Brian Pertl is not your typical academic. The Lawrence alumnus joked, “When I played in the Alumni Jazz Showcase and unveiled my illuminated eye-ball didgeridoos, I feared that I would never be asked back to Lawrence again.” Not only was he asked back, he was recently named the new dean of the Conservatory.Although Pertl said that he has not “pursued any of the routes normally taken to prepare for this position,” it was actually the unconventionality of his background that made him such a strong candidate for the job.
After graduating from Lawrence with a Bachelor of Music degree in trombone performance and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Pertl received the Thomas Watson Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Australia, Tibet, Nepal and India to study the use of harmonics in Aboriginal didgeridoo playing and Tibetan sacred chanting.
He went on to earn a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, but before completing his doctorate in the same area of study at the University of Washington, he was offered a job at a rather unmusical company.
Pertl, along with another ethnomusicologist, was hired by Microsoft to select and caption 337 pieces of music from 192 different countries for the Encarta World Atlas Project. This project, what Pertl calls his “most important academic achievement,” helped him bring a similar approach to the Encarta Encyclopedia.
After working at Microsoft, Pertl lectured for 14 years as part of the Humanities Washington Inquiring Mind Lecture Series. In this job, he gave “over 300 lectures on a variety of topics in the biggest cities and the smallest towns; the largest universities and the humblest elementary schools.”
Pertl feels that his speaking experiences and his work at Microsoft have given him skills that he can apply to his job at Lawrence.
Once he is at Lawrence, Pertl wants to listen to the students and staff to determine what issues need to be addressed in the Conservatory, although he has some idea of the direction that he wants to take.
Pertl recognizes that today’s musician faces a changing environment, so he wants to encourage programs that will help students become more adaptive.
“Here we sit in this climate of uncertainty, watching one of the most monumental shifts in the music industry since the invention of the phonograph,” said Pertl in a recent convocation.
He acknowledged that “uncertainty will remain the norm for some time,” but said that “when Lawrence Conservatory graduates leave these halls, they should go forth not with fear or dread, but with passion and excitement, knowing that they have all the tools they need to take advantage of the many artistic opportunities that await them.”
Pertl thinks that life experiences outside of the practice room are an important part of this.
Although Pertl places the utmost importance on technique, he also believes that “a good musician [can be trained] in a practice room, but they will never be great unless they have deep personal experiences” to color their music.
As part of this experiential training, Pertl advocates travel abroad, community involvement, the use of technology and interdepartmental collaboration. Of course, he also would like to see ethnomusicology — simply put, the study of music and culture in different countries — play a bigger role in the curriculum.
Pertl also acknowledges the importance of quality faculty members. He said that he “once read that if a person is lucky, he will have three to five teachers who will have a profound impact on his life.”
He continued by saying, “In my life, I have had seven: one from the University of Washington, one from Wesleyan University, and five from Lawrence!”
In fact, it was Professor of Music Fred Sturm, Pertl’s first trombone professor and jazz director when he arrived at Lawrence, who nominated Pertl for the position.
“If it wouldn’t have been for Fred, I never would have applied,” said Pertl.
Pertl is very excited to return to Lawrence, and reflected on his journey as the “prototypical liberal arts journey.”
As Pertl makes his way back to where he first started, he hopes to “do what I can to make the lives of other [Lawrence] students better.