Being able to perform in Carnegie Hall is the dream of many young musicians all over the world, but actually taking the stage can be a nerve-wracking experience no matter your age. This feeling is well known to conductor Ron Jones of Port Angeles, Washington. Over the past thirty years, he has led his students in a number of Carnegie Hall concerts, and is returning to the historic hall to perform selected works later this year in April. We spoke with him to get an inside look at what it takes to lead young musicians in one of the most important music venues in the world.
How do you prep for Carnegie Hall?
MAP: How long have you been a music educator and what was it that made you decide you wanted to teach?
Ron Jones: I’ve been teaching since 1966; my first job was at a private guitar studio. After that, I went to college and earned a Music Ed. degree and I’ve been teaching in public school ever since.
To answer the second part, I wanted to teach because I was inspired by my public school music teachers. I started playing violin after I heard the junior high orchestra; the director looked like a fun teacher and it turned out that he was. The junior high band director was also energetic in the same way, so was the choir teacher. The whole bunch of them were energetic and positive, and while they were demanding (they knew they were producing a product), they still had fun with it. I really enjoyed those classes. I played violin in the orchestra and bass in the jazz band and I just got hooked on the show, on being a performer.
MAP: So do you still perform in addition to teaching?
Ron Jones: Yes, but not as much as I used to. I get a gig every now and then, but I focus mostly on my students – teaching and prepping them for their performances. And playing golf [laughs].
MAP: I know you’ve conducted in Carnegie Hall a number of times – is there anything in particular you look for when choosing repertoire for the concert?
Ron Jones: Yeah, I will just say – my first performance was in 1989 and I had no idea. It had to be the most challenging, top drawer music and I would just break everybody’s tail learning it. Then I realized it doesn’t matter what you play, you just have to play it well. Carnegie Hall has hosted every genre of music imaginable. So if you put 60 kids on stage singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” that’s fine; it just can’t be done badly.
MAP: For your upcoming concert, I noticed the program is well outside of the norm and includes an eclectic mix of music; one piece is by a composer born in 1980, and another is from the 1500s. Any reason you chose such an eclectic mix of styles?
Ron Jones: Well, that goes to the show. And that is that not only should you be selecting music you can perform well, but music that has a message. Not telling a story exactly, but creating an experience. So you need to have contemporary songs but you need to balance it with older works as well. It’s like how you have to have your vegetables and your meats, you can’t have just one.
I want to find something that will educate a New York audience. Find something people don’t play all the time. If you look back I used to program Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc. But for this concert the “Ave Maria” is not the one or two that everybody knows. It’s not the standard. It’s the one from the 1500s by an Italian composer, Giulio Caccini, and it is drop dead gorgeous. Then there’s the Albéniz: it was one of the last things he composed and it’s pretty typical to hear it for guitar or piano. Recently it was arranged for string orchestra, and that’s not something you see every day. A lot of times you’ll see guitarists transcribe a Bach orchestral work, but it rarely goes the other way.
MAP: Do you have any recommendations or advice for first time Carnegie Hall performers or conductors?
Ron Jones: Just be over-prepared because just being in the room is overwhelming. I’ll say that you just give yourself up to the hall, you become part of it. The atmosphere is just amazing. It’s kind of like playing your first solo at a recital. But if you’re over-prepared you can set yourself aside. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. What helps me is being a conductor of students. You’re doing it for them to help them have a good experience and manage their anxieties; it helps you focus and do what you need to do.
The first time there we had a number of chaperones – parents whose children were performing. Before the concert these kids were just nasty to them. The kids would be pale and upset, parents would be concerned and ask “are you ok?” and the kids would just snap back at them because they were so nervous. Kids would come to me and say they were sick and couldn’t perform and I wouldn’t let that happen because I knew it was just nerves. Some of my kids have been with me for five to six years. We have a trust; they know I’m not gonna put them in a situation where they fail. That kind of relationship is essential.
MAP: Lastly, you’ve had a distinguished career, won awards, and led musical organizations – is there any one thing to which you’d attribute your success?
Ron Jones: I think my success is “music is to be enjoyed.” I was fortunate as a young person to see people who were professional that were so focused on what they were doing they had no concept of what was going on around them. I think that’s what it takes. And I was fortunate to work with great artists, some of them are just extremely focused and obsessed and they acted like total jerks. Then there were others, artists at the top of their field, but they were able to relax and didn’t have to make it about them. They made it a positive experience, and I think that’s so important to just have fun.
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