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Sean Paul Mills Ushers in New Age at JSO

Sean Paul Mills facing the orchestra conducting during a rehearsal.
Sean Paul Mills conducts the first rehearsal of the JSO's next program. Credit: Alex Mielcarz

Sean Paul Mills is a charismatic traveler with a love for music and martial arts. It’d be much easier to list the places he has not lived in his life. Somehow, the academic life coach has found his way to Joliet, where he has been entrusted with the future of the Joliet Symphonic Orchestra (JSO).

Mills is mild-mannered while on the stand, yet he commands the attention of his musicians. Without being overbearing, he takes suggestions from those in the ensemble throughout the rehearsal; he’s the ultimate people person.

After living in Arizona, Oregon, Indiana and Illinois and working seven other conductor and musical director positions, Mills and his wife have settled here in the Chicago suburbs.

“[My wife] has moved from being faculty all the way to being a president of a university,” Mills said. “I’ve accepted the fact that that’s her trajectory, and mine is to go around and find where there are openings. Go, breathe, rest and see where you are needed.”

After moving to the area in early June, Mills applied for the orchestral position here at USF, and in his own words, hit the ground running.

“[I picked] up an ensemble that, like so many right now, is trying to figure out how to recover from the pandemic,” Mills said.

Mills was part of a full overhaul of the musical portion of the fine arts department. Mills relishes his opportunity to re-envision the department.

“There are pros and cons to everything,” Mills said. “We don’t know what has been tried and failed so we have an opportunity to experiment and explore.”

Mills also knows that three fresh faces comes with some downside.

“On the flip side, it would be nice to have at least one colleague that had been here before to kind of show us the ropes,” he said.

But there’s some beauty about coming into a situation like this blindfolded. It provides Mills and his colleagues the opportunity to mold the music department into just about anything he or anyone wants it to be. It’s kind of poetic, is it not?

The JSO is what is known as a “town-and-gown ensemble,” meaning it is made up of both community members and students (in JSO’s case, it’s more town than gown). Because of the larger community presence, Mills has opportunities that other directors in similar positions do not have.

“We’ve had some larger donations that have gone into an endowment for the orchestra because [of the community],” Mills said. “We operate off that budget along with the university budget.”

The members are all talented musicians, who are excited about the programs Mills is putting together for this year.

“It’s small but mighty,” Mills said.

The JSO performed its first program of the year back in early October. The program, entitled Renewal, featured works from Verdi, Dvorak, Mussgorsky and Mendelsshon. The title was no accident, and all part of the revitalization of the orchestra.

The title of the next program? Revitalize. It will feature selected works of Mozart, Elgar and Bruch.

“I’ve tried to find words that try to be all about a resurgence or regrowth or redevelopment,” Mills said.

On the first night of rehearsal, the ensemble made it through a sight read of their first piece without any stoppages, and at a tempo that was pretty darn close to where Mills wants it by their performance in December.

“Getting through that first one that is unfamiliar to the players is a good place to be on the first night,” Mills said during a break in rehearsal. “We’ve set the bar. We know we can get through it. Now we can go back and create the nuance.”

Mills knows two words are extremely important in the development of an ensemble: faith and trust.

“They have to learn to trust you and you have to earn that trust,” Mills said.

Mills builds that trust through a high energy presence on the podium.

“It’s human nature to be concerned with what’s going on in our lives,” Mills said. “They’re are all kinds of things that are on our minds. Establishing an energy level that makes [the ensemble] want to work is key.”

Despite his early success, Mills remains extremely humble.

“Conductors know a whole lot about a lot of things, but not a whole lot about anything special,” Mills joked about his wide-ranging resume.

What kind of knowledge is Mills referring to? Maybe his certification as a Karate-do instructor, among his vast encyclopedia-like musical knowledge.

Mills is turning his attention to the next program, and the bigger picture of the JSO.

“We’re really trying to move the appeal of the orchestra and the public awareness of it,” Mills said.

Maybe a karate-do presentation mid-performance from Mills is the way to go.

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