Interview: Jeffrey Sharkey

First published in The Herald on 17 September, 2014

Meet Jeffrey Sharkey, new face of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Just a few weeks into the job as Principal, he says he wants to encourage students to work outside their own disciplines, empower staff to be more open-minded and foster a culture of breadth as well as depth at the institution. He uses the word ‘connectivity’ a lot: connectivity between the arts, connectivity between life experience and creative expression. He laughs at his own Americanism – he comes to Glasgow from Baltimore, where he spent eight years as director of the Peabody Institute – but he doesn’t for a minute apologise for its holistic sentiment. “If you’re not fully living yourself,” he says, “what have you got to give to your art?”

Sharkey ushers me into his new office with a bright “how you doing” and that rarest of interviewee openers: “so tell me about you”. He is inquisitive, chatty and unguarded. “I’ve gradually become a worse pianist but a better musician,” he says cheerfully, gesturing towards the space where he has asked for a piano to be installed so he can host small soirees in his office. He describes his transition from professional pianist to professional listener and teacher without a hint of regret. “If you hear a great singer breathe a phrase naturally – and obviously we’re all in awe of singers and secretly trying to imitate them – that will tell you so much more about how to shape a phrase in your Brahms sonata.”

“And then when you come here [to the RCS] it’s even cooler,” he continues. “You can get out of being just a pianist, you can get out of being just a musician. You can watch how an actor gets to grips with the emotional content of a tough play. We musicians are like mushrooms; we thrive in damp, dark conditions. Actors are more open. They talk about how they’re feeling, about their process. Musicians could and should learn from that.”

Sharkey grew up in a small university town in Delaware. He started played the piano young and learned mostly by ear until the age of 15. He remembers his teachers fondly: Leon Bates, an African American pianist and weightlifter “who made piano cool for this weedy little 13-year-old”; Constance Keene, “tiny, fearsome, able to coax incredible colours from a percussive instrument”; the legendary John Browning, for whom Samuel Barber had written his Piano Concerto.

Sharkey also composed. In his teens he had a chance meeting with Aaron Copland that flourished into a friendship (“the first time I met somebody so great who wasn’t trying to prove how great he was”). Copland wrote Sharkey a letter of recommendation that, when presented to the Manhattan School of Music entry committee, allowed him to become the first student to double-major in piano and composition.

Eventually Sharkey found his way to the UK: first as a post-graduate at Cambridge, then as a head of composition at Wells Cathedral School and director of music at the Purcell School. “I loved that the UK wanted its young people to compose,” he says. “America is a nation of specialisms. If you’re a pianist then you’re not a composer; if you’re a composer, are you uptown or downtown? You have to declare your colours. Are you a musicologist, are you an ear, nose and throat doctor? Here it’s much more holistic. You have performers who are also academics” – he mentions John Butt, music professor at Glasgow University and director of the Dunedin Consort.

“You have actors who are also producers,” he continues. “I love the word producer. I want every one of our students in whatever discipline to be their own producer of their own creativity and their own career. Hey,” he pauses. “Maybe we should call ourselves the Royal Conservatoire of Producers!”

Sharkey has no qualms in making his aspirations clear: he wants all RCS students to think outside their disciplines and draw greater inspiration from the world around them. How does he plan on implementing such, er, connectivity? He points to a week in the curriculum called ‘bridge week’ in which no teaching occurs but students are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary projects. He points to the Conservatoire’s ‘contemporary performance practise’ course – “at the moment it’s mostly taken up through acting channels, but I’m looking forward to encouraging musicians to get involved.”

And he points to the Conservatoire’s staff. “Some of it is as simple as a teacher saying to a student, ‘you’re working really hard and I support you in this additional project’, or, ‘I’m not going to lower my expectations of your technical playing, but I also encourage you to work with that lighting designer or to play your gamba in that weird setting’.”

Teachers themselves need “constant reassurance and dialogue,” he says. “Which is why I’m going to start pushing a trolley around with tea and scones once a week.” Is he serious? “Sure, why not?” he laughs. “People talk around tea and bread, and we need to talk.”

Sharkey has taken over a crucial Scottish cultural institution on the eve of the referendum; how has he approached the independence debate? “Carefully,” he replies. Needless to say he is far too savvy to let slip which way he will vote, but he is overwhelmingly positive. “I’m a dual citizen. It’s not for me as an American to have an opinion, but it is for me as the leader of this place to get really excited. Whichever way the referendum goes, I see a Scotland that is asserting itself in the world, that is saying ‘we’re here, we’re different and we’re using culture to promote ourselves’. I’m not just talking bagpipes and kilts but thoughtful, deep culture that is different from any other part of the UK. There’s a huge diaspora in Canada and American that Scotland can reach out to.

“What’s also exciting is that this country cares about culture. It funds culture. That funding might be patchy, we might need to work on aspects of it, but the Scottish government believes in culture for developing complete human beings. It’s what I have struggled with so much in America – ‘get a wealthy person to fund it’, they say; ‘art is something you do in your leisure time’. Here, culture is a part of everyday life. So whichever way the referendum goes, I’m excited to be here.”

Jeffrey Sharkey: biography in brief

–         Born and raised in Newark, Delaware, USA

–         Undergraduate studies in piano and composition at Manhattan School of Music; post-graduate studies at Yale and Cambridge universities

–         Previous positions include: director of music at the Purcell School, London; head of academic music at Wells Cathedral School (where he started the school’s composition department); dean of the Cleveland Institute of Music; director of Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute

–         As a pianist he was a founding member of the Pirasti Piano Trio and has performed with the Baltimore Symphony and members of the Cleveland, Orion, and Cavani Quartets

–         He is married to the cellist Alison Wells and has three daughters. The family moved from Baltimore to Pollokshields in July