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Pouring Her Art Out

Violinist Jocelyn Rowland Khalaf receives profound satisfaction helping students find their musical voices while continuing to feed her soul, defying classical labels.

Michele Chiappetta
Valerie Grant
October 29, 2017

You may not know this, but Tulsa has been counted among the top 12 best music scenes across the country. Since Oklahoma first got its statehood, many historical country, jazz and roots artists have gotten their start here.

Among that storied group of homegrown instrumentalists is Jocelyn Rowland Khalaf, a violinist with chops. She’s played a set with Los Lobos at Guthrie Green, toured with Billy Joe Shaver, and garnered awards with We the Ghost. And she shares her musical knowledge with students all over Tulsa.

Khalaf became interested in pursuing music through her parents. Her father, William Rowland, is an early American music historian who tunes pianos, plays tuba, and plays a theater organ for some silent movies. He also is a published composer who has sold thousands of copies of his choral anthems and brass ensemble arrangements. “He has even won the Scott Joplin international composition competition twice,” says Khalaf.

That musical influence can be seen in Khalaf ’s own career, which started young. “I’m the youngest of three girls, and the only one who showed any musical tendencies,” she says. “When I was 3 years old, I started violin lessons in Joplin, Missouri at MSSC (now MSSU), where both of my parents were attending as nontraditional students. They could tell I had music in me.”

At the time, Khalaf ’s parents couldn’t afford to buy her lessons, so her aunt, Carol, paid for lessons and a violin. “I have played ever since,” says Khalaf, with groups such as the Tulsa Youth Symphony, Tulsa Honors Orchestra, All-State Orchestra and TU Orchestra.

After years of lessons with many influential teachers who inspired her, Khalaf began studying at the age of 16 with Derry Deane at the University of Tulsa. “It was then I decided I wanted to go to TU,” she explains. “I loved my teacher and the program.”

Khalaf started teaching private lessons while in her teens. Today, she teaches both privately and in the Tulsa public school system, enjoying seeing her students excel in music and in life.

“Several of my private students have been offered music scholarships to play in the orchestra at various university orchestras,” Khalaf says. “My current students are members of Tulsa Youth Symphony, Tulsa Honors Orchestra, and some are auditioning for All- State this year.”

Between private lessons and teaching middle school choir and orchestra at Edison Middle School, Khalaf stays busy. But she isn’t too busy to find new ways to give back to the community. One of her favorite activities is the Harmony Project at Kendall Whittier Elementary School. “Harmony Project is a donor-funded program for at-risk students that follows kids from enrollment [many as young as pre-K] through graduation, providing them with a meal, tutoring, and music lessons,” explains Khalaf.

The program’s goal is to build responsible, productive, caring citizens, while using music as a means of positive development and social inclusion. It’s an outreach happening all across the country, and Khalaf is happy to be part of it here in Tulsa. “In other cities, this program has proven to help change and transform lives,” she says.

Beyond her teaching gigs, Khalaf also plays in local bands, something she has done since college. “Long story short, I decided to be a classical runaway, a rebel — I joined a heavy metal band called ROOK as vocalist/ violinist,” she says. “We had quite a bit of local success for several years.”

After ROOK disbanded, Khalaf played with other local bands like The Pearls and Driveby Sonata. But her most notable success to date has been with We the Ghost, a local band that garnered great success in its five years. Khalaf describes that time of her life as fate.

The X Ohs includes Meggie McDonald, Beau Tyler and Khalaf. (Photo: Kevin Camp)
The X Ohs: Meggie McDonald, Beau Tyler and Khalaf. (Photo: Kevin Camp)

“In 2012, I met Beau Tyler, and we instantly knew were musical soul mates,” she says. “My guitarist from ROOK, Matt McHan, was already in this band, so I was convinced to join based on that alone. I joined We the Ghost, and it was almost instant success.”

That success includes six recorded albums; multiple local, national and international awards; touring; sponsorship by Dr Pepper; charting on Billboard in 2015; and playing with Imagine Dragons in front of 8,000 people. “We won L.A. music awards in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, we won a Hollywood Producers Choice Honor,” says Khalaf.

“It has been the most exciting time of my life. As a band, we endured death, divorces, marriages, births of children, and many other milestones that we made it through because we are best friends. Music is our therapy. Even if we are not in a band together anymore, we all still love each other dearly,” she says.

With the breakup of We the Ghost in 2017, Khalaf is looking ahead to other opportunities, including a new band she formed — The X Ohs. “Beau Tyler from We the Ghost, Meggie McDonald and I decided to start a new project,” Khalaf says. “We all sing. I play strings. Meggie and Beau both play guitar. Beau records and programs everything in his home studio — he is basically a wizard.” The band is in its early stages, with live performances to be announced soon.

Playing in a band is very different from playing in an orchestra, says Khalaf. “The energy is indescribable,” she says. “Fans show up to shows and you get to know them, and they become your friends. The classical world is a wonderful place, but I am so glad I have explored other genres. I think this is the main thing besides my experience that helps me appeal and relate to my students. I still play classical music. But there are so many valuable and relevant genres of music in addition to classical.”

Khalaf also plays violin at Hey Mambo in downtown Tulsa. “I play all genres — classical, Celtic, movie-TV-commercial themes, patriotic, sacred, pop, rock and jazz, you name it. If it has a melody, I can play it.”

Khalaf always makes time for new endeavors, especially for her students, and she invites Tulsans to get involved.

“At Edison, I am starting the Edison Rock Orchestra,” she says. “We are in need of guitar and bass amps, and working drum sets if anyone would like to make donations. I’ve got over 30 kids enrolled — vocalists, string players, percussionists, guitarists, and bass players. We will have at least a couple of songs prepared by the time our December holiday concert rolls around.”