It was the piece that ended Raymond Ou’s piano career. Over a decade later, it was the piece that brought him to Yale.
In 1992, a nervous 17-year-old seeking a spot at Baltimore’s elite Peabody Institute, Ou chose as his audition piece Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” often called the world’s hardest piece to play.
For Ou — whom the Yale College Dean’s Office selected in August as the head of its freshman-affairs division — it was a bold choice. Ravel stacked the composition with complexity. Parts of the piece required the pianist to play with the left hand crossed over the right. While most piano pieces are written with two staves, Ravel wrote parts of “Gaspard” in three in order to fit all the notes.
Ou, who first touched the keys at the age of four, played it and was accepted to study piano performance at Peabody.
But “Gaspard” crippled his wrists. For two years, surrounded by the finest piano students and teachers in the world, Ou had to stop playing. The pain in his overused wrists was too great.
“I couldn’t even open a Snapple bottle,” he recalled. “It gave me a lot of time to reflect on the whole realm of the human experience.”
So Ou turned to psychology, developing an interest in counseling and advising that would lead him back to Peabody after graduation to work as a residence-life coordinator.
“Basically he was so stellar at that, he started to assume more and more advanced roles here at Peabody,” said Emily Frank, associate dean of student affairs at Peabody and Ou’s former supervisor.
Within a few years of starting at Peabody, Ou was supervising the school’s summer conferences and handling student-activities work for both Peabody and the affiliated Johns Hopkins University.
“He had really great ideas and good insight into what was going on,” said Malori Fuchs, a Peabody senior and co-chair of OASIS, Peabody’s student government. “He was a great person to talk to when you were having issues with any number of things.”
Yale will present new challenges to Ou, who is assuming most of the responsibilities that formerly belonged to George Levesque, the University’s first-ever dean of freshman affairs who is now narrowing his focus on the academic aspects of freshman year. The University’s freshman population alone is twice the size of Peabody’s entire student body.
Ou arrived on campus two weeks ago, just in time for freshman orientation. In a few months, he will have to put those observations to work and plan orientation for the class of 2013. Frank said she believes he will bring a rationality to challenges like these, along with what she termed “an emotional component” developed through his training as a musician.
Both attributes will be tested this year as Ou coordinates a massive overhaul of the freshman-counselor program — a proposal sure to prompt heated discussion among some students through September 2009, when changes merging the freshman- and ethnic-counselor positions are slated to go live.
“He’s spearheading that with the Intercultural Affairs Council,” Levesque said. “The structure’s in place, but there’s a lot of work to do in refining job descriptions for freshman counselors, peer mentors and intercultural programmers in the colleges.”
Executing the shift will require Ou and other Dean’s Office officials to balance their goal of enhanced cultural support with the concerns of residential-college administrators and students anxious about the end of the ethnic-counselor program.
“Everyone seems to have a different perspective as to what that should look like,” Ou said. “So I think I’m going to get all those different perspectives, and see after I get that information, and reflect on it, and also ask students what they think.”
Ou said he plans to spend the better part of the coming year observing University operations and meeting with students.
It is an uncertain beginning, and one Ou said he approaches with excitement and enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, Ou finds a way to explain his management philosophy through music. The fluttering notes and movements of his beloved “Gaspard” resemble an Impressionist painting, he said, filled with the same ambiguity that comes with working in higher education.
“I like that because it’s not — the clarity is not there as in a Beethoven or a Mozart,” he said of the piece that changed his life years ago. “Just like if you work in student affairs and you think you can interact with every student the same way — you can’t do that.”