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Performing in a leadership role

Not many have the joy of ending the day by listening to a concert with musicians who may be among the best in the world. For Jamal Rossi, dean at the Eastman School of Music, it is all in a day’s work.

“Almost every night I am able to have my work re-affirmed. Every concert, I get to go and feel as though it’s all worth it,” he says.

Rossi, 56, joined the Eastman School faculty as senior associate dean in 2005 and gradually moved up the ranks to his current position. He oversees a staff of 235 full-time and 145 part-time employees, a student body of 900 collegiate students and 1,600 community students in the Eastman Community Music School.

He manages a total budget of $38 million. Tuition is $46,150 per year, and 97 percent of the students receive financial aid to attend.

Growing the enrollment is not an immediate goal, Rossi says. Eastman has grown in size and enrollment by some 5 percent cumulatively over the last four years and the classes are at capacity.

“There is a balance we need to maintain,” Rossi says. “Our goal is to maintain our enrollment with the very best students.”

As Eastman has grown it has evolved, he adds, offering a broader array of degrees and programs to meet the greater range of students’ interests and career goals.

“As the music profession has changed, so have our programs. Where once we taught silent movie accompanying, today students participate in laptop orchestras and are engaged with digital media and film scoring. Through our Institute for Music Leadership, we focus on developing the entrepreneurial and leadership skills students will need to build multifaceted careers,” Rossi says.

The career aspirations of students have changed dramatically as well. Decades ago many students were focused on joining symphony orchestras. Today the range of musical goals and opportunities has broadened, Rossi says.

“There are students who aspire to perform on Broadway and others at the Metropolitan Opera. We have students who form their own ensembles that they hope will thrive and others who desire to be studio musicians in L.A.,” he says. “There are also non-performance areas. It is very entrepreneurial. A career in music today involves many facets—performing, teaching, composing and marketing through the Internet.”

Beginning with piano
Rossi himself is a musician. He developed his love of music as a child growing up outside Philadelphia. His father worked for United States Steel Corp. and his mother was a homemaker; Rossi had one sister. His mother introduced him to what has become his life’s work.

“We got a piano when I was 5 years old. While I thought the piano was for the kids, what I realized years later was that it was my mother who always wanted to play the piano,” he says. “My mother would teach herself by observing my sister’s lessons. She became my first teacher. Her love of music inspired me.”

His mother wanted to learn to play the music of George Gershwin. That was her favorite, Rossi says. When it comes to his own favorite music, he says music is like food.

“It depends on my mood. I may love pizza, but I don’t want it all the time. I might want steak or vegetarian sometimes. With my music, sometimes I want slow and beautiful. Other times I prefer intense and energetic,” he says.

The piano is not his favorite instrument, either, which the president of the University of Rochester knows. Joel Seligman enjoyed listening to Rossi perform at his inauguration speech.

“He played his saxophone after delivering his speech,” Seligman says. “He is an unbelievable sax player,”

Seligman also recalls the excellent work Rossi accomplished during the renovation and expansion of Eastman Theatre. It was a $47 million project to improve the acoustics and patron experience in Kodak Hall, and a new addition that includes Hatch Recital Hall, a large rehearsal hall and recording studio, and Wolk Atrium.

“It was a big project for us. I deeply admired his commitment to the highest standards,” Seligman says. “Jamal is an artist and also a talented administrator.”

Rossi has a third quality Seligman says he was happy to witness during a speech Rossi gave at last spring’s commencement to Eastman’s graduating students.

“It was around the time when a Spider-man movie was being filmed here,” Seligman recalls. “He did a very appropriate address and then at the end he ripped open his elegant robe to reveal the Spider-man T-shirt he was wearing underneath. Oh yes, Jamal Rossi has a very good sense of humor.”

He has a good sense of balance as well, says one of Rossi’s colleagues.

“He’s energetic and calm at the same time,” says Jeff Campbell, chairman of the Jazz Department at the Eastman School of Music. “He is able to think rationally and reasonably to see the end result.”

Campbell, a faculty member for 18 years, says Rossi has a great sense for getting things done and can expertly balance the importance of every department on campus.

“When you are with him, he makes you feel like you are the most important priority he has at that moment,” Campbell says.

Yet what truly impresses Campbell is the way Rossi does not value himself as being higher than others, even though he holds the position of dean of the school.

“We were attending an alumni event and he introduced himself as a colleague of ours, not the dean,” Campbell says.

They share a common bond—their young sons, whose musical inclinations are much different than the style taught at the Eastman.

“His son is a rock ‘n’ roll bass player and my 13-year-old son, Jack, plays bass,” Campbell says. “That is pretty far from a classical music dean. Yet he is very proud of his son taking a different direction.”

On the right path
It is fitting that Rossi calls the Eastman School of Music his home, as it is where he first realized his career path would be musical.

“In high school, when trying to decide between pursuing music or engineering in college, I attended a concert by the Eastman Studio Orchestra,” Rossi says. “During the performance, I realized that nothing else in life brought me the kind of joy I experienced as communicating through music.”

He earned his undergraduate degree in music education and performance from Ithaca College. He later obtained his master of music degree from the University of Michigan and his doctorate of musical arts from the Eastman School of Music.

While he was a doctoral student at Eastman, Rossi accepted a full-time position at Northern State College in Aberdeen, S.D., where he taught woodwinds and jazz studies and ultimately became the department chairman. He then returned to his alma mater, Ithaca College, as an assistant dean and later served as associate dean, overseeing many aspects of the academic and operational actives of the School of Music.

“After 11 years at Ithaca, I accepted an invitation to serve as dean at the School of Music at the University of South Carolina, a position I relished,” Rossi says. “Returning to Eastman in 2005 was a tremendous privilege.”

Now he is proud to be helping today’s musicians shape their own futures as well as the future of music.

As Rossi and his team work with the students, he feels their greatest challenge is to ensure that the students not only become outstanding performers but also develop the deep curiosity to be lifelong learners and have the skills to be versatile and adaptable.

“Our purpose is to educate and prepare these students for meaningful lives in music, and our goal is to enrich life and transform lives through music,” he says. “What could be more fulfilling?”

Jamal Rossi
Position: Joan and Martin Messinger Dean, Eastman School of Music; director, Howard Hanson Institute for American Music
Age: 56
Education: Bachelor of music degree in music education and saxophone performance, Ithaca College, 1980; master of music degree in saxophone performance and literature, University of Michigan, 1982; doctor of musical arts degree, Eastman School of Music, 1987
Family: Wife, Pam Fields Rossi; two daughters, ages 20 and 17; and a son, 28
Residence: West Irondequoit
Activities: Biking, sailing, tennis and skiing
Quote: “We value true talent. There is a technical mastery to be achieved, and like most things it’s about having balance. There is knowledge and creativity. There is a poetic element. Ultimately, we want every student to develop their own voice.”

4/17/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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