Accompanying the college into its next phase
Alumna lends her support to Billman Music Pavilion.
As a pianist, educator, higher ed administrator, and leader, Dr. Barbara Dixon is a collaborator. Now, she has become a collaborator and a leader in the College of Music Billman Music Pavilion project.
Her commitment of $150,000 to fund a Chamber Music Rehearsal room reflects her desire to give MSU’s music students the kind of professional preparation they need. A completely renovated rehearsal room will be named in her honor and feature a professional grand piano – something she wished she had when she studied music at MSU beginning in 1962.
“I did not choose Michigan State to major in music. I was more interested in mathematics and languages,” she said. “But I missed playing the piano. My mom, an Oberlin and Juilliard trained pianist, was my only teacher and I had no memory of not playing the piano.”
Barbara said she “kind of wandered” over to the then-Department of Music half-way through her freshman year and asked if she could take lessons for the spring quarter. She did, and it wasn’t long before her teacher, John Richardson, encouraged her to major in piano. She changed her major to music the next year and at Richardson’s encouragement studied with the only female piano instructor in the college at the time, artist-in-residence Genia Nemenoff. She finished her studies under Joseph Evans.
She earned a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music in applied piano from the college, but she enjoyed being an accompanist most of all, sometimes to the dismay of her piano instructor who would have preferred she spend more time on her solo repertoire. Accompanying was a form of collaboration that gave her great satisfaction and later had a bearing on her successful career as a higher education administrator.
“I always accompanied a lot of voice students, and also some brass, flute, Elsa Ludwig Verdehr’s clarinet students, opera rehearsals, and played in the pit orchestra for ‘West Side Story.’ I also accompanied the Men’s Glee Club for two years and was a featured soloist on one of their tours. I had a well-rounded musical experience,” Barbara explained.
Professor Emeritus of Clarinet Elsa Ludwig Verdehr remembers Barbara’s enthusiasm.
“It was always a pleasure to have Barb as pianist for my students since I knew I could always count on her to be prepared, to be enjoyable to work with and to do an excellent performance,” Verdehr said.
After completing her studies, Barbara spent a semester as a K-12 vocal music teacher in Capac, Michigan, followed by a one-semester position as an instructor of piano at Central Michigan University. That led to 26 more years at CMU, 18 as a full-time faculty member in the School of Music with teaching responsibilities in piano, piano pedagogy, and supervising the children’s piano program. All the while she remained active as a clinician throughout the state and a frequent performer.
Her career would go in another direction eventually. Following the completion of her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder, she assumed academic leadership positions of increasing responsibility. She served six years as associate dean and then two years as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at CMU. She left CMU in 1997 to accept an appointment as provost and vice president for academic affairs and professor of music, at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
Barbara was then appointed as the 14th and first woman president of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri in 2003. She retired from that position in 2008 but then, as she puts it, “failed retirement” by returning to higher education to assist several institutions in interim leadership positions. She served a year as interim president at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, a two-year stint as provost of Purchase College in New York, and six months as interim provost at the University of Michigan-Flint.
“I had experiences at MSU as an undergraduate that were important in helping me develop basic leadership skills,” she explained. “I was elected president of Alpha Lambda Delta, the freshman honorary that was all women at that time, was in Tower Guard, president of Delta Omicron, and in Mortar Board. I had a lot of opportunities to do things and interact with people that were outside the practice room and outside of music. MSU had a profound impact on what I ended up doing professionally, both in music and higher education in general because so many opportunities were there for me. I was curious, and I took advantage of them.”
She stayed curious, exploring and chairing many committees in her department at CMU, chairing the CMU Academic Senate, and the University-Wide Curriculum Committee. While in the Dean’s Office at CMU, she was closely involved in the ongoing project to build a new music building; and though she never taught in it, she has since seen the tremendous positive effect it has had on students and faculty alike.
“All of my own academic work as a student, and then as teaching faculty, took place in facilities I would describe as less than ideal,” she said. “State-of-the-art facilities and good instruments are essential in recruiting and retaining outstanding students and faculty. They provide space for innovation and allow for creativity, and if the acoustics are right students will learn to hear better, be more discerning and make better judgments about their performance.”
So she has lent her support to the Billman Music Pavilion which will add 37,000 square feet of new space to the existing Music Building and renovate another 8,500 square feet in MSU music facilities. The project is currently under construction and slated to be completed in time for the fall 2020 semester. The College of Music is approximately $1.3M away from reaching its $17.5M goal for the wide variety of spaces the project will create and enhance.
Barbara’s admiration for the growth of the college and her experiences meeting the dean of the college, James Forger, along with current faculty played a large part in her willingness to support the pavilion project. “I was so impressed by a presentation given by Dean Forger, which allowed me to see not only how the College has grown and thrived to this point but also his vision for the future,” she said.
“For example, I had the opportunity to meet Jane Bunnell and hear her performance at the Metropolitan Opera when I was in New York in the fall,” Barbara explained. “Supporting faculty who maintain an active performance life while continuing to teach is a great boon to students. They can learn from an artist-teacher who has connections and who knows what the professional performance world is like. I’m thrilled with the direction of the MSU College of Music and proud to support the plans for the new pavilion project.”
For more information about naming opportunities or contributing to the Billman Music Pavilion, please contact Senior Director of Development Rebecca Surian at (517) 353-9939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.