Lawrence University is celebrating the many artistic and academic contributions of Robert Below, a retired piano professor who taught in the Conservatory of Music for 32 years before retiring in 1996.
He died Dec. 16 at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was 86.
“Robert’s virtuosic abilities as both a performer and educator inspired generations of Lawrentians,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory.
In the classroom, Below taught nearly 1,200 Lawrence students. His teaching included piano studio work and classes in music history, literature of music, theory-analysis, and chamber music, among others.
His son, Andy Buelow ’84, now the executive director of the West Michigan Symphony, was among the Lawrence students Below inspired. He said his father found a welcoming home when he arrived at Lawrence in 1964, something he never took for granted.
“The university’s commitment to liberal arts was something in which he believed strongly, both for himself and his students,” Buelow said. “He felt that broader studies that included art, literature, history, theater, and the sciences would help them become better musicians and well-rounded human beings. He encouraged them not to spend their entire four years holed up in the music building.”
Below said he twice took classes taught by his father, both in music history.
“This is a memory I will always treasure — the opportunity to experience first-hand his amazing skills as a classroom teacher,” he said. “We, of course, spent a lot of time listening to recorded musical samples, but I still remember the day we were exploring 20th century piano literature and he sat down at the piano, without preamble or warm-up, and played the Copland Piano Sonata for the class. It was an unforgettable moment for us all.”
In addition to teaching, Below performed on stages in Appleton and across the United States, as well as in Europe and Latin America. He performed often with Lawrence colleagues and appeared as a concerto soloist with numerous orchestras, among them the Fox Valley Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.
He also composed more than 50 works, many of which have been performed through the years by Lawrence ensembles.
His numerous anthems, hymns, and other sacred works were used at his beloved All Saints Episcopal Church in Appleton. His choral music has been performed at his alma mater, the University of Louisville, as well as by the Lawrence University Concert Choir.
He was selected as the winner of the 1990 Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Wisconsin Composers Fanfare Competition and he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the School of Music at the University of Louisville.
In his obituary, former student Priscilla Peterson Weaver ’68 spoke glowingly of Below’s commitment to music education.
“The combination of grace and artistry and humanity that lived in Robert and that he passed on in his trademark forceful manner to all his students was a joy to witness,” she said. “For those of us privileged enough to have Robert as a mentor, and not just an occasional teacher, the experience was a blessing of immeasurable worth.”
Below reveled in the arts, at Lawrence and elsewhere, the family said. Poetry, ballet, classical music, and jazz were sources of inspiration during and after his time at Lawrence, and he continued to play the piano into his final days.
He and his wife, Barbara, relocated to Albuquerque shortly after his retirement. She preceded him in death in May. Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Alison, of Albuquerque.