By Rama Sobhani
Among her many other titles, Susie Jackson is the director of bands and chair of the Department of Music at Vincennes University. There’s a long list of groups and classes that she either performs with or conducts, including VU’s pep band and percussion ensemble. A native of Robinson, Illinois, she got her Bachelor of Science in music education and percussion performance and a Master of Science in percussion performance from Indiana State University. She has a hand in either performing with, conducting or instructing so many local music ensembles it’s not useful to recount them all. Jackson has worked at VU for more than 30 years as a fulltime member of the music department, having started as part-time member of the faculty when she was in her early 20s.
Some things change
I’ve seen a lot of changes…but I’ve been with the same group of people (other faculty). It’s really fun to watch students grow. I get to do a lot of neat things. I get to play in ensembles, so I get to do two sides of my craft, teaching and performing. It’s really cool, I get to see students from the past and we keep in touch … you see them grow up and it makes you feel old.
On students and how they’ve changed over the years
I think maybe we have a more diverse student population, not just in terms of ethnicity but academically. The choice of music styles has changed…it’s a pretty broad background in different styles and genres of music. I ask them what songs they want to learn and I’m surprised when it’s an older song and I think, ok, I was thinking something newer, but I’ve got some of that, let me pull it out. Some of their “old” tunes might be Chicago, but it’s surprising that more of them don’t ask for more modern literature.
Maybe the work ethic has changed a little. That’s part of our culture, I think. Students don’t always come knowing basic life skills, like how to budget time.
But it is neat to see the different personalities of students. And music is like theater; the students really bond together. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the community because their children are in the ensembles. That’s a unique perspective I think most people don’t get.
Have you noticed a change in the amount of interest from students in playing music over the years?
Yes and no. I think some of this is based on the actual enrollment, which is down, generally. I think the interest is still there, though it may not carry over to being in our ensembles. Proportionally (to the overall student population), I’d say the interest is still there.
Kids still want to play, I think. But TV shows like American Idol, The Voice and Dancing With the Stars have made it harder for kids to think about doing (music) as a career because they just expect it to happen. Oh, I just have to go out and do it. The fact is, it’s really hard work. I think that’s the case, again, with out culture, that we think the things we see on TV are easy.
Right now, the careers of choice seem to be the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Once it was law enforcement … the arts are not in the cycle right now. Unfortunately, we’re on the low end of the cycle, but step back, turn off the sound on your TV and you realize how important music is to everything. They might not realize that without it, there’s something missing. We take it for granted.
Will it take a generation before the arts are viable as career choices again?
I don’t think it will take that long, but music and theater are things that people might get into and enjoy doing but may not enjoy doing as a career. They might not realize all the stuff that’s involved, but you could do this as a hobby for the rest of your life.
Do you remember when and how you were drawn to percussion as your specialty?
I do remember when I was really young, I would bang on my mom’s pots and pans. What I didn’t know until I was in college was that my mom told me when she was young, she wished she could play drums, but they didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford it, so she sang in the choir. I didn’t know that and didn’t know why I liked percussion. When I was in the seventh grade, my parents got me percussion lessons. Somewhere in that area, I liked Buddy Rich; he would have been one of my first inspirations.
Are you drawn more to orchestral music than other styles?
I guess I’m a little more orchestral, but I love jazz, too. What I think a lot of people don’t understand is that a lot of the great rock drummers have a strong foundation in jazz, too. I did drumset lessons, snare drum and marimba, so I do both areas (orchestral and rock/jazz). I’m not the greatest drumset player in the world, but I’m decent. I do play a little drumset with some jazz ensembles. I have played with some wind ensembles and have done some recordings. I don’t do much work with local rock bands, but I do dream about going on tour.
I actually started in second grade taking piano and organ lessons and I think that helped me when I went to percussion.
Everyone around me is retiring and I’m like, what is that? I will stay involved as long as I can. I think the younger people start with music, the more they stay with it. When I started I didn’t know how to read music and I think that helped me have one less thing to worry about. Don’t be afraid to try; it’s part of our culture to have music involved with everything. But, more than culture, it’s part of our nature and music can help develop learning skills, motor skills. I encourage people to get involved with it and stay involved with music all their life. Come out and support the arts and keep it in our schools.