Brian Mackintosh ’02 shares invaluable memories of his time at NEC and how his music education influences his financial work as Chief Actuary at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.
“I’ll always remember a poster Ken Radnofsky had in his studio. It was a simple photo of Yo-Yo Ma practicing a piece and the caption read, “Craftsmanship is in the details.” Sitting in the studio and poring over what sometimes appeared to be a very simple phrase of music revealed that you can’t just take the music for granted – put your heart into each piece or it will come off as just “going through the paces” no matter how technically proficient you are.”
1) Class year and degree program at NEC:
I participated in the dual-degree program between NEC and Tufts University. I graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor of Music in Saxophone Performance from NEC, and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Tufts.
2) Current job title/employer
I am the Chief Actuary at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. Actuaries are financial professionals that evaluate risk to ensure that premiums will cover the expected total cost of claims.
3) Why did you choose NEC?
I grew up in the Boston suburbs, playing saxophone in my local band and a few area groups. In high school I became more aware of the Boston arts scene, participating in Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble (MYWE). I met Ken Radnofsky, who would be my saxophone professor at NEC.
When it came time to look at college, I knew I wanted to study music to its fullest, while also studying math or science. The joint program between NEC and Tufts University allowed me to do just that. It was very challenging to attend both schools at the same time, but also very rewarding.
4) What are some of your favorite memories from your time at NEC?
High level of musicianship
Classes with Ken’s saxophone studio and saxophone quartets. The saxophonists were simply amazing. Coming in as a freshman and seeing (and hearing) the talent in the studio set a super high bar. We challenged each other to take our musicianship to the highest level.
Having a backstage pass to guest artist careers.
Master classes with guest artists who were phenomenal and the genuine interest and feedback they gave to the students who played for them. I particularly remember Phil Woods coming to NEC and was enthralled to hear him explain how he thought through his music and reflections on his life in jazz. It was like having a backstage pass to his career. Artists like this allowed us to see what the top of our craft looked like and that, with a ton of work, we could be there too someday.
Going outside of my comfort zone.
I particularly remember taking a conducting class with Bill Drury. Students took turns conducting the class - who as NEC musicians could naturally play the pieces well, even with a terrible student conductor like me missing cues left and right. Bill challenged us to up our leadership and preparation, routinely stopping the music to instruct the conductors on technique and presence. Sometimes we don’t always feel like being forte, but if that is what the score calls for then you need to dig deep and find it in you to lead the orchestra through the best forte you can. I carry lessons like this with me in my professional life to this day.
The libraries at NEC! I felt like a kid in a candy store.
The instrumental library, in the bowels of the main building, allowed me to play baritone, tenor, and soprano sax on many pieces in addition to my usual alto. During a conductor symposium week when woodwinds were in high demand, I was tapped to play contrabass clarinet, which was both fun and terrifying. NEC even rented a rare bass saxophone that was called for in a Charles Ives piece the Wind Ensemble performed. I think they assumed that as a tall guy, I had the lung support for that beast and remember thinking the reed on that huge horn was like a tongue depressor!
The Spaulding and Firestone libraries were amazing for a kid coming from the suburbs. You could find the strangest pieces of music on those racks. I thought they were great 20 years ago, even if they were showing their age. Last summer, I stopped in the new library for the first time and my mind was blown away at how contemporary and spacious it is - it is a real jewel of the campus today.
Performing pieces for their composers and getting instant feedback and insight.
This included Professor Daniel Pinkham as well as several composers, including John Harbison, who were commissioned by Ken Radnofsky to write works for saxophone. I even remember a road trip my sax quarter took to NYC to perform a Charles Wuorinen quartet for the composer at his home.
5) How have your NEC experiences shaped your artistic approach to your profession?
Every performance is unique, even for a given piece of music. There may be common conventions in music, but in performance there is no textbook “right” answer. This variety is why we continue to attend—and need—live music, rather than replaying the same clip on YouTube for the rest of our lives.
In my profession, actuaries are tasked with estimating future insurance claim costs. Nobody can predict the future, but we have many statistical tools and data analytics at our disposal. Even though there are standards of practice to make these estimates, no two actuaries would ever arrive at the same exact estimate. They may arrive at two equally “valid” estimates, but the importance is that they’ve documented their rationale and supported their conclusions with evidence and analysis. As that Yo-Yo Ma poster in Ken’s office noted, the craftsmanship is in the details!
Other ways that NEC has shaped my professional life:
Public speaking. I’m an introverted person by nature, but as a performer I learned to leave everything on the stage and put your all into the performance. I’ve leveraged this skill many times when giving presentations to company management or external stakeholders. Yes, you may hit a wrong note or say something stupid, but with enough practice and preparation you can put the odds in your favor that you will excel.
Creativity and grit. The amount of new music coming out of NEC is amazing. As a student performer, I routinely got to play some very difficult pieces that nobody had heard before. Without the ability to listen to a previous recording, it required significantly more practice, reflection, and often dialogue with the composer. Today we are all living through an unprecedented public health crisis. As an actuary charged with leading my health insurer’s estimates of future claims, this is a daunting challenge. But just because the situation is new and complex does not mean it is impossible.
Teamwork. As an orchestra, band, or small ensemble, we succeed together or fail together. The camaraderie I found at NEC challenged me to be a better musician so that together we could rise to the performance. I lead my teams today with the same philosophy, challenging all of us to continue to grow professionally and value the diversity that we each bring and makes our collective team stronger for it.
6) How have you taken advantage of the current situation to create opportunities to keep making music?
I’ve used the time to focus on the next generation of musicians in my house! I knew it would happen eventually, but my 10 and 7 year olds have officially eclipsed my piano technique. One bonus of being home during the pandemic has been helping my older kids continue with their piano lessons via Zoom. I’m also helping our 3-year-old control his breathing on the Irish tin whistle (“nice and gentle, nice and gentle!”), although we are still stuck on lesson one of ukulele playing (“stop turning the tuning pegs!”).
7) What projects are you currently working on/ or anything you would like to share with the community?
Once or twice a year I volunteer for local non-profit theater groups and sit in with their pit orchestras for fundraising productions (for scholarships, etc.). I’m impressed with how talented the musicians are in the community productions! Also it is a great way to meet new people in the area and stay connected to the local arts scene.