On Cultural Leadership and the Liberal Arts

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At the Shanghai Music Conservatory — a piano signed by all the great musical maestros that have passed through its halls.

One of the more happenstance events on my trip so far has been randomly participating in the 6th Annual Shanghai International Piano Competition (unfortunately, not as a pianist :)) in helping interview Robert Blocker, the Dean of Music at the Yale School of Music.  In his interview (where I was the interpreter), Dean Blocker articulated a thoughtfulness of the role of music and culture that inspired hope and delivered a clear vision of his own personal ethos — that it isn’t enough to be a gifted performer, but in that capacity, one must also strive to be a cultural leader in using the universal voice of the arts and music to connect cultures,and initiate and participate in programs that strive to give similar opportunities to those who may not otherwise have them, particularly youth (I was never planning to write about this but perhaps having been in hardened Shanghai for a few days, this brief encounter has left me thinking about our discussion for the past few hours). 

No stranger to China, Dean Blocker has been coming to China since the 1980s in various capacities as a cultural ambassador and connector between Asia and the various initiatives he’s led at both Yale and UCLA (where he was the presiding dean of the Department of World Arts and Cultures and the Center for Digital Art).  And in that time, he has seen how music has often been able to serve the capacity of being the connecting thread between communities. 

One of my favorite stories he shared was from a performance that Dean Blocker gave in 1998 with the Shanghai Symphony — before the final performance, there were a series of public recitals that were held, and at one of those recitals, a group of elder Shanghai natives gathered.  During one of the breaks in the recital, one of the ladies began to sing, a song that Dean Blocker recalled having learned from his grandmother as a young boy in Charleston, South Carolina.  To him, this epitomized the universal spirit of music, whose timeless messages transcend both time and cultures, and have the ability to create instantaneous bonds between people. 

And it is in this same spirit that Dean Blocker now teaches a class at the Yale School of Management, focusing on the analysis of music as a lens to view management.  “In music, you really learn to work in three ways,” said Blocker. “One, you learn how to work individually, second, in teams, and third, to read between the lines and the black and white notes on a music score to find your own interpretation.” 

Particularly in a country like China, whose current economic revival has been based largely on the backbone of a heavy emphasis on the sciences and math, I hope that this also sheds light on the importance of the liberal arts and in delivering performances that focus as much on individual artistic expression as it is about technical mastery.  And for Dean Blocker, the high-school football player and once pre-med student turned concert pianist, he epitomizes that spirit of self-discovery and definition in finding a path that is uniquely your own. “I was not very good student, but I think in the end, you always find your way. When I was once performing at a festival in the US, a reporter asked my first piano teacher what she ended up learning from me, to which she answered: patience. ” 

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