Vol. 113 (2022)  

Five Questions for the Leadership of
Manhattan School of Music


Dr. James Gandre (EdD) was appointed President of Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in May 2013. Previously, he had served at MSM for fifteen years (1985–2000) and then at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University (2000-2013), where he became the University’s Provost and Executive Vice President.

Dr. Gandre has a very broad knowledge of the history and discourse of the American conservatory, as well as the world of performance. He has appeared as a tenor soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra, London Classical Players, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and members of the San Francisco Symphony. His professional choral engagements included more than 175 performances with the New York Philharmonic, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, Warsaw Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony, to name just a few. He has done more than 20 commercial recordings with labels EMI/Angel, EMI/Capital, Teldec, Delos, MusicMaster and Warner Records.

He is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (GRAMMYS) and a member of the Recommendation Board of the Avery Fisher Artist Program.

Dr. Gandre has lectured at higher education institutions including the Curtis Institute of Music, New England Conservatory, Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Peabody Institute, Mannes College of Music, Stanford University, University of Michigan, Royal Danish Academy of Music, National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, China Conservatory of Music, University of the Arts, University of New Mexico and Interlochen Arts Academy.


Dr. Joyce Griggs (DMA) became the Executive Vice President and Provost at Manhattan School of Music in 2018. She is the chief academic and student affairs officer and serves as the President’s second in command, overseeing all academic programs and services, faculty hiring and development, student affairs and enrollment operations, leading the School in the President’s absence, and playing a central role in the budget process and allocation of resources.


In addition to her role as an administrator and educator, Griggs is an accomplished saxophonist with a strong performance background. An avid chamber musician, she has more than a dozen commissions, including Guggenheim Fellow Erin Gee’s 2014 work, Mouthpiece XXI. Her awards include the Silver Medal in the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition and the prestigious Grainger Medallion in 2010, one of only 25 Americans to earn this award.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with President James Gandre and Executive Vice President and Provost Joyce Griggs for these Five Questions at Manhattan School of Music at this turning point in music education post-pandemic.

Manhattan School of Music - Main Entrance

STAY THIRSTY: How has COVID changed the pedagogy of music education?


JAMES GANDRE: Most conservatories and university schools of music, like the rest of higher education, made a complete shift in how they delivered their curricula in March 2020. Necessity required that we use the best of all of us to create a quality and meaningful experience for our students, and we did this through a combination of creativity and simple hard, long hours of work. I think the shift for conservatories and schools of music was even more dramatic as so much of how we teach has always been done in person and dependent on others (large ensemble members, chamber music ensemble members, or the cast of an opera or musical theatre production, for example). 


All that being true, we found that some of the new modes of teaching were superior, and our professors covered material they wouldn’t have otherwise, as they couldn’t continue as they always had. For example, in chamber music they could study a variety works in depth because they were unable to play them together with the technology that is widely available. In orchestra, because it was our policy that no more than 20 performers could be on our largest stage at any given time, we explored a plethora of chamber orchestra and small wind ensemble works that we normally would not have performed because music schools are often focused on larger works that students need to learn and will play if they are in a professional orchestra. I also heard over and over again from our applied (private lesson) faculty that there were some things about teaching remotely that were superior. For example, because it was a different mode of learning and on a device screen, students sometimes focused more on the instruction because the professor wasn’t there to show them or demonstrate physically what they wanted to say. Also, the professor and the student could get as close up as possible to the camera on their various devices. In this way, they could see things physically that they may not have done in person.

President James Gandre on campus with students

Our classroom faculty also found opportunities to create small group discussions using breakout rooms, and a few worked to develop asynchronous courses. To a limited degree, we have continued to explore and support faculty developing these online, asynchronous courses, as students find the flexibility to engage with the course content advantageous when juggling their practice, rehearsal, and work schedules.


Perhaps the most extraordinary element that changed and will continue to persist is our commitment that faculty include underrepresented works in all classroom- and performance-related activities. Our students’ music education is expanding and – to paraphrase one of our faculty members, Kelly Hall-Tompkins – “becoming more complete” through having this policy in place.


As we move back into a “normal” setting, whatever that may be as we continue to work within a pandemic, we are challenging ourselves not to simply go back to 100 percent of what we did in the past, but to analyze what worked as well or better online and incorporate that into what we do every day, blending the old and new. 


Certainly, one of the basic things we did during this time, and we will continue to do, is to use our learning management system (LMS) called Canvas for all classes. What I mean by this is that Canvas serves as an e-tool/platform where a professor puts his/her/their syllabus, gives assignments, and hands out course materials. This is a tool where the professor can write to the entire class at once through the Canvas portal and not have to email everyone and then get disparate responses. Through Canvas everything is centrally located. It serves as the “hub” for each of our classes.



STAY THIRSTY: How has the performance environment changed during the pandemic? Should Manhattan School of Music students and aspiring students adjust their expectations for a career in music or musical theatre?


JAMES GANDRE: On a very fundamental level, we certainly learned that online access to performances was extremely popular during the pandemic. People could get livestreamed and recorded content 24/7 from us and from a host of organizations throughout the world. It was a treasure trove, to say the least. Of course, what we also found was that many craved in-person performances, as there’s nothing like experiencing a concert or stage production with others and having the communal feelings with those around you. But we did find that we reached a wider audience by having our performances more widely available. So, although we had started livestreaming before the pandemic, we are doing more livestreaming so those who can’t get to our campus to hear our performances can do so “live,” or later when they have the free time to do so. 


Beyond this, our students and faculty began to experiment with how they thought of themselves as performers, as they understood that the traditional structures for performance delivery weren’t available to them and simply trying to replicate a conventional performance online was not always successful or as successful as it could be if they reconceived it for the online experience. In their concerts from MSM, or those that they produced on their own, there was more thought as to where the concert was located, the clothes worn, the lighting used. Also, there was more talking to the audience. This just touches on a few things our community did as they rethought what performance means and started tweaking, or sometimes significantly changing, long-held conventions of performance.


Regarding students’ expectations for a career in music, opera, or musical theatre, yes, I think they already are changing. For example, most symphony orchestras are programming far more with inclusive repertoire, which is beginning to broaden the canon. I was recently at a New York Philharmonic concert where the first half was a cabaret performance with a performer Justin Vivian Bond and our alumnus Anthony Roth Costanzo, and the second half was a traditional orchestra concert performance. It was wildly successful and the average age of the audience was at least a decade or two younger than usual. I think that both the traditional crowd and the new crowd got something powerful out of that experience. At the Met, they are beginning to program more new works, as well as older, not necessarily standard works that have brought in large, often sold-out audiences that are younger and certainly more diverse. Just this season three premieres are being offered (Fire Shut Up in My Bones; EurydiceHamlet) and two works that are not mainstays in the rep (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; Philip Glass’s Akhnaten). And next season, two more new works will be performed – Champion and The Hours. I was recently at the Kennedy Center to hear four new one-act operas. The audience was, again, younger and more diverse.


Manhattan School of Music

STAY THIRSTY: What is the purpose and impact of MSM's Artists Scholars program and your Cultural Inclusion Initiative?


JOYCE GRIGGS: The Artists Scholars program and Cultural Inclusion Initiative are having a profound impact on our community. In 2020, when MSM made a commitment to feature a Black creator on every performance of the 2020–21 season, a commitment which was lauded by New York Times Classical Music Editor Zachary Wolfe, we knew this was the beginning of a larger shift to expand representation of traditionally underrepresented creators in every facet of our curriculum. In addition to featuring a Black creator in every performance that year, our faculty chairs and Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Assessment developed major-specific learning outcomes that addressed how Cultural Inclusion is achieved within their specific area. This academic year (2021–2022), we established a requirement as part of our Cultural Inclusion Policy (CII) that every major/area of study define the underrepresented artists within their discipline. This is because we recognize that those underrepresented creators in orchestra are not necessarily the same identities of underrepresented creators in jazz or musical theatre, etc. We also moved to require the inclusion of underrepresented creators in all classroom-based courses and performance-related activities. We are now working through a specific timeline for establishing new audition, jury, and recital criteria that includes underrepresented creators for every major/discipline.

Executive Vice President & Provost Joyce Griggs

Within this work towards a more complete education, one that includes creators from a variety of underrepresented identities, we ask our students and faculty to share this commitment to learning and growing, this ongoing expansion of the canon. One example of this, that has materialized at MSM, arose out of a faculty member assigning History of Orchestra students a final research project that included a presentation requiring students to focus on works by underrepresented creators. In March, President Gandre and I, along with other members of our Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee of the Board, heard from two of these students. Each student researched a work/composer that had ties to their cultural heritage; both acknowledged that, without MSM’s commitment to Cultural Inclusion, these works and their identities would never have had space for dialog and recognition in the classroom. Taking the progress from this class one step further, the entire set of works that were researched and presented in the History of Orchestra are now part of the growing list of underrepresented orchestral works to be considered for programming in subsequent academic years.


Our Artists Scholars program, launched in 2020–21, complements and enhances our CII work. Each season, we announce a new roster of Artist Scholars, who participate in panel discussions, workshops, and musical presentations. Given the broad spectrum of backgrounds from which we draw Artist Scholars, they help support our community’s learning around critical issues facing the creative and performing arts world today, and give space for deeper inquiry into more specific, focused topics that relate to race, gender, sexuality, able-ness, etc. The Artist Scholars provide a larger frame for our faculty and students within which we can reinforce, revisit, and amplify the work our faculty and students are doing in the classroom and on the performance stages. Now in its second year, the program’s 2021–2022 Artists Scholars have helped MSM develop a vocabulary for entering this space of Cultural Inclusion and acknowledging that our performing arts world is richer and more interesting through diversity.



STAY THIRSTY: MSM's Alexa Smith was awarded a 2022 Venture Fund Grant from the Sphinx Organization. How did that Grant come about and what will the funds be used for?


JOYCE GRIGGS: Alexa spearheaded the writing of this Venture Fund Grant because, as a former singer and alumna of MSM, she recognized a void in supporting vocal artists of color in their early career stage. The recently announced Duncan Williams Competition, made possible by the grant, is named for Todd Duncan and Camilla Williams who were the first Black artists to be hired to sing leading roles by a major opera company – in this case, New York City Opera. In partnership with New York City Opera, Manhattan School of Music will host the competition next spring in MSM's principal performance space, Neidorff-Karpati Hall. The winners will receive cash prizes, a contract with New York City Opera, and mentorship. In addition, the competition is fee-free, and the grant will provide money to offset travel, housing, and other economic barriers.

Neidorff-Karpati Hall

STAY THIRSTY: What role do competitions play, directly and indirectly, in a music education curriculum?


JOYCE GRIGGS: Competitions can be a good opportunity for students who are seeking to gain recognition and opportunities to perform with orchestras, opera companies, or as guest soloists or chamber musicians. Also, the intensity of focus and practice that preparing for competition demands can elevate a student’s musical proficiency. While MSM does not require students to enter competitions as part of its curriculum, many do. Competitions like the Duncan Williams Competition can also propel students’ careers with early contracts for performance engagements. When a competition leads to additional outcomes beyond “the prize,” it can have a multiplying effect to future engagements.




Manhattan School of Music    

Dr. James Gandre     

Dr. Joyce Griggs   

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.