Westmont Magazine It's Music to Our Ears
Adams Professor of Music and Worship Brings New Vision to Westmont’s Music Program
Michael Shasberger lifts his baton, and the music begins. A graceful silhouette against choir and orchestra, he conducts with energy and precision. He smiles broadly, infusing his passion and enthusiasm into the musicians, commanding their best.
In his first season at Westmont, the Adams professor of music and worship has introduced two new events: a fall choral festival featuring high school ensembles as well as Westmont choirs, and a Christmas festival, “The Word Became Flesh.” All the creative and performing arts programs lent their talents to the Christmas performance, which sold out weeks in advance.
Trustee Denise Adams and her husband, Stephen, established the Adams chair to enhance the music program at Westmont and increase its impact on the Santa Barbara community.
“We are so pleased to have Michael at Westmont,” says Provost Shirley Mullen. “He brings a larger vision for the role of music in worship and the life of the college. His work will enable us to strengthen our connections with local churches and the Santa Barbara arts community.”
Shasberger is an entrepreneurial musician who enjoys the challenge of building a program. He’s already done it three times.
Music has been an important part of his life since childhood. His father directed the church choir, and he took up the trumpet at an early age. He majored in trumpet and voice at St. Olaf College in Minnesota; his first job was teaching at a junior-senior high school in Minnesota. Returning to Southern California, where he grew up, he spent five years as the director of choral music at Hemet High School. He also taught at a community college, and the experience confirmed his desire to earn a doctorate and work in higher education. Meanwhile, he served as choir director of a Minnesota church and minister of music at Trinity Lutheran Church in Hemet.
A doctoral program at USC gave him practical, applied training in choral music, vocal performance and church music. His teaching experience prepared him well for graduate school. “I had discipline, I was hungry to know more and I recognized my needs,” he says. Finding a position as director of music at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Palos Verdes allowed him to take his learning into the church.
“They wanted someone with an experimental eye to take them to the next level,” Shasberger says. “The goal was to perform the St. Matthew Passion by Bach, and they had the resources and the facilities to accomplish their ambition.” The experience proved beneficial for both: Shasberger found a topic for his dissertation, and the church choir presented the Bach piece after three years of his leadership.
To combine his interest in higher education and the church, Shasberger sought a position at a church-related school. His academic career began at Hendrix College in Arkansas, and he taught for three years at the United Methodist school. In 1986, he joined the faculty at Butler University in Indiana, where he spent 10 years conducting choral groups and teaching in the school of fine arts. The institution was committed to the performing arts and supported him as he built a significant choral program.
But something was missing: the connection to faith. “Directing choral music at an institution where church music was counter-cultural was hard,” he says. “The music of the church can be an effective witness, but it was falling on deaf ears.”
Finding another academic position wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, an acquaintance urged him to look into a job at a church with an extensive and established music tradition. The ad in the Choral Journal called for the new director to maintain the existing program. That didn’t interest Shasberger at all. But on the facing page was an announcement that did. Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver sought “a creative spirit to help us find our voice.” The ad spoke to his entrepreneurial penchant, and he contacted the church.
Leaving higher education and his tenured position seemed foolish to his colleagues. “They told me it was suicidal,” he recalls. “I’d never get another college job.”
But Shasberger ignored this advice and moved west. “I had an incredible nine years in Denver,” he says. “I had to start from scratch, but I learned how to develop music that appealed to the community. It was a civic activity, and I did so much more music than I had done in an academic setting. We staged operas, presented major choral and orchestral programs and even did three European tours.”
Once again, Shasberger found something lacking. As a resident scholar, he did some teaching and conducting at the University of Colorado, Boulder, but he missed significant work with students. When he spent a semester as choral director and professor at Colorado Christian University, he realized he had never been happier. Christian higher education seemed to be the best place for him after all.
So when Shasberger heard about the Adams chair of music and worship at Westmont, it sounded like a good fit. His niece, Alexis Horlick ’04, had attended Westmont, and his brother-in-law appreciated what the college had done for his daughter. “Westmont needs your energy,” he told Shasberger.
All his interests come together at Westmont: working with students, presenting church music, building new traditions. The connection to faith has never been stronger. In addition to overseeing the music department and major, he develops music for chapel. He especially appreciates the emphasis on classical music in the Westmont curriculum.
“It’s critically important to do classical music,” he says. “As Christians, we are so informed by what music offers. It speaks to our faith and increases our understanding. We lose so much if we ignore this rich tradition. The church was the main progenitor of great art for centuries, and I want students to understand how church music informs contemporary efforts. Every era has its casual music. But Bach speaks to us across the centuries.”
Shasberger faces significant challenges. “The first is literacy,” he says. “Fewer and fewer students come to college with musical literacy. They can’t pick up a hymn book and sing parts. Too many churches today only print the words to songs and not the music. We have a phenomenal opportunity to train students how to learn the next hymn.”
The second challenge is cultural: the loss of classical choral music in so many congregations. Shasberger wants students to appreciate a wide variety of sacred music. Every Wednesday, a different ensemble performs in chapel. “We don’t want to be a separate entity in chapel,” he says. “We sing with the worship team and play an integral role in the service. We bring more diversity in music and give groups on campus greater visibility. It’s good for students to see what their peers are doing musically.”
As a new professor, Shasberger is listening. What do people on campus want? He has two goals so far: collaboration between music and theater other than Broadway-type musicals and outreach to the local music community.
“We want to expose students to the rich cultural heritage in the area and give them a wider platform for performance,” he says.
Michael and his family have already gotten involved in local arts organizations. His daughters (12 and 15 years old) play the cello and the violin in the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony; one of them also sings with the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus. His wife, Elizabeth, is a vocalist.
Shasberger appreciates the opportunity to build on Westmont’s rich musical heritage. He has certainly started on the right note.