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Celebrating International Musician Month

Bringing a world of music to Mississippi


By Meghan Holmes



When Jay Dean took over as orchestra director at the University of Southern Mississippi's School of Music, there were only four string programs in the state. There were, by comparison, 150 band and 100 choral programs.

That was in 1988, the same year he began courting international students to the school's music department. 


“I was conducting in Mexico, and I started looking there first, and then eventually expanded into the rest of Latin America. We’ve now have had students from 34 countries in the program,” Dean said. 

  In 2017, USM will celebrate International Musician Month during February with a variety of performances in various venues in and around Hattiesburg. The celebration will culminate with a concert of Serenade by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky at USM's Bennett Auditorium on Valentine's Day.

The school’s international students bring professional experience and extensive training to Mississippi undergraduates while acquiring English language instruction at USM’s English Language Institute and performing with orchestras across the state. “Music is the vehicle we use to help improve international students’ future opportunities, and they contribute a great deal while they’re here,” Dean said. 


Fourteen years after beginning international student recruitment, Dean met Alejandro Encinas, a Peruvian-born professor and musician living in Colombia. “I was already teaching in Colombia, so for me it was kind of a job to become a student again,” said Encinas, who now serves as education director for the Mississippi Symphony. “I was 38 years old and didn’t know any English, and through the English Language Institute I was able to start taking courses taught in English after ten months.”


Encinas studied at USM with his wife, a Cuban-born musician who entered undergraduate study while he began work on his master’s degree. “We loved the orchestra program,” said Encinas. "It was very intense and challenging with a good mix of classical, Broadway and American songs and composers. To be honest, I was surprised at the high level of performance we found in such a small town in the South.”


Encinas found an established community of Latin American musicians around Hattiesburg already enrolled at USM who helped him settle in to life in Mississippi. Within the year, he found himself reaching out to former colleagues across the world to recruit more students into the program. “I studied at a conservatory in Moscow, and many of those musicians now work all around the world. I contacted them and they started sending me students from Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. I’ve lost count of how many musicians I’ve recruited into the program now,” said Encinas. 

Many Latin American musicians train in public conservatories or through government funded programs allowing for free or affordable private instruction. “We have incredibly talented Mississippi students in our music program, but most of them do not have extensive training in a conservatory. We scout musicians from Colombia or Venezuela like a football coach scouts players, and we find the best musicians, who want to come here and share their experience with our students,” Dean said. 


Dean’s son, Christopher Dean, studied music at USM and now attends the University of Florida, pursuing a PhD in linguistics after spending time with international students he met in the orchestra.  “When I tell people I learned Spanish in south Mississippi they’re usually shocked,” says Christopher Dean. “I ended up adding Spanish to my major after becoming friends with so many South Americans in the program. My experiences with them opened my eyes to other cultures and sparked my interest in language and travel.”


Visiting students also expose Mississippi students to new music and technique. “I would get together with Argentinian students and play tango and classical music that I’d never heard,” says Christopher Dean. Jay Dean agrees that the repertoire many international students possess upon arrival makes them an asset to other students as well as Mississippi orchestras. “They bring tremendous talent and expertise to the state,” he said.


In addition to coursework, students also perform with symphonies around Mississippi. Peter Rubardt serves as music director for the Meridian, Gulf Coast and Pensacola symphony orchestras, often working with current international students at USM as well as alumni. “I know most of them quite well, and have a lot of fun working with them,” said Rubardt. “I don’t know Spanish yet, but during rehearsal breaks nearly half the orchestra speaks in Spanish. Both the Meridian and Biloxi symphonies have a longstanding relationship with USM, and without seasoned international musicians the quality of each would be greatly lowered.”


Many international musicians remain in the state after graduation, performing, teaching and advocating for music education in Mississippi. “I have four former students teaching in Gulfport. Four or five are in Jackson and four or five in Hattiesburg,” said Dean. “They’re also in Tupelo, Meridian and Natchez. All told, they’re teaching over 1,000 students, which is a huge impact on our state. We also have USM alumni and former international student Jorge Gonzales working with the Meridian and Gulf Coast orchestras, and of course Alejandro Encinas, who has probably been my biggest ally recruiting new students.” 


When Encinas graduated in 2005 and began his job search, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. He took the first job he was offered – in Oklahoma. “I didn’t want to leave Mississippi, but my wife was pregnant and the program I went to was very good. I spent two years there when, out of the blue, I got a letter from Jay,” Encinas said. 


It was a recommendation, sent unprompted, and Encinas interpreted it as a sign that he should come back to Mississippi. “At first I laughed. I thought, ‘Jay, you’re crazy.’ Then I read this letter, listing all my qualifications for the position of Director of Education for the Mississippi Symphony. It inspired me,” said Encinas. 


Encinas applied and got the job. He came back to Mississippi, and now runs a strings program giving ensemble lessons to 950 students in Clinton, Hinds and Jackson school districts. “This is a challenging project, and one I never thought I would be running before coming to the United States. Now I’m an American citizen, teaching young children music and working to help other students. I’m so blessed to have this opportunity,” he said. 


“Recruiting international students is all part of our mission to recruit and teach the best students in Mississippi – it helps people inside and outside the state,” said Dean. “This program brings people from all over the world to our students, and they all come to Mississippi for one reason: music.”


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