Ruth Ochs Named Honorary Member of the Class of 2023

The Department of Music is proud to congratulate Ruth Ochs, conductor of the Princeton University Sinfonia, who has been inducted as an honorary member of the Class of 2023

The announcement was made on Friday, May 5, in Richardson Auditorium during the Sinfonia Spring Concert. As the audience applauded following the final piece on the program, Eric Sklanka, secretary of the Class of 2023, and Emily Trieu, treasurer, took to the stage to present Ochs with a class jacket and certificate, followed by department chair Dan Trueman, who shared brief remarks. The announcement was made to raucous applause and smiles all around.

Each year, the graduating class nominates and selects faculty, staff, alumni, or others who have made a profound impact on the student body. Ochs is one of less than ten honorary members who have been selected to be inducted into the Class of 2023. 

Since her first semester of PhD studies in Fall 2002 Ochs has served as the conductor of Sinfonia, a cherished musical outlet for undergraduate and graduate student musicians that emphasizes musicianship and community. Designed to require a more modest time commitment than other department ensembles, the orchestra has long been a draw for students from across the university’s myriad disciplines and counts among its alumni musicians, educators, mathematicians, and doctors, among others.  

Sklanka, who has taken Ochs’ MUS 226 concerto course, was thrilled to surprise his former professor with the news. “For many students who wrote for her during the nomination process, Ruth has been considered a ‘second mom.’” 

Annette Lee, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science majoring in Computer Science with a certificate in Robotics and Intelligent Systems who will be working as a software engineer for Amazon Robotics in Boston following graduation, has played flute and piccolo in Sinfonia throughout her four years at Princeton. Lee was one of Ochs’ nominators and shared that: “Ruth has been a grounding presence for so many students at Princeton. I remember a particular rehearsal when I was feeling down. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, and I didn’t think it was obvious, but Ruth immediately noticed that something had been wrong and asked me if I was doing okay. It was so wonderful to me that she just knew.”

“For many students who wrote for her during the nomination process, Ruth has been considered a ‘second mom.’” — Sklanka (23)

Katya Williams, a Molecular Biology major who will be pursuing graduate studies in genetics and genomics at Cornell University next year, has played oboe and English horn in Sinfonia also since her freshman year. When COVID struck, the physical and social isolation was combated primarily by thoughtful opportunities for connection forged by Ochs: “When the orchestra scattered all over the globe after campus shut down, Ruth held Zoom meetings during our usual rehearsal time, finding music for us to play on mute, organizing virtual music games and holiday parties, and checking in on every single person who came. From ‘guess the BPM I set my metronome to’ to dressing up for Halloween to singing Christmas carols in my room while one member played piano accompaniments, she never ran out of ideas. And in the spring, she got even more involved. Every weekend, Ruth organized ‘Sinfonia walks’ where orchestra members who returned to campus met her for a socially distanced stroll around town, or once even a legendary sledding adventure at the grad college when it snowed. […] I think it’s safe to say Sinfonia might have been the only group on campus to come out of the pandemic tighter-knit than it had been before.” 

“On many, many occasions, Ruth was the reason I laughed, the reason I smiled, the reason I left my dorm and went outside, sometimes even the reason I talked to anyone at all that day.” — Williams (23)

Throughout her tenure, Ochs has been a staunch champion of student musicians on campus; speaking earlier in the year for a Sinfonia feature, she described the orchestra as a kind of musical “lab” where she gets to “catch the dreams of the students.” Indeed, for Donovan Pearce, a senior trumpeter majoring in Computer Science with a certificate in Music Composition, the opportunity to compose for orchestra wasn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; under Ochs’ leadership, he did it twice! “As soon as I told Ruth that I was applying for the certificate in Music Composition, she told me that I should write something for Sinfonia. That was during my junior year, and then she gave me the opportunity to write another piece during my senior year. Both were performed by the orchestra, which was really cool because it wasn’t something I thought I could do before Ruth gave me this chance.”

“Ruth helped me learn how to coordinate a large group of instruments, enabling the timbres to combine to create the most expressivity.” — Pearce (23)

For many of the students, Sinfonia inspires a lifelong commitment to music. Molly Cutler, a clarinetist in Sinfonia and a senior majoring in Linguistics with a certificate in Cognitive Science, will be pursuing her Ph.D. in linguistics next fall at New York University. Inspired by Ochs, she’ll also be partaking in further opportunities for music-making: “Ruth has shown us all how to experience music as both a source of fun and respite and as a serious and rewarding pursuit requiring dedication and attention to detail. And she did so while always remaining down-to-earth and immensely supportive of all of her students.” 

“My time in Sinfonia has reaffirmed to me that I always want to keep music in my life.” — Cutler

Department chair Dan Trueman, who spoke at Friday’s concert, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing Ruth’s transformative influence on the undergraduate student experience: “Ruth, in her twenty years here, has transformed a small, ragtag ensemble into a magnificent full orchestra. I’ve always admired her adventurous programming, where she regularly highlights the work of under-represented and student composers; this was beautifully exemplified at the Spring Concert, with the Amy Beach symphony (itself the subject of Ruth’s own undergraduate senior thesis!) and the premiere of Toussaint Santicola Jones’ (25) magnificent new orchestral work — what I would have given to be able to compose a piece for Sinfonia and have it conducted by Ruth when I was a sophomore!”

“Ruth, in her twenty years here, has transformed a small, ragtag ensemble into a magnificent full orchestra.” — Trueman

Ochs, speaking in the days following the announcement, beamed as she reflected on Friday evening’s surprise: “When I saw that Eric and Emily were both wearing their jackets and I realized what was happening it was touching beyond description — especially so because of the unique relationship that I have with this class, who were freshmen during our shared experience throughout COVID. This acknowledgment taps into a very core part of my work at Princeton: meaningfully connecting with the students on an informal level and getting them fired up about music.”

“It feels truly special to be part of the class of 2023.” — Ochs

Congratulations, Ruth!

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