Paul E. Oakley's rather unconventional childhood fueled his own passion for music. He is hoping to stoke that same passion in Catawba students, whether they seek to major in sacred music, his area of expertise, or simply to maintain their music as a hobby or pastime.
Oakley is Catawba College's new Director of Choral, Vocal and Sacred Music Studies, an Associate Professor of Music, and also the College Organist. People might think that Oakley's job titles are overly broad, until they actually meet him.
A tall man with piercing, blue eyes and a congenial, disarming manner, Oakley arrived on campus two months ago, full of plans, ideas, and an abundance of energy. He says he felt "a strong vocational pull" to Catawba College.
"There's unlimited potential here and the administration has a vision for what the fine arts can bring to a liberal arts community," he explains. "We're not setting up a conservatory here, but we want to offer conservatory level training in a liberal arts environment. Our choral program is one of our institution's points of distinction and it's something that our students can participate in whatever their major. That participation will help create lifetime lovers of music and supporters of the arts."
Professor Oakley might be described as untraditional, although his faith and his love of music – all types of music – seem very traditional. The fifth of six children born to a Southern Baptist minister and the quintessential "Steel Magnolia," Oakley lived in a variety of places while growing up, including Michigan, Florida, Mississippi, California, and Colorado. His father, Dr. William P. Oakley, whom he describes as "an intellectual Biblical scholar with an earned doctorate," was a specialist in starting new churches. However, Dr. Oakley did not execute those start-ups alone; he involved his entire family in the effort.
"Throughout my childhood and youth, leading worship through music was our gig as a family," Oakley says. "The denomination provided a doublewide trailer chapel that was moved to different city to city to serve as a temporary house of worship until a church could be built. When the trailer chapel became too crowded, we'd simply move to a tent revival outside. "Doing this as a family was actually fun."
When Oakley was nine he had his first job, playing the organ at the Temple of Faith Church in downtown Detroit, a large African-American Baptist Church. "The city of Detroit was burning at that time and no one would drive downtown to play the organ there," he remembers. "My Dad graciously volunteered my services.
"We lived in Grosse Pointe, an upscale suburb of Detroit, during the week and then on the weekends I would live with the pastor's family of Temple of Faith in downtown Detroit. To understand life in my family, you would have to know that my dad's idea of a fun vacation was to preach a week-long revival. Our family would sing at a noon-time service and an evening service every day. That was our summer vacation."
Oakley is an Episcopalian. He arrived at that realization at age 13, after much reading, study and theological ponderings with his father. It was with his parents' support that Oakley discovered the tenets of his faith and "now, at age 47, I'm my Southern Baptist parents' Episcopalian son."
The fact that Catawba is a faith-based college was a major feature that attracted Oakley. He left New York City and his position as the Minister of Music and Organist of The Reformed Church of Bronxville, because he feels called back into teaching. His music and his faith, two elements which remain constant whether he is in a big city or a small town, will be a significant help as he works to build a stronger sense of community on campus and between the campus and the larger Salisbury area.
One of the resources he hopes to share with the greater Salisbury community is his extensive personal library of hymnals, musical scores, worship resources and books. "Someone could come to my library to find music and words to a long-lost hymn or to conduct significant scholarly research," he explains.
This fall, Oakley, who was hired to fill the position at Catawba created by Rosemary Kinard's phased retirement, will be directing the Catawba Singers, the Catawba Chorale and the Catawba Madrigals. The Singers will consist of approximately 50 Catawba students, while the Chorale will involve these students joined with various community members who share their love of singing. Already, he has begun to plan performance opportunities for them, including Catawba's 20th Annual Services of Lessons and Carols slated Tuesday and Thursday, December 4 and 6, as well as two new events: a Thanksgiving Service scheduled for Sunday, November 18, and a Palm Sunday Service set for Sunday, March 16.
Oakley will be featured as organist during a hymn festival and faculty recital, "A Thousand Ages in Thy Sight," at 6 p.m. Sunday, September 30 in the Omwake-Dearborn Chapel on campus. Also performing will be members of the Ethos Chamber Singers, which Oakley co-founded and now serves as its Music Director, and Catawba's newest ensemble, Scholars of the Chapel. Selections will range from chant to gospel songs. This event will highlight the "the diversity of our musical repertoire, the unusually wonderful acoustics of Catawba's Chapel for music performance," he notes, "as well as the College's beautiful Casavant pipe organ."
According to Catawba College Chair of the Music Department, Dr. Renee McCachren, Oakley is a welcomed addition to the program. "Our department is already emerging as a national model for musical inclusiveness and stylistic diversity throughout its curriculum. Paul's professional breadth and commitment to excellence will greatly enhance the department's distinctiveness and increase substantially its caliber of leadership throughout the artistic community."
Oakley holds a Master of Music degree in Conducting from Boston University where he was a Dean's Scholar in Music and a student of the renowned choral conductor, Dr. Ann Howard Jones. He holds two undergraduate degrees from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, one in Organ Performance and another in Sacred Music (Choral Emphasis). At Friends, he was a Presser Scholar in Music. He serves as editor for a series of new choral music and editions of historic classical music for Colla Voce Music, Inc.
A specialist in music of the Baroque era (1600-1750), Oakley is known throughout the U.S. and beyond as a conductor, concert organist, collaborative pianist, lecturer and clinician. He has performed throughout North America, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Hong Kong, Brazil, and several Caribbean nations. Each year, he conducts numerous All-State High School choirs and festival honor choruses and has prepared choruses for many significant conductors including Robert Shaw, Helmuth Rilling, Andrew Parrott, John Rutter, Edo de Waart, Martin Perlman and Kenneth Kiesler.
Participation in the Catawba Chorale, to be directed by Oakley, is open to any adult singer in the greater Salisbury-Rowan community who wishes to sing music composed for a large symphonic chorus. The Chorale rehearses each Tuesday evening during the school year from 5:30-6:50 p.m. in the Tom Smith Auditorium of the Ralph W. Ketner Building on Catawba's campus. There is convenient parking near the entrance of the building. For more information about the Chorale or other vocal and choral music offerings, contact Rose Ann Pannell in the Music Department at (704) 637-4345.