Dr. Shayna Stahl Makes Wildcat History

Mike Lawson • June 2021UpClose • June 12, 2021

Photo by Brian Stahl

It has been 118 years since 1903, when the commandant of the military science department at University of Kentucky, Captain George, made his appointment of Professor Rucker as band director, creating the first official marching band at UK. And since then, the glass ceiling for women in band programs there has held firm. It has now been shattered.

UK announced on May 7, that Shayna Stahl had been named director of athletic bands and assistant director of bands in the School of Music. Stahl will become the first woman to serve as the director of the Wildcat Marching Band. Stahl will also serve as director of the UK Pep Bands and as the conductor of the UK Concert Band.

“I am very pleased that Dr. Stahl will be joining us at the UK School of Music this summer,” said Stan Pelkey, director of the UK School of Music. “Dr. Stahl is an experienced director of athletic bands who has worked with Division I athletic bands for the past 15 years. She will be ready from her first day on campus to guide the Wildcat Marching Band toward a successful fall season. Dr. Stahl also impressed me, members of the search committee, and our students with her ability to connect quickly and authentically with students as a teacher and conductor.”

SBO reached out to Dr. Stahl in celebration of this news to directly learn more about this norm-breaking music educator.

How old were you when you first started playing music?

I actually started in third grade on the cello first, and then I transitioned into band in fourth grade. Obviously, there was general music before that as well, where my music teachers were really supportive. They put all different types of recorders in our hands, had recorder ensembles and all that stuff. I guess the instrument that stuck was the French horn in fourth grade. I played that all through elementary school into junior high and into high school.

At Temple University

Where did you grow up? They had a really robust music program if you were taking French horn in the fourth grade.

Long Island. I was very fortunate in that district that they supported music a lot. The teachers were amazing, really supportive. And kind of a fun fact, my fourth-grade band teacher ended up becoming my high school band teacher later on. I had him two times in my career, he was a really big inspiration in music and keeping me going.

Would you consider yourself primarily a French horn player?

We have to learn all of them in college, but brass is definitely my area of specialty. I would say trumpet is probably my secondary instrument. We have to know to play everything.

What happened to the cello?

I loved playing it. We had a transition of teacher from when I was in third grade to fourth grade. I don’t know if I was exactly recruited by the band department or what it may have been… I know a lot of schools don’t do this, but they allowed the strings to start a year earlier than the wind instruments. I’m not really sure why the district decided to do that. But it was kind of a neat experience, to be able to have that a part of my career.

I was very fortunate my parents were super supportive, even though they never played instruments of any sort.

Newfield High School Concert (teacher)

At what point did you decide you were gooin to do this and become an educator?

I’ve always had a passion for teaching in general. At kind of a young age, junior high at the time, they allowed us to start, student teaching and helping the classes. I just had a passion to help people, to help teach people and to really kind of break things down in a way if they don’t understand it, just finding different ways to tap into how they learn and being able to help them. So I think that kind of passed over to music in general. And for me, because I was so involved with music and choir, and band, and marching band and all that stuff, it made sense to me. I was like, what else would I do? You know, this is my passion. Why even try anything else? You know, this is something that I love doing.

I knew before I applied for colleges that I wanted to be music ed major. I knew in 10th grade was when I was like, “Okay, this is my track, I’m gonna make sure I focus on it and make sure I have everything inline to get into college for that.”

Stony Brook University celebrates its 2016 championship win.

Did you ever teach at the high school or middle school level?

When I finished my undergrad, I went back to Long Island, and I taught middle school for a year. And then the high school band director retired, and they moved me up to the high school where I taught for seven years. And then the thing that was different about me than I think a lot of other people is I didn’t just go from like one degree, to the next degree, to the next degree. I kind of, while I was teaching, I did degrees at the same time, which, you know, it’s a challenge to do. It was the best way for me. And, you know, I wouldn’t change it because I feel like that really developed me as a teacher because I got to teach so long.

Stony Brook University game day

But while I was teaching in the high school, my high school band director who was the male that I had in fourth grade too who started me, actually received the director of athletic bands position at Stony Brook University, where he said, “Hey, I wanna bring in some more people that have some collegiate marching band experience.” So, he had asked me to join the staff with him. While I was working full time, I worked there part-time, and I also took some classes for my first master’s which was an Arts in liberal studies from Stony Brook. I was very involved and very scheduled, but I loved every minute of it. Like I wouldn’t have changed it, you know? I love being involved. So, after I finished my master’s there, I was still working at Stony Brook and I wanted to get a master’s in music education or conducting, but I didn’t wanna have to quit my job to do so. I did the master’s in music education and conducting, which was a part-time program during the summer at the Hartt School of Music. So, you did like a three summer intensive program, and it was a lot of work because it was basically your entire classwork in the summers. I did that while working there.

Then the gentleman that I was working with at Stony Brook retired and that’s when I had applied to be the director of athletic bands. I applied, received the position as director of athletic bands. Was there for three years as the director, but in total, I think it was 10 years in total that I was working there with them. Three as the director though, and then the rest as the assistant.

University of Washington game day.

Then I decided that I wanted to go for my doctorate. I took the big leap of faith and left my position, went to do a grad assistantship all the way out from one coast to the other to Seattle. And that was an amazing experience honestly, being out there and being able to be a part of the Husky marching band there, working with Brad McDavid, Tim Salzman, who were huge supporters the entire time, giving me the opportunities to guest conduct, rehearse the bands, and write drills for the bands. And you know, just being out there and giving me the opportunity, basically preparing me and setting me up for success.

University of Washington celebrates its Pac-12 championship.

You’re the first woman director of athletic bands for University of Kentucky. That’s quite an honor, and it is ground-breaking. How do we get more women involved in that athletic band career path and that job goal?

I think it’s just a support system for those that wanna go into the profession. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate with all of the band directors that I’ve worked with. Mainly have been male, honestly, but you know, that they saw that I had a passion for something and a drive, and they encouraged it, helped me gain the experiences that I needed to be where I am in my career. I’m just thankful for the support of just the mentors that I have. Finding the right mentors, whether they’re male or female, is really important. For women in the profession, I think if there’s more of us, there’ll be more encouragement for people to say, “Yeah, I can go do this.” I think the more that we see women in the profession, it’s gonna encourage more women that are going into their undergrads as music educators, and wanting to do that, that they can do this, too.

University of Washington – Conducting in China- Photo by David Wall

Were there women like that in your educational path leading to this point in your career?

I was thinking about this yesterday because I’m doing some speaking for a school that’s asking about growing up in the profession, and they asked me that question. I was trying to think back on all of my music teachers. I had two fantastic music teachers in elementary school that were both women. They really encouraged me throughout my career. I still see them every so often at the conferences and that’s really great.

Univ. of North Carolina – Charlotte marching band relaxing at the Bahamas Bowl

I’ve taught with different women in the profession. But in terms of all of my teachers in the band world have mainly been male, come to think of it. I’m trying to think if I have any others. My elementary school teacher did end up moving up to the middle school, so she was there as well. But you know, it just stemmed from the mentors that I had in the profession. I hope I can do that for someone, that they can see that this is possible. There are some really great women in the profession right now that are doing some wonderful things at division one schools — even some within the SEC conference that are doing some amazing things.

We have a Women’s Band Directors International Association that I’m involved in and being able to discuss hot topics with them and to lean on them for support or questions is a really great resource too.

Shayna and Brian Stahl at University of Kentucky

It sounds like the move to Lexington, and UK, is an excellent opportunity for both you and the school. Had you seen the band perform previously?

I saw them live in person actually when I was one of the only band directors so far to take the Stony Brook the pep band to an NCAA tournament for the first time. And lo and behold, it was Kentucky that we played when I was there.

And it was an incredible experience to see them. I mean, they’re so instilled with traditions and they’ve got tunes that they play and all that stuff. And Stony Brook we were still…we had a lot of good tradition starting. But to see how their cheer and spirit squads really tied in together, created a lot of energy and spirit. And almost like taking a home game on the road was kind of the experience that I saw. You know, and you could see the energy that the students had and their love for basketball too in general.

So, that was my first time actually seeing them in person and I was like, yeah, this is incredible, I would love to be a part of something like this. You know, to be instilled in such great tradition and to be involved. They just have such pride for their program and what they’re doing.

I’m really excited about being there. It was so great when I was on campus to see how much commitment the music department and the athletics and even the spirit teams have to that camaraderie and working together. I mean, if you think about it, marching band is probably the most visible part of a music department anywhere.

It’s the one that gets the biggest crowd at the games and the most common crowd, for everybody that’s accessible to everyone and that’s a huge thing. And I think for me, the thing that I bring to all programs that I work with is because of my dance background, I have a really easy time being able to communicate with like the spirit squads and being able to work together with choosing music that’s appropriate for what’s gonna go on during a timeout or halftime or whatever it may be.

I wanna know all about the traditions, I wanna know about all of the history. You know, figuring out what we can do, that’s been in the past, what we can expand upon. I’m not gonna go in there and try to like, just take everything and go like this, you know, with everything on the table.

University of Washington Outdoor Concert Band Concert – Photo by Brian Stahl

If you have the opportunity to mentor a middle and/or high school band director and help them understand the path to best get their student from middle to high to UK, what do you tell them?

One of the things that I always tried to do when I was teaching in middle school was to reach out to the high school band director, and even invite the high school band director to come down and work with the students. That way, they’re seeing a base and feeling comfortable with going to a high school band program.

You know, what I don’t think a lot of students understand when they go from high school marching band to college marching band, some of them are kind of stressed out about it because they think that high school marching band, it’s so competitive, college is gonna be the same thing. What they don’t realize is that you know, yes, we do spend a lot of time together, it’s a lot of work that we put together, but there’s a fun side of things.

And then also vice versa, even me going up to the high school and hearing the students that are there and celebrating their successes moving over into the high school. To have that communication I think is extremely important. I always tell this even to my own music ed students that I teach right now. That relationship that you have between the middle school and the high school band director is imperative to bridging the gaps to making that transition from middle school to high school. And it’s the same way for college students …for the college band directors to be out there, to be supportive, show what type of music programs that are out there, what they can be doing in college.

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