STAFF Q&A/Trombonist Michael Ketner is the man behind the curtain at Penn’s Music Department.
“These are student groups, but they’re good, and they play at a high level.”
Michael Ketner is the Music Department’s logistics man. As performance coordinator, he schedules every student ensemble performance—there are at least nine musical groups in the department—and handles the calendar for all student rehearsals. Ketner also publicizes every semester’s lineup of concerts and shows up on performance nights to make sure everything—from lighting to chairs to music stands—does what it should.
Ketner’s worklife has another facet, though, one concerned more with discernment than datebooks. As the department’s liaison with the admissions office, Ketner evaluates recordings sent in by applicants, listening for potential as much as musical mastery.
Trained as a trombonist—he earned his doctor of musical arts degree at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music—Ketner also teaches in the department. Introducing non-musical undergrads to the joys of music through the College House Music Program rounds out Ketner’s life at Penn.
Ketner made space in his calendar recently to sit down with the Current and tell us why performance matters to a department that stresses the academic side of music.
Q. Is performance part of the curriculum for music majors?
A. Loosely. For instance, students can get half a credit for performing in the orchestra for a whole year. For most students it’s more of an extracurricular activity. The vast majority of students who come here are very talented and have a great love for music. It’s not their career goal but they still want to get a meaningful experience from music during their time in college, so we try to provide that for them.
Q. So it’s different from a conservatory, where performance is paramount?
A. We’re not geared toward training someone for a career in performance. There are so many schools out there that do offer that. But we feel what we offer is at a high enough level that if a student at some point in their life at Penn does want to get more serious, if they’re willing to put the work in, they’ll get the proper training where they can go on into a career in whatever they want to musically.
Q. Many of the performances take place in Irvine and Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge. What are the acoustics like in those spaces?
A. They’re good, real good. Gwyn Roberts, our baroque ensemble director, really enjoys Bodek Lounge. She really likes the sound in there. The only setback is that on occasion you get some street noise … but that’s a minor thing. The only person who really picks up on that is our recording guy.
Q. Are the concerts open to the whole Penn community?
A. Yes, and they’re free if you have a Penn ID. Any of the concerts in Irvine are usually big deals, the orchestra, the wind ensemble, the choir. These are student groups but they’re good and they play at a high level and to be able to go to a concert, have a night out like that for free, you don’t find that too many places.
Q. What else is coming up?
A. The Cassatt String Quartet performance on March 30 is a big one because this is the concert to dedicate the new Rose Recital Hall in Fisher Bennett.
Q. How do you like that new space?
A. It seats about 100 people and there are many great things about it. First of all it’s beautiful and the sound in there is a very live sound. We also have the ability to alter that a little bit with some of the acoustical things that are going to be put in place in that room.
Q. Acoustical things?
A. For example, there will be some curtains that can be adjusted. When you take them out of the picture it can be very resonant-sounding, and depending on what you do, it may be too resonant. So you can bring curtains out to suck up some of the sound to make it more appropriate. That’s something we’ll be experimenting with as we go to see what works with different groups. We’ll also have the ability to record there. Also, it’s the music department’s own room, so we don’t have to fight with people to get it.
Q. Tell me about the department’s other new spaces in Fisher Bennett.
A. We also have a number of practice rooms that are a really nice size. As a musician myself, out of every school I’ve ever been a student at, or taught at I have never seen practice rooms the size of these.
They’re wonderful. We’ve been able to get a number of grand pianos over there, too, and the students will be able to sign out some of those spaces online to use them. It’ll give everybody a little bit more space to do what they want to do musically.
Q. I know you got your doctorate in performance on the trombone. Do you still play?
A. I’m still active as a trombonist. It’s very important to me to keep my skills good, plus I love it. I spent a lot of money learning how to play it, so I want to keep doing it. I play a lot in town and in the suburbs as a freelance musician with pick-up groups around the area. I also have a private teaching studio at home where I teach high school students.
Q. You teach trombone at Penn, too. Is it a popular instrument?
A. I teach low brass—that’s trombone, tuber, euphonium. Are they popular? We have enough players to put together an ensemble, but we can always use more good low brass players, let’s put it that way. But of course I’m biased.
Q. What’s the popular stereotype of the trombonist?
A. It depends on whom you ask. I think a lot of musicians would say trombone players tend to be the loud mouthed but fun loving people in the orchestra. They like to have a good time. I guess to a point I fit that. I like to think while that’s the case there are also a lot of trombone players out there that are also serious musicians at the same time. They just like to play loud.
Originally published on February 23, 2006