The Last Sister (Teaching) At The College Of Saint Rose

Dec 28, 2015

If we’re lucky, each of us had a teacher or two who inspired us, mentored us, even changed our lives. Most of us wouldn’t be where we are today without them. 

Many people in the music  wouldn't be where they are today if not for Sister Mary Anne Nelson, a nun who has taught recording engineering, artist management and rock and roll.  She founded the College of St. Rose's Music Industry program in 1981, has directed it ever since, and coincidentally is the last nun to teach at the once all-girls Catholic school, the only full-time instructor remaining on-staff.

"Over the years I was very fortunate to have a lot of support and creative freedom that the sisters gave to me. Actually, they taught me how to teach.  I had great teachers. The sisters were amazing.  And, you know as I was a student and then started back here as a teacher, I had great resources, I had great mentoring."

Nelson's official title is associate professor of music industry. She's enjoyed her time, especially as electronics transitioned into the digital age.   "Years ago, it was a big thing, it was analog. I remember carrying big transformers in Europe. Everything just weighed tons. Tons of equipment. Nowadays I can walk in with a laptop, a couple of small microphones, cables. We've miniaturized it. Prices have come down as well as weight."

Nelson is the reason why Billboard has thrice named Saint Rose to its lists of the top music business programs in North America. But starting the program wasn't easy when the majority of music schools and conservatories based their academia on classical music.    "We really had to fight to get some ground to make popular commercial music viable. It's just part of the territory. So I think being able to create a program and an environment where students who want to learn music technology who don't necessarily want to work in the classical field can legitimately come in and work with just about any style of music: pop, rock, EDM, metal. One of the other things I'm pleased about is the jobs and the situations that my students have found on their own. They're willing to come back and work with today's students. Network with them, give them opportunities, and in some cases, teach them."

She stays connected and involved with many of her past students, now in the performance or technical fields or working with record companies.  "They email me every so often telling me what they're up to. When they're back in town they frequently stop in to see me. I maintain a working relationship with some of them to this day."

Kali Bradford runs a music management company in London. The 2012 graduate can't imagine what life would have been like without Nelson's music curriculum.    " I started off as a music education major and realized that was not a thing for me at all, so I switched over to music industry, not knowing anything about the course, not knowing really anything about the music industry, just knowing that I loved music. Sister just took me under her wing and really showed me the ropes. I learned about law and contracts...[add maybe extra sound? xxx} and just making sure that you keep your contacts and how to run a menu and of course her incredible, incredible recording skills. She's just one of the coolest chicks I know, and just a really, really important person at St. Rose. She changed my life and I know all of my friends' lives, so I just can't possibly imagine St. Rose without her or my life without her."  

Nelson's office, classroom and recording studios are in the college's Hearst center for Communications and Interactive Media building.  Saint Rose has had clergy on the faculty since its 1920 founding. Music was one of the first majors offered. As the years passed, the nuns have retired and many have died. When Nelson retires in a few years, there could be none left.    "I'm to the point now where I'm almost ready to hand it off to a new generation. We've been very fortunate in being able to bring aboard several new faculty members. They're young, they're innovative, they're performers, writers and arrangers, and they know the technical world. I could leave this Friday and they could carry it on."

Despite decades of teaching, Nelson believes even today, women remain underrepresented in the recording engineering industry.    "When I started in pro audio, there were very few women in the industry, either in the live end of it or the recorded end of it. Those that were in it were doing more jazz and classical music, and I've been able to see that turn around to some extent over the years. There are more women now on the engineering side both live and recorded. But back when we started the program, it was the exception rather than the rule. And there are several organizations now: Women In Audio, Song Girls and a number of other organizations that really create a network for women that are either in pro-recording or pro live audio."

Nelson believes many of the women working who graduated from her program likely wouldn't have been able to carve out positions in particular niche markets they now dominate had they not had the opportunity to attend St. Rose and exercise artistic freedoms.