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BYU professor followed heart into life of music

He and his wife are retiring after many years in department

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Dr. Clayne Robison is a native of Boise, but he has spent most of his life in Provo. He came to Brigham Young University as a freshman in 1956. And with a few short exceptions — an LDS Church mission, graduate school — he has lived in Provo ever since.

Now, 50 years later, Robison will finally "matriculate" from BYU — not as a student getting a degree but a senior professor reaching retirement.

And — unlike his beginning at BYU, which was solo — his exit will be with his wife, Vivien, who is also retiring after nearly 40 years as an adjunct professor in the music department.

Appropriately, the two met while singing together in a BYU opera. She was the soprano lead, and he was the baritone lead. "That was kind of romantic, except that he kissed the other girl," Vivien Robison said with a chuckle. "The soprano always kisses the tenor and the baritone kisses the alto."

At that time, Clayne Robison already had a degree from Harvard Law School. But finding the law profession disappointing, he returned to BYU, first working for the administration and later seeking a master's degree in organizational behavior.

Along the way, he says he seemed to spend a lot of time in the music department. "About halfway through the year, my wife said, 'Clayne, why don't you go into music?' I said, 'You wouldn't mind?' It seemed like a step back from Harvard Law School. But she said, 'No I think it would be great.' "

So he followed his heart and went into music. "From then on, everything was fun. I loved graduate school, loved my doctorate, I had a ball."

In 1973, Robison was hired to be the director of opera at BYU. His first year aboard, the chairman of the music department invited Robison to stage an opera that would feature a leading professional singer.

So Robison suggested staging "Boris Godunov," one of the biggest grand operas, with Jerome Hines singing the lead. The production was realized in March 1975. "We rented sets and fancy costumes from New York. It was a pretty big splash."

That same school year, Robison conducted the Oratorio Choir in a production of the Messiah with multiple soloists for each solo part, modern dancers, costumes and multimedia. "That's very unusual," Robison said. "Usually you have to wait for 20 years to make your mark, and here, right off the bat, that very first year, resources were made available for me to try whatever creative thing came to my mind.

"Money was spent, and resources — the hall, orchestra, everything came available for me to discover for myself what I could do."

But it wasn't in opera, it was in pedagogy that Robison feels he made his biggest mark, with his research and development of vocal beauty. "That's what got me into music. I care about sound, I care about the sound of the human voice when it's singing beautifully. I care about figuring out what's going on in the body when that happens and how to get people to make that happen.

"Even when I was opera director, I was always kind of overstepping my stewardship and trying to help the students who were singing in the opera sound better, as well as being their stage director. But my heart, my ear hungers to help people figure out how to really make it sound gorgeous."

Robison was eventually made the vocal area head, where he served for 13 years. It was during this time that he began his research in earnest, trying to find out everything he could about the process of teaching, learning and measuring beautiful singing.

His work has culminated with a book and DVD, "Beautiful Singing: Not Just for the Chosen." The premise of Robison's philosophy challenges traditional vocal study, suggesting that anyone can learn to sing beautifully.

In addition, Robison has found it more helpful for students to learn solo singing in a group setting than in the traditional one-on-one model. As such, he has impacted the vocal department through his group-voice instruction for 30 years. He also developed the Vocal Beauty Boot Camp, which is held at BYU.

"(Robison) has helped people from very young to senior citizens to renew their pleasure in their singing," said Arden Hopkin, BYU's current vocal-division coordinator. "He's tried to take the singing art — which is inclined to be a little bit esoteric and highbrow — and make it available to common people who love to sing and would like to know how to sing better. So that, I think, is going to be a very long-lasting legacy."

Another significant legacy, said Hopkin, is Robison's development of the "Sabbath Song" books.

"It's a series of sacred-song anthologies that represent kind of a crossroads between art songs and songs appropriate for worship service. So they're a little bit more sophisticated than a hymn, and they're more sophisticated than the traditional kind of Mormon popular music that sometimes shows up in sacrament meetings in church."

The first two volumes have been published locally, but a national publishing house, Hal Leonard, has approached Robison about doing an anthology under its label for a wider market. Now that he's retired, Robison looks forward to having more time to finish that project.

Meanwhile, Vivien Robison quietly cultivated beautiful singers herself, teaching voice part-time at BYU.

Over the years, her work load fluctuated to accommodate raising six children. Since she taught while the kids were at school, she said the kids didn't even know that she was working for BYU. "The only time is when they would have a vacation on a Monday morning and I did not."

"Vivien has been the bulwark of our voice teaching for close to 40 years," said Hopkin. "Except for a brief time when (Clayne) was off getting his doctorate's degree, she has taught voice part time at BYU until their retirement in 2006.

"She probably is more heavily invested than anybody in the history of the music department because she's been there for longer than anyone. In the course of her 38-40 years of teaching, she has literally touched the lives of thousands of young people who have come to learn how to sing."

Both are ending their careers in a fitting manner. Clayne Robison is teaching Vocal Beauty Boot Camps during the summer (plus one in December), and Vivien Robison retired just in time to help her daughter with triplets.

Now the two of them plan to serve an LDS mission next year.

E-mail: rcline@desnews.com