Leadership in Music: Interview with Dan Cavanagh

Dan Cavanagh

Dan Cavanagh recently became Director of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was previously interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington. A composer and pianist who has garnered numerous awards in both areas, Cavanagh has written or arranged for Latin Grammy-winning AfroBop Alliance, the legendary Patti LaBelle, and a wide range of classical and jazz performers across North America and Europe.

ASN: Can you tell me about your journey from faculty to administration? What attracted you to that kind of work?

DC: I was hired as a jazz faculty member, as well as assistant program director (for jazz) for the first ten years of my academic career. Several great mentors helped me to see how clear strategy, organized planning, and an equitable approach to leading not only helped the program succeed, but also accomplished our primary purpose of serving our students and setting them up for success. I also happened to get voluntold/nominated to be our departmental representative to the university faculty senate without really knowing what that entailed at the time. Participating in a group like that really helped me learn about the university outside the confines of the music department and helped me understand “how the sausage was made.” I ended up chairing the faculty senate, and ultimately chairing the University of Texas System Faculty Advisory Council (like the “senate” for the entire UT System) as well. Those experiences gave me some insight into some of my skills around leadership I wasn’t aware I had. After that, I became Department Chair in music, then eventually Associate Dean and interim Dean at UTA, prior to coming to UW-Madison this summer.

So, like many faculty, I ended up becoming involved in leadership positions mostly because I found myself in situations that required me to be a leader. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I think what continues to attract me to these types of roles has to do with the ability to help steer the long-term direction of an organization. I really enjoy working with other people, whether it’s in the community, faculty or staff colleagues, or students. I’ve found that being in an academic leadership role allows me to participate in bringing all of those folks together to make a real difference in how what we do can impact the world around us.

ASN: How has your work as a professor and musician informed how you lead a department?

DC: One of the aspects I have learned that I enjoy is the “coaching” role of being a leader. Helping other people achieve their goals and produce their best work is one of the joys of serving in academic leadership positions. This is not unlike being a professor—it’s exactly what we do when we teach. Those of us who teach in one-on-one settings (studio settings or graduate students, for example) especially understand this—you are tailoring your suggestions and conversations to that particular individual’s needs at the time.

As a musician, we are very familiar with working together in an ensemble setting to accomplish a goal. This is a bit cliché, but it is true that those skills transfer very well to how you lead a team of people. Everyone has their own individual strength, whether in an ensemble or in a department. Like being a conductor or composer, knowing how to best utilize those skills to create the best possible outcome is essential to doing what you want to do. Also, as a composer and jazz musician, I am very comfortable with uncertainty—the uncertainty of how an ensemble will interpret your music, the wide-open pathways of improvisatory co-creation, etc. Being a leader often means that you never quite have enough information. Being comfortable with moving forward without having all the answers is something we’re all used to as musicians to varying degrees. 

Being a leader often means that you never quite have enough information. Being comfortable with moving forward without having all the answers is something we’re all used to as musicians to varying degrees. 

I also think that the amount of self-reflection we undertake as musicians, and our experience with receiving feedback, really helps develop a bit of thick skin one needs as a leader. Not everyone will like every decision you make, and so being comfortable with that, especially knowing that you made sure to include all voices and considerations before making a decision, is something we learn to do as musicians, whether in a chamber music setting, as a conductor, etc.

ASN: What do you look forward to in your new role at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

DC: I am looking forward to meeting and collaborating with new colleagues. Music is nothing if not a large network of amazing colleagues, and in some ways my new role will allow me to be a musician a bit more than I have been able to in the past few years when I’ve been in the dean’s office. I am also very excited for the opportunities to help bring the amazing faculty and students of the Mead Witter School of Music into greater national and international prominence. I have some really amazing musicians and scholars as colleagues. I also look forward to continuing the great relationships between the MWSoM and the greater Madison area. The arts and culture scene in Madison is really top-notch and I’m already enjoying plugging into that both as a musician and as a leader.

ASN: What tips do you have for those who might be interested in assuming administrative roles?

DC: I think that it’s important to understand why you might want to take on administrative work. Yes, sometimes there is an additional stipend or salary that comes with certain administrative roles, which can be nice. But in general, most administrative roles are pretty thankless positions. You have to at some level be interested in how human beings work and what skills you can bring to the table. It’s also very important to understand what things aren’t in your wheelhouse, or don’t come naturally to you. That way you can be thoughtful about what teammates you bring on board with you, and what skills they may have that can complement yours. I am a strategic thinker, but what I have realized is that while I can certainly handle the operational side of things, it is helpful to have colleagues take the lead on those issues. Understanding that about myself has helped me hire some really amazing individuals to lead alongside me. At first it can be bracing to admit where your skillsets do not lie, but after you get used to being honest with yourself, it allows you to collaborate, delegate, and appreciate others that much more.

At first it can be bracing to admit where your skillsets do not lie, but after you get used to being honest with yourself, it allows you to collaborate, delegate, and appreciate others that much more.

Understanding your own personal values ahead of time can be really helpful so that when find yourself leading others through a challenging moment (and all leaders do without fail), you have a clear bedrock upon which to rely. You can do this through a variety of tools both paid and free. Typically doing this with a mentor will provide a more structured way of going through this. This also plays into your strengths—for example, I know that some of my top values are integrity, achievement, growth, responsibility, and creativity. That means in practice for me that those are the principles upon which I anchor my efforts, and how I measure my success. Understanding your top values also means you understand which values are not your top values. This doesn’t mean that you don’t subscribe to other values, but all things being equal, your top values really drive how you think and how you emotionally connect to the work you do.

I do suggest you find a formal or informal mentor. Find someone who has taken a similar path that you might be interested in and take them to coffee (or a drink). Talk about their leadership and personal values. See what it was like (or continues to be like) for them. I have shared many times with people in formal and informal settings the things I’m glad I did as well as some of the mistakes I made along the way. We tend to think of administration as “the dark side” but that just doesn’t do it justice. With few exceptions, most administrators are really in it to make things better for everyone. Being an administrator just means that more of your job at any given moment is focused on other people rather than your own creative career. I have found that learning how to be a good administrator has helped me be a better musician in many ways, especially with how I relate to people who are different than me, my comfort discussing budget and finances, my ability to focus for short blocks of time, or my ability to think long-term. 

It can be helpful to volunteer for various tasks to help get used to what day-to-day life is like as an administrator. Perhaps you can chair a committee in a department or at the university, serve on a board of a nonprofit big or small, offer to chair a committee for a professional association, or volunteer to help with fundraising. Each of these experiences helps you understand the nuances of shared governance and how to move work forward without getting stuck in the weeds all the time. I have learned some of my best lessons from those experiences, serving in capacities with other individuals who had very strong skillsets in areas that I was more of a novice. For example, this is one way I have gotten comfortable with budgeting and finances, by not avoiding those conversations and asking lots of questions. People often assume that creative folks are bad at budgeting—indeed it is an unfortunate stereotype. But you can learn, and pairing your learning with your understanding of creativity is a huge positive that many other people don’t have.

We tend to think of administration as “the dark side” but that just doesn’t do it justice. With few exceptions, most administrators are really in it to make things better for everyone.

Some additional things that sometimes we as creatives don’t do a great job at: you have to get better at being a regular communicator (multiple or more times a day). I know many colleagues for whom those skills just aren’t as applicable to their day-to-day work as a creative individual, but it’s of the utmost importance when others are looking to you for leadership. It’s also important to use your calendar as a tool. Often your attention can get fragmented and pulled in many different directions, so it’s important not only to use your calendar to mark when meetings are, etc., but to block time to accomplish work itself, whether that’s practicing, composing, or working on administrative tasks.

One last thought here—it isn’t a fault to express to others that you might be interested in leadership experiences. I am always thankful to know that an individual is interested in enhancing their leadership experience. That allows me to keep an eye open when I can recommend them to fill an important role or position. This is the essence of “sponsorship” when you are a leader. It’s even more important for leaders to know your interest if you are someone from an underrepresented background. We all have a lot of work to do around leadership opportunity for people from all backgrounds and having a trusted mentor or colleague who can serve as that sponsor can be tremendously helpful for you.

ASN: Thanks for sharing, Dan! This is wonderful advice that will surely inspire many budding leaders in music.

For more about Dan’s creative work, visit his website, dancavanagh.com. Check out his recent release, Another Life (2022), a collaboration with pianist James Miley and drummer John Hollenbeck.

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