Published: April 5, 2024 By

Professor of Harpsichord Robert HillHere’s a contrast to consider: A professor in a modern-day classroom teaching early music on an ancient instrument by employing a university’s newly adopted, forward-looking approach.

For retiring College of Music Professor of Harpsichord Robert Hill—who’s also the Eugene D. Eaton, Jr., Chair in Baroque Music Performance—it all makes perfect sense. “If you think about it,” he says, “the academic community is like a formalized laboratory for thought—which it should be.”

Hill is stepping down this summer after a long career that found him in Europe studying and performing in the ’70s and ’80s with a parade of legendary figures in the early music revival, followed by an academic career at Harvard and Duke universities, and finally joining the College of Music faculty in 2018 after a stint at the Freiburg University of Music in Germany.

His students have learned much more than how to play the harpsichord, he stresses. Speaking excitedly about the College of Music’s universal musician mission, which empowers students to widen their perspectives, Hill refers to musical life in the Baroque Era when versatility and the ability to improvise were requirements for success.

“Developing universal musicians reflects, in part, the process of figuring out how to combine practicing musicianship and theoretical understanding of music,” he explains. “I emphasize that approach for the harpsichord.” 

By example, Hill points to the 18th-century practice employing the figured bass, a shorthand sketching-out of notes and chords that would direct a musician to create a spontaneous accompaniment. “Keyboard players of that day would have been very well trained in music theory to be able to fulfill their roles as accompanists,” he reminds us. A crucial lesson for his students who study harmony and counterpoint, requiring repetitive exercises and classroom tests. 

Hill admits he was pretty tough on his students, for good reason. “There’s so much pressure to fit in,” he says. “So the way I treat the process is to encourage my students to question what they encounter in their worlds in the hope that that will lead to their own progression and empowerment—and an understanding of what they can do to make the world a better place.”

As Hill looks to retirement, including the continuation of recording all of Bach’s keyboard works—which thus far numbers 10 CDs—he remains hopeful that his students will hear his message, lean into the college’s mission and thrive as multiskilled, multifaceted musicians.

“By advancing a career track where you train yourself—not just as a player, but also as a thinker about music—and combine that with a musicological training up to the point of actually getting a degree, you set yourself up to be attractive as a job candidate in a fairly broad range of situations,” he adds. “Equally important is finding your own voice as an artist. It takes a lot of work—it’s a life process.”