He leans over a box, using two rubber mallets to tap on a score of steel strings few would recognize.
He says Yo-Yo Ma is fun to work with.
He is one-half Hungarian, but he speaks fluent Spanish.
Laurence Kaptain is a teacher, composer, administrator, lecturer, musician, author and scholar, but he is also one of about 10 professional cimbalom players in the United States.
Born to a Hungarian native and raised in a Hungarian enclave of Chicago called Elgin, Ill., Kaptain was exposed to the cimbalom at an early age and has been playing it for more than 30 years.
Kaptain was awarded a grant to study the cimbalom in Budapest, Hungary in 1981. Since then, he has performed with major North American, Mexican and European symphonic ensembles for more than two decades.
Most recently Kaptain has appeared with the New York Philharmonic in a recording that has been issued on iTunes and included actor Alec Baldwin. He has performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and even multiple times with pop artist and composer Elvis Costello, who composed two ballets that featured Kaptain’s cimbalom.
There are only a few hundred cimbalom players in the United States, most of whom play it for its original use as a folk instrument.
“That was my ticket into all of this, the cimbalom,” Kaptain said.
After graduating from Ball State University in 1974, Kaptain obtained a master’s degree in music for percussion from the University of Miami and a doctorate of musical arts in percussion performance from the University of Michigan in 1987, where he was the first person to receive a doctorate in percussion instruments at that university.
Kaptain currently leads program development and fundraising efforts for the artistic and intellectual growth of more than 600 full-time students, 80 faculty and 20 professional staff members. He administers a $12 million annual budget and leads the provision of more than 500 performances, plays, concerts and special events to live audiences of more than 1.6 million.
Not only is Kaptain a rare musician and the dean of a nationally renowned college of music and theatre, but he is also heavily involved as an advocate for strengthening the relationship between creativity and higher education through the arts. During his time at the University, he has created multiple traveling opportunities for students and faculty, including three performances in Carnegie Recital Hall and two at the Lincoln Center.
Known by both students and faculty as energetic and kind, Kaptain said he’s dedicated to expanding the mind of every student as well as improving the program for the future.
“I really like doing all I can to assure student success and faculty attainment. When I get to travel with students, it is always inspiring to learn what they are getting from LSU and how they are contributing to the richness of our creative community,” Kaptain said. “Since arriving in 2009, our faculty and students are traveling a lot more, even with our budgetary difficulties.”
Between 1975 and 1994, Kaptain taught and lectured about music at schools in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri and Mexico, even receiving the Muriel Kauffman Excellence in Teaching Award in 1994.
Before arriving at the University in July 2009, Kaptain was dean of Shenandoah Conservatory, director of the Schwob School of Music in Georgia and vice provost for Faculty Programs and Academic Quality at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
From 2006 to 2009 at the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, Kaptain spearheaded the design and deployment of an Apple Computer Lab for Creativity and Innovation, which ran as the cover story in Music Education Technology Magazine. He also increased the number of new students by 62, scholarships by 40 percent and enrollment at summer camps by 50 percent.
Jessica Jain, a third-year Master of Fine Arts student in theatre, said Kaptain is friendly and supportive.
“He always comes to all of our shows and projects and even laughs at all of my really bad jokes. What more could you want from a dean?” Jain said. “He’s really down to earth and approachable. If I ever needed to talk to him about something, he would be receptive and responsive.”
As dean of the CMDA, Kaptain was nominated as an “Apple Distinguished Educator” and hired innovative staff, including the CMDA’s first web master, an in-house graphic designer, an audience services director, a digital media specialist and a full-time marketing coordinator.
“On campus, we have supported our faculty in forming a collaboration between engineering and the CMDA called EnOvation,” Kaptain said. “Right now, we have 12 faculty engaged in learning how we can build a stronger LSU through collaboration, creativity and innovation.”
He is featured in international higher education consultant Peter Seldin’s book, “The Administrative Portfolio” and lectures internationally about higher education, communication and improving faculty teaching and student learning.
Music alumnus Raul Gomez weighed in on Kaptain’s achievements and advancements in the CMDA.
“Dean Kaptain has definitely ushered the College of Music and Dramatic Arts into the new millennium, implementing cutting-edge strategies for growth and development,” Gomez said. “He is a visionary and has worked tirelessly to increase the national visibility of our program.”