In this series, I interview musicians about their experiences in academia. I hope their stories will help readers forge their own paths, in or out of the institution.
Recently, I interviewed trombonist Stephen Ivany. Stephen is an active performer, clinician and educator. As a soloist and collaborator, Stephen has commissioned over 25 new works for the trombone which he has premiered in recitals across North America including such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. Stephen is currently the Assistant Professor of Trombone and Euphonium at California State University, Fresno. He received his Doctor of Music from The Florida State University, Masters of Music from the Yale School of Music, and Bachelor of Music from Memorial University.
ASN: You spent a few years at another institution before moving to this one. What made you feel like that was the right move?
SI: So I was extraordinarily fortunate coming out of my doctoral program to land a tenure track job teaching only applied trombone and euphonium. In a sense, it was the perfect position for me and the experience that I had. The faculty was fantastic, and the brass area particularly became and remains some of my closest friends.
One of the hard parts about going into academia though is that you don’t often get to choose where you work, or even where you can apply. With a DM in trombone, there is at most one person who does what I do, and more often than not they are not full-time, let alone tenure track. Depending on who retires, and what positions get opened determine where you are able to work, live, and raise a family. We certainly aren’t the only industry that works this way, but it certainly affects a huge part of your life outside of work.
Ultimately for me, the choice to leave ECU was based on two things. The first was finding a place in the world that better suited my values. The second was financial stability and benefits. Ultimately moving to California got my wife and me closer to extended family, and provided a much more sustainable and competitive salary and benefits. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to have a say in where I lived and I know how competitive the job market is so I decided to jump on the opportunity. Being a die-hard LeBron James fan and being closer to Los Angeles didn’t suck either…
ASN: What activities and experiences do you think have made you attractive to these institutions?
SI: This is always a tough question to answer as you don’t often know the inside workings of a search. I can only really speak to second-hand information that I have received from conversations with past and present colleagues. Certainly, I attended what I consider to be blue-chip institutions that have large alumni networks. For instance, at ECU I believe I was one of 9 or 10 Florida State University Graduates. A certain level of institutional trust comes from this when you are considering an applicant.
School is just a small part of the equation though and I think that what I try to showcase in my CV and application materials is a high level of output and activity in my field. I wanted to be able to separate myself from other doctoral students across the country. So I was always trying to give masterclasses, recitals tours as a soloist and with chamber ensembles. I tried to make sure that my experience was diversified with different levels of festivals/conferences both with a performance basis and more research-backed focus.
For my position here at Fresno State, I had the advantage of being in a tenure track position and could show three years’ worth of data regarding not only my performance and activity but also to the growth of my studio at ECU. In this second job search, I wanted to showcase that I was a proven commodity as far as creating a positive studio culture and I wanted to show that I could attract students to a program. I would say that I neared burnout several times between 2014 and 2020 and I think that I perhaps would have chosen my schedule a little more carefully but it has professionally worked out.
If I were to give advice to someone looking to win a job in academia I would tell them to be as active as possible, to maintain a supportive and active network, and to never be afraid to ask for help or opportunities from established professors and performers. I was given so many opportunities by different people over the years and ultimately have them to thank for being able to be in this position today.
I have been on three applied searches now as well. Ultimately on top of being active, most search committees are looking for the best players that have the right degrees. I have had to pass on some amazing players that did not have a doctorate or requisite master’s degree, but once the shortlist of qualified candidates has been created we always start with the best performers. I am a firm believer that the best teachers are really good at their instruments. I don’t mean to say that all great performers, therefore, make great teachers, because we all know this isn’t true, but ultimately I think those who showcase they are great teachers are also really great performers as well.
ASN: What are you pursuing right now to prepare for tenure and promotion?
SI: Right now I have a few projects nearly finished and in the pipelines. It is mostly more of the same that I have been doing for the last 10 years. Thankfully our tenure process here at Fresno State is amazingly clear and concise. You develop an RTP (retention, tenure, and promotion plan) plan with two faculty mentors and it outlines everything you need to do over the five-year span. There is no guesswork or wondering if what you did was enough. This has been a huge relief and gives me much more control and agency over what I choose to do each semester.
First up is Monument, a new recording of 6 commissioned works for trombone in chamber music settings. It will be published by Albany records hopefully this Fall. I am waiting on a few more funding opportunities to finish it up. It features two works by you, two works by a dear friend and fellow Canadian, Aiden Hartery, a sonata by James Kazik, and a really cool piece by Stephen Feigenbaum. This was a real group effort for everyone involved. You both composed and recorded the album, Gabriel DiMartino helped to produce it, and then I had a plethora of amazing and unbelievably generous performers including your wife Candace Neal, pianist Catherine Garner, trumpeter Aaron Hodgson, and tubist Jarrod Williams. It is a really unique recording and I can’t wait to have it available.
I am in the early stages of a few other recordings as well as a film featuring trombone which if it comes to fruition should be really cool. Other than those major projects I just continue to commission and perform as much as my schedule permits. I am looking at a Southern California tour this coming fall and a possible Michigan tour in the near future. Probably the biggest project is going to be starting a middle and high-school-level community trombone choir. I have always wanted to do this but the amount of work has been overwhelming. I am hoping to get it off the ground over the next couple of years.
Check out a recent performance by Stephen: