On Dec. 31, 2020, the College of Music will not only wrap up its Centennial year; it will also close out the Shay administration, as Dean Robert Shay steps down as dean and joins the faculty as a professor of musicology. After more than 20 years in full-time administration, Dean Shay says he is excited to reconnect with students and get back to research into early English music, particularly that of Henry Purcell.
But before he hands over the reins to the next dean, we wanted to tell Dean Shay’s story in full. Going all the way back to his childhood in New England, continuing through his evolution as a vocalist, choral conductor and music scholar … everything leading up to appointment as College of Music dean in 2014, and beyond. Director of Communications Jessie Bauters sat down with Dean Shay last week.
Jessie Bauters: Let’s go way back to the beginning. When did music first become a part of your life? Did you have a parent or any siblings who were musicians?
Robert Shay: I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, the youngest of four siblings, all of whom played an instrument. We had a piano in the house, and my older sisters took piano lessons. My older brother was a good trumpeter, and he played in band in high school.
JB: Walk us through your musical journey. What was the first instrument you picked up?
RS: I actually started out on saxophone when I started band in fifth grade. I’m not sure why I picked that instrument—it seemed unusual to me then. I never got very good at it, so I played through eighth grade and then put it down when I got to high school.
I started to gravitate toward singing at that point, singing in choirs and doing some solo work. That was really the light bulb experience for me. I loved it. Within a couple of years, I was beginning to think about how I could make music a permanent part of my life.
JB: So now that you had this knowledge, that music could be a career for you, where did you take that interest next?
RS: For my undergrad, I studied at Wheaton College in Illinois, first in the BA music program. But I was thinking even then that being a music teacher was something I could do, so I quickly switched my major to music education.
It was only once I got to college, though, that I realized all the possibilities. I was struck at the time by the quality of the choral groups I was singing in. It was so different from high school. So I wound up switching my major again to a BM in voice performance. I was also getting really curious about what the conductors were doing, so that interest started to grow then as well.
JB: So after you graduated with your voice performance undergrad, where did you pursue graduate studies?
RS: For my master’s, I studied at New England Conservatory. I was actually accepted into both the voice performance and choral conducting programs, but I ended up just focusing on choral conducting for my degree, while studying voice throughout. It was another case of the horizons broadening for me in terms of what was out there. I was in Boston, and we had a lot of interactions with professional music groups. Symphony Hall was literally a block away from school.
Boston was also a hotbed at the time for early music and baroque music performance, so during my master’s I began singing professionally with some of those groups and developing an interest in that kind of music. One of the groups I sang with is now called Boston Baroque. We had our Carnegie Hall debut singing Handel’s “Messiah” with a small chorus of about 20 people.
JB: What part did you sing?
RS: I’m a high baritone, but I sing bass in choirs. Most people wouldn’t think that now because when I’m not actively singing my speaking voice tends to migrate up a bit. When I’m more active, though, especially as I was back then, I can traverse the lower range pretty well. But it’s fair to say there wasn’t a natural solo repertoire that I was really comfortable with, and that’s not insignificant in the trajectory of my career. I did do some solo work, singing the bass parts in things like “Messiah” and the Brahms “Requiem,” but those sat a little low for me, so that was a factor in terms of what to do next.
After my master’s, I stayed in Boston, taking a year off to do more singing, but then decided that the best thing for me to do would be to pursue a doctorate in musicology. I saw it at the time as a way to delve deeply into music and become a better overall musician. So I enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
JB: As you entered this new world of musicological study, when did your (well-known to the college) interest in Henry Purcell start to emerge?
RS: I was already gravitating toward early music and had started to develop an affinity for English music in particular. Some research I was doing into Purcell’s music in a seminar class developed into my dissertation project, which opened up a whole new world of research.
I spent about half a year in 1990 in England, studying 17th-century manuscripts and getting to know senior scholars in the field. I would send them letters—this was before email—introducing myself. One was Watkins Shaw, a famous Handel scholar who also worked on earlier English music. He responded to my letter with a note saying to meet him at a specific time in a specific place. He sent no return number to contact him (no way to let him know if I had to reschedule!) so I just went there—to the library at the cathedral in Worcester—and there he was. That was definitely when I started to think, this is not just about getting my dissertation done. This is something I want to keep doing and keep exploring.
JB: When you did finish your dissertation, did you start teaching right away?
RS: It was in 1991, and I initially thought about remaining in Chapel Hill, actually. That spring, my late wife Betsey was pregnant with my daughter Katie, so I envisioned a year taking care of the baby during the day while Betsey worked. But I decided, kind of late in the spring, to hop into the job market.
I landed a job at Arkansas College, which changed its name while I was there to Lyon College, a small liberal arts school in Batesville, Arkansas. There were only two full-time music faculty and about a dozen music majors at any given time, so I taught a little of everything: courses for majors and non-majors, voice lessons, and I directed the only choir. It was fun and I learned a lot.
JB: And it was right around this time that you were working on your book, correct?
RS: Yes. One of the benefits of Lyon was good summer research funding for faculty. Without that, I may not have continued my research career. So I visited England regularly, looking at original manuscripts and doing other archival work. And within a year or two, I started collaborating with a colleague in England, Robert Thompson, on a big Purcell manuscript project.
We both understood that there hadn’t been a thorough assessment of the manuscripts for Purcell’s music previously. Many of the important ones are actually not in his handwriting, so we were looking at differences in the music, identifying copyists and trying to determine which manuscripts carried some sense of Purcell’s authority. So that was a big project: We started in 1992 or 1993 and published our book in 2000.
JB: When did you start to think about making the switch to a more administrative role?
RS: At Lyon, because it was such a small music program, I was immediately thrust into kind of managerial and administrative roles while teaching. By the last two years I was there, I was chair of the fine arts division. When I left Lyon, it was for a full-time administrative role at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Betsey and I were both New Englanders and were always true to our roots, so it felt more like home to be back in Boston. It was a big change: Longy is a conservatory, probably the smallest in the country, but it was developing a niche, attracting students who wanted to focus on service and outreach and bridge their performance training into different creative careers.
At Longy, I was the dean, reporting to the president. But in that structure, I was probably more like the associate deans at the College of Music. There was more contact with students. And the faculty was overwhelmingly part time and made up of musicians from the Boston area, so the leadership had to provide more of the stability and structure than at CU, where that comes from our full-time faculty.
JB: And after several years there, you started to move west again.
RS: Yes. There were a number of reasons I left Longy after eight years, though I think I really felt like I wanted to get back to a more traditional college or university setting, and that led me to the University of Missouri. I was there for six years as director of the School of Music. That wasn’t that different from the work I do today, but it was a school about half the size of our college with much less than half the budget. Our family really liked Columbia. It’s a great college town and we made wonderful friends there, so we were really feeling settled.
There had to be something very special to get us to uproot and move again.
JB: So what was it about CU Boulder that drew you here?
RS: I've said this on several occasions and it really is the truth: I made one job application during my six years at Missouri, and it was to come to CU Boulder. I knew enough about this college to know that it was probably the one situation I would change jobs for.
I had a sense of the vibe of the place. I knew it was in a strong position already. There was an element in my previous positions of having to be kind of a builder and a fixer. And this was an opportunity to go to someplace that was already really strong; to say, all right, we're at a very high level, what do we want to do next? That was an appealing administrative challenge.
I could also see, from the interview process, the quality of the community in terms of everyone's thoughtfulness and engagement, and how deeply people cared about the place.
JB: Tell us about some of your fondest memories of your time as dean.
RS: It was very gratifying to see the strategic planning process play out. Going all the way back to the first retreat we had, in January 2015, the energy was really palpable. Then in February of 2016, when the faculty unanimously approved the plan, that was definitely a highlight. Four faculty members from the steering committee had moved its acceptance, and it was very satisfying to bring something like that forward and have other people help drive it.
Another very special moment was about a year later, in February of 2017, when we publicly launched the music+ campaign. I think many of the music faculty understood that that was a real game changer, to have an event like that with the chancellor and the provost there. Unit-based campaigns like this, where one college takes on a campaign, are pretty rare in higher education. And the fact that we are getting so close to our ambitious $50 million goal—right now we’re near $43.5 million—shows what a success that’s been.
JB: I think a highlight for all of us will be the famous convocation Purcell Trivia Contest.
RS: You know, one of the challenges with this position was how much less routine contact I have with students. It’s the nature of the position. So when I found out what the college had been doing by way of convocations, I thought we could shake it up a little bit. I think it was my second year when we introduced Purcell Trivia as part of that event, and everyone seemed pleased about it. So of course we kept doing it, and that’s been really fun.
JB: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of during your time as dean?
RS: Going back to the interviews, the number one priority for almost everyone was to improve the college's facilities. And so I kind of felt like I had my marching orders coming in the door, which was to do everything possible to make that happen. And fortunately, the CU Boulder administration really stepped up and created a pathway for us to build the building that just opened this semester. So the building, and the fundraising effort, have been the ongoing big lift, and I’ve had amazing people at the front lines—like John Davis, especially—who’ve been at many meetings that I couldn’t attend, having to decide on big things and smaller details every step of the way.
Looking at the goals we set forth in the strategic plan, “the College of Music Advantage,” I think we all have a lot to be proud of in terms of the things we've accomplished. Conspicuous examples like the Carnegie Hall concerts, the continuation of the Cleveland Orchestra residency, the new partnership with the Sibelius Academy in Finland, and the creation of the alumni program in particular.
But these are just the tangible outcomes of the spirit of community that exists and everyone’s desire to work together and build a more ambitious future, and I’m very proud to be a part of that. I’ve tried to say along the way, the new building will be wonderful and we definitely need it, but we can’t get too hung up on it either. It ultimately comes down to the people and the quality of the people. Those are the building blocks of a great music program.
JB: On that note, what advice would you like to give the next dean of the College of Music?
RS: Once again, it’s about the people. And that’s all the various groups: faculty, staff, students, volunteers, donors, board members. I think everyone has seen now what can really happen with a concerted and focused effort: results we can all be very proud of, like the building. So I guess my biggest piece of advice would be to keep people engaged. That’s really powerful in terms of getting things done.
That is especially true right now. It’s going to take a few years to emerge from the situation CU Boulder and the College of Music are in budgetarily because of the pandemic. So keeping people engaged through that is going to be a big part of the next dean's efforts.
The next dean will also face a challenge in balancing the complexity of this organization with the small, family atmosphere that many people want it to be. We’re not just a music department with a couple of hundred students and several faculty. This college includes CU Presents, Macky Auditorium, and a budget that is based partially on auxiliary revenue. Fundraising expectations are also very high. So the dean needs to be able to function at that high level, seeing the big picture, but also nurturing a sense of community and support among individuals.
JB: What are you most looking forward to as you enter this next chapter of your life?
RS: I’m really looking forward to my teaching assignments and getting back to working with students. I want to contribute to the musicology department and hopefully work with students at all levels.
I’m also beginning to reconnect with colleagues about research and expect to devote a lot more energy to that. I have a sabbatical coming up in Fall 2021, and plan to complete an edition of Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas,” which I’ve been working on for some time. This is under contract with the German publisher Bärenreiter.
This change—from dean to faculty member—isn’t exactly happening on the timeline I had imagined a few years ago. But I’ve had some personal challenges that have caused me to reflect a bit more on the timing of this transition and what’s best for me and for the college. I had always pictured myself getting back to teaching and research; this is just a little earlier than I had planned. But I’m actually very excited about it.
I have loved most aspects of being an administrator, and I know many administrators from around the country who are in it for life. You are still supporting music, being a facilitator, getting that personal satisfaction and connection with what you love even if you are not making or teaching music directly. But there are times when you feel like you don’t quite have control of your own time. And I’m eager to regain that now.