Tiffany Valvo

June 26, 2019


1. As a relatively recent Eastman graduate, how have you found the transition from DMA student to full-time applied professor?

There are a few things that really helped me bridge the gap between being a student to getting my first job as a full-time professor. First, I did a lot of adjunct teaching in the final two years of my DMA; it was crucial to have that work experience on my CV so that schools were taking me seriously, even though it was music theory experience and not applied teaching. (I don’t think the specifics are as important as a committee knowing you have experience in the professional workplace.) Secondly, through work on my lecture recital and classes in the Department of Music Teaching and Learning, I began to develop ideas about who I wanted to be as an educator. I was accepted to two national conferences with presentations focused on improvisation the summer after I finished my degree, and these experiences were paramount in developing my voice as a performer and teacher, helping separate me from others with the same degree. Thirdly, my internship with Ensemble Signal through ALP lead to employment with the ensemble after my internship was over. This position fueled my experience doing administrative work, and eventually I helped run projects with Signal in California and at the Lincoln Center Festival. These experiences helped shine light on the fact that I was multi-faceted, and I think gave those looking at my CV confidence that I would be able to deal with the administrative responsibilities that come with being a full-time faculty member.

Collecting these experiences while I was completing the degree, or very soon after, gave me a strong enough footing to get my first full-time job one year after I finished my oral exams, and so I would say the transition was fairly smooth.

However, there are certain aspects of being a full-time professor that were difficult at first. I didn’t realize how much the students in my studio would rely on me for all types of support. It can be emotionally draining, and I am still figuring out when I can give that support, and how I can support my students by helping them understand where they can get the help they need. In addition, I believe the majority of music departments and schools in our country currently have a wide range of skill levels represented. Meeting each student’s needs, while addressing a standard of competency that you believe essential, is tricky. I would say those are the two things that have been most difficult to navigate as I transitioned into a full-time roll at VCU.

2. You are an active performer of new music. How do you convey your advocacy for this music in your teaching?

As I mentioned in the above response, navigating the wide range of abilities present in my studio is challenging. Very few of my students are ready to play music with difficult rhythms, ranges or extended techniques. However, one of the ways I try to incorporate advocacy for new music from the very beginning is by immediately instilling an exploratory spirit in my students. I teach my freshmen how to do extended techniques, albeit simple ones, as a way to teach them that no skill can replace flexibility in your playing. You have to know how your instrument works, what sounds it can make; if they are the “right” sounds or not is not the point. Learn all of the sounds, and then pick the right ones for the music you are playing. I think this translates into having an open mind about all types of repertoire.

3. How does your passion for education inform your performance, and vice versa?

At my core, I want to empower people. This is not directly related to being a musician, or even to my passion for education. However, being a teacher is an incredible vehicle for empowering people, and I strive to help my students understand how the act of dedicating yourself to a craft can be the most valuable thing you do. I tell them that the strongest indicator of being good at anything is being good at something.

The idea of empowerment informs my performance as well. My focus is on what the music and my energy can do for the people listening, and then I transition into trying to teach my students to be empowered so they can do the same.

There is no doubt I have become a better musician by teaching. There are things I did as a player that I never thought about how to actually execute; variety of articulations, phrasing, glissandos, even sound production. Teaching has stripped away the facade of understanding these concepts, and has forced me to find explanations and examples to the concepts I spent so long taking for granted. (Side note: I don’t think it is ever too early to start thinking about this. And while you have a teacher, you may want to pick their brain about how they teach certain topics that you may or may not struggle with yourself.)

4. Can you describe specific skills you learned at Eastman that directly impact your career today?

I could spend about twelve pages discussing this one, but I will try to be brief.

Steve Laitz taught me humility. I remember sitting in his pedagogy of theory class and in a moment, I just had to accept that I may never know as much as many of the people that were teaching me, or even as much as my classmates. But we each had our own strengths. Understanding this helped me navigate Impostor Syndrome and other lovely things that everyone, but I think especially artists, faces on a daily basis.

The Department of Music Teaching and Learning taught me an incredible amount, but perhaps most importantly taught me that you must help students explore. That is one of your primary responsibilities.

Ken Grant taught me about artistry. An allusive topic– I think he taught artistry as something you consciously did by exaggerating everything you noticed about the music, and by putting that into the context of understanding various styles. Then, be unapologetically yourself.

Brad Lubman taught me that rhythm is music, and finally convinced me that subdividing was actually a necessity. I learned to face a lot of fears in Music Nova, by playing music that I, at first, thought was too hard. But, you break it down, and you learn it one measure at a time. That was an incredibly important skill to learn, applicable to so many facets of life.

5. What career advice would you offer to current Eastman DMA students?

Start building a platform that is uniquely yours. Everyone will have your degree. Everyone will be able to play their instrument well. You must go to the next level. What makes you tick? What do you want to offer this world? I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of our instrument, of an orchestral excerpt. In the end, navigating the minutiae isn’t what will get you a job, especially in academia.

Start gaining experiences, no matter how seemingly insignificant, outside of school. Find people to teach and do it often, even if you have to do it for free. I played a lot of concerts and taught a lot of people for little to no money at all. I don’t regret that in the slightest, because I was gaining skills that I needed when I was being paid.

Keep your CV up-to-date. Document. Everything.

Know that no path looks the same, even though you’ll convince yourself that everyone you know did it one way, and you aren’t doing it that way, so you are doomed. Life is full of muddy waters; don’t compare. Just keep your eye on what you want to contribute.