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Four Degrees of Separation

Conservatory Deans Link Their Successes to Transformative Experiences at Oberlin

Besides an obvious passion for music, what common denominator ties together the deans of some of the nation’s top music conservatories? In a word, it’s Oberlin.

“The total Oberlin environment had a profound influence on me,” says James Copeland Scott ’64, dean of the College of Music at the University of North Texas. “It was a transformative experience—the school gives students an appreciation and understanding of larger ideals that extend beyond a narrow focus on a particular instrument or musical genre.”

Scott is one of four deans interviewed to find out what it was about their Oberlin experience that propelled them to their current leadership roles. These four are just a sampling of Oberlin alumni who serve as lead administrators at music schools throughout the United States.

Stephen H. Clapp '61
Dean, the Juilliard School

“I went to Oberlin from Juilliard’s prep division, where I had been limited to instruction in my instrument,” says Clapp. “Oberlin opened up a new world for me because it created an awareness of other instruments and musical forms, such as opera, to which I previously had not been exposed, developing in me an appreciation for collaboration and for the discipline that other people give to their art.

Stephen H.Clapp ’61 and David H. Stull ’89, deans of the Juilliard School and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, respectively, met recently in New York outside Juilliard. Their careers overlapped twice: first when Clapp was an associate dean at Oberlin and Stull was a student, and again when Stull joined Clapp at Juilliard as associate director of admissions.

“Where I came from in New Jersey, people tended to think that football and cars were the important things in life, and when I went to Juilliard prep, the focus was on being a better performer. At Oberlin, I met people with interests and knowledge well beyond my experience. These contacts opened me up to different points of view.”

In addition to a bachelor of music degree from Oberlin, Clapp’s musical education also included studies with Dorothy Delay ’37 and Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and studies at the Mozarteum Akademie in Salzburg, Austria. In 1978, Clapp returned to Oberlin to teach, staying for 12 years. During this time, he helped found the Oberlin Trio, which tours internationally and has made several recordings.

“While serving as a faculty member at Oberlin, I was influenced by David Boe, the Conservatory’s dean at the time,” Clapp says. “In his absence, I served as acting dean for one semester. This experience strongly affected my understanding of what a leader can and cannot do, and the governance structure at Oberlin gave me an absolute from which all others are derived. Knowing how to deal with power issues and policy issues is another thing I learned there.”

James Copeland Scott ’64
Dean, University of North Texas College of Music

“At Oberlin there exists to this day a powerful ethic that made it incumbent on all of us to be aware of, and involved in, larger issues,” says Scott. “Students were encouraged to reach beyond themselves and their natural tendencies toward self-absorption as they worked on excelling at their instrument.”

Scott grew up in the segregated South. “Going to Oberlin was like going from one world to another,” he says. “Suddenly I found myself in an environment that reflected my own sense of values, which had been alien to my native surroundings. I embraced the enriching opportunities this new world presented, where diversity and civil rights were welcomed and championed.”

Scott was a double major in flute and piano. After graduating with a bachelor of music degree, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the Peabody Institute of Music. While serving as a faculty member and head of the music program at Rutgers University for many years, he gave recitals throughout the United States, Canada, and the Far East. Later, he was associate dean at Indiana University and director of the School of Music at the University of Illinois. He remains an active performer.

“My Oberlin years provided me with two critically important aspects of music that form the foundation upon which I have built my work as an administrator,” says Scott. “The first, a knowledge of performance values across a wide spectrum. We were exposed to a wide variety of excellent repertoire not only through rigorous history and theory classes, but also through required attendance at weekly student recitals that brought together all the students in the Conservatory.

“Second, an emphasis on musical and technical fundamentals that remains with me to this day. The integrity of instruction that I believe we must provide for our students is not possible without these essential underpinnings, which are so necessary for one’s long-lasting performance abilities, versatility, and professional consistency. These elements, learned at Oberlin, influence the judgments I make every day.”

Robert Sirota ’71
Director, Peabody Institute of Music

“During my early training at Oberlin, several teachers recognized that I had leadership abilities,” says Sirota. “One was Professor of Piano Elizabeth Lasley, who, very early on, helped me learn how to balance the inner life of a musician with the broader, more external life of a leader.”

At Oberlin, Sirota earned a bachelor of music degree in composition and piano. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate, both in composition, at Harvard University. Widely known as a composer and conductor of new music, his catalog includes various solo and chamber works, four stage works, large and small choral works, and concertos for various instruments.

“My evolution as a musician paralleled cultural changes taking place in the music world,” says Sirota. “When I came to Oberlin in the late ’60s, it was a tumultuous time. In a world of great societal change—such as the Vietnam War and racial injustice—faculty and students were immersed in discussing how being a musician was relevant. I think we ultimately showed that music is a higher calling. When the Kent State shootings occurred, Oberlin virtually shut down. The entire Conservatory learned the Mozart Requiem, and we performed it at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the Kent tragedy. This was our attempt to convert our sense of rage and grief into a tangible, meaningful response.”

David H. Stull ’89
Dean, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music

“I had a marvelous undergraduate experience at Oberlin that left me with a deep and abiding fondness for the school,” says Stull. “During those years, I was engaged in music at an unparalleled intensity. Being an Oberlin student was, and still is, a transformative experience that goes beyond just a concentration in a limited musical venue.

“Students who seek this school are not only working to excel musically but have a deep interest in the world beyond,” he adds. “Their exposure to the strong liberal arts tradition on campus provides them with a certain depth of experience that many other conservatories cannot replicate. Students here are driven by a desire to be great, and they’re surrounded by extraordinary people from around the world.

“As an Oberlin student, you have the opportunity to engage a tremendous range of musical literature as well as hear lectures by Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners,” says Stull. “The Conservatory is committed to the highest level of professional training and the cultivation of the creative spirit. We delve into the alchemy of being an artist.”

Stull was named Oberlin’s dean in 2004.

Anne Gallagher is a freelance writer from Hudson, Ohio.

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