Musician, Scholar, and Soldier
While each School of Music student’s story is unique, Ernest Jennings has had a more circuitous path than many to the University of Iowa. On his way to earning his Doctor of Musical Arts in conducting this May, the 44-year-old student has been a member of the U.S. Navy Steel Band, a high school teacher in Des Moines, soldier in Iraq, band director at a musical conservatory in Thailand, and college professor in Wisconsin.
The central thread connecting the diverse chapters of Jennings’ life has been a deep passion for music. Growing up in South Carolina, he sang in church choirs and played in bands from the time he was in fifth grade. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music from Limestone College in South Carolina, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where one of his assignments was playing in its Steel Band. After leaving active duty he went back to school at Drake University for a second bachelor’s degree in music education, after which he was a high school band director in the Des Moines school system. In 2005 (after serving a tour of duty in Iraq with the Iowa National Guard) he came to the UI for an M.A. in percussion, followed by two years teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and two years as a conservatory band director in Thailand.
In 2011 Jennings returned to the UI to begin a D.M.A. program in conducting. His years here have been busy ones, filled with classes, serving as a teaching assistant for the UI marching band, and writing his thesis on the American band composers Carolyn Bremer and Nancy Galbraith. He has also continued his military career by serving one weekend each month and two weeks during the summer in the U.S. National Guard and (beginning in 2013) the U.S. Army Reserves.
“I’m very proud of having served my country for 18 years in various branches of the military,” Jennings says. “But I admit it’s been a challenge to juggle my soldier responsibilities with my role as a student. I’ve become very good at time management—otherwise I’d never be able to keep up with it all.”
UI associate professor and director of bands Mark Heidel, who has been Jennings’ advisor at the UI, has a deep respect for his varied accomplishments. “I think the self-discipline and sense of integrity instilled by Ernie’s military service are part of what has made him successful at Iowa,” Heidel says. “He’s always pushing himself to do his very best. He also has an infectious enthusiasm that makes him a joy to be around. He’s been especially integral to our athletic band program, including writing drills for the band that have been performed at Kinnick Stadium. The students have loved working with him.”
The School of Music is a family affair in the Jennings household, for Jennings’ wife Colleen is in a D.M.A. program in vocal performance. “I’ve also come to think of the entire school as a family,” Jennings says. “People have been incredibly kind and supportive. I’ve had nothing but good experiences here.”
Now that he’s completed his degree, Jennings hopes to find a tenure-track position in conducting at a college or university. “I love teaching at all levels, but I especially enjoy working with college students,” he says. “I like being a mentor and making a positive difference in people’s lives. But most of all I enjoy helping other people discover the joys of music. I know of no other discipline that so fully conveys the full range of human experience.”