Business with a side of music

Posted on Oct 29, 2019 :: Personalities
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, did not follow a conventional path to a leadership role in higher education. A graduate of Lawrence, he eventually landed a job at Microsoft and moved into the role of managing the media acquisitions group, the company’s central resource for selecting, tracking and licensing audio, images and video.

Pertl returned to the world of academia after a visit to his alma mater inspired him to apply for the dean role at the conservatory. Pertl sat down with Insight to discuss how he uses his experiences in both music and the business world to develop classes and programs to prepare Lawrence students for what lies beyond graduation.

Insight: What’s the instrument you have here?

Brian Pertl: It’s called a didjeridu. It’s made from a tree hollowed out by termites. It’s used by aboriginals in Australia. This instrument played a role in both me getting my job at Microsoft and the dean’s job here at Lawrence. After graduating from Lawrence, I received a Thomas Watson Fellowship, which provides students with a wanderjahr outside of the United States to study. For part of that time, I was in Australia, where I studied aboriginal music, which is where I learned about the didjeridu. Fast forward a few years, and I’m working on a Ph.D. in Washington and I heard about a project Microsoft was doing to record 30 seconds of different sounds for the first-ever CD-ROM project, where they matched photos with sounds. They needed someone who knew how to play the didjeridu. That opened a whole new world for me … and they eventually asked me if I would serve as editor for the project. I always wanted to be an educator and thought it would be a great way to expand the learning options for people — they could put in this CD-ROM and see and hear the whole world. That hadn’t happened before.

I stayed with Microsoft and never finished my Ph.D., so I thought my dream of teaching wouldn’t happen, but I kept performing with my didjeridu and making presentations. I came back to Lawrence to make a presentation and perform, and afterward, two people approached me about applying to be the dean of the conservatory. I didn’t think I had a shot since I didn’t have a Ph.D., I didn’t play a Western classical instrument and I had never been a dean anywhere. But I give a lot of credit to Lawrence and then-President Jill Beck, who took a chance on me. But honestly after meeting with just three people during my initial interview, I knew this was my dream job. I love, love, love music education and I love, love, love strategic planning and people management, and this job brings it all together.

When it comes to postsecondary education and value, how can a liberal arts education compete against STEM careers or technical college offerings?

A solid liberal arts education allows you to become a problem solver who can think creatively. The conservatory staff sees the importance and value of the classes not related to music since they see how that broadens the student’s knowledge base. In some conservatories, they just want you to focus on music and nothing else. We’re different. 

As dean, my job is to empower my faculty and help them implement their visions. I don’t know of another school this size that has global music programs. I’ve also had two professors create a program called Music for All where Lawrence students go out with their music to a place where you wouldn’t normally hear music, such as a warming shelter, Riverview Gardens or wherever. They help people feel like they’re a part of the music, and it helps break down barriers.

We also have Presto, which combines a music tour to a place like Chicago or Houston along with partnering with a local organization to work on a social challenge. We recently had 12 students spend three days in a Houston elementary school where they empowered students to develop their creativity. They spent (six weeks) before going to learn the curriculum and about what they would do when they got there. (They spent time doing creative, collaborative efforts with the students.)

I think the New North has a secret weapon: Liberal arts job candidates are employees who can collaborate, improvise and think outside of the box. Businesses are looking to hire someone who can have a positive impact on their company.

Lawrence recently added a Bachelor of Musical Arts degree to its offerings. How did that come about and why is it significant?

It’s something that’s been in the works for a while. Music students need to be given options that go way beyond performance, so this degree will help students carve out paths that may take them into music production or promotion or something related to the business side of music.

Another main thing about this degree is that students for the first time can audition with non-classical repertoire. The foundation is in jazz and contemporary improvisation. This major will accommodate a larger swath of students with varied interests, from singers who sing gospel music to students who write music on their computer. Our goal is to really diversify who we are and see it as a way to move Lawrence forward in a world that needs more flexibility and entrepreneurship.

When you think about it, many musicians are entrepreneurs. How can you prepare students for that route?

You’re right. Many are. More musicians are creating and designing their own careers rather than taking traditional pathways. They need to think more entrepreneurially, and we want to provide them with the skills they need to do that. We have a class that looks at entrepreneurism and looks at how students can create their own websites, develop a three-year business plan … it’s a class that’s missing in many music programs. We’re trying to train students for futures they can’t yet imagine. I’m a great example — I never would have imagined a career with Microsoft, but that’s where my path led.