Professor of Bluegrass new President of Yale

Peter SaloveyThe announcement of a new President at a major university is always big news, at least within the larger academic community, and among students, faculty and alumni. So when is such of interest to the readers of Bluegrass Today?

When the new President of Yale is the bass player in a New Haven band, The Professors of Bluegrass. Peter Salovey has recently assumed his new position with the Ivy League icon, and the band has released their first CD, Pick Or Perish. You could say he’s having a big summer.

Salovey is a Yalie of long standing. He came to the University in 1981 as a graduate student, and joined the psychology faculty in 1986. Before being named President, he had served as Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Dean of Yale College, and Provost of the University.

But he’s been a grasser even longer. Peter tells us that it all started when he was an undergrad at Stanford in the 1970s.

Peter Salovey“I got interested in bluegrass while I was in college in California. Disco was the music on popular radio, and I was looking for something else to listen to. KFAT in Santa Cruz had a show called Cousin Al’s Bluegrass Hour, which featured – bluegrass, old time, and classic country.

I fell in love with the banjo, so I rented one and started learning clawhammer and the Scruggs style.

When I got to Yale, Kelly Brownell – a faculty member who I jammed with – had a neighbor who was a better banjo player, and he suggested I play the bass.”

From those jams in 1990 arose The Professors of Bluegrass, consisting of Yale faculty members and students, and they have been going ever since with a rotating roster of pickers and singers. One former band member has gone on to great success, in both music and the academy. Greg Liszt, banjoist for both Crooked Still and The Deadly Gentlemen, went on to also earn a PhD in biology at MIT.

The Professors play primarily for school and faculty events, and have been warmly embraced by the school and local community.

Peter said the reaction from his peers has been positive.

“A lot of people have never heard bluegrass music before, but they recognize something authentic when they hear it. I feel like we are part of bringing new audiences to bluegrass.

People who enjoy our music can also support the symphony and the ballet in their town.

As a more general goal, I love people to support live music.”

Professors of Bluegrass - Pick Or Perish

Pick Or Perish, the band’s first album, was recorded earlier this year with an eye towards having something to take with them to offer the International Bluegrass Music Museum as a fundraiser when they performed at ROMP this summer. That, and the fact that a few current band members will soon be moving on from Yale, and the die was cast.

Banjo player Oscar Hills had the necessary recording gear, so the band recorded at his house. Besides Oscar and Peter, The Professors of Bluegrass are Craig Harwood on mandolin, Sten Havumaki on guitar, and Matt Smith and Katie Scharf on fiddle. Harwood, who was a Dean at Yale, is taking a position at Hunter College CUNY, and Havumaki, a wood worker, is relocating to Maine.

The 19 songs on the album were culled primarily from bluegrass standards, and you can locate it for sale in iTunes, where audio samples can also be found. They make no pretense to special levels of virtuosity, but have great fun spreading the bluegrass message in Connecticut.

Peter says that their show at ROMP this year came about through his support of the Bluegrass Museum.

“I serve on their board, and am chairing this year. We’ll play there anytme they’ll have us.

This is a really great moment for the Museum. We’re well on the way to move to the new building, with so much more space for the archives, exhibits and concerts.

People go to Nashville for country music, and Owensboro for bluegrass.”

Salovey was elevated to the Presidency at the end of June, but won’t be officially innaugurated until the weekend of October 12-13. The Deadly Gentlemen will be coming to campus to perform at a function celebrating the event, and The Professors of Bluegrass will also play at a couple of student parties that weekend.

He said he loves the new job, but is sorry to have so little time now for teaching.

“I still guest lecture in Introductory to Psychology, and our Great Big Ideas course. It is hard to leave, and I do miss it.

Playing in the band – getting together to rehearse – is one of the few times I can pull away for music.”

You can visit the Professors of Bluegrass online. If you are ever in New Haven, maybe you can find them out picking somewhere.

Congratulations to both Yale and Peter Salovey.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Dick Bowden

    Very nice bluegrass news from Connecticut!

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  • Dave Hollender

    He’s slumming but that’s okay.

  • Darren Sullivan-Koch

    You’d think with all that big city book learnin’ that he’d realize he could get a much less anemic bass tone by holding his fingers parallel to the strings (as opposed to perpendicular) and putting more of the meat of his hand into the playing.

    • Jon Weisberger

      You can tell what kind of tone he gets from a photograph?

      • Darren Sullivan-Koch

        Nope. But I can tell from live clips from YouTube. It’s all amp.

        • Jon Weisberger

          If you can tell anything serious about tone from YouTube clips you’ve got the best ear in the world. In any event, whether “it’s all amp” or not, with him or anyone else, right hand finger position has little to nothing to do with it. It’s what you do with those fingers that counts, not their direction.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            …why thank you, Jon! As an experienced musician and performer, I do in fact have an excellent ear, and am careful to take into the account the limitations of technology when discerning the relative merits of a performer’s tone and the source thereof. Thank you so much for noticing!

            And, yes, you can get OK tone with a perpendicular right hand (Dave Holland switches to that position for more fleet passages), but with much greater effort (not to mention the fact that it’s terrible ergonomics). The tone-to-effort ratio, not to mention a woodier sound and a bit of string-to-fingerboard slap, is much more favorable with a parallel position. At least for me.

            I find the benefits of perpendicular right hand positioning (namely speed) to be rather ill-suited to bluegrass…and it makes it harder to dig in with higher action, and higher action gives the string more room to vibrate, thus giving a deeper and woodier tone. Compare, I dunno, Paul Chambers to Ray Deaton for reference.

            …but this is a conversation more suited for a board dedicated to bluegrass bass technique, I suppose, if such a thing exists!

  • David Morris

    Since he’s playing through a microphone, I think he’ll be fine, Darren. As a bass player, I’m hoping this means I’ll soon be selected to be a college president. I’m hoping for ETSU but I’ll settle for Berklee.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      Ha! He has a pickup, yes…so he’ll be heard. But there’s a depressing trend amongst bluegrass bass players these days — lower action, more amp tone, less moving air.

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