hile overseas in Germany, a jazz musician turned Navy sailor acquired a stereo. This stereo voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in the picturesque New England suburb of Wethersfield, Conn., located just outside Hartford.
“Music was always a part of our house,” Robert Ambrose, BC ’90, said.
Of all the new sights, smells, and sounds that confronted 3-year-old Ambrose, he specifically remembers the sounds of the stereo his father had brought back from Europe, as the spinning records crooned sentimental tunes. He and his father would sit in front of it, swaying to the seemingly endless melodies.
This early experience with music would prove to be the first of many for Ambrose, who is now the director of bands at Georgia State University and a world-renowned wind ensemble conductor.
“I think the thing that defines Robert Ambrose is he’s incredibly thoughtful. … He’s in-depth in his study and preparation for teaching and guiding. He is thoughtful in the way he approaches his musicians that he works with. He loves people, and he loves relationships. He’s thoughtful about those relationships, and I think that helps him to really relate to his students and his colleagues.” Chester Phillips
Ambrose has always felt greatly supported by his parents in his musical career. While he never saw his father’s jazz career in action, Ambrose’s father would speak to the myriad of his musical endeavors as a student at Boston College, which Ambrose would later attend himself.
“They provided probably what must go down in history as the greatest support network ever,” Ambrose said. “They are just fantastic parents.”
Ambrose attended his local high school in Wethersfield, which had a cutting-edge and all-encompassing guitar program. But formal guitar lessons gave way to rambunctious rock band jams and sessions in the recording studio with his fellow classmates turned bandmates in the late afternoon hours of the languid days of the 1980s.
When it came time to submit his college applications, Ambrose applied to five East Coast schools—University of Connecticut, University of Hartford, University of Vermont, Boston University, and Boston College. His future was unnervingly uncertain career-wise, and Ambrose hoped that the push to attend college would point him in the right direction.
“Back then, the idea of the gap year didn’t exist—no one ever did that,” he said.
After Ambrose received his high school diploma in 1986, the limiting possibilities were three-pronged—college, work, or the military. He acknowledges now that taking some time to collect himself and confront the coming years with a clear head would have been helpful, but Ambrose has no qualms about the trajectory his life has taken since his decision to attend BC.
In addition to BC’s prestigious reputation, Ambrose felt a personal connection to the college—his childhood had been peppered with autumn road trips into Chestnut Hill to cheer on the Eagles in Alumni Stadium.
“I definitely felt an affinity for BC—it just felt right,” Ambrose said. “Although I didn’t really know what I wanted to do before, during, or after.”
As soon as Ambrose entered the University’s hallowed halls, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to major in computer science. He worked hard in the rigorous program, while music remained his cathartic, creative outlet. At the time, BC did not have a performance degree in music, but it still offered classes on the subject—Ambrose took four courses in the field and acquired a concentration.
One of Ambrose’s first friends at BC had also been in a rock band in high school, so the two married their talents and soon found a drummer to complement the screams of their guitar strings.
Now, all they needed was a place to make music, which turned out to be a lecture hall in Lyons Hall—room 423—which they transformed into a studio. There they would jam for hours on end, the strains of their melodies filling the room and seeping into the hallway.
One day, these melodies reached the ears of a bass player, who opened the door and peered in. “Hi, I’m a bass player, and I don’t hear any bass,” he said. “Do you need bass?” He soon joined the group, rounding out the sounds of the other three players.
“Suddenly, we had a rock band,” Ambrose said.
“I’m in music because I like to connect to people. And that’s the vehicle through which I do it. … It’s the connections that I’ve been able to have, the heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul connections with so many people that comes from really great music-making that is what drove me to it and what keeps me inspired.” Robert Ambrose, BC '90
The ensemble took its talents all over campus and beyond, playing at the local clubs and bars sprinkled around the surrounding suburbs. One of its usual spots was Great Scott, a popular music venue and bar that still stands on the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard avenues. The venues would be packed with Eagles, who made sure to consume a healthy amount of beer while savoring the sounds. Wherever they went would transform into the night’s hotspot, making the rock band a much sought-after hire.
Throughout his four years at BC, Ambrose also participated in the jazz ensemble BC bOp! and played in the pit orchestras for theatre productions including Evita, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. He formed a lasting connection with major players in the field such as Sebastian Bonaiuto, BC’s first full-time director of bands. While he grew more engrossed in his musical endeavors, his conviction in his major embarked on a rapid decline.
“I probably knew after maybe my sophomore year that computer science wasn’t going to be my thing, but I was having so much fun at BC,” he said. “I had a great group of friends, we had a band, and I was doing okay in school.”
While Ambrose was certain that his coming years would not be spent in a cramped cubicle with fluorescent lighting and a single potted plant, he didn’t know that they would be in music either. The main feeling that gnawed at him upon graduating BC was confusion.
Ambrose was in limbo, and his only plans for the future were to travel to Europe with a friend. After six weeks of adventuring and procrastinating plans for his future, Ambrose arrived back in Boston with a degree he was unenthused about and an apartment that he shared with several roommates on Gerald Road. When he realized it was finally time to face his fears and figure out his next step, he decided to move back home.
“I came home, and I just sort of hit rock bottom,” Ambrose said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.”
After doing a little soul-searching, Ambrose felt confident that his passion rested in music, but he didn’t know exactly how to craft it into a career. He figured he had to start somewhere if he wanted to achieve his goal of forming meaningful connections through teaching music. His B.A. in computer science, however, was a shaky foundation for such an ambition to rest on.
Consequently, Ambrose went to the Boston Conservatory, met with the chair of the music education program, and laid out his credentials—or lack thereof. While he had trifled with his guitar strings for several years, his fingers had never touched a wind instrument, and he had virtually no classical training—yet he wanted to be a band director. Upon hearing this, the chair of the program was unimpressed.
“They very kindly slammed the door in my face and said, ‘not interested,’” Ambrose said.
With an staunch belief in his vision, Ambrose walked across the street to the New England Conservatory—and got the same answer. A few days later, he arrived at Boston University ready to make what he hoped would be his final case. Walking in the door at 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Ambrose strolled up to the front desk and asked for Richard Colwell, the chair of the music education department. He was sent up the stairs to the second floor of the building and walked into Colwell’s office.
After just five minutes of hearing him speak, Colwell decided to take a chance on Ambrose, and promptly made him an offer that would change the trajectory of his life.
“I mean, no application, no audition, nothing. … This guy just took a chance on me, and that allowed the next steps of my life to happen. Had he just slammed the door in my face, who knows where I’d be right now?”
Ambrose had finally landed his lucky break. He attended Boston University and completed his master’s degree in music education in 1993, and after three years of rigorous study, he was finally ready to embark on his long-awaited music career.
His first job was at a high school in Monson, Mass., near Springfield, teaching music to the high school band and chorus. Ambrose’s time in Monson was personally rewarding, but logistically challenging. In addition to a brutal hour and 20-minute commute from his home in Newton to Monson and back, Ambrose played in multiple rock bands down in the city, keeping him constantly spread too thin across the two towns.
His work soon came closer to home when he moved to his next job at Norwood High School. Ambrose served as the school’s band director for three years before attending Northwestern University, where he began working on a doctorate in music education. While participating in the program, Ambrose was assigned as a graduate assistant to Mallory Thompson, Northwestern’s director of bands. She would be integral in his path to becoming a world-renowned conductor.
Ambrose soon discovered that the University’s music education program was largely research-based—it was not exactly hands-on, which is what he’d had in mind. Thompson recommended that Ambrose audition for the conducting program and complete a different doctorate—one in wind conducting. He decided to take her up on the suggestion and switched gears after one quarter.
Shortly after he finished his doctorate in 2001, Ambrose was hired as the director of bands at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he has worked for 18 years. He has enjoyed this position alongside his wife, who has worked at the university for 16 years as a flute professor. He also enjoys the position of director of recruitment.
“I think the thing that defines Robert Ambrose is he’s incredibly thoughtful. … He’s in-depth in his study and preparation for teaching and guiding. He is thoughtful in the way he approaches his musicians that he works with,” said Chester Phillips at Georgia State, the associate director of bands. “He loves people, and he loves relationships. He’s thoughtful about those relationships, and I think that helps him to really relate to his students and his colleagues.”
For almost two decades, Georgia State has provided Ambrose both his full-time job and the backdrop for a myriad of independent musical endeavors.
“The way it works in my profession is you … build a reputation, you go out and you do guest conducting, and then someone else hears about you, and your career hopefully grows that way—and that’s how that’s happened,” he said.
One such project was spent co-conducting the Metropolitan Atlanta Youth Wind Ensemble for a few years alongside Laura Moates Stanley, director of bands at Brookwood High School. In working with Ambrose, Stanley noticed his desire to form lasting connections with others, both on and off the podium.
“He truly is not in this for himself … He’s really in this for other people,” Stanley said. “I don’t think that Robert is a director of bands just because he wants to be—I think he truly does it to serve others.”
Over the years, Ambrose has participated in a multitude of these separate projects. He founded the Atlanta Chamber Winds, as well as the National Chamber Winds in Washington, D.C. While the Atlanta Chamber Winds join together once a year for a concert performed by their prestigious members, the activities of the National Chamber Winds are more regular.
“In many ways [guest conducting is] like a relationship with a person. The more you know them, the easier it’s going to be move towards a common goal. My goal when I’m guest conducting is to try to bridge that gap as quickly as possible by the way I talk to the musicians and the way I interact with them. I’m trying to get to a place where they open their hearts and their souls, and from that point we can kind of have this relationship.” Robert Ambrose, BC '90
As a conductor, Ambrose is the critical decision-maker in crafting each piece’s sound, which he does by providing an informed interpretation of the score and effectively communicating this evaluation to the performers.
“The person standing on the podium conducting makes an enormous difference in sound,” Ambrose said. “If I go up there and conduct a group and someone else conducts them, they’ll sound very different … based on the way we move, based on our interpretation of the music, based on … how we talk to the musicians.”
To produce the best-sounding notes, Ambrose relentlessly pours over the sheet music and makes one decision after another. He’s constantly asking himself questions: How should this phrase sound? Who should play louder here? Should the flute use vibrato or not?
“It would be really interesting to map sort of the brain activity that’s going on.”
“You go from euphoric, and you have these incredible sensations and chills going up your spine from the sounds, to total panic, depending on the situation you’re in.”
Guest conducting also comprises a large part of Ambrose’s vibrant musical career, as it takes him around the globe and is responsible for his astronomical annual mileage, which amounts to about 125,000 frequent flyer miles per year.
“In many ways [guest conducting is] like a relationship with a person,” Ambrose said. “The more you know them, the easier it’s going to be move towards a common goal. My goal when I’m guest conducting is to try to bridge that gap as quickly as possible by the way I talk to the musicians and the way I interact with them. I’m trying to get to a place where they open their hearts and their souls, and from that point we can kind of have this relationship.”
He mainly guest conducts in Finland, Taiwan, and Canada. While he feels a connection with all three countries, Ambrose keeps Finland especially close to his heart.
His seemingly unusual musical partnership with Finland arose from a grant he received to bring a few Finnish musicians to Georgia State in 2012. Since that time, he has been to the country fourteen times as either a guest lecturer, conductor, or teacher, and he has received nearly 20 Finns in Atlanta.
“There’s this really heavy symbiotic relationship between me and the Finnish music world that kind of keeps growing and keeps developing,” Ambrose said.
The quaint country of Finland has become a second home for Ambrose, who has interacted with roughly 80 people from the country through music—most of whom he now considers friends. Having always felt extremely welcomed in the country, Ambrose has adapted to its picturesque buildings, culture, and food—specifically black sausage and Kalakukko, which is Finnish fish bread—with ease.
His ability to learn the language, however, has proven to be more difficult.
“It’s virtually impossible,” Ambrose said. “It’s so hard I can’t even describe it. But I’ve learned it enough that the last time I was there, I was teaching a conducting workshop, and everyone spoke Finnish, and I could survive.”
Luckily, this language barrier doesn’t translate into the musical sphere—in Finland, Ambrose has guest conducted the Finnish Navy Band and a myriad of community bands, taught conducting workshops, and even published a few arrangements—in which Ambrose adapts pieces played by an orchestra and rearranges it so that a wind ensemble can play it.
“Most people wouldn’t think of someone having a musical relationship with Finland, but that’s where mine happens to be,” said Ambrose.
Ambrose’s most significant achievement in music, however, was an invitation he received to guest conduct the United States Army Field Band—one of the most elite military bands, based in Washington, D.C. Ambrose is the only civilian in history to have toured with a group of this nature and stature, and he spent 10 days on the road with them and the musicians in the band.
But it’s more than just the tremendous prestige, or the frequent travels, or even the stimulating conversation for Ambrose. The core of his love for music will always be the meaningful connections it has allowed him to form.
“I’m in music because I like to connect to people. And that’s the vehicle through which I do it. … It’s the connections that I’ve been able to have, the heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul connections with so many people that comes from really great music-making that is what drove me to it and what keeps me inspired.”
Photos Courtesy of Robert Ambrose