5 Questions to Kate Sheeran (Executive Director, Kaufman Music Center)

Kate Sheeran, a hornist and brilliant educational administrator, succeeded the retiring Lydia Kontos as the new Executive Director of the Kaufman Music Center in September. Sheeran holds an illustrious resume as Assistant Dean of the Mannes School of Music of The New School in New York as well as Provost and Dean of the San Francisco Conservatory, fostering greater accessibility and outreach to both communities through music education and adult continuing programs. Ms. Sheeran has been equally as successful as a hornist, performing with ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Signal, and the Wordless Music Orchestra. Now, she has become an advocate for music education and new music as she leads the Kaufman Music Center into its next chapter of community outreach and music making, a chapter that seamlessly blends education with inspiring performances at Merkin Hall, where she herself has performed numerous times. One such exciting endeavor is the Only at Merkin series with WQXR’s Terrance McKnight and luminary performers of our day. 

First of all, congratulations on your new position. Tell us a bit about some of your previous undertakings; how have your past experiences influenced your future plans for the Kaufman Center?

Thank you! I am thrilled to be leading Kaufman Music Center into our next chapter. I’ve been very fortunate to have a career that has given me deep experience as an administrator, educator, and also as a performer. What I really love is how the professional and educational worlds come together and influence each other at Kaufman Music Center. This is a large part of why I wanted to come here, and it’s also how I think about our future. When we’re thinking about presentations at Merkin Hall, we’re thinking about putting great inspiration and role models for our students on stage. When we’re thinking about our education programs, we’re thinking about the most innovative ways for students to learn, so that they can have a long life in music, whether it’s as a musician or using that education in myriad ways. My experience in designing programs for young people, as well as in higher education, combined with my background as a performer and audience member all come together at Kaufman Music Center. What really drew me here is that we have all of this under one umbrella, and I’m really interested in maximizing all the ways that our unique musical ecosystem works together.

What do you envision to be the challenges of this specific job and how are they different from those you have previously encountered?

I’m inspired by the challenge of making sure that the world knows what Kaufman Music Center does. It certainly is a unique challenge because of the breadth of our programming. We have four distinct program areas–a concert hall, a public school that teaches music as a core subject, a community arts school, and a teen new music ensemble–and many different programs within these four areas. Often people will know something about Merkin Hall but not Special Music School. They might know Face the Music, but they don’t know Lucy Moses School. I’m really interested in making sure that everyone knows that this is a really interesting hub for both music education and presentation, and that we’ve been a leader in these areas for many years.

It’s different from where I’ve been before. When you say “San Francisco Conservatory of Music,” it’s pretty self-explanatory–it’s a degree-granting conservatory. Mannes School of Music is similar, and is a music school within a university. So the challenge of making sure Kaufman Music Center is a recognizable brand is a really interesting one. We continue to make strides along these lines, and in my first sixth months, I have prioritized building initiatives that will soon launch with these goals in mind.

Each of the four distinct areas of Kaufman Music Center launched at different times in our history, and we have this really exciting moment now to maximize how all of these facets work together in a way that can be a model for other communities.

Kate Sheeran with Kaufman Music Center's Special Music School students--Photo by John Johansen

Kate Sheeran with Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School students–Photo by John Johansen

How does being a top-level performer as well as administrator shape how you conceive of community engagement and education?

To be able to my job on a daily basis, I need to be able to put myself in other people’s shoes, figure out what they need, and what would inspire them. I’m lucky that I have experience in the areas of performance as well as administration. I’ve been a faculty member and a board member, and I’ve been a student of music. I am often thinking what does that student need to be able to excel, what does that faculty member need to be able to be most effective, what does that staff member need to feel supported to do their best, how will that parent feel confident about choosing this education for their child, how will that performer feel best on stage, how do I engage and inspire that board member? Because I’ve played most of these roles, it’s often easier for me to figure out next steps.

One of the aspects of Kaufman Music Center that resonates the most with me is that our roots are firmly in community engagement. We began as The Hebrew Arts School in 1952, with a goal of lifting up the Jewish community after the horrors of World War II. Our founder, Tzipora Jochsberger, wanted “to use music as a means to strengthen identity,” which is such a powerful statement. When you fast-forward to now, our community reflects the diversity of New York City. Looking at the many different demographics reflected in the over 4,000 students and 75,000 audience members that come to the Center each year, it is my greatest hope that each and every one of them feels that they have the opportunity to have their identities strengthened through our work. And learning is lifelong at our community arts school, Lucy Moses School, where there are points of entry for everyone–from toddlers to seniors.

To be able to lift people up through the power of the arts drives me each day. Throughout my career, and really throughout every aspect of my life, I have benefitted from interacting with and learning from truly inspiring artists and educators, and my work is about trying to create similarly meaningful experiences for others.

Kate Sheeran introduces Face the Music at National Sawdust--Photo by Richard Termine

Kate Sheeran introduces Face the Music at National Sawdust–Photo by Richard Termine

How do you envision a more accessible music education system in general, and specifically for new music?

It has been proven to me over and over again, both by observing the experience of students, and through my own personal experiences, that to be able to envision yourself achieving something, it’s important to see people who are like you that have done it before you. When I think about this issue, I think about squeezing it from two sides. The first side is making opportunities available to young students, and the other side is providing role models for those students. At Kaufman Music Center, one of these ways we create opportunities starts when students audition for our public school, Special Music School, when they’re four years old to begin when they’re five. Those students have access at no cost to this incredible education, and that can help them go on to be leaders in the field. In all of our programs, financial assistance is a big priority, with over 50% of students receiving program subsidies or scholarships. The other side is that we need to have a broad range of professional artists on our faculty and on our stages who are playing all kinds of music and who come from diverse backgrounds so that each young person at Kaufman Music Center can see themselves reflected, and believe that they can do it, too. Having a role model who looks like you and shares your experience make all the difference for young musicians in programs like Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for girls and young women founded by Kaufman Music Center with composers Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid.

For new music, that’s especially true. When students see and hear new, interesting sounds around them and have the opportunity to work with composers and play all different kinds of music, they jump on it. We see it all the time with our teen new music ensemble Face the Music, the ComposerCraft program at Lucy Moses School, and at Special Music School High School. Really, it’s just giving them the opportunity early enough so that it’s part of what they do. At a concert recently, violinist/composer Todd Reynolds said after our students played his piece that he loved that this was the “new normal.” He was referring to their openness to playing all kinds of styles, and their bravery in taking on all kinds of new musical challenges. That really is one of the things that drives me, too–that these kids will grow up playing a whole bunch of different genres, playing music by all different kinds of people from all over the world, and not questioning whether they should or not because they started doing it so early. These are experiences that many in our field don’t get until college or later, so access to the new and innovative at a young age helps our students to form unique musical voices. Through making the introductions to composition, improvisation, and all kinds of different repertoire accessible now, we’re planting the seeds for the possibilities of what these students will do in the future, much of which we can’t even predict now, which is one of my favorite parts!

Reena Esmail with Luna Lab mentees Violet Barnum and Carolina Bragg

Composer Reena Esmail with Luna Composition Lab mentees Violet Barnum and Carolina Bragg–Photo courtesy Reena Esmail

Tell us a bit about the upcoming concert series with Terrance McKnight. How did this series come about, and what are you most excited about?

“Only at Merkin with Terrance McKnight” is a new series that just started on February 2. It was planned just before I got here by Terrance McKnight and Merkin Hall’s director, Amy Roberts Frawley. What I love about it is that Terrance brings his unique perspective as he interviews those on stage interspersed with the performances, and we get to see a different side of the artists. What a thrill it was to hear from Ursula Oppens as she celebrated her 75th birthday, and really investigate her relationship with the composers who were there–John Corigliano, Tobias Picker and Laura Kaminsky. So often we celebrate the result but not the process of making art and being a performer, and Merkin Hall is especially well-suited to having these interesting conversations alongside great performances.

This whole concept of exploring different facets of artists will be something that will be increasingly apparent at Kaufman Music Center. Next year, we’ll have artists-in-residence who are not only performing at Merkin Hall, but who are deeply embedded in our education programs. There will be public presentations of both their own work and their work with students. What I’m most excited about is people really getting an insider’s look at the facets of working in music that I love so much, which is, in addition to the music itself, the human connections that fuel it all.