Juan Sebastian Delgado received his doctorate from the Schulich School of Music in 2017 with a thesis focused on the crossroad between tango and contemporary music through 21st century cello works. He is now an educator and performer, playing and arranging for projects such as the new cello-marimba duo, Stick&Bow.
Q: What motivated you to pursue a doctorate?
I was always a little fascinated by the research component from a performer’s standpoint. McGill had this unique program in which you develop your voice as a researcher, but you’d never leave your mindset as a performer. I thought that was fascinating.
Q: What did you value most about your experience at McGill?
They really teach you how to be critical. As musicians, we think that everything is about practicing eight hours per day in your little box. I was coming from a conservatory in Boston, where everything was on a smaller scale, and everything revolved around the music. McGill is an incredible university in so many different fields (medicine, political science, etc.) which creates an environment where you meet people from different fields and perspectives. That exposure informed my research and my thinking about why I want to be a musician and why I want to be a researcher.
Q: How did you find the transition from graduate school to working?
During my doctorate I was already doing many professional activities. I didn’t sit there and wait to get a phone call once I finished. So, while I was doing my doctorate, I was already engaging with professional festivals, I was doing commissions, I was a guest faculty at some cello festivals, I had a small private studio, etc. By the time I finished, I already had a path that I’d been building for a few years.
Q: Do you think that having a doctorate helps you in your field? When it comes to performing, does anyone respect you more because you have a PhD?
I don’t think so. I would like to tell you yes, because it’s a lot of work, but music is like sports. The moment you get on stage, no one is thinking “He has a PhD so he can play faster and more in tune and he’s more expressive.” Any good musician should be able to do so. So, on one hand, not really. However, on the other hand, the research component informs my own playing in many different levels and therefore, I feel I have more ideas to try out, more imagination for my interpretations. So, without a doubt, all the experiences that I had during my PhD helped me to be a better cellist and musician, so it’s not black and white.
Q: Can you tell me about some of the key mentorship or support opportunities that you had through the professors at McGill? Who helped you the most?
My cello teacher, Matt Haimovitz, had a Grammy-nominated all-cello ensemble. My first year as a Master’s student, Matt invited me to play with him and his ensemble. We toured in the States and I was part of a video recording. It was very inspiring to work with Haimovitz all those years. After that, I played at the John Cage Festival at McGill and I was featured as a soloist with the McGill contemporary ensemble featuring a commissioned concerto that was written for me.
McGill prepares you really well. I loved the colloquiums and the workshops for grant writing. They would bring teachers from different disciplines and you would come with your essay and they would correct it and give you a lot of ideas.
I worked a lot with Eleanor Stubley—she was fantastic. Unfortunately, she passed away a few years ago, which was very sad. She helped me to think critically because she was really meticulous and detailed-oriented. I remember days when I wanted to cry because I had been working for a whole week and yet nothing in my draft was good. But later, I was nominated for a Vanier Scholarship, which is highly competitive. I was the only one nominated from the music department. Even though I didn’t pass to the next phase of the competition, I used those writings in many other projects.
Q: How much of a difference does funding make in where you would choose to get a doctorate?
Huge. For me it was essential to have a scholarship. I worked hard applying to a lot of different opportunities and I was lucky that McGill offered me a full scholarship because I’m not Canadian, so I don’t qualify for SSHRC or any other Canadian grants. Unfortunately, Argentina, my home country, doesn’t provide much financial help at this level of education. As an international student, balancing the financial aspect with academic performance and personal expectations can be extremely difficult along the way and for that reason, I’m thankful to McGill. Without their funding I would not have been able to finish the degree.
Q: How was it connecting with other doctoral students in your class?
There was not that much interaction and I think they were trying to improve that aspect of the program. At the colloquiums people didn’t interact much—it seemed to me that everybody was focused on their own projects and interests. There were a lot of moments where you felt lonely in the process because you talk to research academics and they give you one perspective, but it’s not really what you’re going for because you’re still a performer. Then you go to your musician teachers who are excellent performers, but not necessarily researchers. So you’re missing that point in between. Not exactly knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing can be very frustrating. Talking to some other people who are in the same boat can help a lot in the process, but there wasn’t a really good network of students. Maybe that has changed now.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you now in the working world?
I perform regularly and I also teach a lot. I have been teaching cello at Share the Warmth Foundation, which has a music program based in El Sistema. I also taught a graduate seminar at McGill on the history of the tango, a seminar I created and structured. The practice side is really important because I’m really focused on my new project, Stick&Bow. It’s an instrumental duo—marimba and cello. We arrange music from different styles and eras as well as we commission new works to living composers. We released our first album last November, it’s called Resonance and we were touring with Jeunesse Musicale in Eastern Canada and later in Europe. In upcoming concerts, we will be playing at Salle Bourgie, Bach Festival, and Festival Classica among other venues. I’m also very lucky to be playing with some really excellent players and colleagues in interesting projects such as chamber music, recording projects, and research-creation working with living composers.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting a doctorate?
Explore all sorts of things. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. Play as much as you can and do things that are interesting for your career. I was lucky that I taught a seminar at McGill based on my doctoral topic. A lot of people write a thesis and they put it in a drawer and that’s it. I find that kind of sad. So find a real passion within your field of performance and research and try to keep moving in that direction. I think that will make the whole process much more natural and enjoyable.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.