Entre Nous with Don McLean

Entre Nous with Don McLean McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 8, 2007 - Volume 40 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > November 8, 2007 > Entre Nous with Don McLean


with Don McLean, Dean of the Schulich School of Music

Orchestrating success at the Schulich School

Caption follows

Don McLean on McGill's success at attracting donors: 'People are very motivated by the quality and impact of what they see happening here in music and, indeed, throughout McGill.'

When he was growing up, Don McLean, Dean of the Schulich School of Music, thought he'd be a physicist. But he made an about-face on the career path when, in his own words, "I realized I was much quicker at Schenkerian analysis than Cal 3." Physics' loss was music's gain. Having begun his career at McGill in 1988, McLean became dean in 2001. Under his stewardship, the Schulich School has undergone unprecedented growth and renewal, highlighted by Seymour Schulich's landmark $20 million gift to the faculty in 2005 and the opening of the state-of-the-art music building that same year. Recently, McLean took some time out from his busy schedule to talk frankly about the faculty, interdisciplinary research, fundraising and the transformative power of music.

What makes music so crucial?

Simply put, music reminds people of their humanity and, as is especially true in the university setting, it reminds us that we're not just heads on posts. Most of our fields have their finest hours when there is a coincidence of intellectual activity and emotional expression. The great moments in law—the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example—and the great moments in medicine are all valued not only for their intellectual achievement but also because they touch a chord of expressiveness. In music, we're tremendously privileged because we get to do that on a regular basis. It's our job.

But the impact of the music faculty is felt well beyond the faculty itself, no?

At the moment we are the interdisciplinary poster child for the university. Montreal has the world's largest critical mass of neuroscientific research on music and we're involved in most of it. But we also do work in computer and electrical engineering, physics and respirology to name a few. This interdisciplinary approach came to us easily enough because it built on strengths we've been developing for a while. As I like to tell people, we're a 25-year overnight success [Laughing].

What are those strengths?

The faculty is based on three pillars. First, we have the scientific and technological edge. Then there is our tremendous success in musicology, music theory and the humanities. The third pillar is the performance and composition activities in classical and jazz.

To have those three elements firing on all cylinders is what makes us unique.

The potential to integrate those three elements is richer here than at any other institutional jurisdiction certainly in Canada, probably in North America, and, from what we're told by colleagues elsewhere, on a global level.

What do you do better than anyone else?

One thing we do is raise consciousness about sound quality. Our role is to bring a quality of audio expression to people—be it in the content or the technology used to deliver that content—that is really transformative. When people hear quality sound in a stunning performance such as we had at Homecoming from some of our ensembles or as a result of the refined way in which recording technology is used, they are moved. It has all sorts of spin-offs—health benefits, consciousness-raising impact. Most people work in a terrible acoustic environment most of the time so the potential for links with architecture, engineering and environmental science are strengthening. In fact, I was told by one of my colleagues that we actually have projects real and potential with every faculty in McGill. I don't think any other faculty can say that. I mean, we have a project going with dentistry on touch sensitivity—it's incredible.

Why does the performance department have such a sterling reputation?

In the first place, it's always about the quality of studio teaching—the individual lessons that professors and other talented members of the community give to students one-on-one. This is a particularly special relationship that is akin to graduate supervision but even more intensive because it starts from day one.

It is also essential to have teachers who don't just value the individual formation that happens in the studio. People all over the world think you have to make students practise, practise and practise even more. Those students don't have time to do anything else, certainly no time to do courses or play in an orchestra. It's amazing how many traditional places believe that.

Our strength has always been in ensemble. The areas that are the most effective in our performance department are those areas where everyone appreciates the value of working together. The success of the orchestral training program and the fantastic work that's being done in chamber ensembles and Opera McGill is possible because people realize that to make a real impact on society and for the students, you need to be working together in ensemble.

Very few people will make a living performing once they leave school. What does life hold for your students?

It's a great question and it's a difficult challenge to face. For us, pedagogical training is a big issue because most people will teach in some fashion, whether or not they are professional orchestral players. We've had a course for 20 years now called "Life as a Pro." We used to give it to all first-year performance students. We're now going to give it to all first-year students because it teaches them about the practicalities, such as the contracts, running a small business and health issues. And we bring in all the science and technology stuff as well so that, even while they're focused on their performance career, they're still thinking 'OK, there are other things beyond that.' We often have people suddenly get fired up about musicological research or they realize that being a musical analyst or theorist is their calling. Again, the poster child for business these days is the musical ensemble. The way in which individuals can take leadership and give leadership, share a common long-term goal—we're the model, we're the paradigm for this.

The Faculty of Music has been very successful at attracting gifts. With the official launch of Campaign McGill, what are your fundraising goals?

Yes, we have had tremendous success landing some major gifts—Seymour Schulich's transformative gift being the most obvious, as well as Elizabeth Wirth's gift to the opera studio. We have some extraordinary people who have been so generous but there is still a lot of work to be done.

There are some big-ticket items on the table. We are looking to sustain support for the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology. We are looking for someone to help us fit out what will be the world's best recording studio—which should be a no-brainer. Mr. Schulich named the faculty, but now we need someone to name the building. This building has been around the world in terms of its impact. It's an extraordinary space. But we're also focusing on the students. We need more scholarships and increased travel funds.

Isn't travel more a luxury than a necessity?

On the contrary, it is an essential part of our educational process. Musicians completely change the way they play when they are on the road. They take it to another level. The way the groups congeal, they way they start to connect with each other is incredible. When they get back home and you watch them play, you say "wow." For us, it's the bridge to professional training. Donna Williams and our development team have done an amazing job. We get asked all the time if we could send the orchestra all over the place. We need to fund students so they can deliver papers and organize concert events around the globe. We're looking for a $2 million endowment to do that.

How did you get started in music?

I liked music a lot as a very young child and got piano lessons, which most people confuse with music [Laughing]. I guess I was seven and I immediately got into trouble because I let the teacher know I could play the first piece she assigned and the second piece she assigned simultaneously. I should have known right then I was a theorist [Laughing].

Of course I thought I was going to be a performer and a composer, so I studied all of those things as well as conducting. But when I was a teenager, I was asked to do some talks about music and it suddenly became evident to me that I was faster at this sort of thing than most people. There was an affinity and a resonance there for me.

Growing up, was your family very musical?

People were educators and administrators in my family, but there was no musical genius in that way. My mom taught elementary school and her family is quite musical.

My dad was number 12 of 13 kids from a farming family in Southwestern Ontario and was the only one who went to university. He ended up as a principal and superintendent in schools in Toronto. Completely unbeknownst to me, he improvised on the piano but stopped improvising as soon as I started taking lessons. It is kind of emblamatic of the kind of challenges faced by so many musicians—you're kind of discouraged from improvising in the classical tradition. Now we're trying to fix that, but I witnessed it firsthand at home because my dad decided, 'Well, he's the one getting the official training so I'll just back off.'

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