CCM Dean Stanley Romanstein: preparing students for the future

Dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.

It has such an impressive ring to it. You can only imagine how the title must have sounded to Stanley Romanstein. After nearly three decades in various aspects of arts management and education, he was stepping into the top position at a revered educational institution. Besides the professional prestige attached to the job, it must have carried more than a little personal satisfaction. Romanstein had attended CCM, earning a master of music degree in choral conducting in 1980 and a doctorate in musicology a decade later. 

Yet overseeing CCM is no small undertaking. It is, in fact, a mammoth task. Consider the numbers: 1,378 students, 367 employees and an operating budget of $35.25 million. And those are just the things that can be quantified. There is image – an all-too-real consideration for a school that describes itself as “one of the world’s top-ranked educational institutions for the performing and media arts.” There’s fundraising, as well, and the constant chore of maintaining equilibrium among all the school’s many constituents: faculty, patrons, foundations and students. Especially students.

Stanley Romanstein for Movers & Makers by Tina Gutierrez
CCM Dean Stanley Romanstein (photo by Tina Gutierrez)

APPROACHABILITY

Romanstein didn’t have much time to bask in the glamor of his new gig, though.

“I started on July 2 and received my first complaint before lunch,” he said, flashing the matinee idol smile that has, no doubt, helped him win many friends and calm the fire of many complicated situations over the course of his career.

His reaction to the Day One interruption?

“Good. People know I’m on the job, and they’re ready to reach out and contact me.”

Impressive. Without a moment’s hesitation, he has given the situation a respectful and optimistic spin. The complaint wasn’t a simple one. The caller detailed the experience of a friend who had attended one of CCM’s nearly 1,000 annual performances.

“The person had come to an arts experience here that made them uncomfortable, and they didn’t want to be uncomfortable,” he said. “How could I possibly be offering experiences that made people uncomfortable?”

It’s a classic question in the arts. Art is supposed to be enlightening, right? And beautiful. But art sometimes needs to be edgy and unexpected and challenging, as well. Maybe even so much so as to make someone “uncomfortable.” But then, this is CCM we’re talking about. It’s a place many in the community hold sacred. It is the fount of all things excellent in the performing arts. How could CCM possibly make someone “uncomfortable”?

Romanstein thanked the caller, and he made an offer.

“I’d be happy to have you and your spouse as my guests for an upcoming concert,” he said. “We’ll find something that will delight you and will not make you uncomfortable. I’d love for you to come and give us a try. Hopefully, we can give you as great an experience as you might expect at CCM.”

Very smooth. Very charming. And, considering he’s a man who oversees the raising of millions of dollars a year, very smart. He didn’t apologize for the “uncomfortable” art. He was making a patron who was already a friend of CCM into an even better friend.

It’s the sort of thing Romanstein is good at. It’s a skill that has followed him through most of his career, particularly as executive director at the Baltimore School for the Arts and president/CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

It was less successful during his four-year tenure as president and CEO of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where he walked into a financially bereft organization and tried to balance not only the books but two boards of directors with seemingly contradictory goals. During his time, the musicians were locked out. Twice. And though he still has his fans in Atlanta, others there are all too willing to savage him.

CCM doesn’t have that sort of incendiary atmosphere, but he still will need all the charm, skill and vision he can conjure up.

IT’S A BRAND NEW DAY

His charge is a sprawling one: to revitalize and broaden the reach of CCM, to integrate it more deeply with the community and with the rest of the University of Cincinnati. In short, he has been asked to bring CCM into the 21st century, by any means necessary.

“The question we talk about a lot is, ‘Are we preparing our students for the kinds of careers they want to pursue?’ ” said Romanstein. The arts world today is different from the one he experienced as a student. When he first arrived in Cincinnati, Elmer Thomas – the head of CCM’s Choral Studies Department – had selected a course of classes for Romanstein. There was no negotiating, no discussion.

“You just took what you were told, and at the end we knew they were going to hand us a piece of paper,” Romanstein said. “The students we’re dealing with today come in with incredibly different ideas about the kinds of lives they want to lead and about the kinds of careers they want to pursue.”

For the most part, they want broad training that will prepare them for the wildly varied demands that are likely to be placed on them throughout their professional careers. Consider instrumental players.

“They not only need to be extremely proficient on their instruments, but they also need to know how to record,” said Romanstein. “They need to know how to play in a large ensemble. They need to know how to play in small chamber groups. They need to know how to play a pops concert and to play it really well. It’s not the same thing as playing a Mahler symphony. And we need to make sure they understand that.”

Similarly, it no longer is enough for actors to learn stage technique. They’re just as likely to act in film or video, do voiceover work or act in one of the hundreds of streaming entertainments that proliferate today.

“And don’t forget that there are directors in the program, too,” said Denton Yockey, division head of TAPAA (theatre arts, production and arts administration) at CCM. “Wouldn’t it be great to have directing degrees that would incorporate not just theater and stage work but also television and podcasting and …” He pauses for a second. Clearly, his mind is racing so fast he can’t quite articulate the ideas he’s considering. “They’re developing new media as fast as they can think of it. And we want to be there right with it as it develops.”

Stanley Romanstein for Movers & Makers by Tina Gutierrez
Stanley Romanstein (photo by Tina Gutierrez)

PROGRAMMING OUTSIDE THE BOX

If you look through some of the goals Romanstein has established for CCM, you’ll see an increasingly important role to be played by the Electronic Media (E-Media) Division, once known as the Radio-Television Department.

“This is a transformational period for us,” said Kevin Burke, head of E-Media. Long ago, the department existed solely to provide services for the various performing arms of the school. Today, it has its own ambitions and goals. In recent years, the department has produced several documentary films, many of which have found their way into commercial distribution. Romanstein is eager to see more of that.

As a result, CCM has initiated a partnership between E-Media and GE Aviation. It is in the process of formalizing the collaborations between E-Media and the Theatre Arts Division. Similarly, this spring will see the launch of video streaming of select performances.

Some of the changes Romanstein is intent on making have to do with broadening the access to CCM. For instance, in the past, students in CCM’s Dance Division could cobble together programs that allowed them to work toward degrees while performing with the Cincinnati Ballet. In the not-too-distant future that is likely to become more formalized.

Not only is this a boon for students – hands-on opportunities are great selling points – but it is the sort of thing that can make a dance company more appealing to prospective company members, as well.

“Dancers’ careers are short,” said Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. She points out that programs exist to help dancers transition into after-dance careers, but they tend to be unavailable until after a dancer has retired.

“If you wait to plan your future until you’re finished dancing, it’s much harder,” Morgan said. “You’re depressed. You’re not with your friends anymore. It’s much better to start preparing while you are still dancing. Take those academic classes. That intellectual stimulation will not only prepare you for another career, but it will make you a much better dancer. I absolutely love the idea of this program.”

WHAT TOMORROW LOOKS LIKE

That’s precisely the sort of response Romanstein hopes to hear about all of his initiatives. And there are many, including:

Overhauling the CCM Box Office to make it easier to navigate online. The goal is to develop it into an in-house lab for arts administration students.

Incorporating the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra into CCM’s Music Therapy Task Force.

Expanding CCM’s partnership with the Cincinnati Opera.

There are even conversations about bringing back programming to attract the public to CCM during the summer months.

“I loved ‘Hot Summer Nights’ when I was here,” Romanstein said, speaking of the wildly popular summer series that presented top-flight musicals in Corbett Auditorium.

However, the academic world moves slowly. New ideas need to pass muster in several levels of bureaucracy. Add to that the diminishing support from the state and … well, it’s hard to know what will happen – or when.

He has visions of a renewed emphasis on chamber music, but that will take additional rehearsal space. How much space?

“When we talk about chamber music, what exactly do we mean?” Romanstein asked. “We’re not just talking about violin and cello together. We’re talking about bringing together the voice people and the opera people and the instrumentalists and the keyboardists and putting them all together with the Ariel Quartet (CCM’s string quartet-in-residence). When we can do that, we can say that we have a real emphasis on chamber music, that you can come here expressly to study chamber music.”

For now, bringing CCM into the 21st century means talking a lot. It means pushing ahead where he can, and dreaming a lot.

“We need to marshal our resources to make an exciting and vibrant today,” Romanstein said. “But while we grow the present, we need to figure out what our tomorrow should look like. So we’re talking about why we are here and to discuss our shared values. Only then can we decide on a future.”


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