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Meet Roderick Cox

From the Otis Redding Foundation and Boys & Girls Club of Central Georgia to conucting the Minnesota Orchestra

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Roderick Cox is a stunningly accomplished, laser-focused musical powerhouse; at age 29, after spending a year as assistant conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, he was named their associate conductor. (Video footage of his energetic debut – which has been viewed over two and a half million times – can be found on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Facebook page.) This is only the latest achievement in a long list of accolades for the young conductor, who grew up here in Macon and had his innate musical talents nurtured by many in our community, foremost among them Zelma Redding and the Otis Redding Foundation. I recently had the chance to speak with Cox – he’s a thoughtful, thorough conversationalist, and he’s intensely committed to his art form and to working hard to be the best he can be at all times. It’ll be exciting to follow his career.

Tell me about your background growing up in Macon. What inspired your passion for music? How’d you get where you are today?
I’ve always said I feel like music just evolved throughout my life – I’ve always been a part of it. I was in band in elementary school and continued on through middle and high school. I wasn’t thinking much about a career in conducting, I just know I enjoyed making music with people and having a bunch of friends come together for one common goal – to produce great music and put on great performances. That’s my musical background in a nutshell. I want to be as good as I can at anything I pursue, so I practiced hard using the resources I had at the time.

I started to think I wanted to go to college to pursue music further, to be a band director. In college you have to have your own instrument vs. using a school instrument, and I didn’t have the funds to buy a French horn, which can cost multiple thousands of dollars. I was a member of the Boys & Girls Club and was competing in their Youth of the Year competition, which taught me a lot about myself, and helped me with public speaking and engaging with others, and they were the ones who connected me with Zelma Redding as a person who would be interested in helping me further my musical endeavors. Zelma agreed to purchase a French horn for me under the stipulation that I sent my college transcripts to her every semester, so before the Otis Redding Foundation was even really established, I was the first person that they started to invest their time in. I was very excited, and now that I had my own professional model horn, there was no excuse for mediocrity. I could practice as much as I could and push myself because I had the equipment that would allow me to achieve my goals.

At that point I went to Valdosta State University to pursue a degree in Music Education. My world continued to expand a bit more, and I discovered I needed to be somewhere else, so I transferred to Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music when I was a junior. That was a higher level music school that helped me expand and evolve even more. I was taking some conducting courses there and doing independent studies in conducting, and I wanted to see the world a bit more, so that’s when the Otis Redding Foundation sponsored me to go study abroad in Oxford, England. I spent a summer honing my skills, writing, and learning lots of the music of Great Britain while also studying and playing the French horn. I pursued a degree in conducting at Northwestern University – at the time I thought I wanted to be a college professor. It was later in my first year that I decided I wanted to be an orchestral conductor, which was uncharted territory for me. One of my teachers, Victor Yampolsky, pushed me to pursue this. I knew I needed a bit more training from specialized teachers for this new corner I was turning, so I looked to the Otis Redding Foundation for some assistance that allowed me to go study at the International Conducting Workshop in the Czech Republic with Larry Rachleff who teaches at Rice and Don Schleicher who teaches at the University of Illinois. This was fantastic – I got more exposure, and got to conduct my first orchestra, which was very beneficial. Once I graduated from Northwestern, the Otis Redding Foundation allowed me to conduct a free performance at their Evening of Respect, which was quite special because it was my first guest conducting opportunity outside of college. I then went on to win my audition and  become Assistant Conductor at the Alabama Symphony, and I wanted to expand myself a little more and get a little more international exposure, so I was honored to be accepted to and compete in the Cadaques conducting competition in Spain. I needed help for that as well, and the Otis Redding Foundation was there for me. Their belief in me, that sort of exposure, that financial and emotional support really pushed me on my path and provided me with the resources I needed to excel and achieve. They set me on the way, and I’ve been able to do most of the rest on my own, but I always feel that they’re in my corner cheering me on, and I’m always appreciative when I can come back and let them know that.

What a great relationship to have! Haven’t you been back to teach at the summer camp they have? How was that?
It’s something to do in the summer, which is great, and it’s also great to figure out how to use my classical training to help young people who are aspiring to be musicians in a different part of the industry. I also enjoy making connections with staff members who come from other artistic backgrounds, whether they’re rap artists, or more drawn to country or operatic singing. If you’re a student going to this camp, you can figure out what your interests are and tap into a number of staff members who are on board to help you with almost any artistic form you want or need.

Besides the French horn, what other instruments do you play?  For me, I had to learn almost every instrument to do a good job. Mainly I did a number of studies in percussion and clarinet, but I did all my method courses and independent study in string instruments. I felt like that gave me a better understanding of all the people I’m working with in an orchestra.

What do you think makes an excellent conductor?
Well, I think no matter how much you study or read, you have to have an imagination for the music, and a wonderful sound concept. That gives you a vision of what you want the music to be. A great conductor has to be compassionate, work hard, and be good with people. You’re not making sound yourself, but I feel like you’re creating the atmosphere for the sound to flourish.

Watch the video of Cox conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

The recent video clip of you from your opening night at the Minnesota Orchestra was lovely to watch – it’s fun to watch you onstage, and I’m not the only one who thinks so, based on the tons of comments I saw on the link. How is it for you to watch recordings of yourself after the fact?
I’m very appreciative of the reactions I’ve gotten from that video – it surprised me, because when I first saw it I was just like, “This is what I do.” For me, when I look at it, I’m trying to figure out if I did everything correctly, what I could do better – as you continue to grow and get better, it becomes a bit more noisy. It’s very different from when you’re in college and you can focus on your music or your practicing and no one knows who you are yet. As you continue to grow – right now I’m sitting in a hotel in Miami looking out on the water, with a score on the bed, and I’m doing an interview. There are lots of things that can pull me in different directions, but I know I have work to do, I’m in Miami as a working trip and I must stay focused on being the artist that is expected of me. You have to cancel out a lot of the noise that’s out there. I check in every now and then to see comments, and I respond here and there, but for the most part I stay focused on the task at hand, remain humble, and continue to push myself. This is a very elusive profession, and it can be taken away at a moment’s notice, so you have to continue to invest in your art and make sure you’re continually growing as an artist.

What would a layperson like myself be surprised to know about being a conductor?
People may be surprised to know that it’s a very specialized field of work that requires an insane amount of hours. What you see on stage – that’s only ten percent of it. Ninety percent is the work that’s happened offstage, in a room by yourself working and practicing, or in a rehearsal with the orchestra, or reading and analyzing. Reading through some comments, people will say things like “maybe he’s just waving his arms!” [laughs] and that’s ok, that shows at least some curiosity about what exactly I do. For music to be made at such a high level, maybe it’s good that people don’t notice all the work that goes into it, so it doesn’t distract from the music, which is bigger than any one person.

How do you like living in Minnesota?
Minnesota is great. It has all four seasons, which can be wonderful. We have a beautiful summer, wonderful fall, crisp cold winter. The snow is beautiful when it’s fresh. There’s a vibrant arts community and very warm people – it’s a good place. People should come visit!

So what do you see for yourself in the next five years?
This profession changes like the wind, you can’t know where you’ll be in the next five months much less five years. Just two weeks ago I was preparing for my subscription concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, and today I’m trying to balance the media attention I’m getting – it really does change with the current. For me, I want to see myself continually getting better. I want to be happy with the work I’m putting out, and I want to continue to work with better orchestras and expand myself. I want to travel more, expand my brand and hopefully bring classical music to reach more and more people.

What do you listen to in your down time – if you even have any down time?
I get that question a lot, and to be quite honest, I’m mostly listening to classical. There’s just so much music I have to get in my head and learn. People may be surprised to know that I’m really always thinking about that type of musical form, even if I’m on a treadmill or getting ready for bed, I’ll put on my headphones and listen to a piece I haven’t heard or a piece I don’t know well. At this stage in my career, I’m still just trying to jam my head with as much music as I can. Here and there I’ll listen to jazz music – Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, I love that stuff.

How does the current political climate affect you and others you know with careers in the arts? Is there a sense of foreboding, dread, worry, anything like that amongst you all?
Well, I won’t give my political opinions, but I will say that when there are people threatening to cut the National Endowment for the Arts, that’s a very concerning thing. It is very concerning in part because art is one thing that makes us human; it expresses the human soul. Science doesn’t do that. Math doesn’t do that. Art is so important for us – it’s how we learn to understand ourselves and each other, how we deal with our emotions. Art can take us anywhere. I could be studying Shostakovich’s Symphony #7 – the Leningrad symphony – and that’ll teach me so much about what it was to be a Russian composer living in the Soviet Union during the time of war. That music takes my imagination to so many different places. During these turbulent times, we need more art, not less. I’m a little disappointed in our country. In our early days of being founded, part of the way we solidified ourselves and assured our importance in the world was to develop ourselves as a cultural center – building great museums, great orchestras, great theaters. Now it’s more about building big stadiums or walls around the country to prevent others from coming in. That’s unfortunate. We must be careful, because once you lose an arts institution, it’s hard to get it back.

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