Spotlight: UI conductor challenges, inspires students


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Sounds of violins, clarinets, and cellos fill the air as William LaRue Jones conducts a piece from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor during a rehearsal for the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra.

At measure 579, Jones — dressed in a black turtleneck and matching slacks — abruptly stops the piece. Through the complex array of sound he finds a slight error: the woodwind instruments are off-tempo.

“If you try placing the tongue on the rest, it might help with the off beat,” he says.

The song commences, only to stop once more. Jones sings the beat, tapping his foot with the correct rhythm.

“You have to be able to hear the beat and recover,” says the 65-year-old conductor.

The woodwinds and string sections replay the same measures. On the eighth try, Jones punches a fist in the air, nodding his head in approval.

The ability to pinpoint minuscule musical errors comes naturally for Jones. Since attending Juilliard School of Music in 1964, he has conducted orchestras, operas, and ballets around the world. As a music director for the University of Iowa symphony and graduate chamber orchestras, he continues to challenge and inspire students.

Yet he did not grow up with a desire to be a musician. As a high-school student in Fort Worth, Texas, he was interested in athletics, and he earned a baseball scholarship to Kansas State University.

Jones enrolled in a humanities class during his freshman year of college that introduced the basic concepts of literature, religion, and symphonic music. For him, the class highlighted the striking parallels between athletics and art.

“Most team sports and ensembles are very similar because everyone has to pull together for the same goal,” he said. “In music, we don’t have a score card. The goal in sports is victory, but in arts, it’s for everyone to win and achieve on the same level.”

Though Jones was required to learn a variety of instruments, including the piano and bassoon, as an undergraduate music student, he wanted to oversee more than one part of the production. He soon developed a great interest in conducting.

“As a conductor, you are involved in the total interpretation,” he said. “When you study scores, you see what the composers were really hearing and thinking when they wrote.”

Jones has received degrees from the University of Wisconsin, University of Iowa, and Kansas State University, in addition to studying at the Juilliard School of Music and the University of North Texas. In 1962, Jones moved to New York City to attend Juilliard. He enjoyed the musical atmosphere of the city, which offered opportunities to watch different conductors. Those observations helped him create his own style — one that his students admire.

“I appreciate his philosophy on conducting,” said 23-year-old graduate student Michael Wright. “If you know a piece inside and out and are ready for the musicians’ questions, they have no reason not to follow you, no matter your level of experience.”

While each music composition differs, the key components of conducting remain the same. Jones focuses on ensuring that no instrument is dominating another, keeping a watchful eye on intonation, balance, and rhythmic coordination. With these principles always on his mind, he continues to conduct and advise future music directors.

“He is not only my adviser and professor,” said orchestral conducting graduate student Kira Horel. “He’s also a great mentor.”

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