Tribute to the Tall Man in the Cowboy Hat
By Adam Glaser
Published in the Juilliard Journal, October, 2006 (Vol. XXII, No. 2)
It's been just a little more than 25 years since I first met Andrew Thomas. At the time, I was a scraggly 11-year-old kid from Long Island entering the Pre-College Division sporting a Sony Walkman, a Members Only jacket, and a retainer. He was a 6-foot-1 long-distance runner and U.S. Army veteran sporting a black cowboy hat and a frightening knowledge of the craft of composition. Intimidating at first? Sure. But I would soon realize—as his student and, years later, as his colleague—that this towering image actually belied an incredible kindness and compassion.
"Find your own voice!" It's a rallying cry and challenge that drives us all as artists. For student composers, it's particularly menacing … and critical. I'm sure Andy said these words to me during our lessons, but it was the example he set with his own life that would ultimately drive home the message. Andy had found his voice as a composer, of course, but also as a teacher and as an administrator. I recently asked him to describe how this came about, and was reminded of the wide range of influences that would color his life and his work.
Andy attended Cornell University in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., initially thinking along pre-med lines and pursuing studies in marine biology. "By my sophomore year, I realized I was not comfortable in the sciences," he told me. "What I had been doing was running away from music." He loved the works of Copland, Britten, and Bartok, and pursued studies with Karel Husa at Cornell and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Later he joined the Army, where he played piano in a twist band and directed musical productions, and then spent a few years working as an assistant conductor for New York freelance orchestras. In 1968, he set out for Juilliard to pursue graduate studies in composition.
"There was immense pressure to write 12-tone music," he recalls. Working with renowned faculty members Elliott Carter and Luciano Berio, he absorbed the music of such composers as Schoenberg and Boulez, but cites George Crumb as a catalyst for transcending those boundaries. "There's not a note of mine that sounds like Crumb, but he showed that there was another way." In time, Andy would start looking for additional inspiration. "I listened rather extensively to Asian and Middle Eastern music, and realized there were great musical traditions that had nothing to do with what was in the conservatories.
" While still a graduate student in 1970, Andy joined the Pre-College composition faculty, and thus began the development of his "teaching voice"—a unique blend of sincerity, passion, humor (cue the riddles!), patience, candor, and abundant musicality. "Dr. Thomas was a great mentor and teacher because of the purity and love with which he approached music and his students, creating a nurturing and inspiring atmosphere," says recent Pre-College graduate Michelle Ross. "I felt safe with Dr. Thomas, and therefore free to explore the depths of my imagination, and the world of music." Importantly, Andy seems to understand when to step in and when to get out of the way, and does so with a humility and compassion that are truly disarming.
In 1994, Andy was appointed director of the Pre-College Division, and thus accepted the challenge of finding his voice once again, this time as an administrator. He completed his tenure this past summer, and reflected upon how the division has grown over the years. "The atmosphere of the school has become more family-like, more humane, during the last 12 years," he observes.
Early in his tenure, Andy began welcoming audiences from the Juilliard Theater stage at the beginning of orchestra and chorus concerts. "What I really wanted to get across is how exceptional the kids and the families they come from really are, and the fact that this is truly something unusual and special." In doing so, he was bolstering the confidence of the students behind him, and adding a personal warmth to the event.
Over the years, Andy sensed an opportunity to enrich the educational value of concerto competitions. Aiming to broaden the perspectives afforded each participant, he started recruiting distinguished judges from the outside, including veterans of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, accomplished soloists, and renowned teachers from throughout the area. Following each competition, Andy crafted individual letters to each participant, summarizing the judges' comments along with his own. "I was constantly refining the procedure so that it would become a rewarding experience for the kids," he notes.
Perhaps the most striking example of the Pre-College's more family-oriented atmosphere can be seen in the growth of the Parents Association, founded during Andy's first year as director. Among its many contributions to date are the creation of a series of open discussions with the Juilliard administration, the publication of an annual yearbook, and the establishment of the Pre-College Parents Association Scholarship fund. Since 2004 the group has organized fund-raisers to support this scholarship, enlisting such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Charles Osgood, and renowned Juilliard faculty member Itzhak Perlman for these events, and generating a remarkable $125,000. "Andy was a warm and caring director," says former Parents Association President Lillian Li. "I worked closely with Andy, and still am grateful for him being so receptive to the needs of our community.
" Drawing from his 35 years on the Pre-College faculty, Andy's work as director seems to reflect a genuine love and respect for his colleagues. "The faculty continues to be a source of tremendous stimulation … the artistry, the quality, and the personal character." Percussion faculty chair and Pre-College alumnus Simon Boyar calls Andy "an unyielding patron of ambition, talent, and genuine goodness," adding, "it has been an honor to work with and be inspired by someone who invests such courage in tomorrow's talent and the future of music making." Of course, running a "school within a school" comes with tremendous day-to-day responsibilities and complexities. Coordinating more than 75 teachers and 315 students is no small task, particularly when they all converge on the building at one time, as they do each Saturday. The talented staff assembled under Andy's tenure always make it look easy, and continue to be beloved by students, faculty, and parents alike.
In recent years, Andy has become an ambassador for Juilliard outside the U.S., making frequent visits to China and Korea to lecture and perform at music schools. "The Juilliard idea is based on the notion that total musicianship is part of training," he notes. "You don't just take music lessons. You learn theory, history, and ear training. You learn musicianship. The Asian conservatories are coming to this, and we have much to share.
" Now with his tenure as director completed, Andy is—as always—looking ahead and taking on new challenges. He will continue to teach composition at the Pre-College, and as usual, his writing schedule is full. At the moment, he is working on a new commission from the Chinese government, an evening-length ballet called Focus of the Heart for Western orchestra, traditional Chinese orchestra, Western corps de ballet, and traditional Chinese dance troupe. As always, his partner Howard Kessler remains a central part of his life, and the two are collaborating on this latest project, with Howard writing the scenario and designing the sets, lights, and costumes.
No matter which hat Andy is wearing—composer, teacher, administrator, or even that of a cowboy—his voice is clear, compassionate, and uplifting. Importantly, it's a voice that empowers those within earshot to feel comfortable enough to challenge themselves. That's a rare and precious talent—and with it, Andy will surely continue to grace the lives of many musicians well into the future.
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Adam Glaser (Pre-College '88, composition) joined the Pre-College faculty in 1999, and is conductor of the Pre-College Orchestra and chair of the division's conducting department. He earned graduate degrees in conducting from the Curtis Institute and the University of Michigan, where he also earned an M.B.A.