The Denver Musician – Interview with Tom Jensen of the JSG

The following interview is courtesy of the The Denver Musician (Spring, 2012). You may view the entire newsletter in PDF form here. We also encourage you to visit the Denver Musicians Association website to learn more about their community involvement and outreach programs.

An Interview with Tom Jensen JSG’s Music Director
Part II of a two-part expose’ of the Junior Symphony Guild Interview by Pete Vriesenga

“Flanked by navel oranges, caramel apple dip, a huge pile of tomatoes and 4-pound cartons of “old- fashioned” potato salad (you know, the kind Grandma used to box), the Colorado Springs Philharmonic prepared to help Tom Jensen do what no conductor has done before: conduct for 24 hours straight. In perhaps the most unpretentious concert setting imaginable — the produce section of King Soopers on West Uintah — musicians played in shifts at Jensen’s insistence.” And Jensen, would occasionally get on the store mic and ask: “can I get a price check on a cellist?”

That was the opener from a May 29, 2003 Colorado Springs Independent news story, reporting on a 24-hr marathon fundraiser for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra. The fledgling orchestra was just gaining its footing after the collapse of the former Colorado Springs Symphony. Tom Jensen proposed this marathon as public relations and fundraising opportunity for the orchestra. The CSPO raised $13,500 in 24 hours and brought the community together which brought in $1 million……… and received a welcome barrage of local and national publicity, including the TODAY Show, CNN, FOX News, and a picture picked up by the AP wire ….

Tom Jensen,

Tom Jensen, Junior Symphony Guild Music Director, at a Tiny Tots Performance

Tom believes in connecting the performing arts with the local community, and he’s a master at this as evidenced by his cross-marketing effort with the local grocery store … in the produce section for 24 hours! He has a diverse background in conducting, voice-over commercials and radio, and brings every ounce of this experience to each and every performance. Since 1986, Tom Jensen has been Music Director of the Junior Sym- phony Guild Orchestras, which produces one of the finest sym- phonic outreach/education programs in the nation.Inside the Orchestra(Inside the Orchestra) brings a 15-pc orchestra to area schools, and JSG’sTiny Totsprogram, with a 30 piece orchestra, is designed for preschoolers – reaching 23,000 children each season!

In our last issue of The Denver Musician, we took in-depth look into the operations of the JGS’s”Inside the Orchestra” programs through the eyes of its Executive Director. With this interview we’ll go directly to Tom Jensen, who created JSG’s programs and offers a wealth of experience and success with orchestra promotion.

Pete Vriesenga: First off, let me extend my thanks to you and to the Guild for your many years of service to our community, not to mention the substantial employment for professional musicians. The DMA is proud to represent the extraordinary musicians in the orchestra. We’re also deeply fortunate to have such a longstanding partnership with the Guild. Dare I ask if you feel the same?

Tom Jensen: Yes I do. I have worked with some of our performers for close to 30 years. In that time the mutual respect that we have for one another is evident – I feed off of their talents and creativity. Recently, we had a portion of our library stolen. The music was recreated by our former Exec. Director Mike Allen in one week (a Herculean effort that took 119 hours!). However, there were some notes and rhythms missing, with some parts needing additional work – you can imagine how chaotic a rehearsal situation could be in that scenario, but our musicians took it upon themselves to fix things. That was one of the most profound moments for me – a 30 piece orchestra working, and rewriting things to make stuff work in just one rehearsal.

PV: Some of my fondest memories and musical experiences go back to the 1980’s when you took the job as Colorado Ballet’s Music Director. The company was growing while stag- ing great productions. Inevitably you would bring a case of champagne to hang and celebrate with the orchestra on closing night. Was that time as enjoyable for you as it was for the musicians?

TJ: Yes. Many of the dancers and staff joined us back then – it was a cohesive company with all elements coming together.

PV: After all of these years you still have fun when working with young children. What is it that draws you to young audiences? How do you maintain your level of energy and excitement?

TJ: I don’t have kids of my own. And if you ask anybody who knows me, they’ll tell you how childlike I can be. I think
like a kid … if I could find orchestra music that illustrated potty training, I will have hit a home run. Geez I hate sports metaphors.

PV: How do you find your narrative for the kids, how do you develop your segued bits?

TJ: Sometime in the shower, sometimes in the car and something will come on that “out of context” will hit me a certain way – like coming into the middle of a piece with a meaningful allegory that kids might relate to.

PV: But how’d you get involved with the JSG’s programs?

TJ: Back in ’86 I was conducting the ballet, working with an organization called Young Audiences, which brought the arts to schools, and was beginning my career as a talk show host on 850 KOA Radio. I somehow got on the JSG’s radar and board member Jane Wilson took me to lunch to pick my brain about concerts for kids. We ate at the Trans Alpin, a French restaurant– and after a bit of wine– I drew a picture on a cocktail napkin of an orchestra with the audience in the middle. Mrs. Wilson liked what she saw– but with the caveat that the program could NEVER bore the kids. I guess after 26 years I haven’t done that…lol.

PV: It’s quite remarkable how special needs children respond to classical music. One of the more captivating moments for me was

one particular performance when a large group of hearing-impaired students were in attendance. I’ll never forget the experience of twenty pre-school hands carefully placed on my tuba bell as I played a variety of songs and excerpts. I looked over at Ron Bland who had as many children feeling and discovering every feature and curve of his upright bass. Though they couldn’t hear the sound, they intuitively associated the vibrations with each and every note. This was a very emotional moment.

TJ: That always gets to me when we can connect (and I use that word often) with special needs children. I am also moved when autistic kids, encouraged by their teachers, stay through two consecutive (back to back) concerts– with their caregivers saying that they were enthralled by the music, and because of that, the decision was made to stay longer!

PV: Engaging children through participation is key to a musical connection. Tell me about JSG’s young soloists program.

TJ: After I had started the “inside” programs in ’86, a fabulous piano teacher, Carolyn Shaak, came to me with the idea of having young people solo with the orchestra. It was a way not only for the student musicians to get a feeling for working with an orchestra, but more importantly it showed their elementary peers that one can achieve success at an early age–some of our soloists are in the first grade! Well, this has grown and because of Ms. Shaak’s vision, we now have a list of great teachers– and we go through 35 plus students a year performing with our orchestras. The pre school and elementary aged audiences are captivated by this– and we are expanding into other instrumentalists as well: flute, violin, and bassoon.

PV: Mike Allen served for many years on DMA contract negotiation committees and then became JSG’s Executive Director, which highlights the symbiotic relationship that can exist between unions and managements. Mike was directly involved in our last contract negotiations and shared his views in the last issue of The Denver Musician. He pointed to exceptional cost efficiencies that are a trademark of JSG and how available resources are dedicated to the product. Mike has since moved on to other endeavors, but much what he had to say about JSG’s business model resonates loudly within our industry that is looking for new direction. These unique practices of the Guild have withstood the test of time for two decades. Are there lessons learned here that can apply to other orchestras and like community service organizations?

TJ: Actually, not two decades but the Guild has been raising money to bring orchestral music to children for 53 years. I think the connection of the board and volunteers and musicians is part of it– and our unique product of putting kids inside the orchestra. Donald Seawell, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the DCPA, came to our February 2012 Boettcher show and pro- claimed that (and I paraphrase) seeing all of the children on stage was the reason he created the hall. Of all the great things that have been said about our “insides” Mr. Seawell’s comments have to rank at the top!

PV: JSG’s programs genuinely outreach to the community because each performance is at a different location. Boettcher Concert Hall is just one of your annual performance venues, but stands out as the prominent, downtown concert hall and home of the Colorado Symphony. That alone seems to bring on the excitement for the kids.

Learn more about how you can help the JSG here

TJ: Boettcher is always a great moment– this is our ninth year at that venue– and I think it is so very important that Front Range children get a chance to sit on stage “where the Symphony performs!” And Pete, the stage hands have even made contributions to the Guild over the years– which is an incredible gesture. I am sure they treat everyone who uses the hall with the same professionalism that they show us, but somehow they always make us feel special. And staff from Theaters and Arenas stop by and catch our work– which means a lot!

PV: You don’t perform entire pieces of music.

TJ: No, we edit heavily, with a nod to attention span (mine included). And the idea of a set up and pay off. For example: kids grow to music that grows in volume, to the music of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra– ‘course we end it after the intro. Too often music outreach is unedited, and children are subjected to entire movements of things– for preschoolers and elementary aged kids that is just too long. Remember, Jane Wilson said don’t bore ’em! We leave our audiences wanting more– one three year old has come to every Tiny Tots concert for the past two seasons! That’s right, he has sat thru at least 20 concerts! He even has his own baton and is starting piano soon!

PV: How do you measure JSG’s impact over the years?

TJ: Where to start? There was one fifth grader in a wheel- chair who was so jazzed after our elementary school program, that he went home and asked his mom for a violin. But before he could get lessons, his condition took a turn for the worse– there was a serious reason why he was in the wheelchair. He asked that a violinist play at his funeral. Another mute child started yelling out “Star Wars” after one of our programs– to the amazement of his caregiver. And recently, a young boy who never was able to count, started counting after our conducting lessons in four, three, and two– evidently a lightbulb went on because of the program.

PV: These magical moments are a natural occurrence be- cause each performance is unique. Are you getting feedback from school officials? Are they aware of what is happening here?

TJ: Yes, schools over the years have pushed to have us back, with principals and teachers saying that our assemblies have been the most worthwhile segments of time spent out of the classroom that they have seen in their entire careers– to get that kind of validation from educators is truly rewarding.

PV: I especially admire how you have been collaborating with other arts groups.

TJ: I am so thrilled to be working with Central City Opera– adding a male singer to the program works so well, and it is good for youngsters to see that it is cool for a man to be singing an aria. My long time friend and colleague, Cleo Parker Robin- son of the dance company with the same name, is eager to do a piece with us. Just think, classical music, opera and dance in one show– one stop shopping!

Inspiring Young Minds

PV: You’re not getting any younger … what is in the future for you and the JSG?

TJ: Well Pete, thanks for noticing – first off I plan on rejoining the union in support of your current membership drive. I was a member back in ’83 for the health insurance, but you guys got rid of that and I quit. But now I think it would speak eloquently for our relationship for me to be back in the ranks. I feel that strongly about our singular management/musician collaboration.

PV: Well that’s important– but you didn’t answer my question.

TJ: Yeah, well SECONDLY, the Guild would like me to stay on as long as I can lift a stick and articulate a script– but that said, we are looking for an associate conductor. Someone who can work with professional musicians, but equally impor- tant, someone who can write, script, and narrate a program–because this is a unique situation that we have created and we need to find someone who can engage as well as make music. The musicians will have a voice in this also, as the theme to this article is really a team effort.

PV: The cumulative impact of this work can never be measured because there is no other entity that exposes so many children to classical music, and on such a personal level. How can supporters become involved, whether through financial contributions or as a leader and supporter of the organization?

TJ: Thanks for asking. Time and money are always needed and more now then ever as we try to grow and expand our reach. The good thing is donations go far with our programs. For a donation of only $5 you can fund a child to sit inside the orchestra. A $2000 donation sponsors an entire school. Many of the schools we go to are Title 1 schools so this is a great way to impact a large number of students. Another way to support us is to become a member. In fact we have a special members only family concert coming up in June. Anyone interested should check out our website – where they can find out more about our programs, sign up to receive our newsletter, or download the membership form. Questions and inquiries can also be sent to