Robert Blocker, the School of Music’s longtime dean, to retire

Robert Blocker, who has helped transform the Yale School of Music during nearly three decades as the Henry and Lucy Moses Dean, will retire on Aug. 31, 2023.
Robert Blocker

Robert Blocker (Photo courtesy of Furman University)

Robert Blocker, who has helped transform the Yale School of Music during nearly three decades as the Henry and Lucy Moses Dean, will retire from the position on Aug. 31, 2023, Yale President Peter Salovey announced today.

An esteemed academic leader, accomplished pianist, and impassioned educator, Blocker will remain on the faculty as professor of piano at Yale School of Music as well as a professor of leadership strategies at Yale School of Management.

Since he arrived at the Yale School of Music in 1995, Dean Blocker has established a thriving intellectual and creative environment at the school and has raised its national and international profile as a leading center of learning for professional artists and composers,” Salovey wrote in a message to the community.

Along with appointing distinguished musicians to the faculty, recruiting exceptional students, and hiring talented and dedicated staff, Blocker has brought some of the most celebrated and influential guest artists to Yale, including the composer John Adams, classical pianist Emanuel Ax, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Midori, and composer Krzysztof Penderecki, among many other cultural luminaries.

Driven by the belief that increasing access to education is essential for creating lasting, positive changes in society, Blocker — in collaboration with the school’s faculty, staff, alumni, and supporters — has dramatically expanded the School of Music’s resources for the professional preparation of global artists and cultural leaders, Salovey wrote. During his tenure, he has helped to grow the school’s endowment from $29 million to $574 million. In 2005, a generous gift from Stephen Adams and Denise Adams enabled the school to offer full-tuition scholarships to all students in perpetuity. Two years later, Yale’s Class of 1957 and the School of Music formalized the Music in Schools Initiative, a program centered in the New Haven Public Schools that has become a national model for offering all children opportunities to learn and engage with music.

Robert Blocker is the consummate musician, the consummate teacher, the consummate dean, the consummate leader, and the consummate citizen,” said Benjamin Polak, the William C. Brainard Professor of Economics and professor of management, who also served as Yale’s provost from 2013 to 2020. “In his more than quarter of a century as dean, Robert Blocker not only transformed the School of Music. He transformed Yale. He did so by infusing beauty throughout our lives, throughout the university. He did so by reaching out to the New Haven community, and out beyond across the world. He did so by using music to bring us together, to show us our shared values, our shared joys, and our shared responsibilities. He did so by reminding us what excellence sounds like.”

When Blocker arrived at Yale, the School of Music occupied spaces that desperately needed renovation to support the mission, artistic advancement, and global reach of the school. For the next three decades, he worked tirelessly with donors and the school’s faculty, staff, and students to transform the facilities available for teaching and performance. The school completed renovations of Sprague Memorial Hall in 2003 and Leigh Hall in 2006. In 2017, Yale opened the Adams Center for Musical Arts, which is home to rehearsal halls, classrooms, practice rooms, and social spaces for students from both the School of Music and Yale’s Department of Music, which is a unit of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

With trustees of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival (which advances the school’s mission through the study and development of chamber music), Blocker has been involved in two capital-improvement projects at the Yale Summer School of Music/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, including the restoration of rehearsal, performance, and living spaces. He has finalized plans for a major renovation, to begin in 2023, of the Morris Steinert Collection of Musical Instruments, a teaching museum that has benefited generations of students. The school also acquired a new space at 143 Elm Street for academic studies and the Music in Schools Initiative; renovations will begin in fall 2023.

In addition to making changes that have strengthened the school for its faculty, staff, and students, Blocker has enhanced opportunities for musical and academic exchange around the country and the world, including eight international agreements with partner schools across the continents. In 2007, he established the Yale in New York concert series, enabling students and faculty to perform together at Carnegie Hall and other venues. The following year, he organized a Cultural Olympiad in partnership with Wang Cizhao, president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. This allowed the Yale Philharmonia, the School of Music’s flagship ensemble, to perform in advance of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad and to tour China and other countries in Asia.

Through his leadership, Blocker transformed what was a well-respected institution into one of the finest programs of graduate music education in the world, said Joseph Polisi ’80 D.M.A., ’75 M.M.A., ’73 M.M., who is now president emeritus at The Juilliard School.

Robert set a standard for excellence,” said Polisi, “and by making the Yale School of Music a full scholarship program, he also developed one of the most sought-after programs in the world. And for that Yale — and the music educational world — owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.”

His curricular innovations helped make graduates become not just great performers and teachers, Polisi said, but also leaders. “And this has come to pass, with Yale School of Music graduates during Robert’s tenure taking important leadership positions in the field,” said Polisi, who led The Juilliard School from 1984 to 2018.

Nancy Marx Better ’84, who alongside her mother, Sylvia P. Marx, serves on the School of Music’s board of advisors, says her family has been honored to work with Blocker for more than two decades in advancing his vision for the school.

We admire Dean Blocker’s extraordinary leadership talents as well as his warm and approachable manner,” she said. “Collaborating with him has been a highlight of our volunteer service to Yale, and we are grateful for the innumerable ways in which Dean Blocker has enhanced the School of Music and the entire university.”

During his tenure, Blocker has also focused on recognizing the work of faculty, staff, students, and alumni. He developed several awards and traditions that celebrate the school’s mission, including the Gustave Stoeckel Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Ian Mininberg Distinguished Alumni Service Award, and the Cultural Leadership Citation. He instituted the Dean’s Prize, the school’s highest excellence award, given to a graduating student at Commencement. He also established the school’s annual convocation, which brings together the Yale School of Music community at the beginning of each academic year.

For Robert Blocker, being a musician has always been about being a leader,” Polak added. “He expects this of his students, and he demonstrates this at every level of his life from the global stage to personal interactions. Sometimes Robert Blocker has made our world better by his music transporting us to a better world. Sometimes, Robert Blocker has made our world better by a kind word in our moments of frailty. Always Robert Blocker has made our world better, and I trust that, even after he steps down as dean, he will continue to do so.”

It has been a privilege to work closely with Dean Blocker,” added President Salovey. “His wisdom and vision, commitment to excellence in education and scholarship, bold creativity, and principled leadership have redefined the school, and his immense contributions will be felt for generations to come.”

The president will soon form a search advisory committee to identify candidates to serve as the next dean of the School of Music.

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