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Back to the Future: Dave Gier returns to lead his alma mater

Just four days before the University of Michigan’s Homecoming in October, David A. Gier (BM ’83, trombone performance) began his tenure as the eighth dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Needless to say, this put “homecoming” in a whole new light.

“It was exhilarating,” said Gier. “My first official duties as dean included meeting with our Alumni Board of Governors, hosting an open house and reunion reception in the beautiful new atrium of the Moore Building, and bestowing awards on an incredibly deserving group of alumni.”

Gier at the 2018 Scholarship Showcase reception, his first official appearance as dean.

 

In fact, homecoming for Gier really began two weeks prior, when he attended the annual Scholarship Showcase and the Elbel Club Scholarship Tailgate for the Michigan Marching Band. “I walked through the famous tunnel of the Big House to watch the pre-game from the field,” said Gier. “Not a bad way to start my tenure!”

As both dean and the Paul Boylan Collegiate Professor of Music, Gier joins U-M after serving eight years as director of the University of Iowa School of Music, where he was also the inaugural Erich Funke Professor in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. He joined the Iowa faculty in 1995 and received the Collegiate Scholar Award “for exceptional achievement” in 2008. His academic career was launched at Baylor University (Waco, Texas) in 1989.

Returning to lead his alma mater has been a “multi-layered emotional experience,” said Gier. “It’s just been incredibly evocative. Every time I walk into the Moore Building, I flash back to my experience here as a student. It’s the brick, it’s the views, and even the smell of the building takes me back.”

Gier returns to SMTD at an exciting time: groundbreaking for a new dance facility adjacent to the Moore Building will take place this spring, which will unite all faculty, students, and staff on North Campus for the first time in the school’s history.

Additionally, SMTD’s initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion; entrepreneurship and career planning; wellness; and engagement and outreach are setting a standard nationally and differentiating the school from its peers. At the same time, the foundational excellence of SMTD’s faculty, students, staff, facilities, and curriculum continues to thrive and evolve.

“I come here with great respect for what SMTD already is,” said Gier. “This is a remarkable place. The first order of business, then, is to truly learn, in more detail, about the culture and the excellence as it exists. It’s important to remember that my Michigan experience came at a time when it was the School of Music. There was no jazz, performing arts technology, theatre, or musical theatre, and dance was very isolated from music. So, to me, the great opportunity, and the great challenge, is to understand SMTD in all its breadth and really begin to know the players—the people—and to understand what is required to sustain this excellence and move us forward as a unit.”

Gier says he comes at his new role from a service perspective: to support the work of faculty, students, and staff. “Trombone players are ensemble musicians,” he said. “We sit in the back of the orchestra, we play a role that facilitates the larger conception. That’s the place I like to be and I think I’m most effective in that role.”

That being said, he’s accustomed to making tough decisions, and he looks forward to being a passionate advocate for the school and realizing his vision for making SMTD even more ‘outward-facing.’

“I have a deep belief that the role of the arts, in the way it inspires and challenges us, will be increasingly important,” said Gier. “And the preparation of artists—actors, dancers, musicians, and every other role—needs to be ever more concerned with the environment in which we operate. At the same time, we need to hold on to the traditional elements of our training that give us that deep disciplinary excellence, allowing us to do great, meaningful work. There’s a balance that’s required.

“I see SMTD as being increasingly engaged across campus, in the community, in the world. I know that engagement is already very much part of the school’s identity, so my role is to support, accelerate, potentially inspire, and invigorate all of that activity to a higher level.”

The son of a physician and a nurse, Gier was raised primarily in Ohio and Kansas (with a short pre-college period in Idaho) and he identifies strongly as a Midwesterner.

He came to Michigan to study with trombonist Dennis Smith, who had been principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit and Utah symphony orchestras. But Gier was also drawn by all that U-M represented.

“I was looking to go to a music school at a place that was also a great university,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to a conservatory; I wanted to have a rich, multifaceted university experience, that full 360 immersive/artistic/intellectual investment, which I knew I could get here. I would study with a trombonist I revered; I would be at an elite, vibrant research institution; and I would be in Ann Arbor, one of the great college towns in the United States.”

Gier recalls traveling to Ann Arbor to audition, staying at the Campus Inn, and seeing the University Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at Hill Auditorium. He was dazzled by the trombone soloist and the acoustics of the world-famous concert hall, further convincing him that this was the school he needed to attend. Fortunately, he aced his audition.

“I received exceptional training as a musician here,” he said. “I was in the Symphony Band, the Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, and the Contemporary Directions Ensemble. When I think about what had an impact on me, it was a combination of my ensemble experiences—being challenged by conductors like H. Robert Reynolds, Gustav Meier, Carl St. Clair—but it was also what I experienced in lessons, studio class, academic courses, and relationships with my peers. They were talented, striving, idealistic, devoted, and I was with them sometimes 18 hours a day—in classes, rehearsals, late-night practice sessions. You just rise to that level. SMTD attracts the best of the best, and to be with those people constantly…it shapes your life.”

One of the people who ended up shaping Gier’s life more than others was his wife Elizabeth (Beth) Hollar, who studied clarinet and music education at SMTD. The two met in the band program (Beth also spent a year in the Michigan Marching Band) and Gier remembers leaving handwritten messages for her in the old wooden “message board” that now hangs in his office. They married when Beth graduated in 1984.

After his own graduation the year before, Gier had made the difficult decision of leaving Michigan, which had been so integral to his growth. He enrolled at Yale University to study with John Swallow, a longtime member of the New York Brass Quintet who was considered one the most important trombone performers and teachers in the U.S.

During his graduate studies at Yale, Gier broke into the freelance scene that flourishes in the corridor between New Haven and New York. He developed a portfolio career that he continued for three years after earning his master of music degree, master of musical arts degree, and doctorate in musical arts. He was a member of the Springfield (Mass.) Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra New England, performed with numerous chamber ensembles, and was an adjunct professor at Central Connecticut State University.

At some point, a tuba-playing friend suggested that Gier apply for a position that had opened at Baylor University. He did so, even though he had to hustle to make a recording to submit with his application. He was offered the job, but was not sure he wanted to give up his life as a performer. His Yale advisor convinced him, telling him such positions were few and far between.

Gier said Baylor was a great place for his professional development as a teacher. He built an excellent trombone studio there and developed both his teaching and recruiting skills over six years.

“I received tenure on a Friday and received a job offer, without tenure, from Iowa on the following Monday. I said yes on the phone because I wanted to return to the upper Midwest. Coming to Iowa and bringing our family there—our son was three and our daughter was six months old—really felt like coming home.”

Throughout his rise up the ranks at Iowa, Gier maintained an active performance schedule. He was principal trombonist of the Quad City Symphony and played “hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds” of performances with the Iowa Brass Quintet. He was also the principal trombonist of the Breckenridge (Colo.) Festival Orchestra from 1990–2008 under the direction of Gerhardt Zimmermann.

Gier’s ascent at Iowa was steady, with 15 years on the faculty before he took on the directorship in 2010. It was just two years after a catastrophic flood had destroyed a large part of the UI campus, including the School of Music’s primary facility, the Voxman Music Building. The building’s entire HVAC and electrical systems had been destroyed and FEMA declared the building totaled. But there was a bright spot.

“We saw the very best of people throughout the entire episode, from the time the water came over the banks,” said Gier. “I remember being in a sandbagging line with members of the community and members of the football team; it was an amazingly galvanizing experience to be involved in that. As bad as it was, it was great for our community in the way it brought people together.”

For the next few years, the activities of the school were distributed over many different locations, throughout the campus and the city. But Gier applauds the way the community rallied. “We didn’t miss a single rehearsal, a single lesson, a single class, thanks to tremendous leadership from the main administration and the school, and the hard, devoted work by the staff and faculty; we made it work.”

As Gier’s tenure as director began, a first order of business, as a member of the building committee, was selecting an architect for the new facility. He was soon deeply immersed in the planning, design, and construction of the project while keeping the school running as a cohesive, collaborative unit despite being spread out in nine locations. He was also the public advocate for the project, raising funds, talking to the public about its importance, planning for its celebratory opening, and then reuniting faculty, students, and staff back under one roof.

The completely new Voxman Music Building—a state-of-the-art, 190,000-square-foot, $189 million comprehensive music facility—opened in 2016. According to Architect Magazine, “The Voxman Building celebrates musical performance at every turn, embracing a collaborative and exploratory student-driven model of education that treats every space as performance space.”

While working intensively on the building project, Gier was also helping the school move forward. Recruitment remained an important focus, along with the development of new programs and curricular initiatives including an innovative UI String Quartet Residency Program, an option for DMA students to complete a recording as their capstone project, and an undergraduate jazz degree.

Gier also served in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development as an administrative faculty fellow, working on cross-campus initiatives at Iowa that supported arts and humanities research and creative activity. Plus, during his tenure, he was elected to the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) Commission on Accreditation, serving as a visiting evaluator for the association. It’s a role he continues to hold and it keeps him well apprised of the latest developments and innovations at the nation’s top music schools.

Throughout his professional career, Gier says, Wolverines have remained a constant in his life: a dozen on the faculty at Iowa; six on the 16-member NASM commission; and a steady stream in ensembles he’s performed with, including the former music director at the Quad City Symphony, Donald Schleicher.

“Whatever you do out in the professional world, it seems that you’re not very far away from a Michigan graduate,” said Gier. “That connection is key. As a result, I can say that I’ve benefited from my Michigan experience every day of my professional life.”

Now, 35 years after he left, Gier has returned to lead the institution that set him on his path. “I’m so excited to reconnect with all the great people here,” he said, “and to be part of the future of a place that made all the difference to me.”

By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse