Rochester, N.Y., native Alan Kay (B.M. ’82, M.M. ’83, clarinet; Advanced Certificate ’90, orchestral conducting) came to Juilliard in 1979—and has never left, though he has also taught at Rutgers, the Hartt School, Stony Brook University, and the Manhattan School of Music. These days he teaches clarinet and chamber music at Juilliard, having joined the College faculty in 1993, following nine years in Pre-College, where he taught ear training and conducted the symphony and orchestra.
How did you come to know you wanted to be a musician?
It’s not really like that. I loved music and could not get enough of it from the start; it was big in my family—starting with Dave Brubeck and Beethoven String Quartet recordings on the stereo and piano lessons with my mother’s excellent old piano teacher (but named Miss Young!). When it came time to decide what to do for college, it seemed logical to pursue music, but since I had an interest in—and all my friends were headed in—an Ivy League direction, I wasn’t completely sure. The main thing is that I threw myself into it during my first year at Juilliard, in 1979, and never looked back.
What has been the biggest change at Juilliard in your time here?
There have been so many. I have been here, as a student or faculty member, without interruption since I arrived as a 17-year-old in 1979. I was on a South American tour with the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra in 1983 when President [Peter] Mennin died, and I remember President [Joseph] Polisi’s first open meeting with students in the fall of 1984. Our current president brought a lot of change to Juilliard. I’d say, though, that the most obvious and amazing change was the addition of a dormitory! When I first came to Juilliard, I had to find a place to live; I lived in the maid’s room of a classic Upper West Side apartment with a mother and daughter for $100 a month. It also took me a long time to get used to the cafeteria being in the Rose Building; it used to be on the second floor of the School, around where the I.T. office is. We used to have post-orchestra concert beer and popcorn parties there, provided by the School, before the drinking age went up to 21.
What’s the first recording you remember?
I’d say it was a Toscanini NBC Symphony LP of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies, but it might have been Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album or one of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s records. Hearing those Toscanini Beethoven recordings impressed on me the sheer power of symphonic music.
What’s your most embarrassing teaching moment?
O.K., I admit it: I fell asleep during a student’s lesson once. I was awakened by my poor student saying, “So, um, what did you think?” Now I know to stand when I feel drowsy teaching.
What is the most important thing you hope your students remember?
Being a good clarinetist is secondary to being a great musician and an interesting person. Don’t listen only to clarinet music; listen to all music in all styles. And read a book occasionally!
You and Wonjung Kim (Advanced Certificate ’88, voice) recently got married. Do you perform together?
Yes! Wonjung is a beautiful soprano and sings new music, Italian opera, Baroque music and Broadway tunes equally well. We’ve performed together several times, here and in Korea, and last appeared in May on a chamber music series that I direct in Cape May, N.J.
What are your nonmusic interests or hobbies?
Like most musicians, I like good food and have become a decent cook over the years, but my ability pales in comparison with my wife’s! I particularly like bread-baking; my family expects a pumpkin bread from me every Thanksgiving.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Around here, people seem to have forgotten that I’m a Juilliard-trained orchestral conductor. But, in the more whimsical department, I’m sure people would be shocked to hear that I took about three years of ballroom dance lessons and could dance a respectable fox trot, swing, and rumba. But it’s been a while, so don’t ask.
What’s your favorite thing about New York City? And your least favorite?
It’s still mindboggling and a source of smug satisfaction that one can find just about any kind of cultural experience here at any time. My son Noah is a second-year undergraduate oboe student at Eastman and complains bitterly about the lack of such things in Rochester (my beloved home town, by the way). He was spoiled, as we all are, by growing up in New York City. (My son Jonnie, a jazz guitarist, is still in high school.) Least favorite: the crowds, the lines, and the outrageous sums I pay for parking.
If money and logistics were no object, what would you do for a day?
One of those luxury food and wine bike trips with my wife, either through the south of France or at least in Napa Valley.
What are you reading, listening to, watching, or following?
A friend recently got me into Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books; I’ve always been a fan of hardboiled noir style, and these books are a natural extension of that genre. Speaking of hardboiled, yes, I’m working my way through Breaking Bad. Amazing concept, writing and acting, but I must admit I can’t wait till I’m done—it takes too much time! I’m a Facebook user but a careful status updater; it’s a good way to keep up with people and to let people know what you’re up to, if it’s not annoying.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I think I’d still be doing something in education; there’s nothing more important. I find myself fantasizing every now and then about teaching seventh- or eighth-grade math; math is so logical, and there are no reeds involved.
If you would like to be featured in the Juilliard Portraits columns, contact the Publications Office at ext. 340 or email@example.com.