For Ruth Ochs, music has always been a connective force; a force she has used to build community on an off Princeton’s campus. In recognition of this work, Dr. Ochs, conductor of the Princeton University Sinfonia, associate conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra, and director of small ensembles, has been named a 2019 recipient of the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement’s Community Engagement Award.
Her love of music and recognition of its power to bring people together began in her youth back in her hometown of Middlebury, Vermont, when service with her family inextricably linked the concepts together.
“My family sold produce at a farmers’ market twice a week each summer,” she said. “After long mornings, when a nap was all I could think about, my mother had us make stops in our hometown to give leftovers to elderly and home-bound community members. Our unused surplus became the motivation to connect and share with those who were easily overlooked and could benefit from the nutrition and brief bit of conversation.
“The transition to sharing my piano or cello playing at occasional afternoon senior group meetings or during church services was easy and logical,” she continued. “With my audience’s sincere appreciation of my music making, my confidence as a performer grew, and so did my understanding of music as an art form that creates unique and meaningful bridges between people.”
Her service to the Princeton community can be traced back to her time as a graduate student in the Music Department, where she earned her doctoral degree in musicology. Having already completed a master’s degree in conducting, Dr. Ochs was quickly tapped to conduct the then 18-member musical ensemble, Sinfonia, which under her mentorship and direction, has since evolved into the vibrant, 55-member group it is today. Sinfonia continues to provide an open and inviting environment to undergraduate and graduate student musicians alike, encouraging experimentation and collaboration.
Having led Sinfonia since its inception, Dr. Ochs has used her position as conductor to encourage and support a broad range of musical styles, all while developing superior musicianship in her performers. In the words of Music Department Chair, Wendy Heller, Dr. Ochs has “taken Sinfonia to new heights no one could have imagined.”
Despite these impressive new heights, what remains central to Dr. Ochs’ vision for Sinfonia is the formation of community. Instead of framing the group around individual achievement or competition, Dr. Ochs has emphasized its creation of a “warm, supportive community that in many ways is the antithesis of a lot of the really competitive stuff that goes on elsewhere on campus,” according to Dr. Heller.
As Dr. Ochs describes it, “I do not have to measure success by level of accomplishment. Rather I can quietly cultivate a culture in which music is valued as a means to engage multiple perspectives and diverse backgrounds.”
Dr. Ochs’ collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to pedagogy is of enormous benefit to her students. Kristin Hauge, ’18 is a former member of Sinfonia, and she described Dr. Ochs as consistently going above and beyond the normal expectations of a professor.
“She is not only a conductor, but also a mentor and a friend,” she said. “She constantly expresses genuine interest in students’ lives and concern for their well-being, which is something that goes a long way for college students in a high-pressure academic environment.”
Over the years, Dr. Ochs’ music outreach has reached far beyond the “orange bubble” of the University. She also founded and conducts the Princeton Community Orchestra, with support from Westminster Music Conservatory. Under Dr. Ochs’ leadership, the Community Orchestra frequently engages in music outreach and service in the broader Princeton and central New Jersey area.
For Dr. Ochs, musicianship and music outreach are always intertwined. In a sense, her model seems to be that if one has the gift of being able to play music, this should be automatically shared with others in a way that nurtures relationships and connections between individuals.
Dr. Ochs’ commitment to music outreach has also left an indelible mark on her students, many of whom have expanded the Music Department’s support for music outreach programs. For example, Dr. Ochs played a key role in helping Lou Chen ’19 to get the Trenton Youth Orchestra off the ground, a program which has seen enormous growth and success since 2016.
In his introduction speech for Dr. Ochs before she received the Community Engagement Award, Chen summarized Dr. Ochs’ commitment to service. “What struck me most was that, in spite of her overflowing, crazy, impossible schedule, Ruth always carved out time to pursue music service,” he said. “I’ve always believed that Princeton, with all its resources and privilege, has yet to achieve its full potential as a force for change in the community - and that music should play a central role. But Ruth was the first person I met who embodied this belief to her core.”
Dr. Ochs’ example, combined with her students’ efforts, have pushed the Music Department to consider how music service can be incorporated in its course requirements. Dr. Heller explained that in the near future, the department is hoping to introduce a music service course to the undergraduate curriculum, and that “Ruth would be the obvious person to teach that,” noting that, “it would have really beneficial ripple effects across the curriculum.”