“Ignore Boundaries” Dean Mark Wait reflects on his decades at the Blair School of Music

Photo by Joe Howell

by John Pitcher

It’s the end of an era at Blair. Mark Wait, the Martha Rivers Ingram Dean and professor of music, retired June 30. Blair was a relatively small institution when Wait took the helm in 1993. It had 19 full-time faculty who taught and performed in a 31,000-square-foot facility. Today the school boasts 61 full-time faculty members and 84 adjunct and part-time faculty who work in a state-of-the-art 136,000-square-foot space that includes the Martha Rivers Ingram Center for the Performing Arts, Steve & Judy Turner Recital Hall, and the Cyrus Daniel Choral Hall.

What’s been the best thing about being dean of the Blair School of Music?

MW: The best thing has been hiring and retaining excellent faculty members. I’m going to be uncharacteristically immodest and say that if I bring a talent to this job, it’s that I know good people when I see them. If the Blair School has a bright future—and I do believe its best days lie ahead—it’s because we have young, energetic and dedicated faculty members who genuinely care about each other and about the Blair School. We have nine departments and five of the department chairs are under the age of 45. So potentially these are the faculty who will carry Blair into the mid-21st century, literally to the year 2050. Working with these great people has been the best part of the job.

And the hardest?

MW: I don’t know whether anything has been terribly hard. The truth is, I was at the right place at the right time. I came here in 1993, when the economy was excellent and the school had tremendous potential. In the 90s, everyone in Nashville seemed to have big building projects. Times were good, and we benefited from that. Also, Vanderbilt was on a dramatic upward trajectory that continues to this day. It started getting many more applications, and the university could become far more selective. The Blair School was a direct beneficiary of that.

Why has it been so important for Blair to instruct both majors and nonmajors?

MW: I think every music school in the country should be doing that. Among other things, it shows that music is a vital part of life and of the intellectual environment. I hope it’s something Blair will never give up, and I am proud that none of those courses was ever called “music appreciation.” They have all been interesting courses like the History of Jazz, History of Blues, Women in Rock, and so forth.

What have been the advantages of Blair not offering graduate degrees?

MW: It’s been advantageous for our undergraduates, because they get to work directly with faculty members in every class. There are no graduate teaching assistants. It also means our undergraduates can take leadership positions in our orchestra and other ensembles. If we had graduate students, they would almost certainly get many of the principal positions. Instead, our undergraduate students receive an excellent musical education and leadership training.

What qualities do great music faculty have in common?

MW: Great music faculty members always have an extraordinary curiosity about things that often reach far beyond their specialties, even to areas outside of music. When you have faculty like that, it’s important to stay out of their way and not pigeonhole them. It’s important to encourage them to grow, pursue their own interests, and take on new projects. Whenever I’m about to hire someone, I try to imagine what this person will be doing in five years. Invariably, I have no idea what the most interesting ones will be doing, but I know it will be interesting and fun.

What advice do you have for young people who want to pursue careers in music?

MW: Follow your own passion and don’t be limited by conventional notions of what a musician does. If I had to guess, I would say the future of music lies in chamber music, in unusual combinations of instruments, and in mixtures of musical genres. Don’t limit yourself to traditional genres like orchestra or opera. Instead, be willing to cross boundaries. Better yet, ignore them.

Richard Danielpour, standing, rehearses with Dean Mark Wait at the piano prior to the debut of Danielpour’s Dec. 4, 2012, premiere of 12 new piano études. During Wait’s tenure as dean, the commissioning of new works for faculty artists became central to Blair’s performance mission. (John Russell/VU)