USC cello instructor earns statewide honor
Igor Stravinsky’s “The Suite Italienne” was being practiced, a pianist accompanying Robert Jesselson’s cello student in a studio in USC’s School of Music. The teacher, with great animation and obvious passion, at turns listened, at turns instructed, at turns demonstrated.
The tempo was too quick, he said, and the students accordingly adjusted their play. Jesselson’s own tempo, though, rarely slows.
This one-on-one coaching session is typical of Jesselson’s teaching style. He spends most of his days giving personal instruction to his students — a total of around 20 in the School of Music, as well as a handful of precollege students.
“I’m really fortunate as a professor, as a teacher, to be working with such talented and also smart students. I get sort of the cream of the crop,”
Jesselson said. “This is kind of the old-fashioned way of teaching, in a way. It’s this one-on-one kind of approach that has been mostly forgotten and lost as we have large classes of people.
“I love it because I get to know my students really well, and I know each one as a real individual. And they’re really different, and I try to teach differently to different students,” Jesselson said.
Jesselson’s teaching techniques have earned him distinction among others in the profession, and most recently, he has been named the 2013 Governor’s Professor of the Year by the South Carolina Commission of Higher Education. He’ll be formally honored at a ceremony in March.
For Jesselson, who has taught cello for more than 30 years, the honor was a complete surprise.
“They surprised me in a lesson, and it was just out of the blue. I thought somebody was delivering me a singing telegram or something,” Jesselson said. “It was quite an amazing moment, and I feel very honored, especially because I know how many incredibly dedicated, devoted and wonderful teachers there are, not only at USC but around the state at other institutions. So I feel very honored to have been chosen for this.”
School of Music Dean Tayloe Harding said Jesselson is an asset to the school and to his students, many of whom are drawn to the school specifically seeking Jesselson’s instruction.
“I can’t think of many professors I’ve worked with who have had a greater impact on students,” Harding said. “One of the things that makes him stand out is his reputation for preparing really good performing cellists. He can barely accommodate all the students that wish to come here to study with him.”
Jesselson is a high-demand professor, Harding said, with students from around the country and world coming to him. Harding said Jesselson’s teaching has prepared many students to become professional cellists and “great supporters of music.”
“I just love to know that what I learned and all these experiences I’ve had playing and teaching, that I’m going to be able to pass that on, because I love what I do,” Jesselson said. “I love music and I love the instrument, the cello itself. And I love knowing that other people love it.”
Jesselson’s passion for music and for the cello extends beyond his own students.
A few years after coming to USC in 1981, Jesselson played an integral role in the reorganization and strengthening of the USC String Project. Currently under the direction of Gail Barnes, the program has brought string music education into every public school district in the Columbia area, Jesselson said.
And it was Jesselson who helped bring the program to national prominence, making it a model for more than 40 similar projects around the country.
For this, among a host of other administrative and leadership roles, Harding said Jesselson is “an asset for a lot of reasons beyond the reasons he won the award.”
“I hope he’ll never retire because I don’t have any idea how I’ll replace him,” Harding said.
Established in 1988, the Governor’s Professor of the Year Award is presented each year to one faculty member from a public or private higher education institute in the state nominated by his or her institution and selected by a committee of representatives from the governor’s office, the
Commission on Higher Education and representatives from civic, business, government and academic organizations.