Meet Mary Ellen Poole, the Butler School’s New Director

Meet Mary Ellen Poole, the Butler School's New Director

Mary Ellen Poole, dean of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, will be the next director of UT’s Butler School of Music. Her position as director, as well as the Florence Thelma Hall Centennial Chair in Music, will go into effect Sept. 1.

We asked the new director about this newest honor, her experience, and her hopes for the Butler School.

What was your favorite thing about your time at the San Francisco Music Conservatory?

I think my favorite thing was that I had the opportunity to work with such a creative, quirky, and talented group of people. The conservatory really has an institutional personality that I think is highly unique. It really of reflects the personality of the city. One of my very favorite things about it was that we got to build a brand new building and move the entire school into the art district.

As dean of the conservatory, you increased school enrollment by 50 percent. What do you feel is the best way to accomplish that?

I think first you have to be growing it for the right reasons. It’s funny with music admissions—you have to do it like you’re staffing a symphony orchestra. You can’t have 50 flute players and just two cello players. You need a balanced enrollment in order for the ensemble to have what it needs. Students may choose a school because of location or representation, but overall, they really come to study with a particular person. That student-teacher relationship, whether it’s a classroom professor or a studio teacher, is so primary.

Tell me about your background in research.

Most of my publishing occurred back before 1997, before I got really involved in academic leadership. I was very interested in Paris between the years 1881-1914. That time period was just a crazy mix of all the arts. There were some wild things going on with politics just before World War I. Another area of my research was about a conservatory founded for poor working women. I found it interesting that someone would want to teach a poor woman, such as a seamstress, to play the harp or the piano. I was fascinated by how upper-middle class people were interested in what they thought music would do for these folks, who were essentially the working poor. It was all about music in society and how it can feed people’s political beliefs.

What first got you interested in music?

Well, my mother was a musician. She was actually a band director, which was pretty unusual for a woman at that time. There were two pianos in our house, and when I was just four, I started composing little pieces, and my mother started giving me lessons. But when I really got sucked into music was the very first time I heard a live ensemble play. I was 11 or 12 at that time. My main instrument was the flute, and I loved playing in symphony orchestras.

What would you say was the most difficult challenge you’ve overcome in your career?

I think the hardest thing in any academic leader’s career, and this has been true for me, is when you have to make really difficult decisions regarding personnel. It makes you realize that you’re dealing with people’s lives here—their livelihood and their personal image. I’m not, by nature, someone who likes to go around wreaking havoc, but I realize sometimes I have to make those tough decisions. I think that whenever that happens in anyone’s life, they don’t take that lightly. It’s especially true when working in the arts, because you tend to get very close to the people you work with.

What advice do you have for students pursuing a career in music?

There are some crucial skills that every musician needs to have. The first skill is that you really have to know yourself. Know who you are, your strengths and your weaknesses, know what you do better than anybody else. You have to know what makes you want to get up in the morning. Students who want to be musicians also have to be really savvy—they need to know about the business of music. They can’t just depend on big institutions to take care of them. People have to be ready to invent their own careers these days.

What are you most excited about for the Butler School of Music?

I think the school already has so many advantages. The faculty is so brilliant and the staff is focused on really being part of student education. The supporters of the school are so passionate. And the students are great. We really owe them the advice I talked about earlier. I would turn around and give it right back to myself. They really need to look at what they’re doing in their career every day and never take for granted that what they’re doing is the right thing. I hope that together we can see that students are given the tools they need to be musicians in the 21st century.

Photo courtesy Leslie Lyon.


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