Playing together: At the Yale School of Music, García-León builds community

In a Q&A, José García-León, the new dean of the Yale School of Music, discusses increasing access, new collaborations, and how performance is changing.

José García-León once gave a master class in piano to students in Buenos Aires — from his studio in New York. His piano was digitally synchronized with the one the students were playing, so that he could hear what they were playing on his piano and see the keys depress in real time.

What I was hearing was live music — it was not recorded and not going through wires,” said García-León, the Henry and Lucy Moses Dean of the Yale School of Music. “We could connect from so far with actual live music. That’s an incredible experience.”

Eight months into his new role as dean, García-León is thinking a lot about making connections through music as he considers the future of the renowned school and how best to prepare its students for the rapidly changing world of musical performance.

For the past nine years, he served as dean of academic affairs and assessment at The Juilliard School in New York City, and he previously served as associate dean of the University of New Haven’s College of Arts and Sciences, from 2007 to 2014.

An accomplished pianist, García-León has performed as a solo recitalist around the world, including in the Big Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.

He sat down with Yale News to talk about his desire to strengthen ties between the School of Music and the broader community, his efforts to broaden the school’s applicant pool, and how he combines two other passions: reading and running.

What’s it like to be back in New Haven?

José García-León: You know, it’s interesting because my youngest daughter was born here and our family had a strong connection to the city. Lots of friends. We lived here for quite a while, not far from the Yale campus. I used to come to events here all the time as part of the audience. It’s interesting to see how the city has evolved and how certain things stay similar. It’s exciting to think about ways the School of Music can contribute, like with our Music in Schools Initiative. I feel strongly that that's a program we need to nourish and make stronger as we go forward. It’s a great way to be involved with the community.

You’ve been in your new post about eight months. What are some of your observations about the School of Music so far?

García-León: It’s a wonderful place. What motivated me to even consider applying for the job was really the people in the school. The faculty is outstanding, and it’s a privilege to get to work with them. The students are stellar. I mean, it’s just such a joy to see them perform, but also to see them around in the hallways, laughing or having pizza together or whatever. The sense of community that they have. And I’ve gotten to know the staff, and it’s incredible how devoted they are to the school and the well-being of the students, and how they support them and the faculty.

Another thing that really attracted me to come here is the amazing gift that the school received from Stephen and Denise Adams. It not only allowed for an incredible renovation of our building and much better facilities and practice rooms but, even more transformative, their endowment allows the school to cover the tuition of all the students. That’s life changing.

Has it resulted in a more diverse student population at the school?

García-León: Absolutely. And the endowment has grown enough that we can give a modest stipend to the students. So it’s not only that we cover the tuition, we give them a little help for their year.

Are there other ways in which you’re prioritizing diversity and equity?

García-León: One way is that we’re increasing the number of recruiting opportunities. The number of applicants this year went up by a lot. Another priority has been working with our communications team to make the school more present in social media and target a wider range of potential applicants. We want the most diverse pool of applicants we could possibly have. And we need to be sure that everyone knows that they’re welcome to apply.

What other areas are a priority for you?

García-León: One of them is financial support. In my own personal education, I had to heavily rely on scholarships to make my way through. I’m very aware of what it means to struggle financially, or in whatever way, to devote yourself to what you need to do in college. One of our priorities is providing financial aid or help in general, like opportunities for networking or to develop skills that will help them in their careers.

Another area that’s very important is the rapid change in the arts. Professions in the arts have always been changing, and that’s part of what the arts are about. But it seems that right now we’re in more of a dramatic transition in the world of the performing arts, especially in the ways that performers share their music with others. Different platforms, different mediums. Even the way that performance venues can be used is shifting. It’s expanding into different ways of sharing music with audiences. We need to think very carefully about the curriculum that we offer, the type of training that we offer, so that our students have the skills to be able to adapt to whatever comes their way. It might mean including other types of music or thinking about how to use technology with artificial intelligence.

In an interview you gave at the time of your appointment, you said you wanted to “strengthen the bridges” between the School of Music and Yale’s other professional schools. What would that look like?

García-León: We’ve already been working with the other music entities at Yale — the Department of Music [in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences], the Institute of Sacred Music, the Schwarzman Center, and so on — and we’ve started having regular meetings. These give us a time to share ideas, see what we’re working on, and talk about how we can do things together. I’ve been very impressed with how willing everyone is to work together.

But we also want to work across the professional schools. We are looking into some partnerships with the School of Art. We’re very much in touch with the Geffen School of Drama, the School of Architecture. But even with the School of Management and the School of Public Health. We’re moving gradually because we must do it very carefully and with thought. We’re exploring many ways of collaborating.

I’ll be curious to see what you come up with for those last two.

García-León: For the School of Management, there are already some partnerships. An area of great interest is marketing or how to run your own nonprofit. The business side of music is crucial for our students to, if not be experts, at least know enough that they can control to some degree their own careers. And be able to recognize opportunities.

What do you see as key to the success of the School of Music in the next few years?

García-León: I very much want to develop a strategic plan for the school next year. That’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for the entire school to come together and share their vision of what music should be moving forward. I will be very interested in hearing from every single group that’s part of the school, from students to staff to teachers, faculty, everyone, so that together we can come up with a common vision as to where we should go.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

García-León: I love spending time with my family. That’s always a priority. Outside of that, on a more individual level, I love running. I’m a very avid marathon runner and quite slow, but I love being out there. And I’m an obsessive reader. I’m always with a book. The moment I finish the last page of one, I’m onto the first page of the next. Actually, I sometimes do both together — I like long runs with an audiobook. Although toward the end of a long run, I switch to loud music and forget about books. I need the music to get me to the end.

I’ve always felt that music is where my heart is, but I equally enjoy literature and visual arts and film. Just the human experience being transmitted and shared. It’s a beautiful thing. I think we can all be better artists by being aware of the other arts as well, and not just be in a bubble.

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