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Students honor retiring choir director after 35 years at CMU

Nina Nash-Robertson is retiring after 35 years of teaching, but her music students are ensuring that her legacy stays strong at Central Michigan University.

Nash-Robertson was hired as the director of choral activities in 1982. She was in charge of vocal auditions, recruitment, advising students and organizations, and coordinated performances with the choir faculty and orchestra director.

Nash-Robertson was most known, however, for her close connection with students.

“I loved getting to know the students, being part of their development,” Nash-Robertson said. “I loved seeing them come in as high school students, auditioning and then graduating as professionals ready to go and take over.”

As she prepares to leave, her students are honoring her dedication by creating an award in her namesake.

The award is called the Nina Nash Choral Service award and was created by students in the American Choral Directors Association, a chapter Nash-Robertson founded and advised on campus. The award is meant to honor her impact both in and out of the classroom.

“She’s my biggest mentor for millions of musical and nonmusical things,” said Big Rapids senior Amy Walling, a member in Chamber Singers, the advanced choir group on campus. “She has shown me humility. I’ve never met someone so humble.”

Though the award will be given to a choir student nominated by other students or faculty every year, the choir association surprised Nash-Robertson as the first recipient at their meeting on April 9.

The award is based off of characteristics of Nash-Robertson’s personality and her high standards in her professional career, said Howell junior Kaitlyn Cortez, president of the choral chapter. Some of these qualities include high integrity, being humble, exceptional musicianship and leadership in the choral program.

“She deserves all of these honors that she’s getting,” Cortez said. “We all really appreciate her and all the work that she has done. It’s hard and sad that she is leaving, but she has definitely left a legacy.”

During her 35 years at CMU, Nash-Robertson said she thought the university had expanded so much that the classroom was becoming less personable. That didn’t stop her from making efforts to establish a relationship with all of her students.

“It’s really important to (Nash-Robertson) to make relationships with her students,” Walling said. “Even (in) the big choir that has (close to) 80 students, she knows everyone and talks to everyone before and after class. Everyone feels open to just go up to her.”

Nash-Robertson said in her fondest memories at CMU was bonding with her students while performing overseas.

She traveled to the Czech Republic and Slovakia with students in the ‘90s — right after the Cold War ended and Russia’s “Iron Curtain” had been lifted. The choir sang an arrangement of “Simple Gifts” in Bratislava, with the lyrics, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.”

“When we sang that, there were people in the audience just sobbing because they hadn’t been free and (now) finally (were) free,” Nash-Robertson said. “And here were these fresh American, sweet, lovely voices singing this to them.”

She also took her students to China for the Shanghai Expo in 2010, where they sang “Michigan Morn” at an outside stage. After the performance, some elderly Chinese women said the choir sang so beautifully it made them want to go to Michigan.

Thanks to her students, Nash-Robertson’s name will not be forgotten. Now, she is ready to enjoy the next chapter in life and read for leisure, service the community and continue traveling to see loved ones.

“Our only daughter lives in New York, so we have to travel to spend time with her,” Nash-Robertson said. “She is going to be having our first grandchild at the end of this summer. That is really exciting.”

Nash-Robertson is also excited to use her retirement to explore and learn more about the world. She still plans to spend time on CMU’s campus, but as a student.

“The job here has been wonderful, but it hasn’t given me time to explore other things,” she said. “I want to take classes on campus. I want to be one of those old people in the back of the religion, or the philosophy or the painting (classes).”

Before she departs CMU for her next adventure, Nash-Robertson shared a few final words of advice for her students: just breath.

“Trust that your life will unfold and it will be more beautiful than you could imagine right now,” Nash-Robertson said. “Don’t only work hard, (but) appreciate. Knowing that I’m (retiring) helps me appreciate each rehearsal and day more.”