Jean Mauro, who spent 38 years in the music program at High School South (now retired), has been named the director of the new orchestra at Mercer County Community College. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

Retirement for Jean Mauro lasted about two months.

In 2016, she walked away from her job leading the orchestra at High School South after almost 40 years, widowed and wondering what exactly she was going to be doing with herself. A phone call from Mercer County Community College answered a big part of that question.

The college wanted Mauro to apply her orchestra-building skills to a new ensemble program MCCC wanted to open to the public.

It announced the formation of the ensemble—led by Mauro—last month.

To understand why MCCC made that call, let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1978. The West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District had one junior high and one high school then. The high school had a football team that wasn’t very good, but the band that played at the games was fairly formidable. The band had 70 or so members playing football game music; meanwhile, there was a student orchestra with all of three members.

Mauro was fresh to the district that year. She and her husband, Peter, had just moved back to Lawrence from their (separate) music teaching jobs in Iowa.

“I was lucky when I got there,” Mauro said of WW-P. “They were in a growing phase.”

Her part of that growth was to build the pint-sized orchestra into an actual orchestra, which meant borrowing and retraining some of those band members in new instruments.

Mauro said she essentially made the orchestra an after school club. She combined high school and junior high players and also taught the junior high band. To build the orchestra she set up the club to meet at the same time as the band, and once a week some players from the band would come over and play with the orchestra. She taught horn players from the band how to play string instruments.

Before long, Mauro turned a three-person activity into a 12-person orchestra. Still small, but four times growth in one school year was a pretty good start.

After three years, she had a couple dozen students—“big enough for me to teach a class”—and after five years, the orchestra was ready to compete against other schools and play in places outside of central New Jersey. Mauro led the orchestra to its first tournament in Boston after her fifth year in the district.

The orchestra didn’t win, but again, it was a start.

In 1990, the district separated the seventh and eighth grades into their own middle school, and Mauro started teaching an ensemble in addition to orchestra.

As a brief aside, if you’re wondering what the differences are between an ensemble, a band and an orchestra, they’re technically all ensembles. But in more precise terms, an ensemble is a small group of musicians who play or sing together; a band (in the high school marching sense) refers to an ensemble of wind instruments that also has a percussion section; and an orchestra is an ensemble that has string instruments played with a bow—cello, for example.

In 1997, when WW-P High School split into North and South (South being the original campus), Mauro had nearly 80 string players alone. And by the time she retired in June of 2016, she left behind a program of almost 300 students—two symphony orchestras and one string ensemble.

How did she manage to grow a trio into a collection of musicians larger than a lot of high school graduating classes?

“I’m very good,” she laughed. “I am very organized.”

On the way to building a massive music program, Mauro accompanied the orchestra to numerous venues around the country and around the world—Scotland, Austria, Hawaii, New Orleans, Montreal and Carnegie Hall to name a few. Of all the stops, though, her favorite was the orchestra’s 2007 trip to Russia.

“That was really cool,” she said. “Really eye-opening.”

For that trip, the school choir came along. And their tour guide brought in the Russian Ballet. For the performance, the ballet was flanked on one side by the musicians and on the other by the choir. This was in a castle, by the way.

But while the setting was epic, the applause got Mauro the most.

“They have a clapping pattern,” she said of Russian audiences. Applause begins in the same random way it does anywhere else, but then “they start clapping in unison. It’s like a standing ovation. It was so awesome.”

Jean Mauro

The comments from the audience didn’t hurt. Person after person, Mauro said, approached her to say “You have found the essence of Russian music.”

But life, with the orchestra and at home, was about to change for Mauro. Not long after the Russia trip, the way teachers were measured and the way classes were run shifted.

State requirements demanded teachers follow certain procedures (like occasionally stopping to talk with the students about what they just learned) and do a lot more paperwork. This, Mauro said, started eating at her already-stretched time and didn’t fit within the workings of a school music program. There, she said, you learned by doing and rehearsing. Not by discussing aspects of a standardized test.

By 2014 Mauro’s husband’s health deteriorated. He was, she said, a boisterous, energetic man, so able to excite people with what he was doing that people wanted to follow him to wherever. That’s how she landed in Iowa with him in the first place. The two met at Lawrence High, in the band, around 1970. Though she was a cellist, Mauro learned to play other instruments for the band. Peter was a year older.

He went to Iowa because at the time, she said, there wasn’t much capital in being a nerd, especially a musical one, and the opportunity to teach music presented itself in the Midwest. A year later, she went to Iowa to be with him.

A few years after that, Peter’s father got sick and the couple came back to Lawrence to tend to him. Thirty-five years later, Mauro found herself caring for her dying husband in much the same way.

He was an energetic man, but not the type to take care of himself well, she said. He was diabetic and needed her at least four hours a day to help with his treatment. This was on top of running all those musical groups at WW-P.

Shortly after Peter’s death in 2014, Mauro took the orchestra to Italy to play. But the wear of the time she spent working had come to weigh heavily on her. She realized she was not seeing enough of her three children, much less her four grandchildren. So at the end of the 2015-16 school year, Mauro turned over the keys to WW-P’s orchestra to current director Robert Peterson and wondered what was next.

That August, Jim Gardner, a public relations guy at MCCC contacted her about starting an ensemble at the college. Gardner’s office often promotes upcoming student performances, based on information from the music department. He saw a new ensemble and thought it was worthy of being its own thing.

“There are a lot of students who are not necessarily music majors on campus who performed in an orchestra in high school,” Gardner said. “I thought it was important that they know there is an opportunity to continue to perform at Mercer.”

The opportunity Gardner is talking about is that MCCC’s new ensemble is open to everyone, including current high school students (including WW-P) and members of the general public. All anyone interested really needs to be able to do is play an instrument from concert band or orchestra instrumentation, like winds or strings.

Mauro built the program with the school over the 2016-17 academic year. Last March she got the word that class was a go. Her first semester was this past September, and it went… okay. The ensemble turned out to be 10 people—one each on violin, viola, cello, bass, French horn and flute, plus two each on trumpet and trombone. The horn players doubled as percussionists.

Mauro said 10 or 12 people is about as barebones as things should get, but having such caviar orchestral ambitions on a tuna fish budget did give her a chance to find some creative new rewrites for the instrumentation.

Parts of pieces from the likes of “Carmen,” for example, were reassigned from large string or wind sections to the instruments at hand. By semester’s end, she said, the small ensemble sounded genuinely good. She just wishes it were larger.

This current semester, Mauro isn’t leading the ensemble at all. There weren’t enough people enrolled.

She said the main reason is that no one really knows the ensemble exists, which she hopes will change by the time next fall rolls around.

She has, at least, heard of a few more people who want to be part of it, but for this semester, at least, the ensemble will be taking five.

In the meantime, Mauro said, she’s busying herself by reconnecting with her Scottish roots—she said that she “became Italian” the moment she met Peter—and with an old friend from Scotland. That and she’ll be doing a lot of reading, and a lot of keeping the faith that things will be all right and that the MCCC ensemble will grow into something special.

“You’ve got to have faith,” she said. “If you have faith that it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

For more information on the ensemble program at MCCC, call (609) 570-3735.