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A new era for UNF's Music Program — School of Music sets the stage for student success

Jazz Ensemble One

Serenading a stranger seated in a single chair in a vast gallery of one of the world’s most renowned museums might intimidate some. Others, like UNF music alumnus, Jordan Rutter, ’13, delight in the opportunity to stand on an unconventional stage doing what they know they do best.

Rutter is a countertenor living and working in New York City. He performs at various venues throughout the city, which included a fall project in the Metropolitan Museum of Art singing in an interactive installation, “Sonic Blossom” created by artist Lee Mingwei. Performers approached museum patrons with a single question, “May I give you the gift of song?” Once affirmed, visitors were treated to a Schubert selection.

Rutter received a voice degree from the University of North Florida, as well as a master's from the Manhattan School of Music. Like other graduates from UNF’s Music Flagship Program, Rutter was thrilled when he learned some special news this spring — UNF’s Music Department is now the School of Music.

UNF drummerThe announcement was made in March at a special showcase concert featuring student and faculty musicians. Dr. Randy Tinnin, director of the school and professor of trumpet, believes the distinction will further elevate the internationally recognized program, expanding both training and performance.

“The designation of the Music Flagship Program as the UNF School of Music marks the culmination of years of work,” said Tinnin. “It creates a comprehensive program that equips 21st century music professionals.”

Music has been a part of UNF from the beginning. Early on, there were voice and piano programs. Those offerings quickly expanded when UNF faculty like Charlotte Mabrey and Lenard Bowie introduced new instrumental instruction in the early 1980s. Mabrey, also a principal percussionist with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, produced “An Evening of 20th Century Music” each year giving students prime time on stage. The popular event was held for more than 25 years.

Jazz Studies came to UNF in the mid 1980s. Renowned jazz musician Rich Matteson was hired to start the program. Within just a couple of years, well-known artists in the jazz world were teaching at UNF — Bill Prince, Bruce Silva and Bunky Green. And it wasn’t long before the program garnered national attention.

Internationally acclaimed jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, who leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York City, even commented on the talent coming from UNF’s music program: “To have that many great musicians come from one place is truly astounding … They are deeply soulful and committed to making the highest quality of music … It must be something in the water down there.”

He knows firsthand because the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has hired several UNF students over the years. Music alum Vincent Gardner, ’96, and Marcus Printup, who also attended UNF, currently play with the Orchestra. The Jazz Studies program continues to attract top talent to UNF.

Trevor Lundquist, a music performance major, said he came to UNF because of that reputation and the opportunity to work with the distinguished faculty. “It was made clear when I auditioned that I would have lots of one-on-one instruction with top professors, not just graduate students,” he said. “That sets UNF apart from other schools.”

In 2011, the Department of Music was awarded flagship status. With additional resources, a Master of Music and bachelor’s concentration in music technology and production were added to existing offerings — additions that Tinnin believes are relevant for the 21st century.


Though a relatively young program compared to many established programs at much older universities, UNF attracts students from all over the world and has received some big accolades over the years. 

By investing in classical faculty, the University has developed strong ensembles including the Wind Symphony, UNF Orchestra, choral Music professor and studentensembles and opera, which have performed all over the world — France, Italy, Portugal, Czech Republic and South Africa.

The University of North Florida has been nationally recognized often, including many top honors from the jazz magazine DownBeat in various categories from solo and ensemble performances to compositions and arrangements. Jazz Ensemble One, under the direction of J.B. Scott, has a reputation as one of the best collegiate ensembles in the world, and has collected numerous DownBeat awards including the Top College Large Jazz Ensemble. This year, Lisa Kelly, a master's student who received several past DownBeat honors, won the Graduate Vocal Jazz Soloist, as well as the graduate level Jazz Arrangement: Small Ensemble award. Daniel Dickinson, a jazz studies major, won the Original Composition: Small Ensemble award in the undergraduate category. UNF students also have been recognized at the Grammys. This year, two UNF graduates received nominations — and one a Grammy — for their work. 

UNF’s School of Music is a limited access program requiring auditions for admittance. Even the music technology students must audition to ensure a high level of ability and potential.  “This allows the school to attract a high caliber of students,” said Tinnin. “By limiting access, UNF is able to provide significant interaction between students and faculty, as well as lots of performance opportunities for students.”

The program has grown quickly experiencing a 33 percent growth rate in just the past year increasing from 176 students in spring 2014 to 235 enrolled last fall. In addition, graduates over the past year with bachelor’s degrees in music education and master's in piano pedagogy have had a 100 percent employment rate. This could be a testament to training on the latest technology — UNF was the first university in the country to acquire the newest piano technology and models in its digital piano lab. 

Tinnin said the generosity of donors has allowed many talented musicians to attend UNF through scholarships and has also provided state-of-the-art facilities, like the Lazzara Performance Hall, for student performance, as well as a recording studio. As the program continues to grow, he hopes the new School will attract even greater support that could further impact everything from student scholarships to practice and performance space.

“We’ve always been very performance oriented,” said Tinnin. “We do undergraduate music education really well here, and I believe having the opportunity to perform on stage is a big part of it.” Jordan Rutter agreed. In addition to the degree itself, UNF provided him with lots of opportunities to perform, something he said is recognized by students and graduates as one of the greatest benefits of UNF’s program.

“I always got the sense that our faculty were investing in my future potential as a musician,” Rutter said, commenting that the extensive stage time was unique and valuable. 

Dr. Cara Tasher, associate professor of voice and director of choral activities, said by graduation, voice undergrads, for example, may have performed in several masterworks, in opera choruses, as leads in operas, in solo or chamber recitals, conducted ensembles, taught voice lessons to non-voice students, and performed in community events, with the Jacksonville Symphony, or in international venues. “As far as I know, UNF undergraduate music students have more opportunities than in other state and private universities due to our focus on building their resume through meaningful performance opportunities,” said Tasher.

Rutter said that kind of experience provides a great foundation for students graduating from the program. “They [faculty] were focused on getting me to the next step,” he said. Like Rutter, countless music grads from UNF have gone on to experience success on the national level. Many alumni have performed with various popular artists like Ben Folds, Matthew Morrison and Drake Bell, on TV shows like “Glee,” and in numerous bands and ensembles. Other former students have played with elite military ensembles like Kevin Dill, who recently joined the U.S. Army Old Fife and Drum Corps, the official ceremonial unit and escort to the president.

After graduation, many UNF alumni have chosen to further their music training at prestigious institutions like Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music and the Boston Conservatory. Their acceptance is a testament to the solid training they’ve received at UNF. 

Tasher believes the new designation of UNF’s Music Flagship Program as the School of Music reflects a strong program that will only keep getting better. “It is truly incredible, if talented and diligent, what an undergraduate can accomplish here.”