Since the autumn of last year, Barbara Strack-Hanisch has headed the Leonard Bernstein Department of Wind and Percussion Instruments. She recently spoke about her impressions and plans—and about why it’s essential to love music and be optimistic.

Leonard Bernstein Instituts für Konzertfach Blas- und Schlaginstrumente
Die Mitglieder des Leonard Bernstein Instituts für Konzertfach Blas- und Schlaginstrumente ©Sabine Hauswirth


You became head of your department last autumn. How would you sum up your first year?

It’s been unbelievably fun. I’d already spent three years as deputy head, but I have to say that this new role is even more intense than I’d anticipated. This kind of work does me good, though, and it’s great to get positive feedback from students, administrators, and the teaching staff. I’m happy about it and still a bit amazed by it all.

How does your approach look in detail?

I try to be fair, and I try not to unduly favour anyone. It starts with the budgeting process, where I’m trying to take into account the wishes of all eleven instrumental groups – from recorder to percussion. And as stated, it’s important to be someone who everyone can talk to. If there’s a conflict, it’s crucial to listen to both sides and have them sit down at the same table. That’s time-intensive, but it makes sense – and I think it’s better than making snap-judgments.

What’s changed since you’ve been heading the institute?

For me personally, of course, time management has become a huge theme. My youngest son will be a year old, soon; he came along not quite half a year after I assumed the post. My middle daughter turned two in April, and my eldest is eight years old. So the first thing you have to do is work out a way to manage things at home. Another thing was the fear that I might have a tough time showing up to teach and really being there for my own students. But that’s hasn’t been the case – because it’s all about how you organise things. And the institute’s employees give me a lot of support in doing so. Myself, I get up very early and take care of my e-mail while the kids are still sleeping, and later on I go to the institute. Catching up on sleep happens on weekends and during holidays.

What factors – beyond time management – do you think are important in managing all that?

Optimism, for one thing. And it all gives me so much positive energy, like when I notice that the students and instructors are satisfied – which puts putting them in a position to perform well. Or when things I’ve helped work on succeed. It all makes sense because of what it gives back to me, which in turn makes me want to do more. I’m that crazy. (laughs) But I’m fine with it.

The performance major programmes are getting new curricula. Can you already say what will change for the students?

The very first thing we’re doing is turning the current three phases of study back into two. And another important new thing is that we’ve tried to facilitate specialisations by creating “profiles” in the second of those two phases. The first phase is essentially the same for everybody—a unified curriculum. There are instrument-specific courses, of course, but those do take into consideration how the theoretical subjects can be better linked with the artistic ones. Teaching group sizes will be reduced in some cases, allowing better and more individual adaptation to students’ artistic majors. That means that the students can directly implement what they’ve learned, which also makes it easier to understand just why they’ve learned it. The intent is to pick up the students wherever they stand and give them a perspective on where things might lead professionally, as well as on what their strengths are. Furthermore, we’ll be including a profile for students who already work, making it easier for outstanding students who’ve already been hired to still obtain a degree.

What other plans do you have for the institute in general? Are there some central visions?

Yes, absolutely—“unfortunately” quite a few, in fact. (laughs) Visions are great if you pursue them over five, six years. But I always go crazy and want to realise everything right away, and it all has to be perfect. We’d like to contribute a number of events to the mdw’s 200th birthday celebrations. And we’re also thinking of organising our own Leonard Bernstein Competition in cooperation with the Department of Composition, Electroacoustics, and Tonmeister Education. But that’s still at a very early stage. The new competition will be about creating works for a newly established category of the “prima la musica” competition. We also think it’s important to support and encourage prospective students, and to this end, we have a cooperative arrangement with the Johann Sebastian Bach Music School in Vienna. It’s also a deep concern of mine to uphold and advance the Viennese tradition, in particular specifically Viennese instrument types such as the Viennese oboe and Viennese horn.

What would you tell someone who’d like to begin studying at your department? What needs to be given thought beforehand, and what should prospective students bring to the table?

They need talent, industriousness, enthusiasm and optimism, resilience, and a certain grounding in reality. And at the same time, they need to have an intense love of art and music— then it pays off. You really have to think about where you want to take things and whether there might be a niche that perfectly matches your own interests and strengths. Some students are now also choosing an additional non-artistic degree programme in order to have a second leg to stand on, just in case. For my part, to be on the safe side, I studied flute and saxophone—performance and education for both!

You’ve just published a new saxophone method. What sets it apart?

What’s new about my saxophone method is that it brings together jazz, classical music, and contemporary music on a very even footing. It’s not excessively child-oriented, but there are lots of tips, tricks, and other suggestions meant to help learners continually monitor themselves. Almost every piece in there comes either with a piano part or a play-along track, since the most important thing is to train the ears and learn to play together with others. This saxophone method currently comes in two volumes, with one separate book of playing material per volume. I’m now working on a duet book and a trio book, as well as a further play-along volume for 2017/18 (laughs). And my own performing as a soloist and jobs playing in large orchestras are equally important and inspiring, as well as a wonderful way to achieve some balance.

What’s changed since your own student days?

I think that a lot of things have gotten easier. Students can now register for everything online. And today’s students are so well networked, too. Now, you can do lots of stuff at home on your computer. So all that, I think, is an improvement. At the same time, though, the reality faced by today’s students is far faster-paced and much more competitive, with expectations and the general level constantly rising.

How will your department be represented at the mdw Festival ’16 this autumn?

Since there aren’t that many Nordic compositions in our instruments’ standard classical repertoires, the idea I had was to use this as an opportunity to set out in search of new pieces. All our instruments will be featured with one work each, ranging from solo to chamber repertoire. We’re also planning the première of a work for all our instruments thatwill be themed on “the North”. Then there’s our “Saxophon-Herbst” [Saxophone Autumn] event, which you can imagine as a two-day open house on 18 and 19 November geared towards encouraging prospective students in the classical and jazz fields. This will include workshops with all of our saxophone teachers, and the music schools and saxophonists whom we know have been invited to come by with their students and participate.

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