Music Workshop by Returning Graduate Inspires Students
Published on April 2, 2014
The James Jordan who entered Susquehanna University in 1971—a small-town kid from the Pennsylvania coal region who played “a little” clarinet in high school—was a far cry from the master teacher and world-renowned conductor who returned recently to present a workshop on conducting and rehearsal technique to a class of music education majors. The 1975 graduate initially entered Susquehanna as a biology major, but soon realized that he had to follow his passion for music.
Today, he credits Susquehanna with launching him on his journey in the choral art. “I owe a lot to this place, more than I could ever tell you,” he says in his closing remarks to the students and educators gathered in Heilman Rehearsal Hall. He points to “the man at the back of the room,” his mentor Cyril Stretansky, professor emeritus of choral music for whom the state-of-the art Stretansky Concert Hall is named. “I’m not sure he knew how good he was,” Jordan said.
Jordan elaborated while visiting with Stretansky after the workshop in the office of one of his own protégés, Assistant Professor of Music Jason Vodicka, coordinator of music education and director of the University Chorale. “[Susquehanna] was a place where someone like me could grow … and it was all because of the quality and commitment of the faculty,” Jordan said.
In addition to Stretansky, Jordan spoke of two other deeply influential teachers during his time at Susquehanna—Donald Beckie, his applied clarinet teacher, and James B. Steffy, former conductor of the university band and wind ensemble.
Jordan’s undergraduate years at Susquehanna were spent studying conducting, and singing in the University Choir under Stretansky’s direction. Vodicka took a similar path under Jordan’s tutelage at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where Jordan is a professor and conducts the Westminster Schola Cantorum and the Grammy–nominated Westminster Williamson Voices.
One of the nation’s preeminent conductors, Jordan has published more than 30 books on the choral art, bringing about far-reaching changes in the pedagogy and philosophy of choral music, orchestral conducting, wind conducting, piano and music education. His innovative approach to teaching conducting is embraced by educators around the world, which comes as no surprise when he gets in front of a class.
Jordan’s wit and conversational style easily won over Vodicka’s 8 a.m. Training Ensemble class, and after two hours of compelling instruction, humorous stories and classroom demonstrations, the students left the class energized. His thoughts about mirror neurons, body mapping and the importance of breath inspired them.
“If you are thinking about pedagogy and teaching, teach singers and players that the moment of breath is when all the creation occurs,” Jordan told the class. “The idea (of how you want something to sound) is formed in the breath, not necessarily when you produce a vowel sound.”
Breath is equally important in conducting, Jordan says, demonstrating how he can change the sound in the room with just his breath. It’s a technique Jordan says his students at Westminster lovingly call “voodoo conducting.” But what he’s really doing is making students aware of their bodies and how they should work when evoking different sound and emotion from an ensemble.
Katherine Allebach, a first-year music education major from East Greenville, Pa., said Jordan’s inspiration came at the perfect time and with the perfect message: Find time daily to “reflect and refresh, and never give up.” By sharing his undergraduate experience with the students, Allebach said Jordan put her mind at ease about the future. His example is especially empowering because “if he can get to his high stature coming from Susquehanna, any other Susquehannan can certainly reach high places, as long as they have the right mindset,” she said.
Acclaimed Conductor James Jordan '75 Returns to Susquehanna
Alumnus James Jordan returned to Susquehanna University to lead a workshop on conducting and rehearsal technique with music education majors, and sat down afterwards for an interview.