asian collection to sense the quality of its collections.
You spent the last 10 years as dean of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, where you were credited with leading your faculty and staff to impressive achievements in enrollment, faculty recruitment, development and fundraising, capital projects, and a creative and committed approach to outreach. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? What opportunities for nurture, growth and change do you see at Oberlin?

I don't take personal credit for the accomplishments at Lawrence; they were done together with faculty and staff. Faculty are the heart of any great school. The dean establishes an environment in which faculty can best achieve their aspirations, removing as many hurdles and roadblocks as possible and encouraging individuals' confidence in themselves, in their colleagues, and in their institution.

Celebrating a retired teacher at Lawrence, a former student commented that his legacy was "the pursuit of the highest musical and personal standards in an atmosphere of wonder and joy, in the absence of petty egotism and vanity." I think that sums it up perfectly.

There have been a great many advances in pedagogy during the last 10 to 15 years (such as student-based [i.e., "active] learning, and the paradigmatic shift to teaching "skills" rather that "content"). What are the biggest pedagogical challenges at the Conservatory, and how can we best address them?
Music learning has always been student-based, active learning with emphasis upon skills, not as an alternative to content but as an enabler of it. Of course there have been advances in our understanding of how people learn and of new pedagogical techniques and technologies. However, at the heart of music education, perhaps all education, are the student's desire to know and to be able, and the teacher's ability to guide that quest. We should always remind ourselves that education is essentially personal even as we try to keep abreast of each new style, technique or technology that promises some utility or application to music making, music teaching and music learning.
Critics have labeled conservatories a dying breed, yet Oberlin has always taken pride in its long tradition of "firsts." Our innovations have complimented the college's proud history of progressive and leading edge sociology. What are the challenges for conserving the old while staying dynamic and embracing the new?

I think that might better be framed as: "How can we ensure opportunities for people to become the best possible musicians?" The young will always explore or embrace the new. History suggests that what is at risk is not innovation but memory.

I don't agree that conservatories are a dying breed. There are more opportunities for studying music today than there were 50 or 100 years ago. This year, the National Association of Schools of Music celebrates its 75th anniversary with more than 575 members. When I was a student at the Henry Settlement Music School, the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts was a fledgling organization with just a few members. Today, it is a populous crowd with members from all over the country and beyond.

There is a great thirst for music. More students seek admission in music than ever before; enrollments have been growing dramatically. Conservatories are thriving today!
To end on a more personal note, which composers and musicians have inspired you in your lifetime of music? What do you listen to after a hard day at the Conservatory?
My greatest personal debt beyond my immediate family is to my beloved teacher Janos Starker. I want to remain active as a cellist, so I try to practice every day. I return almost every day to the suites of J.S.Bach. I am inspired, however, by whatever I am studying at the moment. Discovering a new composer and new music is enormously stimulating. I remember my first youthful encounters with composers as if it were today. Some composers take longer to find a place in one's heart, but the more music one knows, the more one can love. That is a reason why performing is so satisfying: one must really know a piece well to perform it effectively, to bring it to life.