Listening, analyzing, and discussing music from the Renaissance to the present—it sounds like a basic music theory class, but not at Millsaps College. During the spring 2020 semester, students will be learning from Maestro Crafton Beck, conductor and music director of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (MSO). This is the first time Beck has taught a college course in his 20 years in Jackson. He has taught once before, at Carleton College in Minnesota.
“It has always been my intention to teach once I had accrued years of experience and expertise in the professional field and had something significant to give back,” Beck said. “Just this past spring, I closed out a 22-year tenure as music director of the Lima Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, a position I have held concurrently with my work here in Mississippi. So, as it happens, the possibility of teaching at Millsaps arose at the very time that I could even consider it. And I do have any number of ideas of some possibly unique or fresh approaches I wanted to bring to the classroom. It is going to be exciting for us to explore some of those ideas.”
The class will offer students an opportunity to learn from one of the most versatile figures in the world of orchestral music. Beck is widely known as a conductor, music director, arranger, composer, and musician. Most of his arrangements of more than 80 musical selections have been recorded by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, two of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. His arrangements have also been performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2015, he received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Best Musical Composition for Passage. He has appeared as a guest conductor with more than 30 orchestras around the country.
Beck’s return to the classroom began with a conversation with Dr. Rachel Heard, associate professor of music, chair of the Music Department, and director of the Millsaps Conservatory of Music, and her husband, Dr. Lynn Raley, associate professor of music and widely-known pianist and recording artist.
“We’re thrilled to have Crafton on board this year teaching an upper-level special topics course, one that combines theoretical analysis and music history,” Heard said. “This will be a unique opportunity for our students to see music from the vantage point of an orchestral conductor, who must know every note of a score in order to lead a hundred musicians as they collectively bring a work to life. Crafton will no doubt bring to the classroom the musical wisdom he has gained from years of experiences as a conductor, composer, and arranger.”
The work to get Beck to Millsaps didn’t happen overnight.
“Rachel and Lynn actually approached me this past spring,” said Beck. “It frankly took the summer for the idea to really sink in before I realized it was something I wanted to go for. Besides the obvious rewards that we all get from working with engaged students like these, I expect I will also reap the benefits of some fresh insights to my own work as a conductor—all as a result of the interactions with my students and the material we are dedicating ourselves to.”
Beyond personal relationships, Millsaps College has a long-standing partnership with the MSO, which Beck also cites as an opportunity that benefits students at the College.
“Quite apart from the class I am teaching, for example, is the fact that a number of MSO musicians teach regularly at Millsaps,” he said. “We also have a rich history of collaborating with faculty and ensembles from the College. As for my own class, it is clear that we have a great opportunity here to tie our work on campus to some of my work downtown: specifically, students will be attending rehearsals and witnessing the reality of a professional orchestra ‘bringing to life’ and presenting publicly the exact sort of music we are studying in class. There will also be some open discussions in the classroom with not only with me but also some of my colleagues at the MSO regarding career choices and various aspects of making a professional life in the field.”
Michael Beattie, president and executive director of the MSO, echoed Beck’s enthusiasm about the class.
“We’re thrilled at this additional collaboration, because we feel MSO stands for the same kind of life-changing endeavors that Millsaps does,” he said. “Supporting and honing the creative is key to the future success of students, no matter their life path.”
Beck’s introduction to Millsaps students also comes at a time when the College has introduced a restructured and robust music major, approved by the faculty in November 2019. The new major offers new instructional components, including diverse course topics and supervised professional development opportunities.