Westmont Magazine Michael Shasberger Takes a Bow
In 2005, Michael Shasberger stepped into the newly created Adams Chair for Music and Worship at Westmont and brought a whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm and excellent music to lift the community to greater joy and deeper expressions of faith in God. That year, he staged the first of 17 extraordinary Christmas Festivals. He began humbly in Murchison Gym, overcoming the obstacles of directing a concert amidst the bleachers and scoreboards.
Fortunately, the festival moved to more suitable venues and attracted a growing audience with its musical artistry and profound celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Michael added performances to accommodate the crowds, even inviting them to the dress rehearsal. Each year, he created a seamless, inspiring presentation infused with a theme, a narrative and Christmas music from around the world and throughout the centuries, deepening our understanding of this holy season. All of the college’s outstanding music faculty contribute and share their talents. For many, Christmas in Santa Barbara begins with Westmont’s festival.
During his 17 years at Westmont, Michael has recruited outstanding student musicians, adding significant scholarships, expanding the orchestra, strengthening vocal programs and taking the Christmas event to new heights. He retires in May 2022. Fittingly, Michael presented his last Christmas Festival at the Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara’s premiere concert hall.
“Michael, you’ve transformed the music program at Westmont,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “You’ve elevated the power of music to guide, shape and inform our appreciation for the majesty and goodness of God and for life itself. You’ve been a gift to the college, and we’ll miss you.
“Plato said that beauty is the only spiritual essence we love instinctively by our nature, and it leads us to the Transcendent Good. The early Church translated this and taught us to use beauty as an avenue to God. Michael, your music creates the golden highway to God, and we’re grateful. You go with the profound gratitude of the entire Westmont community.”
Steve Adams, who created the Adams Chair with his wife, Denise, told Michael he hoped the new position would change the culture at Westmont.
“I think we’ve done that,” Michael says. “In the case of worship, we still have a student praise band, but it now includes so many more kinds of musicians and instruments. At first it seemed awkward for the music department to be actively involved in chapel with the choir and orchestra performing regularly. Now it’s part of who we are, and students look forward to our music. This year, we opened chapel with a Bach cantata.
“Five percent of Westmont students play in the orchestra, which didn’t exist in its current form when I started at the college. Instrumentalists are now part of our culture, and it’s common for students to talk about going to the symphony. Demand for complimentary tickets to the symphony and other local musical events is high.”
While the Christmas Festival became his signature event, Michael reached out to the community in other ways as well. The Westmont College Choir’s participation in the President’s Breakfast each year quickly became a popular and integral element of this large public event. Working closely with theater arts professor John Blondell, Michael and the music department created a new tradition in 2013: staging an annual opera. The imaginative and impressive productions have included “Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss II, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and “The Tender Land” by Aaron Copland. Christina Farris Jensen ’09 took over as stage director the past two seasons.
In 2020, Westmont and the Santa Barbara Symphony announced a strategic partnership to strengthen music education for local school children and create lifelong musical opportunities in the community. “Westmont and the Santa Barbara Symphony have been great friends and collaborators for many years,” Michael says. “Maestro Nir Kabaretti’s expanding vision for a vital continuum of music education and professional development for young musicians provides a great catalyst.” Yvette Devereaux, who now conducts the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, also serves on the music faculty at Westmont.
The college has strengthened ties with the Music Academy of the West as well, with Sibongakonkhe Msibi ’23 attending the academy this summer as a Fellow. “They say they want more of our Westmont students,” Michael says.
Under Michael’s leadership, the number of full-time, tenure-track music professors grew from four to six, and adjunct faculty increased from eight to 32. The department also earned national accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) and became an all-Steinway school, greatly improving the quality of pianos on campus. “We’ve enhanced the national and cultural standing of the college and our music program,” Michael says.
Students can choose the B.A. degree in music and the general, music performance, music composition or worship leadership tracks. They may also earn the professional Pre-Teaching Credential (B.M.) degree and teach in public schools. Some students pursue a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) degree in performance with a concentration in voice, orchestral instruments or piano.
Ask music students about their experience at Westmont and they’ll likely mention the annual tours. Michael established a schedule with the Westmont Orchestra and the Westmont College Choir touring internationally every third year.
“Traveling and performing are appropriate experiences for music students,” Michael says. “They benefit from playing in great halls, whether at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., or in cathedrals or spectacular venues in countries such as England, Vienna, Hungary and China. The hall elevates the music.”
After the pandemic prevented tours the past two years, the orchestra heads overseas in May for 10 days in Europe. The musicians will land in Munich, then travel to Salzburg, Vienna and Prague, participating in the American Celebration of Music in Austria. In addition to performing at theaters and schools, the orchestra will play in worship services. The students will present a benefit concert at Beethoven’s church in Vienna to support the Vienna School for the Blind. Students will also explore the beautiful cities they visit. While he’s delighted to tour one last time, Michael says the logistics have been especially challenging. “Every country requires a different kind of mask.”
The Westmont College Choir will also tour in May, traveling to the Pacific Northwest on their national tour. Daniel Gee, a 2013 Westmont alumnus and assistant professor of music, will lead his first tour since becoming the choir’s conductor last year.
The Art Department's move into Adams Center for the Visual Arts in 2009 left the former art building empty. Michael worked with the theater and biology departments to design new spaces on campus for their programs. As a result, the college renovated the old Deane School building for the music department, transformed music offices and a classroom in Porter Hall into a black box theater, and converted Hubbard Hall into a biology lab.
Constructing the music building required gutting the original structure to create floors and walls capable of supporting the weight of 16 pianos. Michael recalls getting a call from Randy Jones, director of campus planning, asking how much pianos weigh. “The scope of renovation extended far beyond what we expected, and we got a brand new building with wonderful acoustic space,” Michael says. It features 14 practice rooms, six studios, a composition lab, a small rehearsal area and a recording space.
“I’ve known Michael Shasberger as both his student and colleague inside and outside the rehearsal room and through some of the most challenging moments teaching in this pandemic,” Gee says. “Many know his indefatigable optimism, his tireless work ethic and his boundless vision for growth. But I admire most his integrity of purpose that has never faltered in my time working with him. In developing programs, he has always remained Christ-centered and mission- driven while maintaining meaningful connections with students. He was always seeking creative solutions to assist, support, nurture and call forth the very best in them. The biblical metaphor is especially apt for Michael: he has run this leg of the race faithfully and with Spirit- empowered determination. I trust that he will continue to bring glory to God and bear fruit for the kingdom. I will always be grateful and will always cheer him on.”
Both of Michael’s daughters studied music at Westmont and work as professional musicians. Sarah Pfister ’12 earned a master’s degree in viola performance (focusing on violin Suzuki pedagogy) from the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, and taught violin in Bulgaria and played with the Ruse State Opera Orchestra Symphony there. She now lives in Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband and son; plays with the
Roanoke Symphony and continues to teach. Rebecca Shasberger ’15 completed a master’s degree in cello performance and Suzuki pedagogy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. A cello teacher and performer in the Cleveland area, she started a strings program in Grafton prison and founded Renovare, a string quartet that brings hope and healing to those in need (renovaremusic.org). Lalia Mangione ’17, who earned a Master of Music in violin performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, joins Rebecca in this endeavor.
“It’s been an honor and delight to be the first holder of the Adams Chair,” Michael says. “My time at Westmont has been the longest of my career. I welcomed this opportunity to lead dynamic change and innovation at a forward-looking and creative place supportive of entrepreneurial efforts. It’s been a wonderful journey. So much of the work and success has been collaborative. I’ve been able to work with my colleagues in the music department and the entire college in so many different areas, and I appreciate the support for the growth of the music department. Every link in the chain is important and helpful, and I’m thankful for the way it has all come together.”