Kitajima was in seventh grade, and the music moved him, nearly to tears.
But he was dismayed by the fact that he did not play a typical jazz instrument, like saxophone, drums, clarinet, trumpet bass or keyboard. No, he played the violin.
"I never thought I could make this instrument speak in a different style," Kitajima said, holding his violin in his hands in front of him.
"But I started experimenting and realized, it can sound the same," he said. "Music can be played on different instruments but played the same way."
On Saturday, Kitajima gave an improvisation class to a group of about a dozen advanced Suzuki students from Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena (STEP). Kitajima teaches violin at the Pasadena Conservatory.
Kitajima started as a Suzuki student himself, but as a music student at the University of Southern California, he chose a unique path for a violinist: he enrolled in the jazz studies program.
"I didn't have a jazz violin teacher," Kitajima said. Instead, he had a trumpet teacher and an alto sax teacher.
"They treated me like one of their students," said Kitajima, who graduated in 2004. "They'd say, 'That inflection isn't correct,' or 'That hard-hat accent isn't hard enough.'"
As a result, Kitajima has cultivated skills like those of an expert translator: he speaks fluent jazz on the violin.
"Improvisation can be used in any form of music," Kitajima said. "You're not just doing anything crazy, you have a form."
Kitajima talked about various music styles that use improvisation: jazz, folk, country, salsa, rock and more. He showed the students (and teachers) how to play a blues scale, then taught a song he wrote just for the occasion, "STEP into the Blues." We learned three parts, including a pizzicato bass that we plunked out while giving everyone in the room a chance to improvise.
This caused some shyness. As a classically trained violinist and Suzuki teaching, I'm not used to "winging it" on the violin. Nor are students who typically hear a piece many times and spend months working on it!
For me, improvising felt really contrived for the first few measures, and I worried about straying off the best-sounding notes. But I could see that one has to cultivate a kind of playfulness, the ability to start with a few notes that sound right and then weave them into something.
After we went around the room and all tried improvising, Kitajima pointed out that "for each solo there's always one nice idea." One person tried doing some tremolo, for example. Another stuck to low notes on the G string. It's like composing a little theme and variations on the spot.
Learning to improvise can only improve one's violin playing, Kitajima said.
"It makes you more curious about your instrument," he said. "The more you experiment on your instrument, the more you know about your instrument."
Even within classical music, there is improvisation. Changing a phrase in the Bruch concerto, for example, "That's improvisation, too," Kitajima said. "It's not always about ornamenting or making up your own notes."
The best way to improve your improv is by listening, he said. Here is Leo Kitajima's listening list for cultivating improvisation style; some specifically use violin, some are simply classics:
Leo's Listening List
On Monday night, legendary violinist Midori gave a beautiful show – she gave it to her students.
The show, billed "An Intimate Evening with Midori Goto," was for about 75 University of Southern California faculty and staff, held at University Club. Since Robert is on staff at USC, he invited me to go with him.
When we arrived, I looked at the program.
"An Intimate Evening of Mozart," it said. I smiled. The change in title was not lost on me. Performing was the USC Graduate Quartet, with violinist Daphne Wang, Professor Midori Goto, Violist Laura Pearson and cellist Anna Cho. They would play Mozart's K 465 "Dissonance" Quartet, the late quartet dedicated to Haydn.
Before the quartet entered the room, Dean Robert Cutietta of the Thornton School of Music at USC introduced Midori as a great soloist who turned out to be a great teacher. It all began when she gave a master class at USC five years ago.
"It was very clear at that moment she was not the typical guest artist, who does a master class just because she has to," said Cutietta. "She was totally tuned into the students. It very clear that what she needed to be was a teacher."
When the school's Jascha Heifetz Chair in Violin opened, "It was almost a no-brainer that it would go to Midori." Midori is now in her third year at USC, and her first as full-time faculty.
"She is so dedicated to the students," Cutietta said. "It's not about her, it's completely about the students. It's unbelievable to see the energy she has brought to this school."
"Here we call her Professor Goto," Cutietta said. Then he whispered, "Now I present, 'Midori'!"
But it was clear to me that this was Professor Goto walking onto the stage, and that she was fully in the act of teaching her students at the moment. I had situated myself right in the front row, in perfect view of the chair set up for the first violinist. But I knew as soon as she walked in; Professor Goto would be playing second violin, allowing her students to take the lead.
Each member of the quartet explained one movement of the piece they were to play. Violinist Wang told us that Mozart referred to his final quartets as being written for himself and for a small group of connoisseurs, as long as they kept the music in their own hands. The group demonstrated how the first movement's Allegro bursts forth, in happy relief, from the dissonant and wistful Adagio.
Midori said of the second movement, "I think it's one of the most beautiful movements Mozart wrote for string quartet." Cellist Anna Cho challenged the audience to imagine dancing to the mercurial third-movement minuet, and Violist Laura Pearson talked about the Finale and "the surprises Mozart plants in our paths."
Midori Goto, Daphne Wang, Anna Cho and Laura Pearson
The students' thoughtful analysis and clear communication was not due to good luck; Midori had required the students to analyze, research, compose scripts and write program notes. Indeed, it set the stage for an informed, and thus more enjoyable, listening experience.
Their playing was equally charged with the kind of spontaneity that comes with knowledge and preparation.
Midori sat in the middle, small of frame and huge in presence. I decided that Midori is made of musical molecules, at least during the moments she is playing. One lovely moment came at a rather quiet spot in the second movement, in the way Midori pronounced an inner dissonant note, one that changes the face of what's going on in the music. It wasn't an accent, but something so much more subtle.
I'm sure it's thrilling, just to "play with Midori," to be on stage with someone so accomplished and famous. But far more thrilling has to be this: to make music on the level that she was drawing out of them. Their playing was absolutely intense. They knew when inner voices spoke in unison, and they did so absolutely together. The octaves between the first violin and viola were beautifully in tune. They played the second movement with enough restraint to allow themes to emerge out of each other, in all voices. Wang nailed the really fast "simple" patterns in the fourth movement, patterns that are actually so much harder to play cleanly than anything in a Wieniawski concerto.
After their performance, Midori stressed that "it's important for music schools to engage students to go out into their communities, to develop more closeness with their audience." This is one reason why Midori established the Midori Center for Community Engagement: to teach musicians how to advocate for music.
An audience member asked Midori to define greatness.
"When something is great," Midori said, "there is an element of surprise, and there is an element of modesty. There is an element of something miraculous; and sometimes, it happens only once."
The foursome will present the same program again at noon, Nov. 28 at USC's Fisher Gallery.
Our interview with Joshua Bell is one of more than two dozen in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which also features talks with Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov, and David Garrett, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Here's our daily coverage of the ninth quadrennial international violin competition, won by South Korea's Jinjoo Cho.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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