Roderick Cox, at the astounding young age of 28, has accomplished what most of us try and do in a lifetime.
In his current role as assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, under Osmo Vanska, he continues to grow his craft both as a musician and as an artist - and the latter is where his passion truly lies.
You can read his biography, as star-studded as it may be - his summa cum laude music degree from the Schwob School of Music, his masters at the prestigious Northwestern University, interviews with National Public Radio, numerous fellowships and awards that would take lines and lines and lines of text to summarize...
But who is Roderick Cox really?
As a young man who thinks about the trade-offs - the interplay - between vulnerability and power, I wanted to know more about him as a person. I wanted to know his story.
What compelled an ordinary Georgia boy to become a rising star of the conducting world?
Q: IN YOUR LIFE, WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY STRUGGLING WITH THE MOST?
Cox: Going through undergraduate and graduate school, I was only focused on the goal of being a conductor. I found I let a lot of things go. I neglected a lot of things in my personal life - like going out, and making relationships with people, and engaging with people. I’m an introvert, so that’s hard to do anyway.
So, since I've been in this position - which is a great position - I’m feeling like it’s ok to just breath a little bit. No, not get too comfortable, but breathe a little bit. Get to know people. Try to find this balance between your personal life and your professional life. Learn how they connect and how they disconnect. And also, how to invest in relationships in both, but mainly outside of what you do. Everything that I used to do was so tied to music; everything was just tied to music. And now I’m exploring more - what do I like, what do I want from a friend, what I want from someone I might want to date... I’m getting better at it.
I know that sounds like a minimal struggle.
You know, I was doing my Detroit Symphony debut a couple weeks ago. Beforehand, I was speaking to one of my college professors, Mallory Thompson, who's a premier conducting teacher at Northwestern. And I told her, "I’m doing my debut with the Detroit Symphony!" And of course - as if you were telling your mom - you really want them to be excited for you.
And she was! She was very excited.
Now, I expected a different response from her – but she said, "I’m happy to hear this, this is great news, I’m very proud of you...
...are you taking care of your soul?"
I said, well, what the @#$% does that mean? Right?! I’m conducting the Detroit Symphony, why are you asking me something weird like that.
After a day of processing, I understood what she meant. Taking care of your soul... Part of this profession is the fact that you’ve been doing it since you were nine years old... or even younger. Practicing and all the rest of it. That's why so many prodigies don’t last, they don’t have the opportunity to be a kid. They don't have many of the life experiences that quote-on-quote 'normal people' have, so their soul gets a little destroyed in the process.
And you need soul to be a part of the music.
So I understood what she was saying: taking care of your soul.
Going out and experiencing other parts of your life.
Falling in love.
Getting broken up with.
Getting your heart broken and stomped on.
And experiencing disappointment - not that you didn’t win an audition but perhaps that love interest didn’t work out well for you. Making yourself vulnerable. So I think that I need to... or maybe I’m trying to... give more attention to my soul.
Q: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO A YOUNG MAN OR WOMAN WHO WANTED TO BE YOU?
Cox: Well, all of a sudden, I’m thinking of the headache!
I’m thinking, "Why, why would you want to do this?! Why would you want to put yourself through this?!"
I would immediately say DON'T. Don’t do it.
Now, obviously that sounds negative. But there’s so much beauty in what I do. It’s like this awful, awful marathon you must run or this river you must cross. But once you get across, there’s this beautiful oasis waiting for you.
Now don't let me be misleading – because it's not a destination. I feel like I’m in a better place. But there are lots of things that I grapple with and I’m still very hungry for... to achieve. I think being a musician is quite a gift, one of the most wonderful things you can be blessed to do. Because it’s not something you can decide your senior year of high school - "Hey, I want to be a professional musician! Wouldn’t that be great?!"
No… you’re about ten years too late. You've had to devote your life to this early on.
For someone who wants to do what I do, I would say work your ass off. You've got to have that:
fire in your belly
and you have be hungry
and you have to claw
and you have to fight.
It's not always pretty, but you have to claw and fight and go after it as much as you can. And you will make mistakes and you will get hurt and you will get countless and countless rejection letters. I get a little less than I used to.
But they will come, and they will do some damage to your ego. I mean it’s probably like that supermodel stuff: you’re not good enough, you’re too fat, blah blah blah.
You will think to yourself: this doesn’t make sense. I did this, I did this, I did this. Why isn’t this paying off? So you have to have that belief in yourself. And you have to surround yourself with good people.
Q: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE SINGLE GREATEST THING FOR PEOPLE TO IMPROVE THEIR LIVES?
Music. And not just my type of music - well, we’ll get to my type of music.But just go dance and be vulnerable! Now, a lot of people like music. But I think that there are more powerful forms of music and more powerful genres of music that people should expose themselves to. The thing about popular music is that it’s popular music – it’s meant for a large variety of people - it’s not... it doesn’t have that much depth to it. I think there’s something special about going on a journey through a symphony and... I tell you - during some of my biggest disappointments, if I didn’t have the second movement from Bruckner’s 7th, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, I don’t know what would have happened.
***we both laugh***
I remember that this person disappointed me – as far as a love interest – and I was on a treadmill listening to that and that helped me. I think we need that. And I think people need that in our education systems. They strip it out, but it’s important for people to have a way of expressing themselves, and if they don’t, they act out in violence and other negative forms of expression.
I can’t believe I said music is the thing I would suggest to people...
***we laugh loudly***
But I do think it's helpful.
Q: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO FELT ALONE?
Cox: Well, is feeling alone a bad thing? I’m an introvert. I mean, I’m alone all the time: I’m practicing. If being alone gives you comfort, that’s not a bad thing. You have to figure out if being alone is something that makes you happy or sad.
Now, when I’m an introvert, I have to be very cognizant about my energy. I’m a person who could be in a party full of people and feel alone. Because I don’t feel like I have connections with the people there - sincere connections - beyond the: "Hey, good to see you again! How are you! Blah blah blah..." The small talk things. The superficial things.
Q: WHAT WAS THE DARKEST POINT IN YOUR LIFE AND HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH IT?
Cox: ***long, drawn-out silence***
I think it was during that first year after graduate school. When you expect to experience the fruit of your labor and get a job. I did not have a job in the first year after graduate school. All I could think was: "Ok, what’s next?" And there were just rejections after rejections after rejections.
I remember one rejection I got, I was sobbing under the kitchen table, in a ball, just sobbing under the table.
I think that was a low moment.
But I think the turning point came when the Juilliard School asked me why I wanted to be a conductor. When I wrote that essay to them, I realized: no matter what happens from here on out, I know my purpose in life. And my purpose is to do this, because I can’t think of anything else. And I searched for something else. I wanted to. I was thinking of going to teach at a school in Memphis. I was looking for a lot of different purposes to use my talents.
When I wrote that essay answering why I wanted to be a conductor, I remembered why I set out on this journey in the first place – and it was to make great music with great artists.
And I think the turning point was when I decided that there’s no turning back from here. Whatever disappointment you have, you must go forward.
Q: IF YOU COULD CHANGE ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Cox: Now this sounds sort of cliche and overly sentimental, which I don’t like to be. But when I was leaving graduate school, during my last lesson with my teacher, I asked: is there something else that I haven't learned yet? Is there something that I didn’t do that I need to invest more time into? Is there something I missed that I need to give more attention to? I said this to the infamous Mallory Thompson.
And she said, well I want you to fall in love. Fall deeply in love and have your heart broken.
And this was another one of those moments that I was like, um, ok, this is very odd. I thought you would tell me to read this book on analysis or theory or work on this part of my technique, but you’re a professor telling me something very personal of that sort.
I feel like now... I‘d like to invest time - oh, I feel all soggy saying this – into another person. I feel like that will help me grow as a person. Now sometimes when something does hurt me a little bit I’ll say – well, it'll be good for the music . At least I know it’ll be good for the music.
You know - you can’t really say that that will be good for the surgery. Will it?
You know - no break-up helps the surgery. But I can say that some of these life experiences will be good for the music. And you know? It happens.
Sometimes when you’re on stage, and you’re conducting a very passionate section, with a beautiful melody - of love or something very dark - you think about that person that stood you up that one time to help you.
So I think I’m in a place where I want to devote more time to this aspect of my life - to fostering an intimate relationship with another individual.
Q: IF YOU DIED TODAY, WOULD YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS, AND WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
Cox: I think that missing out on falling in love would be a regret. I think as a human being – this is one of the most powerful… I mean after music, love is the most powerful…
I’m just kidding.
Love is the most powerful emotion or expression we have been granted. There’s nothing more powerful than… well, music’s next. I’m just kidding. So it would be very unfortunate, if I’ve sort of done all of this, whatever this is, and haven’t had the opportunity to share it with someone.
Because… one might say, wow, isn’t it amazing what that person does, getting onstage and leading an orchestra? But you know? The music doesn’t last forever. There is a cadence at the end. And then, there’s an applause. The musicians leave the stage. The lights come down and the curtains close. And then what? What’s next?
* interview condensed and edited for clarity
** Photograph Credit: Courtney Perry, an extraordinary photographer from Minneapolis - check out her other work here.
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Internal medicine resident at NYU in New York City with an interest in heme / oncology (cancer care).