Alumni Profile • Jane Rooks Ross '77
Orchestrating musical encounters

During her first year teaching music, Jane Rooks Ross ’77 had an enlightening experience that would turn out to direct the course of her career.

“The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra [KSO] sent me an invitation to bring my [Kalamazoo Christian] students to a free concert,” Rooks Ross remembered. “The students had a great time, but on the way home they talked about the other students in the auditorium and how big the auditorium was and the buses in the parking lot, but they weren’t talking about the music; I wanted the concert to be a musical experience for them.”

Each year from then on, Rooks Ross called the symphony months before their offered concert to learn what pieces would be on the program. She then prepared lessons that helped her students explore the music in various ways so that “when they went to the concert, they were excited about hearing music that they recognized and loved as well as seeing the musicians with their instruments in performance.”

Eventually, the KSO asked Rooks Ross why she called every year. When they saw her pre-concert lesson materials, they asked if they could send them to other music teachers in the area. These materials gradually made their way to orchestras far from Kalamazoo, like the Kansas City Symphony and the National Symphony, which then also began to ask Rooks Ross to write similar materials for their repertoire.

Rooks Ross liked the creative challenge and continued to work as a kind of educational consultant to orchestras around the country while teaching in the Kalamazoo Christian schools. Then, in 1995, a husband and wife patron gave the KSO money to endow an educational director’s position. It seemed, to the symphony and to Rooks Ross, natural for her to step into the job.

Over the past nine years Rooks Ross has helped the KSO develop 18 different educational programs that bring music to the whole Kalamazoo community, including sessions for preschoolers in public libraries in which a string quartet helps tell a featured story, a traveling “instrument petting zoo,” and ensembles that visit over 100 schools in the district, offering performances, demonstrations and dialogue.

From the beginning of her tenure with the symphony Rooks Ross has worked closely with teachers when developing programs for schools. One outcome is an innovative across-the-curriculum approach to learning for elementary children. It begins in the usual classroom with a story that the students discuss. In art class, students construct masks that represent the story’s characters and wear those masks to music class, where the teacher guides them through the creation of sound and rhythm patterns their characters might make. The learning culminates when a KSO musician comes to the school. He or she adds melodies and sound effects, and together the masked students and the professional musician perform the story.

Through the KSO education and community programs more than 50,000 people in the Kalamazoo area have been offered — free or at a greatly reduced cost — multi-layered experiences in orchestral music.

This musical enrichment of the community has not gone unappreciated. In August of 2003 the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo honored Rooks Ross with its Community Medal of Arts Award. One of three recipients in 2003, Rooks Ross was the first ever arts administrator to be granted the medal.

With the award the council recognized that this administrator is as much a working artist as a musical performer or an architect or a poet. Bringing symphony performers and the public together for carefully designed and engaging experiences with orchestral music is a fine, if hidden, art. An art of which Rooks Ross is a master.