Several weeks ago I interviewed Conservatory Founder Sandy Owen. I found our conversation mesmerizing, as I learned both her individual story and how the conservatory grew into the arts education mecca it is today. Read on to see our discussion…
(D: Daniel, S: Sandy)
D: Sandy, when did you begin working at Boys Harbor, as it was then called, and what were you originally hired to do?
S: I began working in the summer of 1970, and I was hired to teach piano. That was the start of things. And then because I had been trained in several other areas, as things progressed, we expanded. I had started a class… kind of a little kids’ music appreciation thing with all kinds of different symbols and ways of teaching music and notes and things like that, which was fun. Then we started the chorus, and that grew to about 60 voices at one point. We played at the Apollo, then we did a gig at Carnegie Hall. We were backed up by the Harbor’s own Jazz band, which was great. That was the era of Vista Volunteers. Jutta von Tiesenhausen came as a Vista Volunteer and, because she was musically trained, she began working with the chorus. I had hired Ramon away from Third Street Music School by then; he and Jutta took over the chorus, Ramon started teaching band, while I continued teaching piano. So that was sort of how it grew, as we got more kids wanting to do more things, we gradually started getting some money to hire other people to do things.
D: What’s a Vista Volunteer?
S: That was the internal counterpart of the Peace Corps. If you wanted to do work of that sort, you joined the vista volunteers. It was a two-year stint where you worked in the United States in communities such as East Harlem.
D: When you originally began teaching piano and dance, were these classes just a part of Boys Harbor?
S: Yes… and then it grew.
D: As more programs developed over time, when did you consciously begin focusing your efforts towards building a comprehensive performing arts program separate from Boys Harbor?
S: You know, I don’t think, at least for the first five or ten years, there was really a conscious thought of saying “Let’s make this a separate conservatory”. We were too busy just doing what we were doing. Plus, we were always integral to the rest of the place. Several of us were on the daycare budget. You found ways of paying people because we were serving day care kids and were legitimately part of the Boys Harbor Program. I think probably after I left and became part of the development department was when they first started. That was when Ramon, Nina Klyvert, Nina Olson, Rob Blumenthal and Bertin Rowser really started thinking of it as being the Conservatory. The leaping man logo, that was Bertin’s, that was the first real logo for the Conservatory, as it was named. It wasn’t like “ok we’re putting out our shingle today”; it was very generic and just basically happened. But we realized and they realized that the training our students were getting was really… superb. So, since we really were a conservatory, let’s think of ourselves that way. It’s a little bit like behaviorist thinking; if you do it, it becomes so.
D: When you first started here, what were the original classes offered?
S: Well, when I was by myself it was just piano lessons and the music appreciation course for kids. Oh, and the chorus. We used to do chorus on Saturday morning. Then Vince Henry, you might have heard of him, he’s pretty well-known in the jazz circles; he and his best friend “Bumpy” and John Adams (not the composer), started a group and that became the Harbor Band, or the Harbor Ensemble. Vince was and is a reed player, plays all the reeds. Actually he taught himself just about everything else, including sitar I would imagine by this point. Bumpy was on drums and John was on piano. So they started doing arrangements for the music we were already doing with piano, and it was fun! Then Ramon came and we expanded; we’d even have the band tour with the children. We’d get the van and go to different places, and then we’d take the kids home at night, walk them up the stairs. Then there was camp… it was more or less 24/7, 365 in those days. In the summer you finished teaching on Friday, went out to camp and taught, came back Sunday night at midnight and started over again. But it was a very idealistic time, it was the ‘70’s. Everybody was out in the community and it was wonderful. There was always something more to do, to be done, to build. It was fabulous.
D: That’s fantastic. What was your background before you came to the Harbor?
S: Well I graduated from Julliard, I was a piano major and a voice minor. I had been on stage as a dancer since I was four. I got to use just about everything I had ever been trained in here, which was fun. That was the beginning of the dance company. It wasn’t GESTURES then, but I had a dance company. We had some outside choreographers come in, Diane Macintyre for instance. It isn’t like GESTURES today, what Nina has done is unbelievable, but they were pretty good! Some of them actually performed with Pearl Primus when she reset “The Wedding” at City Center. They danced on stage with the Ailey II Company and held their own. They were really good. Now at that time, I had already started the Harbor Junior High School on 109th Street, the Harbor School for the Performing Arts, so those students also performed. There was always something going on over here! That was the time when Tony Alvarado was superintendent of District 4, and he was very supportive of small schools. His wife started the first one, also a performing arts school, but hers used an arts and education model; she merged the arts with everything they did. Ours was more of a conservatory style, you did your academics, and then you did your arts. So ours was the second mini school in the district actually, started in 1973 or 1974. And it lasted until maybe four or five years ago.
D: Changing gears a bit, I wanted to ask you about Ramon. Ramon Rodriguez has been the Executive Director here for over 25 years. I doubt this place would still exist if you had never hired him. How did you meet him, what was your initial impression of him, and why did you decide to hire him?
S: I’m trying to think of how I met him. I don’t remember! I remember hearing a lot about him, but I honestly don’t remember how I met him. Well, this is what happens when you’re over sixty. Anyway, I had heard that he was a really good teacher, that he taught several different instruments, bass, percussion, piano; that he was into Latin music. I needed somebody who could do things that I couldn’t do and share the load. We were getting a lot of kids who were into different things. I remember working at it for a while. He didn’t want to leave his previous school, but he finally did, and… that was that. It just built from there. He took on his share of things and more, and we started hiring other people, reed people, brass people, percussion people. Louis Bauzo came at some point… it just… you know… grew! All the time we were trying to raise money. That’s how I started, as a fundraiser actually.
D: When the Conservatory was first getting started, could you fathom that it would one day grow to house over 800 students and a large, diverse, international faculty?
S: Well we never thought about it. Of course I never imagined it, along with the size and importance Raices would play. As I said, it wasn’t like we had a five-year plan, we never did that, probably should have, but it worked out very well. But of course it’s an amazing thing to look at now, and when I go to performances it’s… amazing.
D: That must feel incredible.
S: Oh, it feels fabulous. To know that this wasn’t here before. The Junior High School is the same way. You know, these teachers wouldn’t be here, these kids wouldn’t be as happy as they are now. To see something that you started is worth… everything.
D: What was the thinking behind extending the music program to adults?
S: That was probably more Ramon’s thinking than mine. It also might have been that we thought we could charge, and raise money. We weren’t charging children at first, they were part of the Harbor Program. And even when we did bring kids in from outside the Harbor, we charged them a very nominal amount. It just seemed like the logical next step. I think it was in large part an aspect of the people we were hiring. They drew adults. Louis never in my memory taught kids, except one little one that was so unbelievable you just couldn’t bear it. His expertise and his fame was through adults. I think the guitar people, the reed people; those teachers taught adults predominantly and they brought their clientele with them. That’s my best recollection, but by this time Ramon handled more of the music program, and I had focused on furthering the dance program.
D: Last question: What do you think it is that makes the Conservatory so unique and special?
S: I think it’s a place where people can really find and do what they want to do without hassles, without someone looking over their shoulder, without the unnecessary paper work. A couple of teachers used to say to me “You know, I have to work elsewhere to support my habit here”. Because they loved being here despite the fact we couldn’t pay the salary that they deserved, but stayed on because it was such a special place. The teachers were surrounded by great colleagues, they were able to teach the way they wanted to teach, able to put their students into ensembles. Rob Blumenthal created the jazz ensemble, Louis started the folkloric ensemble, Ramon had a couple of Latin ensembles… you just had everything here. It’s just a group of exceptional people who are still very idealistic, and were never beaten down by academia or bureaucracy. People believe in this place, and they believe in what they can do for kids, they believe in what they can do for the community. That’s how we started, that’s what kept us going, and that’s what we – they – still do today. When you have people like Ramon, Louis, Nina and Bertin… it’s infectious. The people are so talented and have so many ideas and are doing so much for the kids at such a professional level that it just makes it a… very very special place. For a while we had a music camp for the summer and… that was fun. We just sort of went in all kinds of directions… whenever we came up with a new idea that could get funded and benefit children, we’d do it. It’s just a very special place, it just is. It doesn’t equate with any other place I can think of. It’s still very collegial, very low-key in terms of hierarchy, bureaucracy, all those types of things. It’s a very special place. The people who are here feel that way and that’s what keeps it going.