Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Conductor and Musician, Ron Vernon

*The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is former music conductor, Ron Vernon. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

I’ve known Dr. Vernon for a number of years but I didn’t know he was a native of Louisiana.  I certainly knew he is a well-respected musician and conductor. In fact, he worked diligently to fashion and assemble the L-O-U Symphony Orchestra.  I’m certain you will enjoy reading his Ole Miss story.

Brown:  Where did you grow up?  Please talk about your childhood. 

Vernon:  I was born in Ruston, Louisiana, but moved to Tioga, Louisiana when I was in second grade and lived there until I moved away to go to college.  In many ways, it was a typical small town or rural upbringing.  My father was a wildlife biologist, and we had a small farm in Grant Parish, just north of Tioga (Alexandria is the nearest city of any size), so I spent a lot of time outdoors.  I tried to make pets of all the animals on the farm.

I have one brother who is almost exactly four years older.  He is a retired cardiovascular surgeon in Fort Smith.  He was a very good big brother (still is) and I admired him a lot and wanted to be just like him.  I had basically finished the third grade before I went to first grade because I would get him to show me what he had done every day at school and would copy him.

I had the benefit of many fine teachers, but one of the most formative was Mabel Smith, who taught general music and directed the choruses at the Tioga schools.  All 12 grades were in one location at that time.  She was a superb musician, teacher, and role model for all of us in the choral program, and the high school chorus was widely recognized as among the finest in the state.  In contrast, our high school band was terrible, but I got my start playing percussion there, and that became a serious interest soon.  I was active in sports all through high school and was on the first football team our school had (also absolutely terrible for the three years I was there). 

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Vernon:  I attended Louisiana Tech (1965-1969) for my undergraduate degree, principally because my parents had gone to college there and the band director, Jimmy Reynolds, was an especially charismatic personality.  Although Tech was not the best music school in the world, it was a particularly fortunate choice for me.  I had a fine percussion teacher, John Rausch.  More importantly, Professor Reynolds was the orchestra director as well as band director, and he was very encouraging and supportive after I took his conducting class.  He gave me invaluable opportunities to lead section rehearsals for both groups and even to conduct full works on band and orchestra concerts.  Typically, those kinds of opportunities are available only to graduate students at major music schools.

I went to The University of Texas for graduate study as the recipient of a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship.  It was an incredible opportunity because I was able to finish my education without ever taking a student loan.  UT Austin in 1969 was a tremendous place to be, and a little intimidating for someone who had never lived outside the state of Louisiana.  I think I was either in class, in rehearsal, or in the library every waking moment for three years straight.  Both my first wife, Krista, and I became members of the Austin Symphony, already a superb regional professional orchestra.  Toward the end of our years in Austin, we had also developed an active teaching schedule and considered staying there after graduation.

Brown:  Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?   Who hired you?  How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Vernon:  I joined the faculty in 1972.  James Coleman was the Chair of the Music Department at that time.  Coming to the University was a bit of a surprise.  Neither the percussion program nor the orchestra was at a very high level of development, and the facilities and equipment were pretty basic.  However, all of us in the department worked hard to gradually improve the situation.  I really marvel at the level of accomplishment of our students and faculty now.

The last 25 years of my career were devoted to a mix of teaching and administration, first as Chair of the Music Department, then as Associate Dean of Liberal Arts. Conducting the orchestra and teaching conducting continued all along.  I retired from full-time service in 2010, then taught part-time for five additional years.

Dr. Ron Vernon Photo courtesy of Dr. Vernon

Brown:  Who influenced your career choice?

Vernon:  I suppose my decision to pursue music was influenced primarily by my admiration for Mabel Smith (who taught music and directed choruses at my school).   Even that decision was hard.  I had a strong interest in mathematics and the physical sciences thought seriously about becoming a veterinarian based on my work on the farm and was fascinated by languages and ancient history.  When I went to college, I was undecided about whether to pursue vocal music or percussion, but my interest in percussion prevailed.

My decision to pursue conducting was influenced by the encouragement of Jimmy Reynolds.  It had never occurred to me that a person from Tioga could be an orchestra conductor, but he gave me confidence.

Dr. Ron Vernon Photo courtesy of Dr. Vernon

Brown:  Has technology changed your music?  If so, how?

Vernon:  Technology has not directly influenced my two principal interests, the symphony orchestra and Renaissance and Baroque music.  The indirect influences have been in the availability of information, including performances, scholarly resources, and music through online resources.  This availability means that young musicians anywhere can be familiar with the latest developments and the best research in virtually all fields of music.

Brown:  Who was the first band or musician you were really into? Do you still like them? 

Vernon:  An interesting question, and a hard one to answer.  I listened to popular music on the radio and was casually interested in all of it.  I played in a rock and roll band in high school.  We just played for local dances.  All the members were really more interested in rhythm and blues and jazz than rock and roll, but we learned the popular tunes for dances.  My mother was a great fan of the swing era bands, so that music was also present at home, especially the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  I was and still am impressed with the excitement and precision of that group.

My first exposure to orchestra music was a collection of about twenty LPs that we got at our A&P grocery store.  I volunteered to iron clothes for the family because I could listen over and over to those recordings without being interrupted.

 Brown:  What is the purpose of music in society?

Vernon:  The role of the arts (including music) in society is multi-faceted.  They are a source of beauty in our lives, but not all great art is merely beautiful.  For some, it is an integral part of their religious experience.  It can help us understand people and cultures remote from us in time and place.  The arts can be an adjunct to recreation and social interaction.  Arts can also be misused to arouse emotions and attitudes that are unhealthy and harmful to individuals and society. 

Brown:  Almost everyone has “that” day at work that is most memorable.  What day was that for you and why? 

Vernon:  I think it was the first day I actually went to work as Chair of the Department of Music.  I had been a member of the faculty for fifteen years, and thought I knew a lot about the operation of the department and of the University.  I was wrong.  The other revelation is that my relationship with my colleagues, most of whom I had known for years, changed overnight.  I would now be responsible for making decisions that would affect their lives in significant ways.  I never lost the sense of responsibility to my colleagues.

Brown:  If there was something in your past you were able to go back and do differently, what would that be?  

Vernon:  An answer to that question might be easier if I were confident that I could know the outcome of an alternative decision.  My sense is that there are times when we just have to make the best decision we can make based on the information we have at the time. Most really important decisions are made based on a combination of information, faith, and a determination to follow through in a way that has a chance to lead to a good outcome.

Brown:  Your children grew up on the Ole Miss campus.  Tell us what they are doing these days.

Vernon:  Oxford and the University was a great environment for my children.  Good schools, supportive teachers in and out of formal education (music, art lessons, etc.).  Even having wonderful college students as their babysitters.  They would sometimes ask whether we didn’t have somewhere to go so that their favorite sitter at the time could come.

My older daughter Jennifer is a pediatrician in Denver.  My son James is a computer scientist (now mostly executive) in Denver as well.  My younger daughter, Eleanor, is an attorney in Austin.

Brown:  I know that you are still conducting the Germantown Symphony, but how has your routine changed since retirement?

Vernon:  The Germantown Symphony is an exceptional organization.  It is an all-volunteer community orchestra that is completely self-governed.  The membership is made up of professional musicians and music teachers, as well as accomplished amateur performers.  They donate their time for weekly rehearsals and for all the other responsibilities that are needed to maintain a vigorous program.  We perform a regular series of concerts at the Germantown Performance Arts Center every year, award scholarships and performance opportunities to young musicians, and have presented outreach concerts in numerous communities in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.  I am in my eighteenth year as music director, although I had been an occasional guest conductor about four years before.

Since my retirement, I have more time to practice and perform with my wife Susan Marchant and colleagues in the Mockingbird Early Music Ensemble.  The Mockingbird Early Music Ensemble was formed by my wife, Warren Steel, and Irene Kaufmann and me.  We specialize in chamber music from before about 1750 and have been performing for about fifteen years now.  We present two or three concerts per year here in Oxford and have performed throughout the Mid-South as well.

Ron Vernon, Warren Steel, Irene Kaufmann,
Susan Marchant (left to right) Photo courtesy of Dr. Vernon

I am about to finish my second term as a member of the Board of Directors of the Viola da Gamba Society of America (VdGSA).  It is sometimes just called “viol” and is a family of bowed string instruments with six strings and frets.  It was an important instrument in 16th, 17th, and 18th-century European art music.  It declined in prominence in the later 18th century as the symphony orchestra grew in importance.  A revival of the instrument, including new compositions, began about a century ago and is still growing.  The VdGSA is the society for professional and amateur enthusiasts.  My principal responsibilities on the board of directors is to coordinate instrument donations to the society, and to coordinate a program designed to offer instruction on the viol to young people throughout the country.  

I also serve as Music Director of the Memphis chapter of the American Recorder Society.  The American Recorder Society is a non-profit membership organization that promotes the pleasures of recorder playing. For almost 75 years, the ARS has provided a supportive community for all who value the recorder and its music.

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.”  What is your legacy?

Vernon:  This is another question that others are better suited to answer.  I try to build positive relationships and to improve circumstances in any of the activities I undertake.  I just try to be helpful.   Hardly anyone operates in an environment that does not involve others, virtually any “legacy” is a shared experience.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

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