Professor tunes in with music

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
— Jeff Suarez is having a two-story garage built at his rural Janesville home. The top floor will be dedicated to his hobby.

He figures it’ll take 30 years or so to fill the upper floor to capacity with a model railroad.

Suarez thinks long term. When he became a music professor at UW-Rock County in 2003, he also took a long view.

His vision had developed over the years since 2000 when he played French horn for the Beloit Janesville Symphony, serving also as the BJS’s personnel and production manager.

He considered what Rock County might look in 30 years: More people. More cultural offerings. More need for musicians.

The area has taken cultural steps forward recently, Suarez believes, but wonders if enough skilled musicians will be available as the area starts creating even more of its own homegrown productions.

So when Suarez took the UW-Rock job, he saw an opportunity to dedicate his career to this goal.

His first task was to revitalize the campus’ concert band, recruiting new members and giving it a new name: Rock Prairie Concert Band.

Then he branched out, founding the Rock Prairie Chamber Orchestra, Rock Prairie Big Band and the Rock Prairie Youth Orchestra.

His idea is that those groups can be homes for musicians who haven’t played in a while, those who are just starting to build their skills and those who are “retiring” after playing with other groups.

“It’s kind of a farm system, in a sense,” he said.

The result, Suarez hopes, will be a growing pool of talent.

“We need to do this, because sooner or later, it’s going to happen,” he said.

Sure, it’s nice to enjoy the culture of the surrounding big cities, but Suarez is passionate on this point: “We should be able to be culturally independent, and we should be able to develop our own culture.”

Suarez’s passion, however, requires pain. More precisely, it requires long hours of work.

Just consider all the rehearsal time needed for the various groups and add to that his class schedule and various other projects, including performing for UW-Rock’s musical theater productions.

Suarez works so hard that he’s been warned by his boss to be careful about overextending himself, he said.

The boss is UW-Rock Dean Diane Pillard.

It’s normal for a UW professor to have projects in the community, Pillard said, but Suarez is exceptional.

“Of all the people I know, he is one of the people with the highest energy level, the most enthusiastic, and the highest passion for his work,” she said.

Scott Kjornes is one of those local players who predates Suarez but loves Suarez as a conductor and organizer of musical groups.

“He’s one of the most affable, easy-going people, but in the same regard, he knows when a job has to get done, as well,” Kjornes said.

“I owe him a lot for what my playing ability has evolved into,” Kjornes added.

Kjornes is working with Suarez on a new organization, the Rock Prairie Performing Arts, which will raise money and organize volunteers to support the music groups.

Suarez sees RPPA providing organization, volunteers and money that it will take to branch out, taking its performances off campus and into the community.

Age: 36
Community: Janesville
Occupation: Assistant professor of music at UW-Rock County and a horn instructor at Beloit College
Family: Wife, Michelle, a Janesville native. They met as students at UW-Madison
Hobbies: Modifying, or “modding,” computer games
Favorite music: Suarez likes to judge music on its own merits, and he isn’t the kind of person to keep a list of faves.
Favorite movie: Well, not one particular movie, but he likes the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” series.
Books: Recent reads include “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn and “The Atlantic Campaign” by Dan van der Vat
Role models: A series of teachers, from junior high all the way through grad school, who got him interested and guided his development in music.
Notable: Suarez composed the UW-Rock athletics fight song, “Go, Rattlers, Go!”
That name: Yes, Suarez is Hispanic, but he’s not Latino. His great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Spain, part of a small migration that included the forebears of UW-Madison athletics director Barry Alvarez. Alvarez and Suarez are distant cousins.

Last updated: 1:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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