The recent decision to select a new teacher for a new arts position, one including replacing outgoing orchestra conductor Vicky Greenbaum, has sparked controversy and some unhappiness from upper school orchestra members. Photo courtesy of Tripp Robbins.
By Kaitlyn Tom and Gillian Bressie
Orchestra conductor and English teacher Vicky Greenbaum is leaving Menlo after 22 years, and Candidate A will not only be replacing her, but will be conducting both the upper and middle school orchestras as well as the jazz band next year. Throughout the hiring process, which involved narrowing down the many applicants to a small group of qualified individuals, some orchestra members and Greenbaum felt a lack of importance being placed on their own thoughts and opinions, leaving them ultimately dissatisfied with the final decision.
The selection of the new conductor for both orchestras and the jazz band was headed by Creative Arts Director Steven Minning and a selection committee, in accordance with standard hiring process. From a pool of applicants, Minning narrowed down the potential teachers to three standout candidates including Candidate A. These three candidates were invited to teach a demo class at Menlo. Through the selection committee, which was comprised of teachers from both the upper and middle school, students, administration, and parents, Candidate A was ultimately selected for the new role of conducting all of Menlo’s instrumental groups, except for the middle school percussion band.
While hiring processes for open faculty positions is fairly standardized, hiring for an arts position tends to be more complicated due to the extra responsibilities arts teachers have. “In the arts, there’s a lot of stuff that happens behind the curriculum. There’s a dance concert, there’s an orchestra concert, there are plays and so forth. It’s a slightly different position in the arts, so the search process has been slightly more elaborate,” Upper School Director John Schafer said.
In addition, the selection committee was comprised of members of the Menlo community that are knowledgeable about aspects of conducting an orchestra. The purpose behind this thinking was to include members who would be able to fairly assess the candidates from the viewpoint of a musician. “I imagine I was [selected to be a part of the committee] both as a faculty member at large, thinking about how this person might fit in with teaching high school and the culture of the school, but also that in observing him conduct, I would have some possible expertise,” history and English teacher Rebecca Gertmenian, who plays in the Redwood Symphony, said.
After each candidate had their demo class, the members of the committee interviewed each potential candidate. “After each candidate had their demo day, we had a meeting where it was students from the committee and also faculty from the committee. We were allowed to ask questions of the candidate, and that was kind of a way of [...] addressing our concerns,” Gertmenian said.
With their knowledge from the interview, committee members uploaded their opinions onto a database. “There is some [...] database system [...] where it asked you to record your thoughts after each individual came about: what each person’s strengths or possible weakness or areas of concern you had, and that was it,” Gertmenian said. “There wasn’t ever a [...] face to face debriefing among members of the [...] committee, and there was never an opportunity to contribute comparatively.”
Photo Courtesy of Cyrus Lowe
In addition to the selection committee, Candidate A had a demo session with a few middle school students and had an interview over Skype with Middle School Director La Vina Lowery and Middle School Assistant Director Mima Takemoto. “After we interviewed and observed the other two final candidates as well, it was clear to both of us that Candidate A was, without a doubt, our top choice and the best fit for our school,” Takemoto said. “I was impressed by his teaching philosophy and the approach he took in guiding the musicians during the [demo class]--you could tell that he has a genuine passion for music education and reaching kids of all ages, abilities, [and] backgrounds.”
While there were many opinions in the selection of the new conductor, Greenbaum was not involved in the selection. Greenbaum and some of her students felt that, given her position as the Orchestra teacher and conductor, she had an unparalleled qualification to assess the candidate's capabilities and deserved involvement and consideration throughout the process. “[Administrators excluded me from the process…], saying that I would not be allowed to be in the room during the auditions [...] I disagree with that [decision...] because I’m the only person who knows about teaching orchestra. I’m the only orchestra conductor on campus,” Greenbaum said. “I felt like I was the only person who had the knowledge to say ‘look at how this person is teaching.’”
Yet, the hiring of Candidate A almost exactly reflected prior hiring processes for arts positions. In the past, teachers have largely been prohibited from viewing the demo classes of their successor. “It’s sort of standard practice to have smart but unbiased fresh set of eyes forming that search process,” Schafer said.
Photo Courtesy of Jan Dong Sample
As a result of Greenbaum being unable to see the candidates teach their respective classes, several orchestra students were upset and opted to secretly video record the demo classes and discuss them further with Greenbaum both via text at the time and later in conversation.
In addition to controversy over the selection process, some students and Greenbaum were surprised by the final decision, as the candidate who a large number of students preferred was not selected as the final candidate. Prior to the announcement of the final candidate, Greenbaum had sent a survey, which was suggested by a few seniors, to gain an understanding over what orchestra students thought about each candidate. “The students themselves independently of me came to a very strong opinion and [...] suggested that I do a survey and then share it with them, so I did,” Greenbaum said. In addition to creating the survey, Greenbaum shared the survey results with the administrators. A few orchestra students chose not to make their opinions on the matter known.
The survey results favored Candidate B overwhelmingly, two thirds of respondents feeling he would have been the preferable choice as Greenbaum’s replacement. This information, along with specific commentary from the students was passed along to Minning, Head of School Than Healy, and the rest of the search committee.
Respondents to the survey commented that Candidate B would have been a superior choice as Greenbaum’s successor for both his conducting talent and his ability to engage and interest orchestra students. “[Candidate B] was by far the most qualified and the best suited for this position, in my opinion. He clearly has an extensive knowledge of music and he is an excellent conductor. At the end of the day, [Candidate B] will make us better as an orchestra as he can improve us musically,” wrote one survey respondent.
Students who were opposed to Candidate A claimed he was too strict and wasn’t the right fit for the school. “I think he was a little too up-tight and wasn't the best fit for our orchestra,” wrote another respondent. A couple students noted his musical talent and ability to conduct outside of the box, but still maintained hesitant about the new conductor. “[Candidate A] seems like a very skilled and knowledgeable musician who has a lot to offer regarding larger musical concepts like improvisation,” concertmaster Jason Moon said. “But he honestly did not have the personality to inspire and excite a group of high school musicians who may or may not have previous experience with classical music.”
Though some orchestra members felt the decision was unfair, Minning emphasized that the choice was one that was reflective of the selection committee. “[At Menlo], we take pride in the fact that we [collect] the expertise of [our wide range of colleagues when choosing a new faculty member],” Minning said.
Despite the orchestra members’ belief that the process was unfair, the majority of selection committee faculty members and the administration maintain that the process was just. “It was never presented as a democratic process, we weren’t going to vote or anything. We were just supposed to be there as eyes offering our reactions,” Gertmenian said.
Some orchestra members, like Avi Gupta who was a part of the selection committee, remain level-headed. “My hope is that he will collaborate with students [as he adjusts to our orchestra and we adjust to him],” Gupta said.
Staff photo: Kaitlyn Tom
Yet, out of disappointment with this decision, some of the most experienced and involved orchestra students have chosen not to return to the program. However, one of these students changed his mind later on in the year due to a more hopeful outlook. “Initially, I was unsure of whether I wanted to continue just because I didn't know what the environment would be like without [Greenbaum], who made a tremendous impact on the orchestra,” bass section leader Atreya Iyer said. “But now I am interested to see what the orchestra can be like with a new conductor.”
In response to the frustration of some orchestra members, administrators have urged students not to pass judgement so quickly as they expressed their confidence in the new direction of the orchestra program. “I think that spending a very brief time with someone is not enough to cast judgement of such great magnitude [...] What [Candidate A] is going to bring [to the school and to the classroom] is going to be amazing, and I think that students are [ultimately] going to recognize that,” Minning said.
Greenbaum believes that this new direction for the orchestra will yield grim results. “[This decision] affects the students and that really tears at my heart because the students and I have built together this wonderful program,” Greenbaum said.
Minning hopes to assure those concerned about the future of the program that changes will be to expand the program and not to rebuild it. “We’re not taking the program into [a new direction], we’re opening the program up. Nothing is going to change,” Minning said. “There will still be the traditional program that’s there but we’re looking towards building the program from here. What does that mean? That means someone with foresight. How to make music accessible to more students [...] There was never ever any decision to change this program it’s to take this program and grow from it as would be the natural progress.” Gertmenian agrees with this sentiment. “I was quite excited that this person got hired, ultimately because of his vision.”
Regardless of the concerns of some of the orchestra members, several remain optimistic about the future of the orchestra program and Candidate A’s larger role at Menlo. “[He has] the most comprehensive vision for how to build a new program,” Gertmenian said.
Middle school administrators agree with Gertmenian. “I feel he has the perfect balance of being able to engage and challenge our advanced musicians while still being able to encourage and bring out the best in beginner students too,” Takemoto said.
While some orchestra members may have initially been upset and surprised by the decision, they still hope that the orchestra program will continue to flourish under new leadership. “[Even though] I have no idea what direction [Candidate A] will take the program in, my [goal] is to work with [him] to ensure that my peers and I continue to enjoy our experience in orchestra,” Gupta said.
[Ed. note: The story was taken down by the school's tech department under direction of Director of Communications Alex Perez on June 30 without notifying The Coat of Arms. After The Coat of Arms discussed the takedown with the administration, the story was put back online on August 14. On August 26, the headline of the story was changed to more accurately reflect the central point of the story and the names of the three candidates were made anonymous out of privacy considerations.]