Music at University of Kansas (feat. Hannah Collins)
Alumni Aloud Episode 93
Hannah Collins earned her DMA Music Performance at the Graduate Center and is now the Associate Professor of Cello at University of Kansas.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I talk with Hannah about about balancing teaching, performance, and service, collaboration between composers and performers, and the joys of teaching a diverse studio of cellists.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
JOHN POPHAM, HOST: I’m John Popham, a DMA Candidate in Music at the CUNY Graduate Center and a fellow in the office of career planning and professional development. This week’s guest is Hannah Collins who earned her doctorate in cello performance from the Graduate Center and is currently the cello professor at University of Kansas School of Music. In this episode, we talk about balancing teaching, performance, and service, collaboration between composers and performers, and the joys of teaching a diverse studio of cellists.
Hannah Collins, thank you for joining us on Alumni Aloud.
HANNAH COLLINS: GUEST: My pleasure. Great to be here.
POPHAM: To get started, could you give the listeners an overview of your role at University of Kansas School of Music?
COLLINS: Sure, I’m the cello professor at the KU School of Music, and we are a separate School of Music with our own Dean, but it’s also a small school in the sense that I’m the only cello teacher. So, I really like that size. It’s a very close-knit community and close-knit faculty. I serve as the String Area Coordinator, and I work together with my string colleagues to coordinate chamber music and advise graduate students who are going through our performance programs, as well as work with students that are across the university, studying performance, music education, music therapy (which is a very important program at KU) in addition to musicology, composition and other performance adjacent or overlapping fields.
POPHAM: Could you tell us a bit about the student body at KU, or specifically the cellists in your studio, the kind of music students that you all have in your program?
COLLINS: Yeah, one thing that’s always very special about music is it’s a modality that allows for a lot of exchange with people across the world or people across the country. So, on one hand, KU is the flagship state school in the state of Kansas, and of course, there’s a lot of incentives for students from Kansas to go and get an in-state tuition break, and it serves the population of Kansas in this way. So, a lot of the undergraduate students come from Kansas or come from surrounding states that have either reciprocity or other kinds of scholarships and support. So, there’s sort of that accessibility, especially to that specific region. At the same time, most of our performance graduate students are international students which makes for a really just rich conversation. So, at the moment, I have a grad student from Taiwan, but I’ve had them from Uzbekistan, from China, from different places. We have had string students from Venezuela, from Colombia, from Russia. It’s a nice combination of a school that serves the region that it’s located in but also attracts students from around the world.
POPHAM: And it must be so exciting to see all these different cultures coming together within your studio. You had mentioned that the students in your program, some are pursuing degrees in music therapy and other non-music related subjects and I’m wondering how that impacts your approach to teaching and creating a community where you have students that are there imagining different trajectories and different career paths for themselves.
COLLINS: That’s a great question. I mean on the one hand, it’s the most natural thing in the world to just get a bunch of cellists into a room and, you know, sort of let the energy… Not to stereotype, but I think the world of the cello, because it’s such a collaborative instrument and often the cello serves as a bass line for another instrument. We have so much fun playing in orchestras and chamber music groups. You know, most of the cellists that I know really enjoy playing with other people and being around other people and learning from other people. And my favorite musicians in any instrument are like that, of course. But it is a little bit more possible to have a very soloistic piano career for example.
So, I do find that sort of like there’s something about the personality of cellists that tends to facilitate a really nice social environment. So, my approach is that everyone’s in the room together, whether it’s a DMA student who’s like, working on polishing their audition repertoire and a composition student for whom cello’s their instrument, but they actually play seven other instruments. I really love to have everybody in the room together. Because the things that we are all focused on is how we can learn, how we can solve problems. And that could be technical, like I’m gonna figure out how to use my ring finger in a certain way to create the pitch I want. But there’s like a sort of a physical, technical aspect to the problem solving and engineering. But then there’s also, you know, this very personal expression that anybody who’s playing is bringing to the instrument. So, I find a lot of excitement and value and I know for a fact it’s my students’ favorite part of the program is when we get to do cello ensemble projects together or play for each other, or even do projects together where we just bring in music to share, you know, videos to watch, tracks to listen to. There’s just a really nice opportunity there to bring in all those different perspectives and not to sort of apply some kind of sorting mechanism like, you know, if you have the technical ability to play this piece, then you’re in this room. And there’s so many amazing ideas that come from all different directions. That’s the way we roll in Kansas.
POPHAM: That’s beautiful, and I love this idea that being a cellist, the music that you’ve played as a cellist, the role that you’ve performed in an ensemble shapes your personality. I think that’s very true. I think that’s something that resonates with us as musicians. I’m curious whether that role or that “cellistic vibe” that you have, does that also shape your engagements with your colleagues in the kind of administrative work that you do within the university? Do you see different people, depending on their instrument, falling into those roles in an administrative capacity?
COLLINS: That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think in the academic world and specifically in a school of music world, there’s such a sense that, you know, we’re a team and there’s things that need to get done and so there’s some logistical elements to that. Like, I have 20 cello students, and a bassoon teacher who had 20 bassoonists, that would actually be a problem because where would you put them all? The ensembles can’t absorb that many students so some instruments might have 8 or 6, and that’s the right number to serve all the ensembles and to make sure that those students get all the resources that they need to have, whether that’s time in the reed making studio or time with the professor. There’s definitely that aspect of it too, kind of just figuring out what needs to get done and how to get it done.
One example in my own area is our viola professor Boris Vayner is a member of the Saint Petersburg String Quartet and has an amazing chamber music career and experience. And so a natural way that we team up is that he spearheads a lot of the chamber music coaching and organizing and the administration behind that because he has slightly fewer students because it’s viola and in an orchestra you always need twice as many violins as violas, and there’s sort of these logistical things. But he also has this expertise so it’s a very natural way to just find the best way each team member can kind of serve the task list or the mission or the environment the best way.
POPHAM: And are those administrative roles within the department, are they clearly defined? Can you try out different roles, or is it pretty set?
COLLINS: It’s a mixture. There are a mixture of clearly defined roles and then more collaborative duties, I guess. So, in my role as area coordinator, I’m the official point person for the registrar or the scheduling folks when it comes to things like which course numbers do we need to have available, how many people should be in this section – just double checking all those logistics. It’s not so much a chain of command, but like a chain of communication where folks, my colleagues, my performing colleagues can pass something to me to pass on or vice versa. But things like how many people are going to coach chamber music, or we have a little series at our local public library, you know, who’s going to be the point person? We tend to pass those around a little bit more unofficially just based on who’s best for the job at the moment. So, it’s a combination, I’d say.
POPHAM: And do you feel that the skills that you rely on for those administrative duties are those things that you’ve picked up from running your own groups? Are they things that you had to learn once you arrived at Kansas?
COLLINS: I think anyone who works in an academic setting has probably had an experience with coming into a new institution and discovering that all of the systems, the software, the interfaces, and even just the timelines or the traditions are sort of proprietary. I was a Teaching Fellow at Queens when I was a student at CUNY, and I learned how to exist in that institution and in other institutions where I’ve been either a student or an instructor. But there’s definitely always a learning curve. When I’m in touch with a new colleague at KU, I always tell them the important thing is to know which people are going to help you. There’s always a genius administrator who is like making sure everyone’s okay, you know, under the radar, or someone whose job it is to actually make sure that all the boxes are checked and you want to keep in touch with those people because the way you find out that you were supposed to do something is when someone tells you that you were supposed to do it. And then you have to ask like what is that? “You haven’t turned in this form.” “I don’t know what that form is.” So, that’s just part of it, and the important thing is to make sure that you’re connected with the people who can help guide you through it. There’s no way to come in and ace it the first time, but those are the skills that I’ve picked up in other systems, not the specifics of the interface or how to enter this data into this system, but just to find your people, find the administrators and the colleagues that you can ask like, “I don’t know what that form is.” And they’ll just send it to you. They’ll help you out.
POPHAM: And that’s such an important life skill, just knowing who to ask.
COLLINS: Yeah, and to ask!
POPHAM: And to ask. Right, absolutely. Well, in addition to your position at KU, you’re obviously an incredibly active and versatile performer as a member of the cello percussion duo New Morse Code, the Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry, and the baroque ensemble the Sebastians, to name just a few. I wanted to hear a bit about how you juggle your teaching and performing responsibilities, but also how these artistic and pedagogical practices influence one another.
COLLINS: For me, there’s always this constant balance and sort of feeding back and forth between areas of my musical life. There are a lot of clichés about teaching, you know, that you learn from your students or you become a better player and they’re all true. There’s so many things about our craft that you can’t really take shortcuts on. I so often have an experience where I reflect on something a mentor told me 15 years ago or something, and then it suddenly clicks. It’s just that you had to live through the 15 years in-between to kind of get all the pieces lined up in the right order for that piece of advice to help you at that moment. And I feel that way about teaching as well. You know, there’s just no substitute for trying to refine your ways of articulating information or trying to refine your instincts, or gathering enough experience with different situations that you feel like you might recognize some of the paths that you’ve seen before, that’s been a really exciting part of the teaching for me, but I see all these resonances too with my life as a student and my life as a student currently which is, you know, I’m learning from my colleagues in the field all the time and asking questions of the person sitting next to me like, “how do you do that stroke? How do you make the bow bounce like that?” And we’re all lifelong learners in this business. So, I feel a lot of synergy there.
In terms of balancing, I mean, just in terms of logistics, my position at KU is called a 40/40/20 track, which is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. So, the service part is committee work, serving as area coordinator, also just like functioning as someone who is helping the general region and the general community of the university. And then the research part for a cellist is playing cello – making recordings, giving public concerts, like showing your work and, of course, the teaching. But the research for me, it’s been fun actually to think about the performing I do as research as opposed to freelancing or just side gigs or something like that. But to think, “what is the project here?” Even if it is playing with several different groups, what are the bigger questions? What is my own personal framework that I’m trying to orient this work towards?
For me, one aspect of that has been contributing to repertoire. I’m not a composer but being involved in the commissioning and premiering and development of pieces of music. So that’s something that I’ve done through my duo, but also with other groups. Thinking about it as research allows me to set aside time for processes even if there’s not like a paycheck per hour. You know, it’s thinking about things on a longer scale. Making plans to let ideas develop over several months. That might mean calendar wise just planning for certain things to happen in the summer or between semesters. The things that need more calm, space, and experimentation, and thinking, and finding the right place in the calendar for those, and then fitting a concert in here or there is a little bit easier if it’s just on that one day or that one week. So, it’s been interesting to try to tease apart what kind of time you need for which parts of the process.
POPHAM: Well, let’s talk about that process a little bit more because a lot of our listeners aren’t musicians and have never commissioned a piece of music or interpreted a commissioned piece of music. So, could you just kind of walk us through your approach to that or maybe your approach in New Morse Code? What draws you to a composer? What is the process like working with them? All of those different research and development components that go before and after the performance and the recording.
COLLINS: It has helped me to think about this process a little bit more like my colleagues in other disciplines, even a musicologist who is preparing to write a book or an article, even if it’s the same general world of topics. But I think people have an understanding, like the general public has an understanding that if you’re going to write a biography about an important figure, there’s going to be a period of, first of all, just having some experiences that led you to choose that figure, whether that was that you wrote a short article, or you were part of the research team, or you somehow had some experience with that. And then there’s going to be a research phase where you’re going into the archives, going to this library, to that library, going to the personal archive, and just learning everything you can. And then there’s a writing period, and there’s just a real clear understanding that this is going to be a long process. It’s going to involve a lot of steps. So, thinking about being involved in a musical commission more in that way has been helpful for me, so that first stage of forming the creative team, like why are we working together, you know, sometimes involves playing some music by a certain composer and really working with them on that piece that already exists, performing it a lot or learning, discussing the details with them. And then, before writing a piece, it’s like that, that research, that library time… Mike Compitello, who’s in my duo with me, we have a shared way of doing this and we also do it our own way as well, but the research time doesn’t always benefit from having a strict benchmark or checklist kind of approach. It could be: we’re going to get together with this person who we’re asking to write us some music. We’ll play for them. We’re going to send each other playlists. We’re going to go to a concert together that someone else is playing, of someone else’s music and then talk about what it is about that. We’re going to send each other interviews with this scientist that’s a genius or we’re going to watch videos of NASA landing a probe or something. Just getting a better understanding of each other – what interests us, what might spark the kernel of the idea for the work.
And then there’s phases of letting people have their creative time. So, if there’s a composer involved and they need to have time on their own, then building that in, and if we need to have time together where we’re testing out some of the drafts or the ideas, that we build that in, and then giving us some time either personally – or if it’s a duo together – to rehearse and think about it on our own and think about how we might interpret it. And then the key for me is the performing phase is not one data point. It’s playing the piece many times, almost like a Broadway show doing previews. You know, they might do five previews. They might do forty. They might switch around the order of the second act. You have to put it in front of an audience to see how you feel, how they feel to make sure that the process doesn’t end with like a single concert and then it’s over, which happens sometimes, especially larger works for orchestra or something where there’s a budget involved and they are going to have as little rehearsal as possible and schedule the one concert, but they’re not going to schedule ten concerts. So, I guess that’s a kind of overview, but for me I enjoy it much more if there’s plenty of time for the things that need time.
POPHAM: Yeah, and it makes such a difference, both that personal connection that you were talking about, you know, having cooked a meal with someone or, having shared various experiences that might have nothing to do with that piece. But it makes such a difference when you’re trying to find each other artistically and get on the same page with what you’re trying to accomplish.
I did want to ask you about your background in community engagement work because I know that’s been a big part of your career, working with social impact programs and educational programs and community engagement programs. Could you talk a bit about that? Your work with Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect?
COLLINS: Yeah, I see community engagement work, or “outside of the concert hall work,” as a really important part of my life right now, and future life as a musician. And I think that could include a lot of different types of activities, but one really important thing for me about joining Ensemble Connect and having two years of guided practice, just being in different kinds of situations and being in different types of venues and being asked to take on different types of challenges to see what it feels like was to step outside of the more rigid and formal aspect of classical music training. And there’s something so humbling about being in an environment where you have so much music to share if you can find a way to share it and to be thinking of things more as a two-way exchange. I’m a person who loves to perform music and to interpret music for an audience, and not everyone feels that way. You know, some people are going for some sort of aesthetic ideal, or they’re trying to capture the sound just as they hear it, but for me it’s really all about creating a space where an experience can be shared. And we’ve inherited a lot of different ways of doing that, and especially classical players, have inherited some of the more formal versions of that, but there’s so many inspiring musicians in classical music and also other genres that are so free and generous with their art, and are able to create these spaces where there’s just so much more exchange with listeners, and then to hear what someone listening might want to share back. So that’s at the heart of that work for me. It’s not so much about devising clever ways of capturing new audiences or something like that. It’s just about trying to be able to create spaces that are more conducive to just community and exchange and conversation.
POPHAM: Right. How has that outlook impacted your own teaching, the conversations that you’re having with your students, or even your pedagogical approach when they come to you for help at the instrument?
COLLINS: It has been really helpful to teach not only performance majors, but also music therapists, future music therapists, and future music educators, because already right there, the goals of different students are different. And for a student who’s studying music therapy, they’re already thinking about how they can bring music into an environment to serve a community or an individual person, and they’re really thinking about the whole picture. They’re thinking about the patient, but also the patient’s family and the patient’s medical team and the people who are working in that environment and how can they create a sense of community amongst those people? How can they uplift those people? How can they provide space for people to feel what they need to feel, or to take a break from feeling what they’ve been feeling, whatever it is. And that’s such an inspiring approach, or just way of thinking and, you know, we are doing that with our music, anywhere we go, or we could be. So, it’s been great to learn about that more and also by working with Ensemble Connect and different projects. What does it mean to be thinking more holistically or more “whole person” about what we’re doing here. And then when you go into a concert stage, if you’ve had experience with performing, or if you’ve seen any movie that, like, dramatizes the athletic-ness of it. If we can think of it more as “this is for the whole person out there or the whole community or the whole situation,” that zooming out, I mean not to be too grand, but just thinking about the humanity of everything, puts the other things in perspective and that’s just something I try to think about for myself, but also to talk about with students.
POPHAM: What are the conversations you’re having with your students who are, let’s say, music majors, about career paths, what types of careers are they interested in? Are they curious about? What kind of skills are you emphasizing to them as they graduate and move on to the next stage of their life?
COLLINS: One thing that I do with every grad student that I work with is that we really sit down at the beginning of their program and keep checking in and talk about what their interests and skills are, and goals are. Because especially in a grad program, the ability to acquire new skills is at an all-time high, especially if you’re in an institution that has some resources, whether that’s people with expertise, whether that’s software, whether that’s cameras you can borrow or whatever, libraries, space you can work in. I feel quite an urgency to talk with grad students and find out, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about composing a little bit,” and it’s like, “OK, during these two years, these three years, go work with the composers, get fluent in Sibelius or Finale, or whatever your software is.” Or “I’ve been thinking a little bit about digging deeper into this country’s music.” “OK, apply for that grant, take that language class.” And to just really kind of see how much you can customize what you’re doing to line up with your passions and with your interests. And if you want to be a competent recording engineer, go and work for the recording engineer, and just do it right now. And if you want to be applying for a teaching job, do you have a plan for having videos of yourself teaching, of yourself playing that you probably can get for free while you’re a student? Do you have a good plan of how you can, over two or three years, be collecting the pieces that you need. Because it just gets so much harder to even make like a concert video when you’re not affiliated with an institution. That’s part of it for me is like being a little bit strategic about using your resources. But also to think like, “I wish I had the skill.” Well, is there a way you can have it two years from now, you know? Can you be like pretty fluent in Logic in two years, even if you have zero experience right now? Probably, you know, if we kind of set that out.
I find one of the most challenging things, especially in classical music about training is that for a grad student, you know, as a teacher, I’m charged with this responsibility of making sure that someone’s weaknesses are addressed, or maybe they have less experience with a certain type of music, and to make sure they have as much opportunity as possible. I’m looking like, “OK, you should probably work on this type of repertoire or do this to kind of strengthen that part of you.” But it’s the student’s job during that time to start thinking about what they want to specialize in, or what you would want to play if someone invites you to play a recital that your teacher didn’t choose the rep for. What would you pick? And to realize every world-famous person out there, there’s something they’re not doing, you just don’t think about that. This string quartet just doesn’t play Bartok. That’s fine. They’re busy doing other stuff. And so I think that transition is a funny one, and that the more in the open we can be in those conversations, for me to say, “I think you should do this type of thing, because there might be a situation where you need to be able to do this. That lines up with some of the goals you’ve mentioned to me.” You want to play in an orchestra? You’re probably going to need to be able to play these excerpts. That’s just like how the world is functioning at this moment. But also to make sure that you don’t end up finishing the degree having checked off a bunch of boxes someone else gave you and not have a sense of where you would want to take things next.
POPHAM: Right. Oh, that’s such great advice. They’re so lucky to have you. We always like to conclude these interviews by giving the guest an opportunity to offer advice to current Graduate Center students.
COLLINS: I have a thought which I’m not sure is completely characterized as advice, but one thought that I think is interesting to reflect on is that you have your cohort there in school, and at the moment you might be really focused on pursuing a certain type of opportunity, but there’s some colleague of yours that is more focused on another type of opportunity. For example, you might have a colleague that is really wanting to work in academia and they’re really focused on, you know, how that whole job hunt works and how to prepare for that type of application process or career and meanwhile you might be more focused on your research or whatever that is and whatever discipline you’re in. And you might have a third colleague that is interested in starting some sort of new institution or some sort of festival or whatever it is. And so, even though you’re going through the same program, people are collecting different aspects or different skills or different connections. It’s always interesting to me in my life that then you come to another moment where you were interested in research, but now you’re interested in getting a job in academia and the first person you’re gonna call is that friend from school that was all in on that and did it. So, I guess that, you know, my reflection or my advice is just make sure that you recognize that your power and your education and your skills and your opportunities—it’s not just you. It’s like all the people that you’re collecting as your network or as your fellow travelers and that you might be contributing a certain thing to that pool, and you might need to lean on somebody else for something else, but there is this extra layer that’s going to be so helpful and important. Be aware of that. Appreciate that and let that do what it does.
POPHAM: Well, Hannah, thank you so much for joining us on Alumni Aloud.
COLLINS: My pleasure.
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