Crane front and center on music education stage

Dean of the Crane School of Music Michael Sitton

Dean of the Crane School of Music Michael Sitton

Dean Michael Sitton on the school’s unique learning approach

Julia Crane founded SUNY Potsdam’s renowned Crane School of Music in 1886 as one of the first national institutions dedicated to preparing students to teach music in public schools. Crane continues that mission of superb music instruction today, with 590 undergraduate and 30 graduate students and a faculty of 70 teachers and professional staff. The campus hosts more than 300 vibrant recitals, lectures and concerts by faculty, students and guest artists each year at three prestigious concert venues.

We sat down with Crane’s Dean, Michael R. Sitton, who was appointed to the position in 2009, to find out how the school continues to attract high-caliber students and performers and position students to be at the forefront of the music world as educators and performers. Mr. Sitton previously served as dean of fine arts at Eastern New Mexico University and as a faculty member and administrator at Hollins University in Virginia.

He is also an accomplished pianist and composer who holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano performance and literature from the University of Illinois, a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky and a bachelor’s degree from Mars Hill College, in his home state of North Carolina.

NNYL: What percentage of Crane students are studying to be music educators versus performers? How much do those curriculums align? What about music business?

SITTON: Crane began as “the birthplace of music education in America,” and continues to hold the preparation of music teachers as critical to its mission, while it has added other programs over the years. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of our students are pursuing degrees in music education, with the next highest percentage, in the 20 to 30 percent range, in performance. Music business is next, a growing program now that well over 10 percent of our students are pursuing. Those numbers may not seem to quite add up correctly; that’s because a significant number of our students choose to double major, for example in music education and performance or in performance and music business. Music business has been at Crane for almost 15 years and it is enrolling, through different major and minor options, an annually increasing number of students. Many students in the music education or performance majors are recognizing that business skills are to their advantage in the competitive marketplace, so are adding music business as a double major or as a minor.

NNYL: How does a focus on learning to be a musical educator help with studying to be a performer and vice versa?

SITTON: I believe that Crane has always been a school where a strong connection has been made between excellence in teaching and a high level of musical performance. Students in all our programs engage in many aspects of performance and have high performance expectations—as soloists and as participants in a variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles. Performance, after all, is simply making music and the goal of a music teacher is to engender that in others. I have been at other institutions where there seemed to be a sharp division in performance expectations between students studying performance and education. While our performance students are required to meet certain specific performance-related goals, all our students at Crane are deeply engaged in all levels of performance, and many music education students are extremely strong performers who happen to have chosen the career path of teaching.

NNYL: Does SUNY Potsdam’s test optional admission policy cater well to Crane students who may have more applicable musical experience not reflected in test scores? What factors are particularly prized in admission to the school and have you seen admission grow more competitive in your tenure as Dean?

SITTON: The admission process at Crane is competitive, and has been fairly consistent in terms of competitiveness during the time I have been Dean. While we certainly have some applicants who are seeking Crane admission as their primary goal, over time we have seen high-achieving applicants who are looking at a group of schools and auditioning at several institutions so the competitiveness is not only on the part of our students, but on our own part. I feel that SUNY Potsdam’s test-optional policy has been valuable for the institution as a whole, but it’s hard to isolate its impact on Crane. Admission to Crane is focused strongly on the audition process, through which we seek the strongest students in each studio area so that we have a consistent and balanced enrollment to fill our studios and create an array of appropriately balanced ensembles. The audition focus was true before the test-optional policy went into effect; we feel that we focus strongly on each applicant’s musical ability and on their potential to succeed in our program. Faculty work very hard to make a judgment based on the “whole picture” of an individual, which is what the test-optional policy seeks to do.

NNYL: How does Crane work to attract such high caliber performers to the school? Are there any challenges to attracting such guests and teachers to the school given Potsdam’s location?

SITTON: Our premier guest artist series, the Community Performance Series, engages high-level performers through professional bookings, working with Crane faculty to obtain recommendations about artists to seek each year. Other performers come to us through connections with our artist faculty, who invite them to perform as guests or as collaborators. Occasionally our location poses some challenges, usually related to transportation, but it does not prevent us from attracting a strong roster of guest artists each year. Our reputation rests largely on the continuing strong achievements of our faculty, alumni and current students. Our alumni are very loyal and frequently take opportunities to make their connections to Crane known in the wider world. We’ve had alumni who have achieved tremendous success in performance, as music educators and education leaders, and as leaders in music industry; all of these add to Crane’s reach and reputation. We also take advantage of opportunities to take our current students out from Potsdam in performance, conference and other opportunities.

NNYL: How specifically do you work to innovate Crane’s curriculum to stay abreast of changing teaching styles? What are some particularly unique aspects of Crane’s method of teaching?

SITTON: In addition to a strong level of one-on-one engagement in studio instruction, student/faculty research, and other experiences, a few other things seem distinctive to me about music study at Crane. One is an emphasis on real-world experience. Examples include a wide range of practicum teaching experiences, where, under close Crane faculty supervision, our students are actively engaged in teaching themselves. These include work with children from the community in our National String Project program and piano pedagogy program, work with St. Mary’s School in Canton, work with the New Horizons Band program, among others. Our music business program places its students in short practica in various businesses, and then requires a very substantial internship, which often has led to job opportunities for successful students. Our network of music teachers throughout the state and beyond also provides some unique curricular experiences, including ones where alumni teaching in schools across the state link back via Internet 2 to our Crane classrooms, offering our students a window into a real-world classroom. Our recent graduates have continued to be successful in finding employment, despite the challenges that everyone knows about; our last survey of recent graduates indicated that more than 95 percent of music education graduates were either in jobs or enrolled in graduate school. It is now more important for students to cast a wide net for job opportunities. Music teaching jobs are available, but they may not be available in specific locations. Music business majors have been remarkably successful in obtaining employment across a wide range of companies, from products to publishing, arts management to retail, in large part because of the music business internship program and the connections it forges with companies. We also take a group of students every year to serve as floor interns at the main music industry trade show, the NAMM Show, in California, which also produces many connections that lead to jobs.

NNYL: This summer the school installed equipment for streaming live video of concerts. How does that benefit students and audience members?

SITTON: The technology makes Crane performances available anywhere in the world where the Internet is available. Families of our current students can see and hear performances of family members, and our alumni across the country and beyond can remain connected to us. Prospective students can experience a range of faculty, ensemble and guest performances. The technology also allows students on the streaming crew to learn about video production and other useful skills. We have just started exploring and using this exciting technology so we have not yet fully realized its potential.

NNYL: What percentage of Crane students are foreign versus from the U.S. or from New York state?

SITTON: The majority of our students are from New York state, although they truly represent the entire state, including strong representation from Long Island, which goes back many years and relates to our alumni presence there. We have a strong group of out-of-state students and some international students each year. We are continually looking for new opportunities to engage international students and to send our students to other countries for educational experiences.

NNYL: Crane purchased 141 Steinway pianos in 2007 in the largest single acquisition of new Steinway pianos in the company’s 154-year history. Did that change anything either in terms of the school’s reputation or instruction?

SITTON: The identification with the Steinway brand and its unique level of artistic prestige has been an important asset for the school. We are now listed along with other elite American institutions on Steinway’s advertisements about All-Steinway Schools. With that status has come a number of special opportunities, including annual recitals that our faculty have presented at Steinway Hall in Manhattan for the past three years, and our ability to hold piano auditions there, which we did for the first time last year. Crane is in good company as an All-Steinway School.

NNYL: As someone who has worked all over the country, what drew you to Crane and the area?

SITTON: I was drawn to Crane by the profile of the school and the opportunity that this position represented, in terms of helping build on Crane’s tradition and contributing to its future. It is tremendously rewarding to be at Crane, with its dedicated, high-achieving faculty and energetic, bright and talented student body. I’m especially gratified to have been involved in SUNY Potsdam’s ongoing “Take the Lead” comprehensive campaign, where a number of very significant Crane gifts have pushed the campaign toward its $27 million goal. I also love the north country and have enjoyed getting to know the community, both in its cultural and human resources, and in its spectacular natural setting. For me, living in a village like Potsdam and having access both to the four-season recreational opportunities in the Adirondack Park and to the urban attractions of Montreal and Ottawa is just about ideal.

-Interview by Leah Buletti. Edited for length and clarity.