Idyllwild Arts Academy (IAA) has announced the hiring of new Head of School Jason Hallowbard, presently vice provost for Academic and Artistic Education at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. He will take over from present Head of School Craig Sellers this summer.

Jason Hallowbard, new head of school at Idyllwild Arts.

IAA President Pamela Jordan hailed Hallowbard in a statement, saying his “experience as a leader in arts education and his deeply held beliefs about the role of the arts and humanity makes him the ideal person to lead IAA.”

The statement incapsulates Hallowbard’s background and approach to education: “While he plays many different instruments from strings to horn, Jason is a trained vocalist and ultimately found his joy in choral directing. ‘It really taught me a lot about how to bring folk together, and that is where my calling is,’ he mused. Indeed, Jason has a special talent for building community and consensus; he considers this “superpower” as integral to his leadership philosophy, and fully intends to implement this approach to arts education in his new role.”

Hallowbard has a long resume that has taken him from Kansas and Oklahoma to Baton Rouge and Santa Fe, before his stint at Interlochen. His interest in the humanity of his students has been focused by the pandemic, and he is ready to put new lessons learned to work. The Crier interviewed him via Zoom this week to go over his origin story, and his hopes and goals for IAA.

TC: You’re from Kansas?

JH: That’s correct.

TC: That is where Pittsburg State University comes in?

JH: Yeah, it is. I went to a small high school in Riverton, Kansas [population under 1,000]. I’d say in my graduating class we had about 70; that was one of the largest classes we’d had in a while. It’s right close to Joplin, Missouri … where that tornado hit as few years ago. I left high school there and went to Pittsburg State University [23 miles away]. I actually went back to the same high school I graduated from and taught for two years.

TC: Then on to the University of Oklahoma?

JH: After about two years working in public schools, I realized that I wanted to do something a little different. I went and did my grad studies, particularly in choral conducting. It wasn’t something that was on my radar quite yet. I’d been conducting bands and choirs at Riverton High School. I auditioned and got a graduate assistantship at the University of Oklahoma with a guy named Dennis Shrock. [Shrock is known as a conductor and author, with three books about choral conducting published by Oxford Press.] He was my major professor for a while. During my time there I got to do a whole lot of cool stuff; I got to prepare choirs for Beethoven’s ninth symphony, for Mahler’s second, all sorts of different things.

TC: Conducting requires so many skills, musical and otherwise …

JH: Conducting I think is 95% psychology and 5% musicality. It can be complex and a lot of what we have to be able to do is understand where people are at and what they are doing. This year at Interlochen, our choral conductor, he left quickly at the end of May; we didn’t have time to do a search, so I took over the choir this year. It’s good for me to get back in the classroom. We did Faure’s “Requiem” Friday of last week. We’re probably going to be doing “Carmina Burana” before the end of the year. I have a really talented group of vocalists and also some really talented instrumentalists all student led and it was a good time.

TC: You then entered John Hopkins School Administration and Supervision program. You wanted to understand that end of how schools work?

JH: Yeah, it was kind of a hybrid program; it was one of the first online programs that Johns Hopkins put together. I have to say that I am an aural learner. So if you sit me down in a lecture hall, I’ll pass the test. I can listen and remember it. But online learning was very different; it was reading the material and interacting with folk. That taught me a lot about how other people might learn. It wasn’t easy for me. That’s a much more difficult mode of operation. I learned a lot that way. It was a good program. It was taught by a former superintendent of Baltimore’s school system. He talked about systems and it wasn’t necessarily geared toward independent schools but more to education management.

TC: In Santa Fe you were in the Desert Chorale?

JH: Dennis Shrock was directing the Desert Chorale for about six years… and one summer he had me audition. I went to sing baritone; actually, I was a bass too at the time. I got to do a whole season with them; really interesting, great group of folk. It also taught me that I’m much more interested in helping run things than I am in actually performing. I had a good time doing it but it took a lot out of me. I was pretty happy when I got to return to the podium and conducting.

TC: Then Interlochen; that’s a big one.

JH: I’ve been at Interlochen the last six years. Great place, wonderful environment. I’ve got awesome students to work with, awesome faculty members and colleagues. The shift for me coming from Interlochen to Idyllwild is that Interlochen, over the course of the pandemic, even since I’ve been there, we’ve grown substantially. When I first started, big class size was around 450. This year we topped off around 580. I was helping to grow a school for about six years. I do think that there’s a point where the size of an institution can make it a bit of a different place from a community perspective. That’s what really attracts me to Idyllwild right now; it’s the right size, I believe. I don’t think it’s too big or too small, I think it’s just right for the kind of arts education that I’m interested in propagating.

TC: Idyllwild and Interlochen are part of a small class of school?

JH: There are three schools in the U.S. that are boarding arts schools. Walnut Hill in Boston, Idyllwild in California, and then Interlochen, kind of in the middle. Idyllwild says it is the only boarding arts school in the west. Interlochen is not west of the Mississippi. They have similar backgrounds. For instance, Max Krone, who kind of founded Idyllwild, was a good friend of Joseph Maddy who founded Interlochen. A lot of the ideas that they shared cross-pollinated; there are some similarities. I think the big difference is the direction that all those different schools have gone. Interlochen is very focused on what I would call “pre-conservatory” training. So, they’re looking to get the next first chair violinist of the New York Phil. And they have got a lot of them. A lot of players from Interlochen are in symphony orchestras. But their other arts programs, outside of music, may not be as touted … they are very good programs, they’re just not as developed as I’d like to see. Idyllwild, where all of the different departments are roughly the same size, have kind of the same support, is a very different dynamic, one I think is really positive for kids.

I am pretty adamant that there are two kinds of artistic instruction; there’s the very specialized kind where you sit down in a private lesson with the best tuba player in the universe, and that’s a very specific form of instruction. But there’s another layer of instruction that is generalized artistic education. That means art history, that means talking about current events, talking about civics and artistry, all those different things combined. I would say that’s where the differences in the schools become evident. A place like Interlochen is really focused on that conservatory track, which can be good for some kids, and for some kids it’s not a great situation. So, I’m looking forward to a place where we can do both, where we can be very specific but also very broad in our offerings to make sure that kids are getting everything they need to eventually be the best artists, the best change and thought leaders in the nation.

TC: Interdisciplinary is the word that crops up.

JH: Absolutely. And I believe in it. For instance, this year we did a concert all about sleep and invited visual artists, poets, dancers, and we put together about 45 minutes. I wouldn’t call it a concert. We called it a service, a “service of sleep.” The goal was to start late and to get people tired. We had a lot of folk come into the dance building bring their sleeping bags … I want kids to see that art isn’t a static form. As a choral conductor yes, I love choir concerts. However, I think choir concerts are more effective if they have other elements that are included in those concerts. They really can help people move from one place to another; moving in that situation from being awake to being asleep. Or being tense to being relaxed. I think art does that so well.

One of the things I’m looking forward to bringing to Idyllwild is that sense that just because you’re a visual artist or a poet or a musician, there are other things to learn about other disciplines that will inform your own art and make you a better artist. If you don’t have those experiences, I think you leave a place like Idyllwild or Interlochen with about half of what you need. You need to be able to interact, you need to be able to understand other genres and what they do, and if you don’t have that background — knowledge — I think the new things in art are not going to be accessible to you, those new collaborations that are happening all the time, all over the place. They blow everyone’s mind and everyone is very appreciative of them but it takes a foundational knowledge to understand how to collaborate and how to speak that different language. I truly believe some of the most impressive things that have happened in the art world have happened in places like Idyllwild. They’ve likely been happening because two dorm-mates, maybe from different genres, have learned something new about another genre and created something totally new. Those are the things I want to see happen.

TC: Head of school is kind of like a head master?

JH: Correct, I think that term head master kind of moved away for quite a bit of time… Head of school I would say it’s much like being principal with some of the superintendent’s responsibilities as well. At Idyllwild, I will be running the school. Everything that happens, from beginning of school to the end of school to graduation, those are things I’ll be dealing with, and I’ll be reporting to Pam who then is managing all of the different elements of Idyllwild Arts and its expansion into other interesting areas. My focus will be purely on the academy and the summer programs, which makes me really excited.

TC: IAA has a choral tradition too, right?

JH: Yes, I’m learning more about it. I know they have a strong vocal program, and I’m seeing what is offered there and how I can fit in. My goal is not to usurp anything but to be supportive. As a choral person, one thing I always make sure I do before I leave, whatever institution I’m at, is that the choir’s going to be in good shape. I want to see choral music, which I think is an incredible art form, sustained over time. Like any other program I would say this year has brought some things home to me. I’ve talked to lots of music faculty, did some intern stints at Interlochen as music director of the program, and I think we’re just now seeing some of the effects of the pandemic. So even this year as a teacher who hasn’t been in the classroom for six or seven years, I was a little surprised at the pace at which the students could move. I was very frustrated.

One day, I was having this conversation with a colleague at the lunch table and he looked at me and he said, “You know, Jason, you’ve got to remember, some of your freshmen and sophomores didn’t sing at all for about three years when they were in middle school. The things you may think are basic they don’t even know them yet, so calm down.” I did and it made a lot more sense when I realized it’s time get down to basics with some of these kids. They’ve really missed out on some incredible opportunities to be part of a group. To understand how to work in a group. I think that part of what organizations like Idyllwild and Interlochen have to do is start thinking about the different students we have now; they’re not the same. It doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, it just means they are different. We have to be responsive to those differences and make sure we are supporting kids where they are at, not necessarily where we think they should be at. It was a good lesson for me to learn this year working with the students directly.

TC: A singer who has missed three years of choir when they graduate … I can understand that would be a problem.

JH: Even math, even just the socialization you have around other students. There are some moments that if you miss those you don’t get them back. In some ways I think schools have to start recreating those moments intentionally because they didn’t happen for some of our kids and give them the opportunities to learn. That’s what we are, we’re schools. We’re not places where kids come out perfectly formed in every way, we’ve got kids in all sorts of places and we’ve got to meet them where they are.

TC: That ties into SEL, social and emotional learning. That is a key piece for you?

JH: Right. A couple of years ago when the pandemic really hit, we had an interim person running our music program … about 270 kids. So, I took over for a year because we had kind of a hiring freeze. We were unsure what was going to happen with COVID. I noticed pretty quickly that some of the social and emotional cornerstones that students need were missing. So, we looked at something we call community meetings, every Wednesday, for about an hour. We looked at how we can we train kids about those “soft” skills that we sometimes take for granted. Like empathy. That’s a soft skill technically, but it’s a very important skill, one of the most important skills kids can learn. We made sure we brought in speakers, made sure we had activities for students every week that focused one month on empathy, another it would be resilience, those sorts of things. Since I’ve done that, and I think it was pretty successful with the kids, one thing that I have realized is that it is also important to have SEL work with the educators at the school. A lot of the folk that I’ve worked with, myself included, over the course of the pandemic, we’ve gone through a lot. Part of what we need to do is go back and remember, “Why are we doing this thing? Why do we love this thing?” And then look at things like resilience or empathy, and as teachers get on the same page, realize what we are trying to do, that way we can teach those skills later on to students.

I have to be honest, some of those skills have suffered for some of us over the course of the pandemic with the isolation that happened, just the newness of the world, so we really, in some regards, need just as much time and attention as students do because we have to in some ways reform ourselves … Those very comfortable ways that we were used to teaching before may have changed, and that is not easy. I can attest as someone who is in the classroom at the moment, it’s been sometimes difficult but I think ultimately it’s rewarding once we understand where the kids are, we can understand the skills that we need to build so we can support them.

TC: You visited Idyllwild for your interview?

JH: I stayed at … there’s little stone fountain in front of it that goes down …

TC: The [Grand Idyllwild] Lodge?

JH: Yes. I’ve forgotten the gentleman’s name who I think was one of the caretakers. I got up in the morning and I realized I’d left my suit on the plane. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to this interview and I don’t have a suit.” I just happened to see him unloading his car and I’m like, “You don’t know a place locally that I could go get a suit jacket?” He’s like, “That’s not going to happen.” He goes in his home closet and he gives me his own suit jacket to wear that day. Luckily, we’re the same size so it worked out perfectly. I didn’t have a chance to thank him. I had to leave pretty quick the next day after I handed back his jacket. But it was such a nice introduction to Idyllwild. I plan to be up there again in March for a week or so and then I’ll be moving up in July.