August 2, 2010

Q&A with Peabody’s Jeffrey Sharkey

Pianist/composer/music educator discusses roles of Conservatory and Prep

As director of the Peabody Institute, Jeffrey Sharkey leads both the college-level Conservatory and the Preparatory, a community music school. Photo: Will Kirk/

When Jeffrey Sharkey became director of Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, he remarked that it should aim to be one of the top two or three music schools in the country and an institution of international importance. Sharkey said that many of the “ingredients” were there to make that happen. He noted the school’s breadth, which includes the standard repertoire of classical programs, blended with jazz, computer music, recording arts, composition and a thriving youth music education program.

Under his guidance, Peabody looks to continue to grow, push the boundaries of artistic creativity and expand its global reach.

A pianist, composer and veteran music educator, Sharkey joined Johns Hopkins in fall 2006. As director of Peabody, he leads both the college-level Conservatory, one of the nation’s leading professional music schools, with 657 students and more than 150 faculty members; and the Preparatory, a community music school with nearly 1,700 youth and adult students.

Before joining Peabody, Sharkey served as dean of the Cleveland Institute of Music, director of music at the Purcell School in London and head of composition and academic music at Wells Cathedral School, also in England.

A Delaware native, he is a 1986 graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and earned a master of music degree in composition from Yale University in 1988 and a master of philosophy from Cambridge University a year later.

He was a founding member of the Pirasti Piano Trio, which recorded with ASV Records in the United Kingdom and toured throughout Europe and the United States. His compositions have been performed by the St. Louis Symphony and in chamber concerts in the United States and Britain.

Sharkey recently sat down with The Gazette to discuss the state of music education at Peabody, the school’s deep connection with the rest of Johns Hopkins, its outreach efforts and a host of other topics. The big question: Does Sharkey watch Fox TV’s popular musical show Glee? No spoilers here; read on.

Q: Peabody’s Mount Vernon campus underwent a rebirth before you arrived, in the form of a $26.8 million renovation. Where do we stand in terms of current capital projects?

A: I think we have a beautiful facility. We’re not done paying for it. I’m still trying to fundraise for the final couple of million.

One of the challenges of a building 150 years old is facility upkeep. We have four roofs that need replacing, HVAC systems that need maintaining. Then there are issues of deferred maintenance that need addressing. At this point in time it’s not a key priority of mine to build another building, although we could use one. We need more practice space—maybe somewhere underground or by the back steps is where we could put it. We could also use acoustical improvements to Friedberg Hall.

But instead I’m trying to get our orchestra to get out more. I would say my current focus is on the educational program here: waking up Peabody to the world, and the world to Peabody.

Q: How much has what we’ve already done in terms of facility upgrades helped recruit students and faculty?

A: I think it definitely helps. One of the things I did when I came was to move the audition table to the bottom of the staircase in the Grand Arcade. Up until then we had new students come up here, opposite my office, to the Bank of America Lounge. They had to find their way, toting their materials. It was not ideal. We wanted them to come out of the garage and look at the grand flowing staircase in this beautiful space and say, “Wow, cancel my Juilliard audition; let me just stay here.”

Q: Where do we stand in terms of prominence?

A: We are definitely one of the top international schools of music. Our challenge going forward has to do with scholarships. Just like Johns Hopkins’ Homewood undergraduate schools find it a challenge for scholarships to be need-blind, so do we. We have to take into consideration merit. A top violinist, a top pianist, a top singer—even if they are from a family with the means to pay—will expect a handsome scholarship. They are going into music, and their parents know that doesn’t necessarily translate into a huge salary. We are in the merit market, and it’s amazing we do as well as we do because too often we can be outbid $10,000 to $12,000 per student.

Q: You just came back from overseas. What is your general agenda on these trips? Is it recruiting students and faculty, extending the reach of Peabody?

A: A little bit of all of the above. Four times a year, I and/or my deans will head to Singapore to nurture our wonderful partnership with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. I sit on their board. We guide them on curricular matters and do a number of shared projects. We are planning, for example, a shared three-part musical festival in the summer of 2011 with the Lausanne Conservatoire and Yong Siew Toh, and we might add the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from London and others. It will be an international Mozart festival that will nurture our partnerships and future student and faculty exchanges and dramatic projects.

Other travel I do might involve looking at what our alums are doing. For instance, in Korea we have a wonderful, highly qualified group of alums who are key music-makers and music teachers there. We want to keep celebrating what they are doing and keep in connection with them.

Other parts of my travel promote Peabody where we have not historically promoted ourselves. I just came back from Shanghai, for example, and while Johns Hopkins has a major presence in China, namely the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Peabody as an entity does not. Our rival music schools such as Juilliard and London’s Royal Academy have been in China for some time.

I also travel to Europe a good deal. Conservatories are modeled on the European model, and some of the great musical teaching continues to go on there. We have a regular presence in Europe and have set up exchanges with the Conservatoire de Paris, London’s Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School.

Q: You have also traveled domestically, most recently for the university’s Rising to the Challenge events, [an informational “road tour” led by President Ronald J. Daniels] held in major cities across the United States.

A: One of the things we feel very excited about is Peabody contributing to the university mission. We feel it is mutually beneficial. In Rising to the Challenge we are able to do a multitude of things. We have had our dean on the Los Angeles panel. I was invited to give a presentation at the end of the session on creativity in New York. What we’re able to show is that what we are doing in music is deeply connected to other parts of the university, and collaborative in nature.

Q: What specifically did you do at this event?

A: I brought a piano quartet to New York, and we divided a Dvorak piano quartet into short chunks and had them play it. Sometimes I instructed them to play badly on purpose. I asked the other instruments to not respond to the first violin, to not respond musically to the questions or the drama that the first violin was creating. And then I showed the audience how if they listened with more attention that they could work out a dialogue and harness their energy and tie it to the first violin, to show how the piece can come alive.

I also wanted to show how Dvorak would try to paint a scene, how he would conjure up the image of a rowboat on a calm lake and then get more intense and build toward a climax. I wanted to help a nonmusical audience find more to listen to in a classical piece, but mainly I spoke about creativity: how the performer thinks, how the coach thinks and how we make it better than it was.

Q: Speaking of bringing music to people who may not be music lovers, tell me a little about your philosophy on bringing Peabody into the community.

A: Our vision is that music enhances everyone’s life. It should be a right, and one of the main avenues of self-expression and creativity. One of our key divisions is our Preparatory, which reaches [nearly] 1,700 kids from around the region. They come to our branch here, they come to Towson, they come to Howard County and Annapolis. But we weren’t getting many from the inner city. They couldn’t afford us. It was largely a middle-class program. So I’ve been delighted with the growth of our work with inner city students from Baltimore.

We have started a free program called Tuned-In for wind and brass players of middle school age. It started with seven students and now has 30. They are a proper wind ensemble and are performing very well. They collaborated with the Montgomery County Youth Ensemble, and they are going to play the national anthem at an Orioles game. They are doing great things.

In a similar vein, we started a boys dance program in connection with the Preparatory’s long-standing dance program. We started with 20 inner city boys doing ballet. Eighteen have continued, and eight of them were so advanced within eight months of training that they danced in our spring production of Sleeping Beauty.

The Tuned-In program grew out of our mentoring program, where we work with 60 Baltimore City music teachers every year, giving curricular advice, sometimes a shoulder to cry on, classroom management advice. This program helped spot talented middle school students that we drew together to make the Tuned-In ensemble.

Another program, which has the potential to be a model of delivering music training in an urban setting, is our work with the Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy School around the corner from us. We’ve been teaching a group in the school each year how to compose. We bring them over to Peabody to perform their compositions. Peabody students play their pieces, our Recording Arts and Sciences students record them on CD, and the Saint Ignatius students sometimes perform alongside our students. They write the whole gamut of music. It could be hip-hop, a string quartet or could combine the two.

Q: You’re igniting their creativity.

A: I find composition so essential to developing a young person’s self-expression. It’s similar to art. If you learn how to paint, no matter how good you are, you have the ability to say, “I made this.” Too often music misses that moment. We get too involved with learning the history of the music, or the theory behind it, or how to play the music of others. These are all critical things, but composing is ownership.

Q: My 8-year-old recently wrote a song and couldn’t wait for me to come home so she could sing it to me.

A: You hit the nail on the head. That is what we call a peak experience. Children are lucky when they have a number of those peak experiences, where they say, “I made this.” The benefit for us down the line is not that more folks will continue into musical study but that they will enjoy it and let music into their lives.

Q: We seem to be forcing the issue here somewhat, being proactive. Is classical music and its appreciation somewhat of a dying art?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s a dying art, but I would say that it has to compete in people’s superficially busy multitasking lives. I say superficial because it’s too easy to say, “I’ve done a million things, that I’ve done these errands while at the same time I was on my BlackBerry and drinking a cup of coffee.” If you really drill down deeply, what have you accomplished?

Music and dance demand time. They unfold over a period of time, and in most classical music instances, it’s longer than a rock or pop song’s two minutes and 30 seconds. It requires paragraphs, the way a novel does.

We think there is a tremendous benefit in developing attention spans but even more deeply in exploring genuine human emotion, these peak experiences like when our child is born, when we fall in love, when we see Venice for the first time. These are moments that are burned into your brain, and music captures these.

Getting back to the root of your question, I think the way people want their music delivered is changing. Our musicians have to be more adaptable. They still have to play considerably well in a symphony setting, but they have to be very comfortable with early music and with rock. They have to be comfortable with jazz and the underground movement in music. Adaptability is critical. That is one of the strengths of Peabody and Johns Hopkins; we can engage in that critical aspect of depth.

Q: Both you and your predecessor appear to be championing the importance of entrepreneurship in music. What are we currently doing in this area?

A: We have long taught a Business of Music class, and we are now growing it into a minor. We are very excited about that. We are also adding a track in entrepreneurship for community music-making. We started a class in creative leadership, training Conservatory students in project management to draw creativity out of schoolchildren and adults. We want them to cope with whatever presents itself, a little like a chef who looks in a cupboard and says, “What do I have to make this dish?” They ask the students to see what they’ve got—one plays the drums, one wrote a poem as part of an English project. The person says, “I will help you knit these things together.” More and more schools and even businesses are hiring people to teach this kind of leadership.

We also recently underwent a curricular review to make sure that our students have time to make more connections between the breadth that we offer. So you can be a violinist at Peabody, studying all the things that a violinist has and always will have to study—how to play concertos, how to play these sonatas, these orchestral excerpts—but at the same time we want you to have room to maybe study jazz improvisation. Maybe spend some time doing baroque violin. Maybe spend some time partnering with a contemporary composer or playing in an opera pit. We want to lead them down these pathways so that they are able to do adaptable things in their profession.

Q: What is the state and depth of Peabody’s relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?

A: We have a lovely, deep partnership with them, starting at the top with Marin Alsop, their music director, who is on our faculty as a distinguished visiting faculty member in conducting. Whenever she is in town, she works with Gustav Meier and Markand Thakar, two of our conducting faculty, and with our students. Peabody students are invited to help cover her concerts, which means that they learn chunks of the repertoire so if she happened to be indisposed they could step in.

Plus we share a program called the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship. We had the first graduate a year ago, Joseph Young, who has just become the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony. We have a young man named Ilyich Rivas—who is about to turn 17—who basically does the work of an assistant conductor at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra while being a student here.

The BSO has this well-established ORCHkids youth development program, and we provide a great deal of our Preparatory teachers as their staffing.

Q: What are some trends in terms of music education here?

A: Music is now the second most popular minor on the Homewood campus, and it’s so popular that I foresee—if we can get all the details worked out—a bachelor of arts in music. I feel the Homewood campus would only benefit from having such a possibility, a major in music alongside its great work in the humanities. It would help Johns Hopkins compete with its peer schools, who have such degree programs.

Q: How much does modern music influence what a conservatory does? Does a Lady Gaga or a Coldplay reach within these walls?

A: Well, Lady Gaga is not on my iPod [laughs]. But actually there is a lot of cross traffic between the popular world and the classical world. In fact, there always has been. Strauss and Brahms would have influenced one another; some of the dances that would have been played in the baroque era absolutely influenced Bach. And today there is a tremendous influence between the pop world and the classical world, harmonically but also in terms of the venues and kinds of styles of performances.

I think the classical world has learned from the rock world about engagement with the audience. I’m a fan of Sting, and I like that the audience feels free to sing along with him, not sit in reverential silence. There’s a balance in there somewhere because classical music is softer and not amplified. I think classical musicians are more comfortable now, not always playing in tails or 19th-century dress. They are more comfortable mixing up the performances. You’ll see conductors like Marin Alsop talking with the audience during or after a concert.

Q: Tell me about the upcoming 1971 concert.

A: Next year, as part of our distinguished Adalman series, one of the concerts is titled 1971, which will focus on a range of music in that year from artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, and contemporary composers such as George Crumb and Steve Reich.

Q: Staying on the subject of popular music, do you watch the show Glee, and do you think its popularity will have any impact on music education?

A: Well, first, yes I have. My daughters watch it, too. I like the lady who is in charge of the cheerleaders [laughs]. Very funny.

I think it will. I think on the whole it has a positive effect. It’s very different from what we do, of course. It’s like a musical on Broadway. It’s not true life. A band doesn’t suddenly start playing a love song when you are by your locker. But it does show a connection between emotion and music, what human beings are feeling and how it can be expressed in music. That is something I’m always keen to remind people of. What we are about in music is one of the deepest forms of communication there is. That can range from a Glee-like Broadway song to a Mahler symphony. We need this form of communication. You only need to listen to a day of the House of Representatives to learn that we have lost the ability to communicate.

Q: Tuition. You mentioned earlier that this is a challenge for us. How so?

A: It’s a real challenge, and one of the challenges for all conservatories. There were more than 100 at the turn of the [19th] century, depending on how you count them; there are 10 or 12 left in the United States. Peabody was nearly one of these casualties until we became part of Johns Hopkins. Why? Because a conservatory is a strange and difficult economic model to fund. We are about one incredibly qualified faculty member teaching one student at a time. In other parts of the university, that faculty member would more than likely teach a lecture and be involved in research that would bring in income. We don’t have a research stream of income; we rely on tuition and philanthropy. It’s a constant challenge. It’s the master/apprentice method of passing on the greatest musical tradition there is.

Q: Can you talk about Peabody performances?

A: We give nearly 100 major concerts a year, and almost 1,000 concerts of all types. We have our opera and jazz concerts, our early music, our Adalman faculty recital series. And then underpinning all of these are the student recitals required for graduation. They are the equivalent of a senior thesis. There’s also chamber music recitals, and outreach recitals. Our Creative Access group does about 70 student concerts in venues around the city in hospices, hospitals, schools and other venues.

This is just the Conservatory. In the Prep there are recitals at the end of every year, and many others. It’s a huge tapestry of concerts of a whole range of music going on. It’s a community service, and how our students learn their craft. You need the magic “X” ingredient of an audience to energize and enhance the creative spontaneity.

Q: The Jazz program here is already 10 years old?

A: Yes. It’s really getting enmeshed in the curriculum, and we’re doing some incredibly exciting concerts, ranging from a big band to a multimedia ensemble, to a Latin band and a small ensemble group. A group has gone on tour to Japan and is about to go on tour in Singapore. We are really reaching out with our Jazz program.

Q: What are you listening to right now?

A: A whole range. I have great recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven’s nine symphonies; I have the complete Sting collection. One of the things I’m listening to right now is some acts from the 1970s, just out of nostalgia. Electric Light Orchestra and stuff like that. These pop songs can take me back to that dance when I was nervously waiting to ask someone to dance with me.

Q: What are you reading?

A: I’m trying to go back to [Charles] Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. This summer I should have time to tackle it.