4.3 John Cimino, President of Associated Solo Artists

Episode Summary

After graduating from RPI and starting to teach science in high school, John Cimino responded to another force within him that took him into a career in opera. At first dabbling but then introduced at the Metropolitan Opera and trained at the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard, he had a major break in winning a contest and performing with Pavarotti in the production of La Boheme at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. John went on to win some 20 national and international awards. But already he was thinking of how music could be used to inspire new perspectives. His first co-founding of a non-profit came in 1972 with Associated Solo Artists, then two decades later with Creative Leaps International, and finally much more recently in the Renaissance Center. John was mentored along the way by Vartan Gregorian who headed the Carnegie Corporation of New York at the end of his career. In this work, John likes to say that he wants to “set the heart and mind in curious, exploratory motion,” and that is the overlap with experiential education as examined generally in this podcast. Listen in or read the transcript to explore with us these concepts and parallels to getting people to be inspired.

Episode Notes

Topics discussed in this episode include:

Resources Discussed in this Episode:

 Music Credits: C’est La Vie by Derek Clegg

Episode Transcription

ExperiencED Season 4, Episode 3


[00:00:00] Jim Stellar: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ExperiencED podcast. I am Jim Stellar,  

[00:00:05] Mary Churchill: [00:00:05] I am Mary Churchill, 

[00:00:07] Adrienne Dooley: [00:00:07] and I am Adrienne Dooley. 

[00:00:10] Jim Stellar: [00:00:10] We bring you to this podcast on experiential education with, 

[00:00:14] Mary Churchill [00:00:14] educators and thought leaders, 

[00:00:17] Adrienne Dooley: [00:00:17] from around the country and the world. 

[00:00:20] Jim Stellar: [00:00:20] John Cimino attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he studied biology and physics and Manhattan and Juilliard schools of music, where he studied opera and voice..

[00:00:33] In between and in decades, since John has pursued a lifelong passion for a deeper understanding of our human capacities for thinking, and perceiving, teaching and learning and the creative integration of knowledge across disciplines. John is the winner of more than 20 national and international awards as an opera singer, including in 1981, Pavarotti’s own international singing competition that resulted in John singing with Pavarotti himself in the production of La Boheme at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

[00:01:11] Right out of RPI, John was already thinking about interdisciplinary connections and the power of the arts to inspire fresh perspectives and new thinking. And co-founded his first nonprofit Associated Solo Artists known to many as ASA. Two decades later in 1992, after working primarily in the education sector, ASA blossomed into John's professional sector company Creative Leaps International,

[00:01:37] carrying out cross disciplinary projects around the globe where recently in 2018 with substantial funding from John's mentor of many years, the late Vartan Gregorian president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, John found that his current project known as the Renaissance Center for knowledge integration, interdisciplinary thinking, and advanced application of imagination. 

[00:02:04] At the suggestion of Dr. Gregorian, John launched the Renaissance at the university at Albany, where John worked with the interviewer. The series of steps are part of a career that has blended disciplines and use the arts to drive creativity across sectors and around the world. As John likes to say, the goal of his program is to, “set hearts and mind in curious exploratory motion.” For this work, he has won too many awards to mention, done projects with the white house, the United nations and the Center for Creative Leadership,

[00:02:36] as well as dozens of universities and fortune 500 companies on six continents. What drew us to him for this podcast was his paper To Think as Nature's Thinks, published in 2016 in Planning for Higher Education, volume 44, pp. 49-56.  This paper to my mind embraces experiential education principles in many forms.

[00:03:02] Welcome John, and thank you for being. Truth be told we worked together at the university at Albany when I was Interim President doing a strategic plan. And then when I returned for a while to being Provost on the Renaissance Center project. But before we go there, let's go back to your origin story. As a college kid, studying science who discovered that he could sing. What happened next, John?

[00:03:28] John Cimino: [00:03:28] I truly was in love with the sciences. My mind was fired by that kind of thinking since I was about 12 years old. And I was pretty good at it and it brought me to, to RPI, but simultaneously I had this affinity for literature, poetry and music. I took a great deal of personal fulfillment from that. I never imagined at the time that it would become part of my future, my professional life, but clearly it has.

[00:04:01]But going back to the origin point, it was a truly a matter of discovering that. My little brain such as it was, could be fired by both scientific style thinking and artistic style thinking. And one of the high points of my 12 and 13 year old years was discovering that I could read Einstein's evolution of physics and be thrilled by that while listening to LP recordings of Chopin's piano music. It was a double dosing of two things that I love of. There were other things that I loved even more like playing baseball and eating my grandmother's lasagna.

[00:04:47] You know, that that was part of the scene as well. But I got hooked. I got hooked on that reading and hooked on the listening. And as I'd like to say, I'd like to say back then, I felt that my mind was being molded. Note the pun by the experience of these two great inputs. And that has stuck with me and strangely so. Immediately out of RPI,  I imagined a future in the sciences gradually migrating into the field of education, but with music, poetry, and literature as the kind of inner nourishment.

[00:05:31] But very soon in those years that followed a great colleague and friend of mine, Rich Al Bagley, who was also an RPI graduate. He and I decided to found a nonprofit. We called it Associated Solo Artists. The peculiarity of our doing that was that we were both newly minted scientists and we had no formal background in the arts. 

[00:05:55] But we felt that it was incumbent upon us to move into that field. We had felt the internal nourishment and stimulation of the arts, perhaps most especially music. And we knew it would be coming. Thereafter Rich went off to Eastman and I went off to Manhattan and Juilliard schools of Music. And so the prophecy was in a sense fulfilled. And in the two decades from 1972 to 1992, that initial non-profit ASA, Associated Solo Artists,

[00:06:31] became the vehicle for our interdisciplinary explorations, juxtaposing experiences in the science with experiences in the arts and music to create a different kind of setting for the rising generation to learn and explore and figure out their own path into the world. 

[00:06:52] Jim Stellar: [00:06:52] Right. Yea that's terrific. And as we noted in the bio, you had some significant success in your singing at first, I guess that came first, even singing with Pavarotti. Could you quickly relate that story?

[00:07:05] John Cimino: [00:07:05] Sure. Yes. Yes. During my summers in between teaching astronomy and geology and stuff like that. I did some what I thought of as fun explorations in, in music. One day I opened my mouth and Verdi poured out. It was as astonishing to me as anyone else. And I participated in what was then called the Lake George Opera and it's Apprentice Program. And I had no training in music that is to say, I hardly knew what reading music was all about, but I had a great memory for music and intuition for it. And so I entered into this training program there for a few weeks of the summer memorized some Rigoletto and La Traviata, and the like. Sang it in not only the workshops, but in a culminating performance at the end of the summer and who should be there

[00:08:04] scouting new talent was a representative of the Metropolitan Opera named Bill Knicks. In fact, the Metropolitan Opera Studio, which was sort of the entry level to the Met. And he heard me and he said, gosh, you know we could use you and we could help you out launch your career as an opera singer down in New York.

[00:08:24] And I said, oh gosh, thanks so much. But I'm a scientist and teacher, I'm doing this just for fun. I love it. But it's, you know, it's not my professional goal. And he said how would you like to come to lunch tomorrow? I'll pay. Now being a 24, 25 year old, I always said yes to a free lunch. During that meeting, he in effect, read me a kind of riot act. He said you have been given a biological gift through your family. You can't take personal credit for it. The credit, belongs to everyone who lived before you, but you owe it to your family and to yourself to explore this musical gift, this gift of a Mediterranean sounding baritone voice.  

[00:09:15] And then came his beautiful offer. He said, if you can steal some time from your teaching over the next year, I'm going to invite you down to the Metropolitan Opera. We'll introduce you around to all the conductors and singers, and you can get to know that world and then let us know what you think. Well, I took him up on that offer and I absolutely fell in love with everything to do with the whole affair of opera.

[00:09:38] I was in awe of the great singers. And I was being told that you sound like the young Robert Merrill. Oh, this is fantastic. But of course my eyes went like this is that possibly real. The long and the short of it was the following year, I enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music on a wonderful scholarship and then a similar scholarship situation at Juilliard.

[00:10:03] And along the way, learn that there were such things as singing competitions. And so I said, all right, I am poor, I don't have any money. Let me see what I can do. And at first I entered a few competitions up in the Albany area. Linked to the Schenectady Light Opera and the Albany League of Arts. And I won all those competitions.

[00:10:24] The prizes were on the order of $25 enough to take me and my pianist out for a pizza, which was ample reward already. I think I was in the right profession now, but I then discovered along the way that Pavarotti, who was at the height of his powers at that time, had sponsored an international singing competition, and the long and the short of that story,

[00:10:48] And it's quite a long and an intriguing story is that I was one of the winners of that competition. The grand finals were held in Philadelphia and the prize was some money, which again was a very helpful, but better still was the opportunity to perform with Pavarotti at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, performing the opera La Boheme, which happens to have a terrific duet for the tenor and the baritone.

[00:11:16] Imagine the larger than life Pavarotti and the miniature here, John Cimino. But the extraordinary thing was that our voices actually blended well, we must've come from the same part of Italy in our ancestors. And of course that gave a great boost to my young singing career. I ultimately won 20 or so such competitions around the world.

[00:11:39] And suddenly there, I was singing at New York City Opera, with the San Francisco Opera, on tour singing Rigoletto. And a new dimension of my life was launched. 

[00:11:50] Jim Stellar: [00:11:50] But that new dimension took a turn and you decided to integrate what you described earlier as two emotional experiences reading Einstein and listening to classical music and bringing them together into what you currently do.

[00:12:06] And as I believe that had a mentor involved and that mentor was someone we both know Vartan Gregorian, who had a distinguished career, but ended up as the head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. So maybe you could relate to us about that, because that seems to me, John, to almost be another kind of emotional experience that shapes you.

[00:12:50] John Cimino: [00:12:50] Yes. When I was freshly enrolled at Juilliard's American opera center, I was, I had an apartment in New York city and a friend had passed along an article about this gentlemen, Vartan Gregorian, who at the time was the president of the New York Public Library and was working wonders to bring that institution back online as a flourishing center of knowledge and community. And I read the article about it, and he spoke of something called the unity of knowledge and knowledge integration. And I said, oh boy, this is, this is what I'm endeavoring to do with my life. Yes, that was stirring in the 

[00:13:12] opera classical music dimension at the time.  But I was already sold on the interdisciplinarity and the larger connectivity of the disciplines. Yeah, I, I just have to talk to this man and I was able to connect with his office. Open-heartedly he welcomed me in and I was visiting at his offices at the library, basically sitting at his knee, listening to the great man talk while somehow I entertained him with my youthful curiosity and enthusiasm. And a friendship was struck up.

[00:13:50] I don't know how many times we had those conversations over the years, but that friendship and conversation persisted until his passing, which as you know, it was just a couple of months ago, a dear friend for more than 35 years. And essentially any idea that was bubbling up in my mind as something that felt fascinating, I would bring to him and we would talk it over.

[00:14:50] And he was thrilled with the notion of what I had early on invented as a concert of ideas, the bringing together of disciplines and multi-sensory channels for communicating those ideas. You said, John, this is your million dollar idea. And if you ever talked to other funders about this, make sure they know it and you can tell them that I said so.

[00:14:39] And so, you know, that was a great validation. But rounding up to this creation of the Renaissance Center in which Vartan played an extraordinary role. In the last decade, he and I had many conversations about that concept, and sure enough in the late fall of 2016, I received an unexpected, but fantastic phone call from Vartan saying, John, the time has come for you to set up your Renaissance Center.

[00:15:30] And a certain someone had recently been elected into the white house and he perceived the need to be greater now than ever before. And Lord knows he was right. And you said the rising generation needs to understand critical thinking and imagination, how to think for themselves and not be sidetracked by this recklessness in journalism and politics.

[00:16:15] So I, of course, was thrilled with everything he had to say. And he said, I'm going to help you find just the right location to establish the Renaissance Center in an excellent university. And I'll also help you with the initial funds to start things up. But I was fully expecting that he was going to suggest something like Brown or Princeton and, you know, he was the President of Brown and had been a supporter of both Princeton and the Institute for advanced studies nearby. 

[00:16:12] But he happened to ask the question. John, tell me, what are you doing right now? What is your creative leaps international team up to? And I said, well, we're doing this project at the University at Albany. It’s a strategic planning process.

[00:16:26] And I'm working with the faculty to get them to talk to one another in a positive frame and to generate some new ideas that would be part of the future of the university. And I've made a new friend he's the Provost actually now Interim President. His name is Jim Stellar 

[00:16:47] And he said, Jim Stellar. I know him. in fact, I knew I knew his father, and I knew Jim when he was a young boy. Well you tell Jim Stellar that Vartan says the Renaissance Center is going to be set up at the University at Albany, and we're going to do it together. I said, this is fantastic. I mean, he clearly had a great affection for you, Jim. And he thought that the three of us working together was just the kind of trust and partnership that would be needed to do this rather complex and difficult thing of setting up a new type of institution, the Renaissance center that would serve higher education and serve world more broadly as all of us need to accentuate what we can share with one another. That is to say the connectivity of perspectives in order to address the more complex and urgent issues that surround us. 

[00:17:53] Jim Stellar: [00:17:53] And I remember when you told me about this being blown away myself, because Vartan was a force of nature within the academic community, not only because of his sitting on top of the Carnegie Corporation endowment, but more importantly because of his great intellect and passion and love for him that existed from the very beginning, including when I knew him as Dean of arts and sciences under my father, who was provost at the university of Pennsylvania.

[00:18:20] And we had a great run of this. And I think I want to spend a few minutes talking about the theory of what we were trying to do together and the project we accomplished. But before we do that, there's one other point that I think is good for this blog in particular, which will drive, I think the concept of the Renaissance center. And that is a phrase I've heard you say so often. And it's about setting the heart and mind. In curious, exploratory motion. And I resonate with that so much. And your paper “To think as nature thinks,” because I think it touches my interest in how one learns from direct experience in college to compliment what one's learning from the academic curriculum.

[00:19:04] So if you could just say a few words, John, about what you mean by setting the heart and mind and curious exploratory motion, I would appreciate it.

[00:19:11] John Cimino: [00:19:11]  Oh, gosh, thank you. Yes, it's become the central tenant of our methodology. As you know, we've come to work and utilize this methodology across many disciplines in projects with the Aspen Institute, the White House, the United nations, dozens of corporations and universities. And each one of those institutions brings forward a particular challenge.

[00:19:39] In the case of UAlbany the initial challenge was strategic planning. In the case of the Red Cross, after hurricane Katrina, it was a sense of renewal, and rebuilding, not just structures, but the interior of people who had spent every last bit of their personal energies on behalf of others, and were now entirely depleted. Each project has its own agenda. 

[00:20:05] Now, certainly we, my colleagues and I at creative leaps international, and now the Renaissance center. We knew very well that we didn't have the expertise to solve everybody's problems. That couldn't possibly be our goal in any of these situations. But what we had learned to do along the way was to prepare the mind, to prepare the entirety of our human capacity, to be in dialogue with one another. It'd be connected to the potential that lives in our imagination, in our intuitions and the knowledge which sleeps within us, that we may have acquired at all different points in our life.

[00:20:51] And then to be fully present to what is happening now, around us, the issues, the people. In other words, to tune ourselves to both our gifts. And the challenges and the elements in front of us. Some would call that being fully present. So there it is. But our strategy by way of setting the mind and heart and curious exploratory emotion was to provide selected sources of stimulation from a poem, from

[00:22:16] a quotation from, from Einstein or Richard Fineman or Margaret Mead that causes you to kind of rebalance. A good friend of mine, Stan Miscavige from the Center for Creative Leadership, had a name for this. He called it positive turbulence, positive turbulence. Turbulence to have you rebalancing your rowboat, you know, and to be conscious of what's going on to recalculate. How your mind and heart working. And so we have through the concerts of ideas and, and other techniques created storylines, musical experiences, which engage you at the level of imagination and emotion, personal history through story that we tell whether it's the story of Don Quixote. Or excerpts of a short story that, that we might share with some musical background.

[00:22:27] We, we set the narrative part of our mind in motion and what begins to travel along that narrative path. And as we follow some character or storyline, we're also in a sense, feeling it ourselves internally. And connecting our own personal history to whatever's going on in that moment. So one dons Don Quixote's night of armor, a coat of armor for a few moments and sees oneself in that role for a moment. And how does it feel? Does it feel absurd? Is it like hiding? Is it wonderful? And we begin to enter into that space, the space of, what a dear friend - I'm blanking on her name - oh, Maxine Green. Yes. Maxine Green called it the not yet. The not yet. That area of possibility. When steps into that space explores it is engaged one experiences, a kind of flow experience as you were there.

[00:23:30] And we are not delivering answers. We are just setting the stage for those explorations, which are sensory, which are emotional, which are full of imagination, which is a kind of interior sensing of our, of our capacities as a person. So this is, I think, what, what we mean by setting the heart and mind in curious, exploratory motion. The curiosity, and the sense of story drive us forward. You know, we don't have to propel someone to do something or persuade them. It happens through a sense of curiosity and play. In fact, we have this expression when art works plays the thing. You know, we want the arts to work their magic, and. You don't have to force it on anybody. All you have to do is captivate them and embrace them with the sensory possibilities, in fact to play.

[00:24:31] So we borrow from Shakespeare. The play's the thing. When we say play is the thing. Yes, indeed. Play you'll enter into that space. And, you know one of the things we do accentuate when we, we perceive that our participants are engaged in this play is to help them to appreciate just how important it is.

[00:24:54] So if we're for a moment playing a musical exercise, we call snippets where our flutist might play 20 or 30 seconds of some delightful piece of music. The question before us becomes, how does the music make you feel? We don't care what the composer was feeling or even what our lovely flutist is feeling. We want to know what you are feeling in this moment. 

[00:25:44] So it is not just an exercise in aesthetics. It's an exercise in consulting inward. And so we play this game and we'll hear one answer. I felt melancholy. I felt peaceful. I felt very thoughtful. Now no one uses the same words to describe their inner experience. Everybody's inner experience is obviously unique to them, but something wonderful happens as we hear the inner experiences of others around us. When the next person is about to speak, we are on the edge of our seat because we want to know what that person was thinking, because once we hear it, We empathically try to enter into that space.

[00:26:09] He said, yes, I can sense the melancholy there. You know, and I can also sense the peacefulness, this entering into the minds and hearts of others is clearly an important thing. And that's what, one of the things we endeavor to do through the snippet exercise, through the concert of ideas, we alternate with a question like this. What do you see with your mind's eye? And now we'll hear a little stories. I see a cute little girl on her bicycle, riding down the street on a summer's day. I said, okay, what color was her bicycle? And they'll think for a moment. 

[00:26:50] Oh yeah, it was pink. What kind of sneakers was she wearing? What was she wearing? Sandals. Whoa, let me think about that. Let me see it. She was wearing Keds sneakers. Okay. And were you there near her or you looking from a distance, were you part of the senior self and they'll respond? The reason I asked them to keep consulting their imagination is to notice the detail. So only by noticing that it comes to life for us, and it's only by it's coming to life that the fruits of our imagination can ever achieve importance in our life. And of course, that's one of the big underlying reasons for doing this. Not only to exercise the imagination muscle, but to declare that it's important, it's a place to give our attention. 

[00:28:41] Jim Stellar: [00:27:46] John, that was brilliant. I must say I've gotten some chills listening to you speak right now. Not only because of its relevance to experiential education, but also because of its relevance to the world at large and the need for community and understanding going from politics to a simple classroom. Now we are about out of time. So I think what we should do now is perhaps give you the last word on your aspirations for the Renaissance center and what we've done so far. And if you could be brief in that, I'd appreciate it.

[00:29:21] And then we'll wrap this up, and I think you're a little speech that you just gave is one of the high points of this podcast. 

[00:29:30] John Cimino: [00:28:30] Oh, gosh. Thank you, Joe. Thank you. 

[00:29:32] Jim Stellar: [00:28:32] So do you want to say something about the Renaissance center and then we'll have to wrap because we're running out of time. 

[00:29:38] John Cimino: [00:28:38] Okay. Well, there, there are a couple of founding principles that are captured in just a few signature words or concepts. One is imagination,  which is generative. The other is synergy, which is integrated. Similarly, one is creativity again, generative. The other is connectivity, which again is integrative. And so we want to be both generative and integrative.

[00:30:15] And this is our pathway inward to any relationship that the Renaissance center establishes with it's a host institution or partners. Now we were fortunate enough through Vartan, as you know, to run our pilot year, it was actually 18 months, at the University at Albany. And as you know, the initial activities, even before the relationship was formalized, was helping faculty to contribute to the strategic planning that was in progress at that time.

[00:30:53] Well, once we were in a sense active on campus, we used a set of concerts of ideas to engage with different aspects of the university community, with the senior leadership community and leaders from the Albany region, for one, certainly with the faculty, of course, and thirdly with students. And each one of these events, concerts of ideas, discussion circles that followed, distillations of that process revealed directions of growth and activity that we could potentially follow in years to come. 

[00:31:32] The one that proved most compelling to senior administration, and most especially to you, was endeavoring to elevate the quality of teaching of the faculty at the university. Here, we had dedicated professionals. Experts in their specialties. Very few of  which had had any training in the art and practice of teaching. And so we wanted to provide a boost there and we were able to partner with your center for teaching and learning. And ran a program that spanned roughly 24 weeks and proved to be a very successful exercise in interdisciplinary approaches to forming a community of practice, and so on. That, in a sense, was perhaps the strongest part of our legacy during that year and a half. 

[00:31:34] We spoke to Vartan about what to do next. And he said, go higher. And what he meant was approach the Chancellor and the Provost of the SUNY system. And as you know, we have been in dialogue with both the most recent Provost and Chancellor, and now the, the new Chancellor and Provost and these conversations are intriguing. We're still learning about one another, but things look quite promising.  And our aspiration, if successful, is to form a partnership at the chancellor's level, so that the Renaissance Center can be of service, not just to one institution, such as the university at Albany, but potentially to the 60 plus institutions across the State.

[00:32:22] That's our aspiration. And beyond our affiliation with academia, we're looking to engage with a whole collection of other institutions that are important in addressing complex issues, such as the United Nations, with the Center for Creative Leadership, the Aspen Institute, perhaps the Biden and White House, which will enable us to use our methodology to gather intelligence from multiple perspectives, multiple  generations, economic sectors, different specialties, convene, generate, and connect. 

[00:34:05] Jim Stellar: [00:35:05] John, that's a terrific way to end this podcast because you just took that very thoughtful intellectual speech about setting the heart and mind in curious motion and brought it down to a practical level where it can actually do some good in the world.

[00:34:24] And it certainly was my pleasure to work with you at the University at Albany. And I hope that other institutions ranging from SUNY to other places, including some of the ones you mentioned that are not universities, will take up this idea of the Renaissance Center. What a great name also for it.

[00:34:43] So with that, I would like to thank you and I'm going to now stop the recording. 

[00:34:50] Mary Churchill: [00:33:50] Thank you for listening. We hope you will come back soon for the next installation of ExperiencED. 

00:34:55] Adrienne Dooley: As we continue to talk about the neuroscience and sociology of enhancing higher education

[00:35:01] Jim Stellar: by combining direct experience with classical academic learning.