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Welcome back to the Faculty Features series! Every Friday during this eight-week series we’ll be sharing a short interview with some of our faculty members; highlighting their teaching, upcoming courses, and getting to know them better! Today we’re featuring Professors Robert Buxton, Jeanne Fischer, Russell Johnson, Tonu Kalam, and Jocelyn Neal.

R Buxton
Lecturer Robert Buxton

Lecturer Robert Buxton

What is your position on faculty and what courses are you teaching next semester (and this summer, if applicable)? I am a lecturer in piano, and will be teaching MUSC 100.3 (one-on-one lessons) and MUSC 136 (keyboard skills or group piano).

What is your favorite part of teaching? Getting to know and learn from every student.  One student this year is learning a program of all-female composers; Szalit, Cairos-Rego, and Garuta, composers I have never heard of, and all of this music is absolutely beautiful.  In the keyboard skills class this semester, we studied Duke Ellington’s spiritual, “Come Sunday” completely by ear, and with some transcribing; one student suggested slowing down the recording to half the speed (I didn’t know this was possible on YouTube!) to hear all of the nuances.  So I learn so much from students.  I don’t think I can really teach anyone anything, my role is more like someone working at a buffet, or some loud parrot who constantly squawks “Try this, try that,” ultimately helping students to discover their own voice and their own way.  Every person has unique gifts.  I had a professor who said that music is the greatest thing ever, but people are even better.  This is like a motto for me in teaching.  

What is the project that you’re most excited about currently? Learning and teaching new repertoire!  Over the long winter break, I did some “detective work” and got some scores of Florence Price that were out-of-print.  There is so much music that I don’t know and want to learn.  This is an exciting time; the classical “canon” is broadening to include previously neglected composers like Price, and there is just so much wonderful music out there.  But honestly, whatever I am doing or working on at any moment is the project that I am most excited about!

What are some of your non-musical hobbies? Eating.  As with music, there is really no food that I dislike.  I miss going to local restaurants.  

If your students could learn one thing from you, what do you hope it will be? Several things; to trust themselves, to not be obsessed with perfection (it doesn’t exist), and to laugh more.  

What music are you currently listening to? Any recordings that I can find of Ivry Gitlis, who died at 98 just a couple months ago.  Gitlis is a hero for me.  He embraced music and life with gusto.  His authenticity and values are so desperately needed today.  

Anything else you’d like students to know about you or your teaching? I really, really, really love cats, and animals in general!  My two cats, Max and Luna, show up to so many online lessons, and don’t necessarily behave.  I am married to the most wonderful person and pianist Shoko Abe, and we have a one year old son, Max, who is the happiest and sweetest person I’ve ever met.  I do silly impressions of politicians and other famous people, and sometimes inadvertently end up teaching with those voices.  I enjoy improvising a lot, and this has become a big focus of teaching for me.  It can also be very funny; for example, improvising on familiar melodies such as Happy Birthday in the style of composers such as Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and even Boulez (!), or creating an opera aria from a nutrition facts food label in Italian.  These types of things end up being assignments for students. 

Jeanne Fischer
Teaching Professor Jeanne Fischer

Teaching Professor Jeanne Fischer

What is your position on faculty and what courses are you teaching next semester (and this summer, if applicable)? I am a Teaching Professor and Area Head of Voice. Next semester I am teaching Individual Voice Lessons: MUSC 102/202/302.

What is your favorite part of teaching? My favorite part of teaching is that I get to work with students over multiple semesters and see their growth over months and years. I also love that I get to work individually with students.

What is the project that you’re most excited about currently? Currently, I am most excited about a project I am doing that combines Early Music, Jewish Studies, and Women’s studies. I am studying the 16th-century soprano, Madama Europa di Rossi, sister of the composer, Salamone Rossi. Madama Europa is often thought of as the first Jewish female professional opera singer. I have put together a lecture-recital on the soprano that I perform with my colleague, Brent Wissick, as well as two UNC voice alumni. We performed the concert just before everything shut down, and we’re hoping to do it again in Spring 2022 at Kings College in London. Watch the February 2020 performance here.

What are some of your non-musical hobbies? I love reading, and also taking walks in the many beautiful woodland trails in Chapel Hill.

If your students could learn one thing from you, what do you hope it will be? If my students could learn one thing, it would be to enjoy the beauty in every performance, both others’ and their own, regardless of mistakes.

What music are you currently listening to? I am currently listening to two recordings by Apollo’s Fire, a Cleveland-based baroque orchestra: https://apollosfire.org/product/power-of-love/https://apollosfire.org/product/sephardic-journeywanderings-of-the-spanish-jews/.

Russell Johnson, Carolina Bluegrass Band
Russell Johnson, Director of the Carolina Bluegrass Band

Lecturer Russell Johnson

What is your position on faculty and what courses are you teaching next semester (and this summer, if applicable)? I am the director of The Carolina Bluegrass Band. The class that I teach is MUSC 212-006 Bluegrass Ensemble. It meets Tuesdays from 6-8 in the spring and fall semesters. I also teach mandolin lessons.

What is your favorite part of teaching? For me, it’s seeing the excitement of the students as they learn about and begin to play bluegrass music. For many of them, they are discovering a whole world of music that they never knew existed or had very limited exposure to.

What is the project that you’re most excited about currently? As far as projects at Carolina – everyone is excited about our rehearsals for our Spring concert. It will be live-streamed on the department’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, May 12th, at 7:30 pm. It will also be available for viewing after the livestream. We’re also still excited about the recording we did in December at The Rubber Room studio. The band cut five songs and one of them, “Is the Blue Moon Still Shining” has been played on local bluegrass music radio shows. That’s always a treat when the students get to hear their work on radio. Personal projects – I’m finishing up the build on my studio. I’ve used two rooms in my house for 15 years, so it will be nice for it to be a separate building and my wife gets two rooms back in the house!

What are some of your non-musical hobbies? I love to cook and enjoy gathering with friends (when there is not a pandemic 🙁).

If your students could learn one thing from you, what do you hope it will be? An appreciation for bluegrass music. I also hope they take away something from the class that they can apply to whatever style of music they play.

What music are you currently listening to? It’s a pretty broad range. I generally stream either bluegrass, vocalists (like Sinatra, Martin, Buble) old country music, even disco on my earbuds since no one can tell what I’m listening to.

Anything else you’d like students to know about you or your teaching? I love the music (bluegrass) and feel like it has so much to offer anyone that wants to learn. I’ve been playing professionally for over thirty years. I’ve been involved in songwriting, recording, producing, performing, band leadership, releasing music through my label, and want to share anything I can with students that are interested in bluegrass. Also, you don’t have to have a bluegrass background for the class. A lot of students are exploring bluegrass, some are satisfying a requirement, some enroll to learn a new instrument. I can work with anyone that wants to learn.

Tonu Kalam
Professor Tonu Kalam

Professor Tonu Kalam

What is your position on faculty and what courses are you teaching next semester (and this summer, if applicable)? Professor of Music, Conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra. I will be teaching MUSC 211 SEC 001, which is the orchestra.

What is your favorite part of teaching? Interacting with incredibly smart and talented students.

What is the project that you’re most excited about currently? I’m simply excited to be back working in person and playing live music, which we are currently doing as an all-string orchestra.

If your students could learn one thing from you, what do you hope it will be? The satisfaction and discipline of working hard to play great music well, and the importance of music and all the arts in developing each person’s individual humanity.

Jocelyn Neal
Professor Jocelyn Neal

Professor Jocelyn Neal

What is your position on faculty and what courses are you teaching next semester (and this summer, if applicable)? I’m currently serving as associate chair for academic studies, and am the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Music.  Next fall (Fall 2021) I am scheduled to teach Musc 132, which is the second semester of music theory for music majors, and Musc 381, “Inside the Song,” which is a songwriting course open to everyone, regardless of major. 

What is your favorite part of teaching? My favorite part of teaching is simply being part of the transformations we all go through as we develop as musicians, writers, and thinkers. 

What is the project that you’re most excited about currently? In my research, I have been interviewing songwriters and gathering information about the motivations and business considerations that shape how songwriters do their work. 

What are some of your non-musical hobbies? When I’m not involved in some sort of music, I like to hike, kayak, and travel. I have spent the last year visiting as many North Carolina State Parks as possible, and I only have a few left that I haven’t been to yet. 

If your students could learn one thing from you, what do you hope it will be? I hope students will absorb the idea that analyzing music and making music go hand in hand—they’re not distinct acts.

What music are you currently listening to? At the moment, I’m listening to a Brandy Clark album.

Anything else you’d like students to know about you or your teaching? I learn something new from my students every semester.  Every research project I have ever undertaken had some initial spark in my encounters with undergraduate students – a question someone asked in class, a new example I found while preparing lesson materials, a conversation in office hours.  Teaching and learning are always a two-way street.

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