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My Creative Career – Deborah Kelleher, Royal Irish Academy of Music

Monthly career interview with professionals in the not-for-profit sector

What is your current role and how long have you been working in it?

I am Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a role which I have had since late 2010. The RIAM is a national conservatoire of music, with tertiary programmes in music performance and composition, a large pre-college division and an all-island music examination system.

How did you get to where you are today and what influenced your decision to work in your chosen field?

I was a seriously committed young musician – piano performance was everything during my teenage years. So I never really considered any other career path than music in my life. I studied pure music at Trinity, then musicology at UCD. I didn’t feel 100% fulfilled in the traditional roles of music performer or academic, but something drew me to the idea of management. So I did an MBA. That last qualification combined everything for me – music, research, education, organisational skills, and creativity – and made me consider the idea of conservatoire leadership my path.

What do you love/enjoy most about your job?

New ideas. A fresh look at a traditional model. Doing something better and differently than others. I adore the moments at work, and they are pretty frequent, where someone in the team comes up with an idea that brings music education forward in some way. I believe that RIAM has the intellectual and creative heft in music education to stand beside the world’s best, when we are at our more creative.

And what are the most challenging parts of your job?

Like all organisations, we are coming out of a recession. Government embargoes on hiring meant that we have been under-resourced in administration in particular. I find it difficult to constantly drive my small and dedicated team to achieve more with less, and am humbled when they do so with grace. There is work to do here.

How do you relax?

My best relaxing activity is a nightly walk by the sea. I march around my part of the coast like a dressage horse, listening to romantic violin concerti. For an extra thrill, I might go for the cello repertoire. I adore vocal music but I couldn’t put that on and listen to my own thoughts, so I gave up on that.  I find the walk clears up a lot of mental clutter from the day.

What skills and personality traits do you think are essential for a job like yours?

I think the skills that I have that suit the job include a capacity to look externally and absorb trends and shifts in the music profession and wider world; I am extremely deadline driven; and I am pretty slow to anger. The skill that I need to work on for my job is having patience. That comes from a personality trait in which I want answers yesterday……..or the day before yesterday.

What’s your advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in the same field?

The best advice I could give to students who might someday want to get into conservatoire leadership is to participate in activities of the Association of European Conservatoires, of which I am a Vice-President. This is an international body that is looking at the future of conservatoires and their significance in society and students participate in all working groups. For those emerging professionals who wish to get into music leadership, I can say that the MBA was a game changer for me. In general as advice, I remember deciding in my twenties not to turn a work opportunity down (as I hadn’t found my niche). I started in the RIAM teaching history for 1 hour 15 minutes on a Friday afternoon when I was already a busy musician, and it grew from there.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

This is a tough one. I have been lucky to have had some great mentors over the years, but there is no one piece of advice that stands out. The best ongoing advice I get is from the Chair of the Board of Governors of the RIAM, Dr. Dennis Jennings. RIAM is fortunate at this time to have his expertise and support.

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

The best moment so far was probably the day I signed the agreement with Trinity College Dublin making RIAM an associate college (2014). The opportunity here is immense, and we are only beginning to explore it.

What are your career aspirations?

We recently presented John Wallace (former Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) with a Fellowship of the RIAM. In the citation, I noted that he had: improved the RCS’s annual funding; re-developed their building on Renfrew Street; and modernised their offer and curricula. After all of that, they were ranked the 3rd highest performing arts school in the world. That is similar to my roadmap at RIAM.

If you’re a professional who works in the not-for-profit sector and you’re interested in taking part in the ‘My Charity Career’ interview series, please get in touch by emailing to  We’d love to hear from you!