By Kathleen Heuer

Jeff Grogan has come a long way since the days of conducting the then newly-released Star Wars soundtrack on his dad’s record player in fourth grade. Today, he is the conductor and artistic director of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York, as well as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Academy Orchestra, and Artistic Director and Conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony. He is in his 10th season as the education and community engagement conductor for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, where he leads the NJSO in a variety of concerts each season. One notable performance is #OrchestraYou, where amateur musicians can bring their instruments to a concert and play along with members of the NJSO in the lobby after the performance.

He also spends a large percentage of his time working with other school music programs, festivals, and conducting all-state orchestras throughout the country. Grogan has been on faculty at the Ithaca College School of Music, the University of Michigan, and Baylor University. He taught public school in the DeSoto (Texas) Independent School District, and is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University and the University of Michigan.

Jeff Grogan’s experience with the Music for All National Festival…

Jeff is a familiar face at the Music for All National Festival. In March, he served as an evaluator for both the chamber ensembles and orchestras.

“I have the greatest jobs in the world!” he laughs. As conductor of the 2017 Honor Orchestra of America, he’ll add one more, bringing his expertise to a whole new group of young instrumentalists.

“It’s just such an incredibly well-run festival. You do a lot of these in our line of work, and nobody does it better than Music for All. Every detail along the way—it’s just an amazing experience. It’s an inspiring event. Several students from my youth orchestras here in New York City were in the Honor Orchestra of America or participating ensembles, and they were all just blown away by the experience.”

On being the conductor of the 2017 Honor Orchestra of America…

As the conductor of the 2017 Honor Orchestra of America, Jeff will have a whole new set of responsibilities.

“The secret is picking the perfect program,” he says. He shared the example of 2016’s Honor Orchestra of America conductor Larry Livingston selecting the finale to Mahler. “That was a huge success. The music of Mahler makes you want to work and be better than you are, just because the music is so unbelievably engaging.” The goal, he explains, is creating a program that results in a good balance of inspiring students and pushing them musically.

Why should students apply to the Honor Orchestra of America?

For starters, the students will reap incredible benefits on a personal level. When they’re in a room with the best players from a lot of different schools, it gives each of those students a whole different experience than what they encounter every day. They’ll get to hang out with other kids just like them, and share the experience of being inspired and pushed as a member of the Honor Orchestra of America.

“The kids come from all over the country from different programs, and music pulls them together in such a wonderful way. [The Festival is] going to be a memory they have for life, and it’s going to make them a better musician and a better person,” he says.

The schedule of the event gives students time to socialize as well as to make music together. That creates a bond that can last a lifetime. “The students continue to keep in touch with each other and become close friends,” Grogan observes.

But it’s not just the students that will benefit from their participation in the Honor Orchestra of America. They’ll take their experiences back to their own programs.

“I think that the best thing that can happen to all of our students is for them to get a different experience with other students in a different setting. Almost always, the students come back so inspired, and they become this beacon of light to all the other students around them.”

For a director, that might appear to be a somewhat selfish reason to encourage students to apply. But by encouraging a student to bring excellence back to his or her own program, that positively life-changing experience will have a noticeable positive ripple effect across the entire organization.

Why do you believe music education is vital and important?

Virtually everyone who has participated in music education changes for the better because of their experiences learning music. Our culture prizes instant gratification, but playing a musical instrument requires dedicated effort over a long period of time. The process inherently teaches grit and “stick-to-it-iveness.”

“Early on when you’re learning a musical instrument, to figure out how to make a French horn work and get good sound, and fingerings, and reading the music — it’s a really hard thing to do!” he says. “And if you can pull that off, you’re pretty much ensuring that you’re going to be able to do just about anything in life.”

Music for All has long worked to ensure that students everywhere have access to quality music education in their schools.

Burnout — It’s no secret that life as a music educator takes a lot out of you.

Everyone has had brushes with burnout, and Jeff Grogan is no exception.

“I think the best music educators give everything to their students. It’s just a fault of ours. We want to give them our all, and sometimes that comes at the expense of our families, our relationships, and our artistic growth.”

So how can a music educator get past burnout?

“At some point you just have to say, ‘I need this time for me; I need this time for my family.’ And make sure that when you schedule each week, that you schedule those things in your life, otherwise you will burn out.”

So what do you like to do when you puts down your baton and close your laptop?

You might not be surprised to learn that he’ll take a busman’s holiday. “Our profession is also our hobby, and our love, and our passion, so we tend to go to concerts and do those kind of things. Traveling oftentimes involves going to a concert. We visited Scotland for a month a couple of years ago and went to the places where Mendelssohn spent time writing his works.”

When he does listen to music for fun, he and his wife often listen to folk music or bluegrass. “There’s a group called The Wailin’ Jennys that are out of Canada; it’s sort of like the Dixie Chicks unplugged. I enjoy that it’s a little more simple music than what I’m dealing with normally, so I can really just listen and enjoy without having to think too much.”

What is one thing you know now in your career that you wish someone had told you at the start?

Often those at the beginning of their careers look at their early positions as stepping stones to the job they really want. A great piece of advice Jeff got early on?

“Take the ensemble that you have, the kids that you’re with, and do everything in your power to make them the best they can possibly be. If you do that, not only are they going to be amazing, but other things are probably going to fall in your lap from thinking that way. It took me a while to figure that out, and it has served me very well throughout my career.”

What one thing would you advise music education programs to do today that will make their program better in the future?

“It’s so easy to get into a rut,” Jeff says, about rushing from performance to performance. “So many of us spend all our time in survival mode, because we want to play the most difficult piece, and we never get beyond survival mode. Beyond survival mode in music is the most beautiful part about it. It’s the part where the emotion comes out, where you have this comfort level, and you’re able to own it and perform. That’s the ultimate carrot for a student that will keep them going for life.”

His goal with the 2017 Honor Orchestra of America is to get his performers to that beautiful place “beyond survival mode,” back to where it all began for him a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.