Dean of Music Dr. Iñaki Sandoval wants to allow "white space" for students to experiment and develop their personal artistic voice but also aims to teach the lessons of professional life that he has learnt as a performing artist and record label founder.
When Dr. Iñaki Sandoval took over as the Academy's Dean of Music in last August, the pace and close confines of life in a city of 7.3 million took him by surprise. "It's a lot of people on just one little piece of land," he says of Hong Kong. "I love its adrenalin and local cultural scene." Still, he found Hong Kong people warmer than other big cities like London and New York. And he already spoke the language of his profession. "Music is a universal language everywhere you go," he notes. "With my colleagues, we understand things very similarly because we're all musicians."
Dr. Sandoval is a prodigious talent at the piano, which he began to play at the age of 8. He has also branched out into the commercial side of the music business, setting up his own record label, Bebyne Records, having produced over 25 albums for a range of world-class artists.
"The youngsters now want immediate success to publish the picture on Instagram," he jokes. "But being a musician takes many years of hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and a humble attitude and respect towards music. I cannot even think when I chose to be a musician," he explains. "Music has always been around me. I have grown as a musician parallel as a human being. The creative process of being an artist teaches you many of the important aspects of life such as hard work and perseverance, observation, respect for others, diversity and inclusiveness, teamwork, embracing change, and an open mindset. I believe music has helped me to become a more grounded and understanding person. Thanks to music also, I have had the chance to travel all around the world, including Hong Kong, meet new people, and learn other ways of living and understanding life."
Although the Spaniard, a Pamplona native, is himself a composer and a pianist, he does not believe the instrument of choice is all that important. "It is the discipline that you learn while honing your craft that is the most vital lesson of all, the stories that you tell. The instrument is your voice," he explains.
Before arriving in Hong Kong, Dr. Sandoval spent the last six years in Estonia, where he was the director of the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy – the arts college of the prestigious University of Tartu – and an active representative of the European network of Higher Music Education Institutions as a council member of the Association of European Conservatoires (AEC). When it comes to administration and decision-making in northern European countries like Estonia, "they have a very horizontal, inclusive, and participative teamwork culture," he notes. "So when we gather in a meeting to discuss a topic, I like to develop engagement and a collective responsibility approach: everyone is important within the team, including the students, who are regularly invited to participate and to give their input when discussing key matters." Dr. Sandoval's leadership strategy has always been to be inclusive and transparent and he is willing to implement it here in Hong Kong as well, working very closely with the Department Heads, staff, and students. "The students must be actively involved in the direction of the School, developing self-criticism and independent thinking, participating in strategic meetings, planning activities, and providing regular feedback about the everyday activities of the School. For the School to develop smoothly and at the highest level, it is a collective responsibility process where all stakeholders must work as one, united in the same direction."
In Estonia, Dr. Sandoval lived in a large house in Viljandi, a fairy-tale provincial town of just under 20,000 people in the south of the country. That provided a distinct advantage when the entire country, and the whole of Europe, suffered through a year of lockdown. "I had three grand pianos and a recording studio with all my synthesisers at home, so I could work on my music and produce new material during this exceptional time," he recalls. When piano maker Steinway & Sons, one of his sponsors, contacted him to see if he would perform a concert from the comfort of his own home, he leapt at the chance.
During his time in Estonia, Dr. Sandoval composed The Estonian Trilogy, a three-album solo piano set inspired by the beauty and quietness of the long Estonian winter. For Steinway, he performed his own compositions in what turned into a series of shows. The experience of remote performance encouraged him to capture a different sort of mindset, making a mental note that the audience watching could be anywhere in the world. The learning process for adapting to the screen, instead of live audiences, was "sudden and very fast" he explains, but both the performers and audiences were learning new musical ways of expression and interaction from all over the world. "The pandemic has brought some elements that are here to stay even when it is over."
The ability to perform music online was also the inspiration behind a collaboration earlier this year with Meta (Facebook) and the Aspen Institute in the United States. Dr. Sandoval worked with a 3D visual artist to combine pre-composed and improvised music with a 3D artwork digital painting, where the audience could surf inside the artwork through their smartphones while the music was changing depending on their behaviour. "At the end of the session, we had a streaming broadcast from my recording studio performing some examples and explaining the creative process and its relationship with leading and managing teams and the metaverse for an audience of 150 top Facebook executives. This opens a lot of possibilities in terms of interaction and creativeness. You have an immersive experience and real-time collaboration, and this affects the way you produce the music, and will also inevitably transform the way that we teach and learn."
The Reality of the Music Business
When it comes to the kind of education he would like to implement in the School of Music, Dr. Sandoval draws on his professional experience to develop a practical approach, always in direct connection with the creative industries and the real contemporary profile of a musician (i.e. performer, composer, arranger, producer, conductor, pedagogue, researcher, etc.) with a versatile and reliable professional profile.
He would like to allow enough "white space" in the curriculum for students to experiment and practise, collaborate with the other Schools, and develop their own artistic voice. On the other side of the ledger, he would like to see commercial aspects included in the academic education that will teach students, for example, how contracts are structured, copyrights, publishing, how management companies and festivals work, what is legal, and so on. "This is how it works in the professional world. Why should we teach and learn differently?"
"Everything is changing fast, that's the only constant factor. Above all, it will be important to teach our students to be flexible. We must educate our students to embrace change with an open mindset – that's the most important skill that we can teach them," he asserts. "In a digital era, the use of technology, both as a communication and as a creation tool (i.e. sound design, recording, orchestration, multidisciplinarity, etc.), will define the musical culture in the next decade. It will completely transform the way we enjoy, produce, share, teach, and learn music."
During the pandemic, since it was not possible to travel or to perform live, Dr. Sandoval turned his hand to creating and recording the music for a movie. "I met the director, producers, audio engineers, and all creative and production team online, doing all recordings and editing without leaving home," he explains. "This is something that I hadn't done before and had to learn some new software and digital tools to produce my music remotely."
The Dean as Music Producer
Dr. Sandoval will also bring music professionals, including illustrious alumni, to campus to give a series of talks with students throughout the year. These will not be traditional lectures, but more of an informal Q&A format, allowing the students to tap a whole series of brains to help guide their professional future. "In my generation, we were trained to be either a concert virtuoso or nothing," he laments. "A lot of my friends got very frustrated and quit learning and enjoying music when they were still very young. There are so many interesting and different areas and specialisations within the music professional landscape, not just as a performer, as has traditionally been taught at the European conservatoires during the past twentieth century. All these specialisations are indeed needed and very much in demand (especially the non-traditional ones), and in the end, we all have a talent for different things, so we should build our professional careers upon our individual and unique strengths and interests."
"Some students, too, will find themselves becoming a music producer or an arts administrator," he smiles. As a record label founder, Dr. Sandoval hopes Academy graduates will be open to the concept of entrepreneurship in the creative industries, developing their own projects and companies. The Music Talks sessions with music industry leaders outlined that potential. "These professionals may also become mentors to our students, helping them to chart their professional paths. Even recent graduates will communicate with current students more directly because they share the same language."
Dr. Sandoval sees it as his mission to open 'windows' of possibility for music students, so they can have a wider perspective and decide what kind of career they want to fulfil their passion and love for music. "I think my role is to be a facilitator, to support the students in developing their own artistic voices," he says. "It's very similar to the job of a music producer, who must get the best out of the individual musicians to enhance the group through cooperation and exchange of artistic visions and different approaches to music creation. My role as a Dean is exactly that, not to tell the faculty and students what to do but lead and mentor them while facilitating a creative environment where beautiful things can happen."