Dr. Michael Stepniak
Dean & Professor of Music
Dean’s Statement on Inclusion, Diversity & Equity
Shenandoah Conservatory is dedicated to working with transparency and purpose in ensuring that our commitment to inclusion, diversity and equity is manifest in and supported by meaningful and impactful action.
Our commitment to an equitable and inclusive climate and culture at Shenandoah Conservatory not only responds purposefully to the presence of systemic racism in our society, it is integral to our mission (including our commitment to rigor, nurture and innovation) and our role as a national leader among performing arts schools for collaboration and collaborative artists.
For detailed information on our current work, including the creation of a comprehensive five-year strategic plan, see Inclusion, Diversity and Equity at Shenandoah Conservatory.
Our focus on professional arts training started in 1875, and we quickly became a leading center of music training in Virginia. Since then, we’ve grown into an institution of international significance, offering close to 30 degrees across music, theatre and dance, and access to the rich resources of the multiple schools that together make up Shenandoah University.
Shenandoah Conservatory differs from other conservatories in a few important ways. Unlike most conservatories, our focus extends beyond music to include dance and theatre. Additionally, we offer degrees in areas such as performing arts leadership & management, music education, music therapy and music production & recording technology. We also provide all students with the opportunity to be fully immersed in performance and premier ensembles regardless of their program of study.
What we are especially proud of, though, and what truly sets us apart, is both our conservatory’s cherished heritage and our unique embrace of collaboration. Simply put, we are an arts school where distinguished faculty are as passionate about providing a caring and supportive learning environment as they are committed to enabling rigorous training and excellence of the highest order. And we are a school that takes collaboration — between students, between faculty, between programs — unusually seriously. Whether through the shared foundational courses of ShenCoSKILLS required of all undergraduates (in mixed cohorts), through ShenCoLAB (the first of its kind initiative involving students across all degree programs collaborating innovatively), or regular cross-program taskforces and workgroups, we are proud to be one of the leading conservatories for collaborative work.
This is a wonderful place to be immersed in the arts, and a wonderful place to prepare for lifelong success!
Dr. Michael Stepniak
Dean and Professor of Music
Position: Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory and Professor of Music
Location: Ruebush Hall, Room 108-D
Phone: (540) 542-6201
Employed Since: 2009
Fields of Expertise:
Arts & Aesthetics Education, Education Leadership, Music Performance
Current Supportive National Leadership Roles:
College Music Society: President-Elect; Presidential Task Force; Committee on Academic Leadership & Administration
International Council of Fine Arts Deans: Diversity & Inclusion Committee
Recently in Print:
Stepniak, Michael (Editor.), Leading Change that Matters. Routledge Press and College Music Society, 2022 (in process).
Stepniak, Michael and Brian Pertl, “A Case for Hiring Mischief Makers,” College Music Symposium, May 1, 2021
Stepniak, Michael and Brian Pertl, “A Case for Mischief Makers.” Inside Higher Ed, January 14 2021
Book: Beyond the Conservatory Model (Published by Routledge Press & College Music Society)
B.A., Atlantic Union College (Music/English); Graduate Studies, New England Conservatory (Violin Performance); M.M., Northwestern University (Musicology); M.M. and GPD Studies, Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University (Viola Performance); Ed.M, and Ed.D., Harvard University Graduate School of Education (Aesthetic Education & Leadership)
Michael Stepniak is a broadly trained artist and educator. As Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory, Stepniak oversees a dynamic community: a higher education unit of over 120 faculty and close to 700 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in 28 degree programs; the Shenandoah Conservatory Arts Academy serving approximately 1,200 students; a performance season and venues serving over 28,000 patrons each year; and 56 operational budgets. Since beginning his work as dean in 2009, Stepniak has been privileged to work with conservatory faculty and students and broader university leadership in radically increasing the conservatory’s profile while simultaneously strengthening its historical commitment to providing an exceptionally nurturing community for young artists.
Working collaboratively with faculty, staff, students and leaders across Shenandoah University, Stepniak is proud of ongoing success and progress in multiple key areas that have further catapulted the profile and reputation of Shenandoah Conservatory. Areas of success and ongoing focus include the following. (1) Developing nationally significant student-led and collaborative initiatives (like ShenCoLAB), advancing student voice in governance (both through the Shenandoah Conservatory Student Council and participation on key faculty task forces and workgroups), and strengthening the profile of students. (2) Recruiting world-class faculty, and strengthening support and developing the overall profile of faculty. (3) Ensuring ongoing development of nationally significant innovative curricula (such as ShenCoSKILLS) and nationally ranked programs and studios. (4) Advancing and strengthening institutional commitment to inclusion, diversity and equity. (5) Radically strengthening the culture of philanthropy and giving around the conservatory, successfully pursuing campaigns (e.g., All-Steinway School campaign, the Harold Herman Lab Theatre campaign), supporting and developing donor societies (e.g., Dean’s Circle), and increasing support for both faculty and students through strengthened grants availability. (6) Becoming a partner of choice for educational, community and cultural organizations.
Stepniak completed interdisciplinary doctoral studies in aesthetics, education and leadership at Harvard University (where he won the Spencer Fellowship and Entering Award), and graduate studies in viola at Peabody Conservatory (where he won the Sidney Friedberg Prize), in musicology at Northwestern University (where he was appointed to the alpha chapter of Pi Kappa Lambda) and in violin at New England Conservatory (where he was leader of the Honors Quartet). After leaving his native Australia at 15 for studies in Canada, he completed his undergraduate studies in the United States with high distinction in Music and English at Atlantic Union College.
Stepniak maintains an active role in arts education at the national and international level. He was recently voted in as President-Elect of the College Music Society (to serve as President-Elect in 2022, President in ’23-’24, and Past President in ’25). He has served on the board of directors of the International Council of Fine Arts Deans, and has chaired the global connections task force in that same body. Beyond the arts, Stepniak has worked with college and university presidents and senior leadership from Rice University to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on issues ranging from leadership development and arts initiatives, to curriculum reviews and strategic planning.
As an author and speaker, Stepniak has become a national voice advocating for innovative change in education, including in the area of classical music performance training within higher education. His recent book by Routledge Press and College Music Society, and current edited volume (also by Routledge Press) advance powerful arguments for innovative transformation, outlining pathways to better ensure the future vitality of arts training centers.
As a soloist and chamber musician, Stepniak has performed in major concert halls and venues in 11 countries, been featured on National Public Radio, recorded for the Centaur Records label, performed frequently with the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, as a member of the National Philharmonic String Quartet, the Contemporary Music Forum, and the Razumovsky String Quartet, and has collaborated with various leading chamber musicians, ranging from Ann Schein, Earl Carlyss, and Lory Wallfisch, to Arlo Guthrie. Papers such as The Washington Post have referred to his playing as tremendously poised and transcendent.
As an artist, Stepniak is connected to a rich musical heritage through studies with foremost chamber musicians and soloists. As leader of New England Conservatory’s Honors Quartet, Stepniak worked extensively with Eugene Lehner, longtime member of the legendary Kolisch Quartet (which premiered chamber works for Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Bartók), and former student at Budapest’s Royal Conservatory of Music of Zoltán Kodály and Jenő Hubay.
As principal violist with the Peabody Conservatory symphony orchestra and violist with the Razumovsky Quartet, Stepniak studied chamber music with Earl Carlyss, a 20-year member of the Juilliard Quartet and former student of Ivan Galamian and the Paris Conservatoire’s Roland Charmy and Jacques Février. He also received coachings at Peabody from Berl Senofsky, a former student of Louis Persinger and Ivan Galamian.
Stepniak’s other primary teachers include violinist/composer/pianist Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse (former student of Louis Persinger, Nadia Boulanger, and Leon Fleisher) and violinist James Buswell (former student of Ivan Galamian). His viola training at Peabody Conservatory included work as the teaching assistant to Victoria Chiang (a former student of Heidi Castleman and Dorothy DeLay). Stepniak’s musicianship is further informed by training with leading music theorists, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists including Robert Levin, Theodore Karp and Paul Berliner.
Prior to joining Shenandoah, Stepniak served at Adelphi University as Associate Dean of Performing Arts. Reporting to the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, he was responsible for overseeing the further development of the music, dance and theatre departments, and was the director of Adelphi’s new Performing Arts Center, overseeing the successful launch and operationalization of a $30 million state-of-the-art facility.
He is married to Anne Schempp and is the proud father of Marianna, Caroline, Tristan, and Tilda.
In Conversation with Wynton Marsalis
January 21, 2015
In January 2015, legendary jazz trumpeter, music educator and Grammy Award-winning musician Wynton Marsalis completed his 2014-15 residency at Shenandoah Conservatory. Marsalis worked intensively with the 79-piece Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, providing them with insight into his work and teaching them how to incorporate more “swing” into their classical training. Wynton Marsalis sat down with Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory Michael Stepniak, Ph.D., to be interviewed as part of the conservatory’s American Icons series.
April 27, 2016
Deborah Voigt, one of the world’s greatest sopranos, was Shenandoah Conservatory’s 2015-16 American Icon. She spoke with Shenandoah Conservatory Dean Michael Stepniak, Ed.D., about her journey as an artist and a person. The delightfully plainspoken Voigt, who also taught a masterclass at the conservatory, touches on a wide variety of topics in this interview, from her artistic development and influences and issues with weight and having a healthy relationship with the body, to the importance of resilience and how challenges never end, no matter what level of success one achieves. She also discusses experiences revealed in her autobiography, “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva.”
In Conversation with Deborah Voigt
In Conversation with Gidon Kremer
January 31, 2017
Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory Michael Stepniak, Ed.D., held a conversation and Q&A with Gidon Kremer, an internationally acclaimed violinist and the artistic director of Kremerata Baltica, a talented group of musicians that has developed into one of the best international chamber orchestras of its time. The two discussed Kremer’s career and creative endeavors, and students had the opportunity to ask questions toward the end of the event.
Advancing a Conversation about Change
“Beyond the Conservatory Model provides a badly-needed insiders’ diagnosis—and many thoughtful remedies—for the anachronisms that many classical music conservatories have become…. Stepniak and Sirotin encourage us to think beyond the musical conservatism and homogeneity and instead give priority to helping students find their own “powerfully authentic and individual musical voice” in pursuit of rekindling a human connection with an audience.”
– Douglas Dempster (Dean of the College of Fine Arts, The University of Texas at Austin)
“Beyond the Conservatory Model speaks truth to power about the challenges (and potential opportunities) in higher education music study. Stepniak’s and Sirotin’s vision of student outcomes particularly resonated with me, offering practical solutions to reinvent how we train and prepare music students for the professional world. …This should be mandatory reading for all NASM/CMS members.”
– Kendra Whitlock Ingram (Executive Director, The Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver)
“This is a much needed breath of fresh fire to the discussion surrounding the training of the next generation of “classical” music performance majors. The two authors, Michael Stepniak and Peter Sirotin have compiled a brief and cogent examination as to just how underserved so many of these students are by a curriculum that was designed generations ago for an industry that has evolved, moved, died, changed gears, and continues to baffle even seasoned professionals. However, not giving in to mere despair or relying on the notion that the superiority of the art will win the day for the students, they have actually accumulated data from industry and academic professionals and given precise recommendations while acknowledging the inherent difficulty for curricular change at many institutions.”
– 5-star Review by Dan Graser on GoodReads.com
“I can’t imagine a more thoroughly researched or better written resource to guide higher education through the vital work of reimagining today’s music performance degree.”
– Andrew Hitz, (Host of “The Entrepreneurial Musician” and “The Brass Junkies,” former tuba player for Boston Brass, adjunct professor at Shenandoah Conservatory)
Teaching—A Personal Reflection
My greatest privilege and delight as dean is to give space and support to exceptional faculty; faculty who shape their disciplines and change the lives of generations of students. Below are some reflections on what I’ve come to understand and believe, as related to the great faculty and great teaching I continue to observe.
- Many teachers possess at least one of the following qualities, but great teachers possess all three: an open-heartedness towards others; an immoderate pursuit of excellence; and an orientation of service towards a discipline or cause greater than themselves.
- Many great teachers seem to know not only that students may differ in their proclivities and capacities, but also that there is great variability within each life. They understand that a student who was boisterous last month may be doing well this week just to be getting up in the morning. Their teaching, wonderfully, combines patience and resolve.
- I join faculty in cherishing the virtuosity and thrill of critique, but side with those who sense both the strengths and limits of the rational enterprise. I accept Mahler’s point that “what is best in music is not to be found in the notes,” and Braque’s point that “the only thing that matters in art can’t be explained.” I feel the weight of Dostoyevski’s confession, that “Reason and Knowledge have always played a secondary, subordinate, auxiliary role in the life of peoples, and this will always be the case.” Recognizing the multilayerdness of human nature, I accept James Boswell’s contention that “reasonable beings are not solely reasonable. They have fancies which may be pleased, passions which may be roused.”
- I cherish the complexity and variability of human development. While understanding the importance of artful teaching, I appreciate Jacques Barzun’s insightful (and gender-deaf) point that “education comes from deep within” and that “it is a man’s own doing, or rather it happens to him – sometimes because of the teaching he has had, sometimes in spite of it.”
- So many of the teachers I admire know not to confuse complexity and obscurity with profundity. (Martha Nassbaum was right: obtuseness is a moral failing, its opposite can be cultivated.) Along similar lines, I admire those faculty who are naturally averse to that which is dull and boring, watchfully sidestepping the attributes of WH Auden’s professor: a person who talks in other people’s sleep.
- I accept that reason and logic don’t necessarily lead to closure; that there are great moral conundrums – things that cannot be solved but which must be approached. I’m awed, for example, by the great tension and difficulty in Aeschylus’ contention that “God is not averse to deceit in a holy cause.”
- I cherish the capacity of exceptional musical and literary art works to disrupt. There is, quite delightfully, a Japanese word for the kind of disruption that leads to sudden illumination – a satori, also meaning ‘a kick in the eye.’ I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to witness how great teachers deftly navigate moments of conflict or wonder (whether in a masterclass or hallway conversation), understanding that such moments can produce a true kick in the eye with life-changing results.
- Finally, I am awed by the capacity of great faculty to pursue instruction and interactions with an eye to deeper questions of life purpose. I understand the truth in Thomas Merton’s gentle admonition that “if you want to identify me, ask me now where I live or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for…” I strongly believe that if we individually seek to make advancement without paying heed to questions of life’s purpose and substance, we will succeed far less than desired. I agree, that is to say, with Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that “If we cultivate the moral world within us as prodigiously as we cultivate the physical world around us, then perhaps we can endure.”
Strengthening Diversity in Performing Arts Leadership at Shenandoah Conservatory
Our successful progress towards further diversifying our faculty, administration, staff, and visiting artists/scholars (especially in terms of gender and race) certainly fits hand in glove with our commitment to artistic and academic excellence and our university’s strategic plan, Shenandoah 2025 (including the goal of “creating a world class learning environment”). Even more importantly, our progress towards the above goal is critical to the very integrity of our conservatory community.
Beyond the Conservatory Model: Reimagining Classical Music Performance Training in Higher Education
by Dean Michael Stepniak with Peter Sirotin
Amid enormous changes in higher education, audience and music listener preferences, and the relevant career marketplace, music faculty are increasingly aware of the need to reimagine classical music performance training for current and future students. But how can faculty and administrators, under urgent pressure to act, be certain that their changes are effective, strategic, and beneficial for students and institutions? In this provocative yet measured book, Michael Stepniak and Peter Sirotin address these questions with perspectives rooted in extensive experience as musicians, educators, and arts leaders. Building on a multidimensional analysis of core issues and drawing upon interviews with leaders from across the performing arts and higher education music fields, Stepniak and Sirotin scrutinize arguments for and against radical change, illuminating areas of unavoidable challenge as well as areas of possibility and hope. An essential read for education leaders contemplating how classical music can continue to thrive within American higher education.
Michael Stepniak is Dean and Professor of Music at Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University. A leading arts educator and critically acclaimed concert artist and chamber musician, he holds graduate degrees in performance (Peabody Institute), musicology (Northwestern University), and education (Harvard University).
Peter Sirotin, currently serves as the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, director of Market Square Concerts and Artist-in-Residence at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Sirotin, a former member of the Moscow Soloists, is an award-winning graduate of Moscow’s Central Music School and Peabody Conservatory.
Beyond the Conservatory Model provides a badly-needed insiders’ diagnosis—and many thoughtful remedies—for the anachronisms that many classical music conservatories have become. In a historical moment of unprecedented access to an enormous variety of music and performance practices, in an age when recorded music and live performances have never been more abundant or popular, American music conservatories have remained obdurately committed to preparing students to meet the vanishing demand for classical music that “hovers at around one percent” of the listening audience.
Stepniak and Sirotin encourage us to think beyond the musical conservatism and homogeneity and instead give priority to helping students find their own “powerfully authentic and individual musical voice” in pursuit of rekindling a human connection with an audience.
Much to their credit, they solicit reform-minded advice from the very music school deans, directors and faculty leaders who have the greatest influence and opportunity to affect the changes recommended. They also do an admirable job of diagnosing the stasis that makes curricular reform so slow and uncommon in music conservatories—and that may, ultimately, defeat their recommendations.
We should hope not. And act accordingly.”
– Douglas Dempster (Dean of the College of Fine Arts, The University of Texas at Austin)
Beyond the Conservatory Model speaks truth to power about the challenges (and potential opportunities) in higher education music study. Stepniak’s and Sirotin’s vision of student outcomes particularly resonated with me, offering practical solutions to reinvent how we train and prepare music students for the professional world.
Beyond the Conservatory Model is a must-read for faculty and administrators considering curriculum reform. Stepniak and Sirotin offer thoughtful change management strategies and possible solutions for training the next generation of classical musicians.
This should be mandatory reading for all NASM/CMS members.”
– Kendra Whitlock Ingram, Executive Director (The Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver)
***** [5-star review]
“This is a much needed breath of fresh fire to the discussion surrounding the training of the next generation of “classical” music performance majors. The two authors, Michael Stepniak and Peter Sirotin have compiled a brief and cogent examination as to just how underserved so many of these students are by a curriculum that was designed generations ago for an industry that has evolved, moved, died, changed gears, and continues to baffle even seasoned professionals. However, not giving in to mere despair or relying on the notion that the superiority of the art will win the day for the students, they have actually accumulated data from industry and academic professionals and given precise recommendations while acknowledging the inherent difficulty for curricular change at many institutions.
The four chapters are:
1) Beyond Beauty, Brilliance, and Expression: Musicianship and Reconnecting with the General Public.
2) Gathering Insights From the Field: How the Classical Music Marketplace is Changing, and What That Change Means for the Training That Students Need.
3) Why This Change is Unusually Difficult: Three Specific Factors May be Thwarting the Will and Ability of Music Leaders to Change Performance Training Models
4) Making Music That Counts
By gathering information from numerous managers and presenters they effectively show how the expectations of modern audiences, even in so cloistered a field as classical music, have shifted to more honest engagement with the performances and from the performers, incorporation of visual and other arts into the performance, and aspects of the performance that move beyond the brilliant execution of great music. This is a topic that some schools discuss peripherally, but generally speaking, either don’t seriously contend with at the administrative level or expect will be happening in the students’ lessons with their applied teacher.
The awareness of the difficulties of curricular change are quite honest and represent vast experience in the field. Their recommendations, if implemented literally from the page, would likely take years in any typical university process. However, the necessity for these changes in preparing performers for the industry as it exists today makes this necessary and urgent.
Very often, this issue is discussed (elsewhere, not this book) and practical solutions are discussed that have nothing to do with the industry. For example, if you wish to graduate students to be prepared for the music business, merely combining a business and music performance degree with no genuine overlap accomplishes nothing. If you want the student to be able to apply to work in multiple fields, great, dual-degrees are great but implicitly combining a music degree and a business degree actually doesn’t focus the student at all on THE music business. Some efforts at bringing the industry in to the curriculum are helpful but only if pursued consistently throughout the curriculum, otherwise, the average undergraduate will move on to their next piece, next area of repertoire, get back in the practice room, and quickly dismiss what they learned.
Training performers that are relevant to the current classical music field is a much needed change and it requires genuine performers and academic leaders to iron out the process. Stepniak and Sirotin have provided a potent and brief launchpad for these changes.”
I can’t imagine a more thoroughly researched or better written resource to guide higher education through the vital work of reimagining today’s music performance degree.”