New Mannes Prep Assistant Dean Michele Wright on Using Music as a Catalyst for Change
Mannes Prep welcomes a new assistant dean, Michele Wright, a lifelong New Yorker with a long-standing passion for music. Her professional background includes local institutions like the Manhattan School of Music and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Her experience as a student inspired her commitment to music education.
“They saw my gift; they saw my talent,” Wright says of her instructors at Queens College, where she studied clarinet music performance. “They helped to develop and further my skills.” Wright went on to pursue a Master of Music degree at The Juilliard School.
Growing up in Queens, Wright inherited a love for music from her father, who had a huge record collection. They often played tambourine and hand piano together.
“I enjoy sound – it’s just something I’ve always had a passion for.”
But it was in a music class at her public school where Wright first heard classical music. She says she fell in love with composers such as Mozart and Bach. (Later, as she got older, she’d be surprised to learn that only 2 percent of classical musicians are African American.) Because Wright’s parents couldn’t afford lessons, she went to work, eventually becoming a private clarinet teacher herself.
Mannes Prep holds auditions for percussion, brass, strings, voice, winds, guitar, piano, and composition.
“It took lots of hours, lots of people,” Wright says. “I have to give back to the community and give back to students.”
Although Wright’s school had a music class, she acknowledges that not every child will have the same advantage.
“If you’re not exposed to certain things, it’s hard to know whether or not you like it,” she says.
After becoming a certified music teacher in 2008, Wright worked in underserved communities including Chinatown, East Harlem, and the Bronx, to provide greater access to music education. She found that culturally relevant music, like jazz, helped keep students engaged.
Wright asks, “Why not value what we already have in our communities?”
That was the inspiration behind the Recorder Arts for Musical Pathways (RAMP) program, which teaches third and fourth graders in Newark public schools to play recorders. Wright said she saw the program grow from 700 students to 2,500. The program is aimed at getting students excited about music through playing recorders, and then moving them to a band program or orchestra. Wright says what made the program a success was not only the students but also the teachers.
“Students need their teachers to be really inspired,” she says. “They feel like they’re included in the process. Having people who look like you is very helpful to encourage you and inspire you.”
Wright takes a similar approach as an administrator. She says she enjoys getting to know faculty members and incorporating their skills and talents. She has also been inspired by New School President Dwight McBride’s message of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“In a leadership position, we can influence change,” she says. “[We’re] using music as a catalyst for change.”
Wright hopes to tap into faculty members’ technological skills as Mannes Prep moves to online learning in the pandemic era.
“COVID-19 has been an opportunity to look at how to do things differently,” she says. “It’s accelerated this process.”
Wright says music education faces unique challenges during the pandemic, such as poor sound transmission over video conferencing tools.
“It’s performance based: We need an audience; we need to play for people.”
But overall, she’s optimistic that technology has broadened access to music.
“It actually connects people more,” she says, stressing that online performers can reach thousands, while before they might have been limited to 60 people in a crowded bar. “If you have more control over who you’re trying to reach, you’re reaching more people who you can expose to your artistry.”
Although students are currently learning online, Wright urges them to take advantage of the unique opportunity to study music in New York City.
“They can find their own voice; they can find their own niche. They can be their authentic selves.”
As a native, Wright says, she remembers hearing about Mannes Prep as part of the trifecta of conservatories in New York.
“I really like the mission of The New School,” she says. “I really value this idea of artist as citizen, musician as citizen.
“And now that we’re going toward equity and inclusion, The New School already has this embedded within its philosophy. I’m excited to be a part of what it is now and what’s to come.”