The Oberlin Conservatory of Music has always had many reasons to be proud. At 145 years it is the oldest continuously operating music school in the country. Its graduates can be found in major performing institutions across the world. Admission by audition is extremely competitive, and only a small fraction of applicants are admitted each year. Most recently, it was awarded the National Medal of Arts in recognition of its contributions to the oeuvre of American creative expression, which was presented to Dean David Stull by President Obama in February. Sometimes I have to walk over to the diploma on the wall, just to make sure it was not a dream that I had the privilege to practice in such a place. The training and study I undertook there, both musical and otherwise, have played a large part in shaping who I am today.

Kohl Building - east exteriorWhen I see the Conservatory mentioned in the news, it is usually in reference to student, graduate and faculty accomplishments. The most recent headliner, however, has floors, walls, windows and doors. The Bertram and Judith Kohl Building opened its doors to Oberlin and the world on May 1, 2010. It will serve as a much needed sanctuary for the Conservatory’s jazz department, which until now had been housed in facilities unbefitting of its rich tradition. The building will also be a new home for many music theory and history faculty members, as well as the James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection, which is believed to be the largest private collection of jazz recordings and paraphernalia in the United States.

Perhaps no one is more proud of the Kohl Building than Michael Lynn, Associate Dean for Technology and Facilities, who was one of the main stakeholders representing the Conservatory throughout design and construction. Lynn graciously gave my wife Min and I the grand tour while we were in town a week ago. In additional to the building’s functional and symbolic significance for the Conservatory, it is also the first music facility in the world to achieve LEED Gold certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and has fast become one of the de facto standards for measuring the environmental performance of built environments. I am currently pursing accreditation as a LEED Green Associate in order to better understand the role buildings play in a comprehensive enterprise sustainability strategy. Having Michael walk us through the newly completed structure brought many of the concepts I am studying right off the page and into real life.

Fluid conduits from HVAC and other systemsThe building, designed by architect Westlake Reed Leskosky, makes extensive use of local building materials and contractors. It has a geothermal powered HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system coupled with radiant heat, allowing the building to function without use of the campus steam loop. Geothermal and radiant heat (as opposed to forced air) climate control is best suited to environments where temperature and humidity stasis is feasible and desirable.  This not only provides a comfortable environment for the human occupants, but the collection of Steinway pianos distributed throughout studios and rehearsal spaces benefit as well. The entire building is managed by a Siemens control system, which collects large amounts of real-time environmental data and has the capability to display resource use to occupants through public displays. Attention was even paid to the dirt that was removed from the footprint of the building prior to construction. It was later reclaimed as fill dirt. Tree and shrub removal was minimized, and the Conservatory was able to donate the plants that it was unable to relocate.

Kohl Building - computer labFurniture layouts for each room were designed in consultation with faculty members on how they intended to use the space. The contractor, Ohio Desk, was actively involved in this iterative process to ensure that everyone got exactly what they needed. Ohio Desk sourced furniture from Steelcase, which is located in Grand Rapids, MI and specializes in manufacture of workplace furnishings that consider social, economic and environmental sustainability. The furniture contains little to no plastics or resins, dramatically reducing the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds characteristic of traditional new construction. The proximity of Steelcase’s operations meant that all building furnishings counted toward credit in LEED categories for local materials sourcing.

Kohl Building - sky bridgeThough these technologies are each notable in their own right, the defining characteristic of a LEED building is how it is designed as a system, so that each piece works optimally with all of the others. In a traditional building, each system would be designed by separate engineers, often working in isolation, only for the combination to be considered later and foregoing any opportunity for optimization. By contrast, LEED sees each party as a stakeholder, including not just designers and engineers, but the building owners, occupants, municipal governing bodies, utilities and others. These stakeholders each have a role to play, and all are involved from inception to completion and occupancy. Oberlin College, the Conservatory, faculty and students can all feel that they had a hand in creating this space, in a way that runs deeper than had it been a traditional construction.

Kohl Building - recording studio control roomThe Kohl Building, in combining world class music training with environmental sustainability, also has special significance for me, representing integration of my two primary areas of professional interest. As I transitioned away from a career as a full-time performing musician, into management and now specifically in sustainability strategy, I confronted the challenge of explaining how my background in the arts is relevant to what I do now. During my business school interviews, subsequent job applications, and even my current career search, my degree has raised more than a few pairs of eyebrows. Initially, my approach was to convince the listener that I had hard skills to offer, despite my musical training. I would rattle off a list that could have been titled Reasons Why I Have More Technical Ability than a Marshmallow. It included the fact that by the time I finished high school I had taken university level physics and calculus, and was proficient in multiple programming languages, some of which were self taught. At Oberlin, music majors had core curriculum requirements no different from students in the College of Arts and Sciences. In my senior year, when I could have been goofing off and taken fluff courses for the last few credits, I elected for economics and a calculus refresher. I later figured out that partial differential equations do not generally make for lively cocktail conversations, but the dye had already been cast. I had hoped the fact that I was accepted to the Darden Graduate School of Business would at least serve as a litmus test to offer future employers. Any one or a combination of these data points will work in a pinch, but I gradually figured out that I was not really convincing anyone, myself included. The Miles Davis track “So What” from Kind of Blue comes to mind.

There was one other list I had compiled, with the help of Marci Alegant, the Conservatory’s Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs. While in school I held a part-time job managing Marci’s stream of incoming and outgoing paperwork. Though it did not pay much more than beer money, I was rewarded with the opportunity to be a fly on the wall for high level, strategic discussions about the current and future state of the school. This exposure was a valuable asset that I carried through to my contributions to our case method class discussions at Darden. The list on which Marci and I worked included transferrable skills developed as a result of musical training.

To start, young adults considering a degree in music performance have to commit to that decision around the age of 14 or 15. This presumes a significant level of accomplishment already achieved, but the several years of concerted, focused preparation are required to even approach a state of competitiveness needed to enter a school like Oberlin or Julliard. Though we receive lessons from our primary instrument professor, generally once a week, the vast majority of work is self-directed. We spend five or more hours a day in a practice room working on individual development. This requires self-awareness to know what areas require improvement, the organizational skill to identify and prioritize appropriate measures to address that improvement, and the discipline to carry through on that plan with no one watching. This cycle repeats itself everyday, over weekends, through vacations, and clear across summer break. This spans the full four years of the undergraduate program, and for those who go on to more training and professional careers, it will continue for the rest of their lives. In small chamber ensembles to large orchestras, we must take all of the experience and ability we have attained through our own development and integrate it with that of others. It is an exercise in fluid, nonhierarchical leadership. The consummate musician is technically solid and emotionally expressive, but also knows when his role is to lead and when it is to support others. I believed Marci, and the things on this list, I just was not sure how many people would believe me.

Doubt has its place. In some situations, healthy skepticism keeps us safe. But when it limits our ability to seek personal and professional development, it does not serve us. Fortunately, I have had assistance from others in articulating my story in a more effective way, and discovered several role models that bolster my confidence in the content of the message. Philippe Kahn is a former CEO of Borland, a major software developer. An acquaintance who worked as an officer in human resources during Kahn’s tenure recently told me that Kahn expressed the notion that musicians make the best programmers, due to the way music requires the brain to consider the structure and purpose of the work they are performing. Kahn is himself a flutist and composer, and makes a point of the fact that he practices everyday. Among other innovations, he is credited with inventing the camera phone. My colleague PJ Simmons began his career as a dual major at the New England Conservatory and Tufts University. He later focused exclusively on environmental science, but still appreciates his musical background. He went on to direct the strategy practice under Adam Werbach at Saatchi & Saatchi S, the sustainability consulting firm that has helped shaped Walmart’s massive initiatives in environmental performance. PJ is now Chairman of the Corporate Eco Forum. Darden professor Ed Freeman is an accomplished keyboardist and leader of our band, BluesJam. He is also considered internationally to be one of the foremost experts on stakeholder theory and corporate ethics. He keeps a list in his office, one page, large font, of goals he wants to be sure he accomplishes. One of those goals is, “Play music, at least one hour, everyday.” For Ed, a day without music is a day unfinished. PJ and Ed have been actively involved in my recent career developments, and talking with them about all of our collective interests has been a great help in piecing together what, until recently for me, had felt like two separate and unrelated worlds.

Musicians are a pragmatic bunch. They understand that improvement happens one day or one hour at a time. They consider the whole arc of their careers and do not easily frustrate at incremental progress or short-term setbacks. They balance respect for the manner in which something is traditionally executed, with an open mindedness to new, different and smarter ways to do things. The idea of making an upfront investment in sustainability with a long payback period (by the standard of a publicly traded company) would come naturally to them.

Kohl Building - main interior staircaseMany of my classmates have gone on to successful careers as performers, conductors, composers and teachers. Some, like me, have found other outlets that serve our creative and professional needs. In all cases, I do not think that any one of us would have given up our time in rural Ohio for anything. My initial motivation for returning to Oberlin was to explore the Kohl Building, paying specific attention to the environmental performance features in preparation for this post, somewhat indicative of how far afield I felt I had traveled, professionally. Seeing familiar places and faces, however, it seemed fitting that my travels, figurative and literal, had brought me back right to where I started. Certainly food for thought as I continue to refine the way I tell others what I am all about.

So, for the record: Yes, I am a musician and I went to Oberlin, which is exactly why I can handle just about anything the world throws at me.