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Professor Brings Classical Music to the Modern Classroom - Georgetown College
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Professor Brings Classical Music to the Modern Classroom
January 24, 2011
Most professors of classical music wouldn’t expect their students to have operas, symphonies, or big band arrangements on their iPods. Yet for Rufus Jones, Jr., giving students the tools to experience music across genres and centuries forges connections from the classroom to the concert hall.
An Assistant Professor of Music, Jones also conducts the Georgetown University Orchestra and was recently appointed editor of the Journal of the Conductors Guild. An avid fan of Beethoven, classical music has been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember; he recalls his second-grade piano lessons as the official starting point of his hobby-turned-passion. “We didn’t sit by the radio or the living room table and listen to classical music on Thursdays,” Jones laughed. “It was really more about being exposed to something new in school and just finding that it really appealed to me.”
After mastering the piano, Jones studied the viola, and then the baritone horn. It was not until he was a college sophomore that he realized he could someday direct a band. That year, PBS broadcast a joint concert by the Israeli and the New York Philharmonic orchestras, the intensity of which “spoke” to him in an almost mystical way. Soon after, he happened upon an article in Ebony magazine that assured him people of color could succeed in the world of classical music. That article, entitled "The Maestros: Black Symphony Conductors Are Making a Name for Themselves," hangs on Jones’s office wall today.
“It was important to see people who have to deal with certain things you had to deal with as an African-American in a profession that some have called ‘the last bastion of elitism,’” Jones said. “I found this article and I remember coming into my dorm and sitting down after a long day and looking through it. It blew me away. It gave me the courage to say, ‘I don’t know how successful I’m going to be, I don’t know how this is going to work out—but I know that I have to do this.’”
The interaction of race and music informs much of Jones’ academic research. From early in his career, he made a point to introduce students to influential African-American composers ignored by history. In the process, his own interest in the stories of these forgotten artists grew. In 2010 he published his first book, The Collected Folk Suites of William Grant Still, in which he puts to modern notation the works of the first African-American big band composer to lead a professional orchestra. Although Jones doesn’t consider writing his forte—he “fought it tooth and nail before surrendering”—Judith Ann Still, the composer’s daughter, noticed his research and personally thanked him for his work.
As a professor, however, Jones knows not everyone is going to share his zeal for orchestral music, and fewer will appreciate classical composers quite the way he does. For Jones, the key is to make the past relevant to his students by proving that jazz, blues, spirituals, and symphonies are not antiques in the American canon, but emissaries of timeless music theory. “I try to be aware of what students are coming in with, their perceptions. Often they’re surprised how they can actually see terminology work, how the terminology transfers to pop culture.”
“If you take my class,” he said, “you can listen to music in a different way.”
Although Georgetown’s undergraduate major in American Musical Culture is more academic than performance-based, Jones has encountered students talented enough to attend the most elite music conservatories. More importantly, he said, most students in the Georgetown University Orchestra are so passionate about music that their dedication and excitement become contagious. “These young people are so engaged in their craft,” Jones extolled. “They’re like sponges, they want to absorb so much of the information you give them. It’s exciting to see their enthusiasm.”
Jones ultimately has lofty goals for the GU Orchestra. “My goal is that the orchestra will become one of the best in the nation when you compare it to schools that are like ours, other liberal arts institutions,” he said. “Even though we’re not training these students to become professional musicians, I instill the idea that a lot is expected of them. We’re all about integrity, excellence and artistry. We can make music.”
—Brittany Coombs
Photos from top: Professor Rufus Jones, Jr., and "The Maestros," by Kuna Hamad. Georgetown University Orchestra courtesy of the Department of Performing Arts. 
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