Michigan Muse Winter 2024 > Dean’s Reflection

Dean’s Reflection

In just the past few weeks, I’ve attended a number of performances in Ann Arbor that represent, in my mind, what we mean when we say “only at Michigan” – those special events that are made possible by a unique blend of conditions, opportunities, and creative resources here at the University of Michigan and that provide our students with unparalleled experiences.

One such event was the Gershwin Centennial Celebration Concert, a partnership between the U-M Gershwin Initiative and Ann Arbor’s landmark Michigan Theater that marked the 100th birthday of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. SMTD students and faculty (and other artists) performed Gershwin songs, including several numbers from La, La, Lucille, a Gershwin musical that was long thought to be lost until Jacob Kerzner, associate editor with the Gershwin Initiative, recently rediscovered its complete musical orchestration. It was an extraordinary event that showcased how scholarly exploration and inspired artistry can amplify each other.

Four vocalists perform standing holding microphones, sharing the stage with an orchestra and pianist on grand piano

SMTD students perform at the Gershwin Centennial event at the Michigan Theater. Photo credit: Mark Clague

Other recent events I attended included the culminating performances of the Musical Theatre New Works Festival, which brought industry creators to campus for an extended residency to work on new musicals; a remarkable University Philharmonia Orchestra concert of pieces written by student composers and led by student conductors; and the annual dance show in the Power Center, featuring the works of our faculty as well as esteemed guest choreographers. I went to a workshop performance of the new opera The Pigeon Keeper, where our students worked side-by-side with professionals to prepare the first complete read-through of the work in advance of its premiere at the Sante Fe Opera. I also dropped in on a master class taught by celebrated concert violinist James Ehnes, in town for a UMS concert, and I was so impressed with the level of performance of our gifted violin students. I’m often struck by the realization that only a small degree of difference separates what our students do in Hill Auditorium or the Power Center from what professionals do in major venues worldwide, and our students, faculty, and alumni work on one great, global performing arts continuum.

Actors perform on stage seated in a row of chairs, facing one actor standing on chair singing; bright blue-lit backdrop

Musical theatre students perform during the 2024 New Works Festival. Photo credit: Peter Smith Photography

These examples of recent performances represent just a small fraction of the many exciting events happening at SMTD all the time, including a host of student-driven projects. Taken together, these myriad events – many of which involve actively engaging in the creation of new work – add up to an extraordinary student experience, one that allows our students to hone their artistry and prepare for their future, regardless of the path they take.

Indeed, we have an amazingly rich environment at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance – one that promotes the intersection of scholarship and performance and the animating tension between the traditional and the new. This environment is energized by incredible faculty mentorship, significant support from the university, and engaged audiences – a community of arts lovers who appreciate and value the work of our students and faculty. As a frequent audience member at SMTD performances, I can attest to the remarkable experience of watching our students learn and grow right before our eyes. Every performance they give shows such commitment and heart and talent.

Another critical ingredient that makes SMTD such a special place is the way that our students support one another. Again and again, they show up for each other, cheering on their peers at every opportunity. I remember that level of support from my own experience here as a student, and I understand how vitally important it is. There’s a fair amount of struggle, rejection, and failure in the life of a performing artist, and sometimes all you need to get yourself back in the practice room or on the stage is the support of your friends. At SMTD, that sense of camaraderie and a shared journey is palpable.

And it certainly doesn’t end on the day of graduation. SMTD graduates go out into the world not only with the skills, knowledge, and resilience they developed while in school, but also with the lifelong friendships of their classmates. They continue to be bolstered by their professors, and they make connections all over the world with members of a strong, engaged alumni network. I recently met with a number of SMTD alumni in New York City, and they spoke at length about the wisdom they gained from their professors and the significant impact their SMTD experience has had on their lives, both professionally and personally.

As illustrated by the sampling of alumni profiled in this issue of Michigan Muse, SMTD grads pursue a diverse range of careers both within and outside the performing arts. Whatever they do, they benefit from lessons learned in classrooms and practice rooms, on and behind stages, and in studios, computer labs, and production shops. And wherever they go, they are never far from another SMTD alum, ready to answer their call of “Go Blue!”

Be well, and Forever Go Blue,

Dave Gier, Dean
Paul Boylan Collegiate Professor of Music
School of Music, Theatre & Dance

Dean David Gier stands at a microphone to speak at a Department of Musical Theatre event

Dave Gier. Photo credit: Peter Smith Photography