Musical Chairs

Six UW Music School positions may be at risk.

Faculty turnover is dealing the University of Washington School of Music an unprecedented blow. Due to one death (flutist Felix Skowronek), two retirements (William McColl, clarinet; Diane Thome, composition), and three departures for other jobs (Vinson Cole, voice; Don Immel, trombone; Vern Sielert, trumpet), six full-time tenure-track professors must be replaced, not to mention the January loss of part-time lecturer Carol Vaness and a handful of openings from previous years still filled by interim teachers. "It's tough to have this all happening in one season," admits department head Robin McCabe (pictured).

Worse, these slots "belong" not to the School of Music but to the College of Arts and Sciences; when one opens, any of the 42 A&S departments, from American Indian studies to linguistics to statistics, can put in a request for it. As School of Music undergraduate advisor Erin Kaser puts it, "We're going to have to prove we need [the positions] and jockey for them." Ellen Kaisse, divisional dean for arts and humanities, confirms: "It's long been the college's policy to ask departments to explain their requests to hire faculty in the context of demand for courses and the unit's vision for future research, performance, and scholarship. The outcome of the process can be the growth of departments or schools, or shrinkage, or no net change."

For the 2006–07 school year, the School of Music will submit written requests to launch five searches: flute, voice, composition, jazz studies, and trombone. Kaisse outlines the process: "The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences makes the decision, in consultation with his executive staff, which includes the divisional deans, assistant deans, and the director of finance and administration. . . . [T]he decision is usually made by early August."

Several musicians, some from the Seattle Symphony, have been tapped as part-time interim replacements—or perhaps not so interim, in the cases of oboist Nathan Hughes and bassoonist Seth Krimsky. They're filling what were full-time positions (predecessors Rebecca Henderson and Arthur Grossman left in 2004), but, McCabe says, the positions may remain part time for the sake of keeping these two first-rate musicians. Krimsky, for one, has revitalized the bassoon studio, with five students signed up as majors this year and eight, including two graduate students, expected for next. If well-known names can attract students, of course departing ones can take students; McCabe says two top tenors are following Cole to the prestigious New England Conservatory.

Money, naturally, is a major issue. "It seems like it's harder and harder to keep really good people," says one part-time lecturer; also, limited financial resources exacerbate intradepartmental turf wars, with academic vs. performance divisions, jazz vs. classical, history vs. theory "all fighting for their own bucks." McCabe doesn't deny that a music faculty, in terms of the number of students served, can be pricey: "We're not a cheap date. . . . [M]usic involves lots of one-on-one teaching, and we don't churn out the credit hours." Salaries, though, were not necessarily a factor in this year's three faculty resignations. Immel is leaving academia altogether for an orchestral job in Denmark, and Sielert and his wife, Vanessa, a saxophonist, got a joint offer they couldn't refuse from the University of Idaho's Lionel Hampton School of Music. "The potential of this place is tremendous," says Sielert, at UW only five years; "I wasn't planning on leaving. . . . I did feel bad timing-wise."

But McCabe is thinking positively about the changes, seeing an opportunity to seek out new talent. She points to Aine Heneghan, an expert on the 20th-century modernist composer Alban Berg. Just hired from Dublin as an assistant professor of music theory, Heneghan also happens to be a proficient Celtic harpist—an example of the sort of "bridge makers . . . who can think a little more ecumenically" that McCabe would love to see more of in the department. "You want to hire someone who makes you better than you were yesterday."

gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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