What it's like playing at Carnegie Hall (Interview with Conductor Jeffery Ames)

Published August 10th, 2016

We had the chance to chat with Jeffery L. Ames who serves as Director of Choral Activities at Belmont University. Amongst his exciting and impressive credentials and experiences, Dr. Ames has also conducted the Honors Performance Series – at Carnegie Hall presented by WorldStrides – several times.  Want to learn what it takes to make your passion for music a career? Read on!

You’ve been involved in music from a young age. What made you decide to pursue music in your education?

Yes, music has been a part of my so-called DNA since childhood. My mother was a singer and my father had a wonderful appreciation for music. Our home was filled with sounds of jazz, classical, gospel, and R&B. I loved singing in church and playing in the band while in Elementary, Junior High and Senior High school. Since I enjoyed my musical experiences in school, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in music. During my junior year in high school, I knew I wanted to be addressed as Dr. Ames by earning some terminal degree in Music.

Who are some of your mentors? How have they contributed to your path?

Four major mentors have greatly influenced my life.

  1. My father, the late Therman E. Ames, Sr., instilled in me a tremendous work ethic. I learned that if you give particular attention to detail, others will see your ability to transform ordinary moments into something special.
  2. David A. Watkins, who served on the choral and voice faculty at James Madison University during my undergraduate years, taught me the importance of conducting with clarity, passion and refinement.
  3. André Thomas at The Florida State University was my major professor during my master’s and doctoral studies. I hold “Doc” in the highest regard as a conductor, musician and pedagogue.
  4. Anton Armstrong of St. Olaf College showed me how music can deeply touch the soul and make a difference in people’s lives.

Drs. Thomas and Armstrong are dear to my heart and have provided countless hours of counsel, tutelage and friendship. They have literally paved the path I now travel on as a conductor, and have served as conductors for other WorldStrides festivals at Carnegie Hall, as well.

Honors Performance Choir at Carnegie

How does it feel to conduct and/or perform at Carnegie Hall? How is it different from any of the other venues you’ve conducted in?

Carnegie Hall is truly a special place. The same is true for other fabulous halls around the world; however, Carnegie is "our" hall. It was interesting to read in Carnegie Hall’s 125th Anniversary playbill that upon laying the cornerstone in 1890 of the building that would be called Carnegie Hall, Andrew Carnegie stated, "It is probable that this hall will intertwine itself wit the history of our country. All good causes may find here a platform." Long before the Civil Rights Era, Carnegie Hall's doors were opened to musicians, speakers and audiences of every race and nationality. Personally, this touches my soul. Each time I step onto the stage, I do not take that opportunity for granted. But rather, I am humbled and thankful for another moment to make music. 

What are your some of your students' takeaways from performing at Carnegie Hall? How does this experience help shape them as musicians?

"Breath-taking!" "Awesome!" "The sound…" These are some descriptors that have remained in my mind over the years. Students realize how blessed they are to perform in this world-class venue. Not everyone can say, "I've performed at Carnegie Hall," and there's an element of prestige attached to every student who has an opportunity to perform on that stage.

Several of your conducting engagements at the Hall were with the Honors Performance Series – can you tell us a bit more about that program? Why is it different from other ensembles you've conducted?

Nearly twenty years ago, my high school choral program participated in a festival at Carnegie Hall with a program known as Field Studies International (FSI). In comparison to other similar performance programs in New York, FSI's leadership, staff and reputation was highly respected. As a high school choral director, I felt that the integrity of the program/company was a high priority. These days, FSI is now part of WorldStrides and annually presents the Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall (and will perform at Sydney Opera House next July, as well). As a conductor, I am grateful to witness the core values that were once a part of FSI are maintained with WorldStrides and the Honors Performance Series. "Quality" is a term I wish to associate with the Honors Performance Series. The adjudication process for the high school singers has always been executed extremely well. The Honors Choir has always been a very large ensemble of highly prepared singers from across the United States, as well as international representatives from Canada, Mexico, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, and even Australia. For a festival to garner international interest such as this is simply amazing!

Can you tell me a bit about the type of student that is accepted to the Honors Performance Series?

Based upon my time rehearsing the members of the Honors Performance Series, I could tell these are very bright students. They were very passionate about music, creative and fun. In my experiences, we have been able to deeply examine the music (and its meaning) in order to decide how and what we singing about is relevant to our current society and our personal lives. Hearing so many stories and personal interpretations completely enhance, or sometimes transform, our performance.

What is your biggest piece of advice for students looking to make a career in music?

Be serious. Be intentional. And, be passionate.

To read more about Jeffery Ames, you can read his full bio here. To learn more about the Honors Performance Series, you can visit them here. Applications for the 2017 Honors Performance Series are being accepted through September 30.

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