New MU music director has big plans for school

Thursday, October 9, 2008 | 10:37 p.m. CDT; updated 3:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Thomas O'Neal, left, director of bands for the MU School of Music, talks with Robert Shay, the new director of the School of Music in Loeb Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008. Shay was vice president for academic affairs and dean of the conservatory at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.

Robert Shay said he feels both welcomed and flattered to be in Columbia, now that he is three months deep into his position as the director of MU’s School of Music.

A lot of this concerns what the future holds for the department and the often-delayed construction of the new performing arts center.

Before arriving at MU this past July, Shay, 46, was the former chief academic officer of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. He stepped into the position held for the past 17 years by Melvin Platt, currently on a research leave.

Shay is also an accomplished singer with a master's degree in choral conducting from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass., and a doctorate in music history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It’s been great so far,” Shay said, referring to his time at MU. “These transitions are always challenging, especially when someone comes from the other side, rather than promoting a faculty member. Overall, the welcome here makes it easy for me to do my work.”

The School of Music has close to 36 full-time faculty and several working as adjuncts, Shay said. There are 220 students music majors, including 40 graduate students. Shay called those rough numbers.

“Keep in mind, we have a range of folks, such as someone getting a BA in music who might also be double-majoring,” he said. “We even have many double-majoring in journalism, so each one is a little different.”

He described the current faculty as “one of the most distinctive features” the school has to offer.

“We have a faculty member for each of the various musical areas,” Shay said. “It allows us to really develop our instrumental program and get lots of students in each area so that we have enough people for bands and orchestras.

"In some cases, we are the only school in the state with full-time faculty teaching all the instruments.”

Faculty members expressed their support of Shay, citing his full attention to the faculty and students.

“He has his eyes on the future,” said Tina Price, administrative assistant for the School of Music. “He has been bringing together the best musicians and faculty, and he is certainly striving to keep the best faculty together. He’s very organized, motivated and proactive. He’s a go-getter."

Students at the school agreed.

“He seems very active, which is a huge plus,” said Becktell. “He has shown up to a lot of musical events we’ve had so far, which shows he cares.”

Much of Shay's attention is centered on a new performing arts center, which would be located on the northeast corner of Hitt Street and University Avenue.

Because MU’s Fine Arts Building now houses two departments — music and theater — renovating the current facility would add much-needed space. It would feature a 1,000-seat concert hall and a 350-seat recital hall.

“I do believe we need the new facilities,” said Jaron Lester, a sophomore at MU. “There isn’t enough room to practice. Plus, it’s one of the oldest buildings on campus. It’s been frustrating and it gets continually pushed back.”

The project is listed as No. 2 on the university’s list of building priorities, Shay said.

“There is a lot of money to be raised if we are to get serious about it,” he said. "A big chunk will have to be raised from private donations, of course. Then hopefully (from) the state legislature.”

Shay said the project could take seven to 10 years and cost around $110 million.

“It’s a really giant project,” he said.

His vision would also expand the music program, making it a “flagship” of the university.

“I’d like us to do more things where we go out in the community,” Shay said. "Have groups go to schools. Make people aware of what we are doing. We have plans to go to St. Louis and do some performances. Doing this will strengthen our our program.”

Shay said he is rallying the faculty to think big.

“We have the faculty talking more about the future,” he said. 

“We want to see the School of Music raise its profile. It’s a question of putting all the pieces together. Getting organized.”

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