copious notes

Rich Copley: New leader of UK School of Music plans to help it continue to excel, grow

rcopley@herald-leader.comOctober 12, 2012 

Skip Gray has inherited a good gig.

As he sits down for an interview in his office in the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Building, the new chair of the School of Music is in the midst of some impressive events. A few days earlier, the UK Symphony performed an unprecedented second concert in as many years with legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Still to come was UK Opera Theatre's blockbuster production of The Phantom of the Opera.

In 2007, Lee T. Todd Jr., who was then UK's president, said the UK School of Music was "on fire." It only seems to have become a three-alarm blaze since then.

It must be good to be the chair of such a vibrant organization. But don't look for Gray, who has been at the school for more than 30 years, to fold his hands behind his head, sit back and coast into his new gig.

During the interview process for the job, which Ben Arnold left last spring, Gray discussed and contemplated numerous ways the school could grow, from its performances to its programs to the holy grail of the College of Fine Arts: new facilities.

"I've heard all of the groups this fall, and all of the directors say that they've never had better groups than they have this year, and they sound just absolutely remarkable," Gray says. "I'm so proud of these guys."

Part of Gray's plan is to raise awareness that the School of Music is more than just an opera, a symphony and a choral program that presents a blockbuster holiday program ever year. He points to the Wind Symphony, the Percussion Ensemble and the individual choirs as examples of high-quality groups that don't get the fanfare of some other programs. He hopes to change that.

"The School of Music is one of three windows to the community for the university," Gray says. "Health care, athletics and music are really the doorways that bring the public into the university. How can we make that doorway more welcoming, and how do we get people through that doorway?

"I truly believe the quality of our performances is drawing more people to the concert hall and to the Opera House than ever before. So working with the faculty to do their very best has been a major goal."

In applying for the post, Gray says he talked to faculty about what their needs were and their perceptions of the School of Music. He says he's been keeping that up now that he has the job.

"I say it's a walking chair," Gray says, laughing. "I have lost a couple pounds since taking this job because I try to walk around every day and talk to people about how they're doing and how I can help them."

One person he runs into on a Friday morning stroll is Jim Campbell, director of UK's acclaimed percussion program.

"The great thing about Skip is he has been in our position, so he knows what it's like," Campbell says. "Sometimes you get administrators who can't talk to the faculty and staff, but Skip is always out here."

Gray is probably best known in Lexington as an ace tuba player and professor of tuba and euphonium. That is his forte, but he became interested in administration as a student.

"I always befriended the directors of the school of music wherever I was, and finally when I was in grad school, I made an appointment with Dr. Robert Bays, who was the director of the school of music at (the University of) Illinois and ... I said, 'Dr. Bays, how does one become director of a school of music?'" says Gray, 57, who earned a bachelor of music degree at Baldwin-Wallace College in his hometown, Berea, Ohio. "He smiled and he said, 'Well, Skip, what you need to do is become the best professor in your area, and you'll be handed administrative assignments over the course of your early career. If you do them well, you'll get more administrative assignments."

Gray arrived at UK in 1980. By 1984 he was asked to be associate director of the School of Music. It was the first of several administrative posts for Gray, including associate dean of the College of Fine Arts from 1992 to 1997, a post he left after concluding the long hours were making him miss his son Alex's early years.

Those experiences also give Gray perspective on the School of Music. He remembers the days when superstar musicians were not coming to play with the symphony and the opera was not selling out 11 performances at the Opera House.

"You would think it would be easy to sustain a program that's already reached high levels — and not just sustain, but push that program even beyond," Gray says. "That's my goal, where we are today, and we'll do that by widening our recruiting efforts and showing people the strength of our program."

Gray has ambitions for recruiting, looking to launch international initiatives, particularly in China, where the symphony will travel in May. He also has notions of getting ensembles out into Lexington and surrounding areas, beyond their usual downtown haunts.

He hopes in the next five years to get some movement on new facilities for the school, which he and many people say are antiquated and inadequate.

"The thing that sells this school to prospective students now is our faculty," Gray says. "When they meet our faculty, they can look beyond the facilities to see they'll get a great education here."

Gray hopes to maintain his role in that reputation.

Recently, he went into the tuba studio and unstuck the valves on an instrument he had not played for six months.

"It was wonderful," says Gray, who maintains four tuba students.

But now, he is looking at the bigger picture — the school as a whole.

"I'm completely committing my life to this position," Gray says. "I hope I can move things forward."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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