Getting to the heart of creativity: a conversation with Caleb Vaughan-Jones


Not everyone who studies music needs to become a professional musician – but every child should be pushed to their limit when it comes to learning music is what performer, producer and music educator Caleb Vaughan-Jones believes.

Cellist Caleb Vaughan-Jones, has very strong views about the place of music in school curricula. He spoke to Grocott’s Mail after a recital in the Kingswood College Chapel Saturday 17 February to launch the school’s Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship programme (ICE). Close to his heart are the relationship between music education and entrepreneurship, and breaking ground with new audiences.

Vaughan-Jones is the first Artist in Residence in Kingswood College’s ICE programme – a bid by the school to enrich its curricula based on research showing that over the next 20 years, creativity and innovation will provide the biggest advantages for people seeking business and work opportunities.

As well as being a dedicated music educator, American born and raised Vaughan-Jones has performed as a chamber musician and concert soloist throughout North America, Asia, the West Indies and southern Africa. He’s also the founder and executive producer  of a company producing albums for recording artists as well as soundtracks for video games (including Civilisation VI: Rise and Fall which was released less than two weeks ago).

“There’s this approach that with music you just have to be ‘involved’,” Vaughan-Jones said. “But tell me – do the rugby teams just want to be ‘involved’-  or do they want to win? Same thing with cricket or netball or tennis or whatever: they want to be number one.

“I feel like when it comes to the arts it’s that thing you do just to say you’ve done it, as opposed to really excelling.”

That’s a big mistake, he says, because the real learning happens when you strive to become the best – “at anything”.

“There’s a lot of discipline from very early on. You have to be very focused. Not everybody becomes a musician – that’s not even a goal – but taking it extremely seriously can be huge in the long run.

“Look at some of the great businesspeople out there, the presidents – Bill Clinton played the saxophone pretty well you know – and you start to figure out with these people that’s part of who they are.

And as for students who are aiming to become professional musicians, Vaughan-Jones reckons, the most important skill for their success, aside from their craft, is entrepreneurship.

“I graduated from conservatory quite a while ago and the only part of my curriculum that allowed me to take any kind of business class was an lective. Most music graduates don’t know how to do financials or anything – much less write a business plan.

“The old model in conservatories in Europe and the US is built on performers becoming orchestral musicians. But nowadays very few of them actually want to play in an orchestra. Most want to become their own entity – and to do that you’ve got to have business skills. Otherwise it’s going to take years of figuring it out as you learn on the job.”

Music students from Grahamstown schools as well as a large group from AMP! – the music school based at the Joza Youth Hub and serving township schools that don’t offer music  in their curricula – made up a large part of the audience on Saturday night. And that, Vaughan-Jones said, inspired him.

“There’s something special about – like tonight – where you walk in and you see the majority of the audience is younger than 60. That’s rare – that’s very rare in classical music,” Vaughan-Jones says. “At the concerts I play in the US, most people are planning for retirement. Not that I have anything against those types of people – but it’s not sustainable and you realise you could be communicating your art to somebody else, who’s younger. Unfortunately in the US we haven’t been able to do that very well.”

Vaughan-Jones came to South Africa  in February 2011 to work with the Port Elizabeth based Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. He’d been working with Detroit, US based The Sphinx Organization which promotes musicians of colour playing stringed instruments. On their website they describe themselves as being “dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts”.

“I was invited to come for nine months. After nine months I went home and then I decided I wanted to come back.”


“For me – I don’t really talk about it that much – but I wanted to feel like making
music for me – how do I say it – had some purpose.”

The audiences for classical music in the US and other affluent countries, Vaughan-Jones felt, was a very specific demographic.

“It’s fine, but it’s not really sustainable. So I wanted to figure out what makes people really like music, you know – and so I had to get away from that a little bit. So I came here and accepted the challenge basically.”

Vaughan-Jones was an apt first choice, then, for the school’s programme. In a statement announcing it last year, the school said “innovative schools recognise their responsibility to their local community and environment – they do not become a “bubble” in isolation from what is happening around them.

Vaughan-Jones lives in Port Elizabeth with his South African wife Britni and their daughter Ava and there’s lots that he appreciates about South Africa.

“In general in South Africa compared to the US there seems to be an old-school family unit. In the US you move away from home – far away from home – and stay there. Here you see families together more often. That’s a huge plus, I think.”

As for Grahamstown – “There are very few towns in the US that look like Grahamstown – it’s very quaint. And it’s very beautiful,” Vaughan-Jones says. “The size, the architecture – it’s very beautifull and inspiring. Also, there are beautiful
gardens – especially here at Kingswood College: it’s a nice campus.”

His favourite place to perform?

“For me it’s based on the audience. If I have an audience that’s there because of the music and not some kind of cultural thing of trying to show status, then I’m very happy.

“When it becomes about anything more than that, it’s very difficult to make music, because your audience is not there for the right reasons. You can almost feel it when an audience isn’t genuinely there for music’s sake – when it becomes about all these other things. It takes the joy out of it actually. That’s my favourite place I guess.”


Profoundly moving performance

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