To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: The music department

The chair of Brandeis University’s music department, Professor Karen Desmond, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the department, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the 2022 spring semester. Professor Erin Gee is the current chair of the Music Department, and Professor Karen Desmond is on leave.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


I was in a post doc program and was searching for the right opportunity, but I did really want to come to this area. Brandeåis did appeal to me because it’s especially well known for music and I had had professors who had either taught at Brandeis or graduated from here. So, the name was very familiar to me. I’m originally from Ireland, so I’m not as familiar with all the American universities, but Brandeis was definitely up there with name recognition. When I interviewed, I really liked the place and I especially liked the students. I had to do a demo [class] teaching students and then I chatted with the grad students too. I was really impressed with the Brandeis students, so that was a particular draw.


What do you wish that students knew about the Music department?


Well, we would love to get more folks in the door at the music department …. It’s a great place for students to gather. There’s lots of couches, it’s this wide open space and it has Leonard Bernstein’s piano in the middle of the lobby. If you’re sitting there, you get to hear all the different sorts of music that are happening in the various teaching rooms and practice rooms. You can hear anything from a jazz band to an American roots ensemble to opera singers. It’s a really vibrant place once you’re there. But, we do get the sense that if you don’t know about it, it’s sort of one of [Brandeis’] secrets. If you’re not involved in one of the ensembles or taking a class in the music department then … [you] aren’t necessarily passing by and seeing what’s going on.


What do you think that the music department does well?


We have very good student-faculty connections. Because our classes tend to be smaller, … and most of our courses are taught by professors in the department, … students can really get that involvement with the faculty.


Is there anything you think the music department could do better?


I think it’s really just about getting students in the door …. We would love to get more folks in and listening to new music that’s happening at Brandeis. But, I know that there’s lots of other things competing for students’ attention. So I think if we can figure out a way to [communicate] with students to let them know about what’s going on, [the department will be better for it] …. I would really love it if the university, and maybe they are going to do this, put some sort of investment in outdoor spaces for students to gather and socialize outside when we have nice weather. So in the spring and through the fall, if we had that, it’d be fantastic to have outdoor music performances there.


Which of the three tracks is most popular within the music major?


Probably the performance track. I think we have 11 music majors who are doing the performance track. Just this week, we had a meeting called “Meet the Majors” for folks who were interested in majoring. Quite a few of those people were saying they were interested in the composition track. So I don’t know, maybe the composition track is gonna have an influx [of new students] this year. I don’t know.


Why is keyboard proficiency a graduation requirement?


That is going away with our revamp of the curriculum. That’s been a requirement in place for maybe 10 or 15 years; it’s been there a long time. But, as part of our revision of the curriculum, we wanted to create a music major that allowed for anyone who was interested in the study of music to study music, whether or not they had a performance background [in the Western musical tradition]. In order to open up our program to whatever music tradition a student comes from, we significantly revamped what we will require students to study. It doesn’t make sense to require everyone to study keyboard, because not everybody is interested in keyboard. Now, it does make sense for some students if they were, perhaps, thinking about a career as a choir director in a church or something like that …. But for other professions, it wouldn’t be necessary. What we’re really trying to do is not force students to take requirements that aren’t pertinent to their particular interests. We want to make more student-focused requirements. We’re opening [the program] up so that students can take more electives in their particular areas of interest and so on.

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