By Elizabeth Bigham ’18
For more than 15 years, Webb’s String Orchestra has opened the doors for hundreds of students to learn the true value of making music. Many students go on to use the lessons they learn from their time in class and on stage in other fields, but others are inspired to make music their life. One alum, though, has decided to make music in more ways than one.
M. Tucker Jones ’20 is a current junior at East Tennessee State University majoring in viola performance with an emphasis in composing. He is a member of the ETSU Symphony, rising member of the Johnson City Symphony, and has composed pieces for an array of instruments and ensembles.
His recent minimalist composition “The Spot That Lasts the Longest” won top prize in the 2023 Kenton Coe Music Composition Competition, with parts for keyboard, brass, and even rubber band. The piece is lively, dramatic, contemplative, and reflects Jones’s complex sensibilities and talent as a composer. With his newest piece debuting on Nov. 17, he is going back to his roots, both musically and educationally.
Jones had a unique experience when he began playing the viola his sophomore year at Webb. He played piano in Janet Linton’s class freshman year, but this was his first time playing a stringed instrument. Susan Mullen, the teacher and founder of Webb’s String Orchestra, remembers being skeptical when Jones approached her at the end of the spring semester asking to join Intermediate Orchestra in the fall.
When asked why he should go straight to Intermediate, he stated he was going to learn the basics of how to play the viola over the summer. She encouraged him to pick up the viola, but knowing how difficult it was to learn the basics, she did not want to place him in Intermediate Orchestra until she knew he was ready.
It was evident, though, in his first week in Strings I after summer break that he had done exactly what he said he’d do: through two months of hard work, he had learned everything he needed to jump straight to Intermediate. So, he was moved up, and continued playing with the same work ethic and enthusiasm for his instrument.
When asked about what drew him to the viola, Jones remembers instantly feeling a connection to it. “It’s all I wanted to do,” he laughed, recalling that once he started practicing, he wouldn’t want to stop. And he didn’t stop, continuing to grow in Webb’s orchestras until he graduated.
After Webb, he felt the need to keep playing, and joined another orchestra conducted by Mrs. Mullen: the Lionheart Chamber Orchestra in Murfreesboro. He has many fond memories of playing with the group and performed with them for a year before taking more time to focus on his growing love of composition and performance at ETSU. Now, Jones is returning to Lionheart as a composer with the piece “Mr. Lion and the Mother,” composed for the orchestra in which he began his adult career.
The piece is atmospheric and cinematic, animating the story of a lion on the hunt and his emotional encounter with a mother wildebeest. “The thing to remember about the piece is that it’s supposed to be cheesy, a little cheeky,” Jones explained. “It was conceived at the time my niece was born, so it’s made to be a bit of a piece for kids, like a storybook.” He likened it to something that would score beneath “The Lion King” or a nature documentary, a fitting piece for the “Lion”-heart orchestra.
As Jones returns to Lionheart, he is joined by not only Mrs. Mullen, but also two other Webb alumni: myself, Elizabeth Bigham ’18, and David Tran ‘23. Tran is a current freshman at Cumberland University working towards a premedical degree and has brought his talents and passion for the violin to his first season in Lionheart. This is my second season with Lionheart, and while the arts are present in my work as a film production assistant and videographer in Nashville, I have been thrilled to have the chance to play the violin again with Lionheart.
Tran and I recently returned to Webb for the String Orchestra’s Fall concert. “It feels weird,” Tran remarked to me afterwards, “I feel like I should still be up there.” I can say I feel the same more than five years later, staring up at the Follin Chapel stage with Mrs. Mullen at the helm of the orchestra. It’s an experience you never forget.
After a recent rehearsal, I asked Mrs. Mullen how she felt about this reunion of Webb students who were still making music together. “This is incredibly special for me,” she said. “I could not be more happy or thrilled because one of the three musicians involved is making their life’s work music, and the other two are not professional musicians, but have still incorporated high-level music into their lives. It really is a dream come true.”
For Jones, being able to work with familiar Webb faces has been an invaluable experience as well. “This piece is very special because I used to play with this orchestra, and to have it be played by Webb people is very sweet,” he said. “It’s great to get real-world experience and feedback, and it’s a composer’s dream to have a dialogue with the conductor and players that isn’t crazy professional. It can be more honest.”
Jones, Tran, and I did not overlap in our Webb Orchestra experiences, but working with the two of them in Lionheart has been incredibly natural, which is not always the case for musicians learning to play together.
Mrs. Mullen recognized this immediately, and identified what was bringing us together. “When you all see each other, I can see in your eyes instantly that you have something very strong in common: you all know the Webb experience, and you can relate instantly to what that is. You know you have shared experiences even if you never had them together.”
“For me to have found music in high school was a gift, and I’m very glad I did,” Jones said, further reflecting on his Webb Strings experience. “Mrs. Mullen has honed a fantastic approach to instruction as a pedagogue…there are much larger schools that spit out students who still can't manage to bring a pencil to rehearsal.”
Making music is not easy, but the lessons one learns in an orchestra are priceless. Webb’s orchestras only further hone those lessons to reflect the greater Webb experience. To make music, you cannot lie, cheat, or steal your way to success. It is an honest practice and asks you to be vulnerable as you learn and perform in front of your peers. It asks you to develop your character and work ethic to do the hard work of going to the practice room and taking out your instrument even when you may not want to. And it asks you to grow in your self-reliance and sense of responsibility to be able to make yourself and your orchestra the best that you can be.
Even if it doesn’t become your full-time career like it has for Jones, being able to make music together, even if for a short time, can change your life for the better, and solidify what it means to be a lifelong member of this wide and wonderful Webb community.
“Mr. Lion and the Mother,” composed by M. Tucker Jones and performed by the Lionheart Chamber Orchestra will be premiering at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 17 at Dow Street Community Music School in Murfreesboro. Admission is free, and all are welcome to attend.
To learn more about Jones’s work, recordings of select compositions and a schedule of his upcoming performances are on his website at www.mitujone.com.