When I was approach by Robert Uchida to lead an Improvisation workshop at Acadia in July, I was terrified and at the same time, knew it was the right thing to do.
For a long time I’ve been avoiding trying to figure out how to integrate improvisation into a traditional classical music pedagogy. It seems like a no-brainer for me, but instead of taking the time to think about how to accomplish this I simply avoided teaching wholesale! Simple.
Acadia Summer Strings Festival, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, directed by Robert, is a camp that typified what I thought of as a highly traditional summer course: classic repertoire, string quartets, technical exercises. But then I was asked to be on the faculty. And to be honest I found the first year completely stimulating. It was amazing to revisit some of those traditional values, and actually celebrating it. I guess I added something different to the faculty, and I certainly was happy to work and play with the kids, play chamber music with the faculty and just teach 24/7!
So I was forced out of my complacency when Robert suggested I lead a workshop this year. “Embrace being thrust into areas of discomfort”, I always give this advice, but hardly ever get a chance to test it anymore…..Out I went. But first I thought a lot about what might work with judgmental youth! Where did I start? How do you initiate this kind of work, without frightening them off?
The day arrived, (the second night of the camp - making it harder….) the circle of chairs was set up, the kids and Robert arrived with instruments. Robert opened things up, with a personal story about music outside the comfort zone, then I launched into my piece. I talked a bit about how I began in this music, and how I think it affects my classical playing: how it helps my listening, sharpening things so I can react immediately, and how it lets me play with musicians from other disciplines. Then we started to play: starting with quartets of kids “paraphrasing” a piece of written music: “don’t play the notes, play something like the notes” – mild discomfort, with a few played out. Then to different quartets plucking only a few pre-chosen notes. This got a better reaction. We talked about what sounded good and what didn’t; next new sounds “what sound have you never made on your instrument?” Some thought this was fun, Maeve, our youngest camper, immediately slapped her strings with one of her pink Converse Chuck Taylors! Much to our shock. I pointed out that the same sound can be achieved by slapping the strings with the palm of the hands, with less chance of instrumental destruction. Some laughed, some scratched their strings, others tried to play unusual parts of their instruments. (We’re getting places…) Next we droned on D. People were asked to play out of the drone, making melodies, but always returning to D. This worked because those that weren’t getting it could be safe in the D, and those that wanted to explore could. They found a beautiful ending which turned some heads! Finally we played Pauline Oliveros’ “Tuning Meditation”, a bit of a standard, for work like this. This became quite beautiful, as each person alternated between improvising and tuning with one other sound. The ending was gorgeous and people smiled. Robert was impressed, as were some of my colleagues on the faculty. I felt great, mostly because I heard some voices emerge, there were some kids that got this music. I guess I could have told you who the possibilities would have been ahead of time, but it was so gratifying to hear them discover a sort of music for the first time. It was profound actually!
As we walked up the hill after the class, I was asked to present some music at the final “Highlights” concert. I suppressed my excitement and told Robert I’d ask for volunteers.
We gathered in my room at Denton Hall: Becky the cellist, Hannah the violist, our violinists Sarah, Shelby, Rebecca, and of course Maeve, arrived. At first we talked about structure, and in our first meeting, we made no music at all. But we had a great exchange of ideas, with everyone heard and every possibility considered. We decided to take some of the material from the workshop: sounds, drones and pizzicato. And silence. We fell into this principal of equality without me mentioning it. Things were looking good. In our second meeting, we played sections of our structure. The pizzicato was good there was listening there, people had patience, waiting for the right moment, and they didn’t always follow the rules! Sometimes a little rebellion is good. When we got to the drones section, I lost it. Sarah came in with a melody that was so heartbreakingly beautiful it completely overwhelmed me. Maybe it was the freshness of the experience for them, maybe it was the listening, perhaps the newness of this music made them listen better. I don’t know, but as I wiped my tears out of my eyes, I encouraged them to play different characters in the drone section next time! We could too easily be seduced by that beauty!
We crammed another rehearsal in the day of the concert. We played through the form and came out with about 5 minutes. It was great. I aked what the name of the band was and Maeve immediately chimed up with “The Revisers”. Also great! We did a dress rehearsal in University Hall, a large old hall with a beautiful sound. We talked about dynamic range a bit, and lengths of silences a bit, but The Revisers were ready!
The concert itself was a display of terrific music making. All the kids listened, really listened. They made choices that were musical, they showed restraint, patience and guts! It was all I could have dreamt for. Rebecca, playing out, breaking the mold; Hannah quietly adding perfect underpinnings, and duets; Shelby, calling and responding across the group, Becky, making foundation, room for people to play; Sarah making melodies that move us, while injecting extended techniques that created great colours; and of course Maeve, who although still wearing her pink sneakers, managed to keep them on her feet, while throwing in sounds that made the music change directions, colouring the whole piece!
The Revisers, what an ensemble. Robert has thrown his directorial weight behind this exploratory music, and so we will do another improvisation workshop next year! And next year it will be different, of course, but I can see the possibility of a real change in our music here in Nova Scotia. I have been given the opportunity introduce this to serious musicians at an early age. They won’t all get it or even enjoy it, but they’ll hear a little of the magic that improvised music makes. And a few might get a chance to experience that power first hand.
This year we all heard a LOT of that magic, made not by sleight of hand but by listening, cooperation, musicality and heart. Thank you Revisers!
Jul 13, 2011 at 18:36