The Conservatory’s Oral History Project was established in the winter of 2012 with the goal of collecting and preserving memories of longtime members of our community. To date we have conducted twenty-nine interviews with faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and families of Conservatory members. Sixteen of these interviews are now available to read and listen to via our project website:
This project has been a wonderful way to honor members of our community, to learn about their love of and lives in music, and to document their contributions to local music history. Many of our narrators are musicians who have spent the better part of their lives working with music in the Bay Area.
As the Conservatory’s archivist, I take care of most of the administrative work for each interview – I reach out to our narrators, schedule the interviews, and recruit volunteer interviewers from our faculty and staff. Matching a narrator with an interviewer is extremely important. It must be someone with whom the narrator will be comfortable, but should not be a close friend (who has already heard their stories, and with whom it would be tempting to chat). Interviewers should also be respectful listeners who are able to refrain from adding their own voice too much. I have been fortunate to recruit some wonderful interviewers for the Conservatory’s project, and have conducted fourteen of the interviews myself.
Before conducting an interview, I do some research on the narrator’s life, and their relationship with the Conservatory so I can create a unique list of interview questions. If they have had a long history with the Conservatory, I can use materials in our archives to conduct my research. If I need more information, I talk to their friends and colleagues, conduct research in other archives, and sometimes sit down with the narrators themselves to make sure our questions cover what they consider to be the most important subjects.
We have a portable recording kit (including a digital recorder with two shotgun microphones and stands) in our archives, which allows us to travel to the homes of narrators to conduct interviews. Of our twenty-nine interviews to date, nine were conducted offsite. I am present at each interview to set up the recording equipment, to make sure our interview release form is signed, and to take photos if both the narrator and interviewer agree. Traveling to a narrator’s home can be a wonderful experience – usually narrators are more comfortable in their own space, and are happy to bring out old photographs, recordings or compositions to share throughout the interview. Often there are pets and family members present for the interview, or at least walking in and out of a recording session. In at least two of our interviews, barking dogs can be heard in the background! Sometimes pets can be a little disruptive – while interviewing Conrad Susa at his home on Eureka Street in San Francisco, a neighbor’s cat sauntered in to attack our audio cables. After being shooed away several times, we paused the interview to put the cat outside.
Most of our interviews are between three and six hours long – usually conducted in multiple sessions on different days. Interviews can be exhausting both for the narrator and the interviewer, and we find that taking time between sessions to reflect on what was said, and what is to come, can be very helpful. Often I listen to recordings a day after to revise questions for the next session based on what was already covered, and what we want to hear more about.
Once the interview has been finished, I back up the audio to hard drives and to our network storage space, and start the transcription. Using a software called Express Scribe, I can fast-forward and rewind the audio easily with keyboard controls while typing into a Word document – which is much more convenient than constantly switching back and forth between the transcript and the audio file. It takes me two to three hours to transcribe every hour of recorded audio. Once transcribed, I do some basic editing and give the transcript to one of our wonderful volunteers to edit. They look for misspellings, and highlight grammatical errors. When our volunteers return the transcript to me, I send that draft to the narrator for final review. Narrators are able to make edits to their transcripts before they are shared online. Only after a narrator has given their final approval will the interview transcript and audio clips be made available on our website.
Our Oral History Project has become a successful and valued program at the Conservatory. We look forward to continuing our interviews through the Conservatory’s centennial (2017), and to sharing more online as they are completed! In January we will have an Oral History Workshop for Conservatory students who will have the opportunity to learn important research and interview skills. These students will conduct interviews with faculty members which will then be added to our collection. This will be an exciting opportunity for our students to be involved in the process of preserving the Conservatory’s history, and we look forward to sharing those stories here.
John Bischoff interviews Conrad Susa for the Conservatory’s Oral History Project, July 2013
Tessa Updike interviewing Bonnie Hampton for the Conservatory’s Oral History Project, April 2013
Robert Commanday and Corey Jamason after an oral history session, November 2014
Ramon Sender with Riqui after an oral history session, 2014
Elinor Armer being interviewed by Emily Laurance, July 2013
Smith Smith and Tessa Updike interviewing Jonathan Elkus, winter 2012