Certainly it's a testament to the power of music, that a half-dozen people of entirely different ages and origins somehow became besties in less than a week.
And yet that is what happened in my small ensemble at Creative Strings Workshop last week at Ohio Wesleyan University near Columbus. Five of us were put together to test new waters and try improvising -- a number of us for the first time. This endeavor involved such a creative process and such a unique kind of trust -- we wound up sharing ideas, encouraging each other, trying new things and finding music within ourselves that had never been given voice. By the end of the week we were laughing together and crying together as well.
In the weeks leading up to camp, I was a little nervous about this whole thing. Taking classes is one thing, but I realized that I'd also be expected to play - and to perform! Improvise in front of people? When I've never done it before?
We received our assigned ensembles about a week before camp, I was in Ensemble 12, under the guidance of two experts: jazz guitarist Paul Brown and jazz violinist and singer Nicole Yarling.
At the first rehearsal, it was clear I was placed with some excellent players, several who were already experienced in improvising. The youngest was Rose from New York, who at age 20 is the same age as my daughter! She was at the Creative Strings for a second time this year. She told us that the first year, she had been so thirsty to do something different with her violin-playing that she had really taken it in and made the effort to work it into her playing. Her playing was excellent, and clearly she already knew how to follow the chords, make up good licks and improvise convincingly. Ken, who lives in Taiwan and has a master's degree in music, came a considerable way to be at this camp. An excellent player, he began the week playing rather softly, but as we all noticed, he improvised beautifully. He said there is little jazz in Taiwan, but he is drawn to it. Sharon, who lives in New York but is originally from Taiwan, is a cellist who'd come at the suggestion of a friend that she gigs with. She also had a master's degree in music and was quick to hone in on the chords. She was new to improvising, as was Julian, a professor at Baldwin-Wallace College who has a background in classical and chamber music. And then there was me, a longtime orchestra section player and teacher, who has not done much improvising.
As someone with a classical background, I'm accustomed to walking into a rehearsal, getting the music, and reading it. If a passage is too difficult, I practice it. If the parts aren't fitting together, we play them until they connect and sound good.
This is not how our rehearsal worked with our coaches, Paul and Nicole. I've already written about Paul -- to each rehearsal he brought us a variety of jazz charts, a lot of them from the Real Book, and some of his own transcriptions. The first thing he would do was to lay down a (virtuoso) bassline on a loop and then usually improvise once himself "through the form," meaning over the main part of the song, or the "head." With the loop as our bassline, we'd read through the written tune, as is, then each take a turn at improvising. While others improvised, we'd pluck, softly play or chop (those who could do it) the chords. Sometimes to juice things up, he'd give us a little pattern or lick. Or he'd just say something general like, "harmonics here, just atmospheric sounds in G" or other descriptive things like that.
Our process with Nicole was similar, but not the same. She is an intuitive musician and person, and extremely spontaneous. She'd bring handwritten music, "It's an idea I had last night, what do you guys think?" Sometimes it was a transcription of a known tune that she could sing, like Neil Young "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," and other times just a jazz figure and chords that we could play and then improvise to. Very often, inspiration would strike as we were rehearsing, "I know, let's do this!"
On the third day of camp, which was also the day of our first performing "gig," she spontaneously had the idea of singing "Superstitious" with us. Who doesn't love that song? It's so infectious. When Nicole mentioned the idea, Rose happened to know the first lick, and immediately started playing. Nicole pointed to Sharon, "Quarters on E!" Nicole started singing, and we were off to the races. She taught us three licks by ear, then as she was singing, she directed us to play them: "The fifths!" or just "Five!" or "The busy part!" or "Top!" We had no music whatsoever and and didn't write any of it down.
We were having a great time, and this worked so well!
That is, it worked well until it was time to perform the song that afternoon, and Rose was the only one who remembered the licks and where they were supposed to go! We were playing out on the grass in front of a local library, and we'd already read about 10 songs. This was the only one we were doing completely without music. When Nicole shouted, "The busy part!" my brain served up the first note, but otherwise was alarmingly blank. I could not retrieve that lick we'd learned in the morning! By the end of our performance, thanks to Rose, I'd re-learned it and was playing just fine.
I suspect that Christian Howes, who created this camp, was wise to the idea that 10 minutes of playing in front of an audience is worth about two hours in a practice or rehearsal room - and that's why he schedules these performances. Certainly I learned something valuable that I think a few of the people around me (certainly Nicole and Rose) already knew: when doing this kind of on-the-fly, highly-creative assembling of music, you have to record the music that the group settles on, then go home and "get it til you've got it." (You are probably familiar with the term: "Practice.") *Ahem* In my defense, we had nearly no time. Still, I simply wasn't consciously understanding the idea that, without written music, you have to have a way of retrieving that memorized lick even when, in rehearsal, you've repeated it a zillion times and it seems well in hand.
As the week went on, I think we all started to catch on to Nicole's very spontaneous creative process. Her uncommon receptivity and ability to put fire inside an idea made us want to share with her, more and more. We became less shy about airing musical ideas, with her and with each other, verbally and through playing. One day at lunch I sang her a lullaby that I'd written for my children -- pretty much the only piece of music I've written as an adult. She was so lovely about it, she took it in, wanted a copy, wanted to maybe do something with it.
During rehearsals we had some pretty deep talks in general, about making a life in music, about the hardships of being in a foreign culture, or being a minority, or being a woman. We talked about being away from home, not fitting in, about struggles past and present. And then during our last rehearsal together, we had a bonding experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. I am not even sure why, but it moved me to tears.
We were beginning to say our goodbyes and talk about next steps, how we'd be using what we learned this week, what we wanted to do. That's when I had a thought that I wanted to share with Ken. He had previously spoken about how there was so little jazz in Taiwan, how it made it difficult to pursue this music that he was so drawn to.
"You know, Ken, if people don't yet connect with jazz in Taiwan," I said, "what if you were to use some traditional Taiwanese music, and maybe incorporate that?"
He looked at me like I'd just suggested the strangest thing he'd ever heard. At first I thought, uh-oh, he hates this idea. Maybe he really just doesn't know any traditional music, or is not interested in it. Worse, maybe I was out of turn, to suggest it.
But the others in the group, especially Nicole and Julian, were enthusiastic. Why not? All kinds of musical material has been used for inspiration in jazz. That could sound so cool! I told him about how I'd been to China for the first time in my life last year and was just fascinated, hearing sounds in music that I had not encountered very often before. I mentioned another kind of "crossover" piece that brought together Chinese and Western classical music, the Butterfly Concerto. Rose played a little bit of it to demonstrate.
He hesitated. By now, I was pretty sure he simply just did not know a lot of traditional music and didn't like the idea. I mean that's okay, it was just an idea...
"Well, I do play some traditional Taiwanese music for people in the hospital - but," he looked uncertain. "You want me to play music I play for people in the hospital?"
We looked around at each other. "YES!" we all said. He played it once through, and then this happened, the video below.
In case you can't see the video, as Ken played the song a second time, we started to analyze its form. Rose realized what key it was in, then Nicole started finding the progression. As it turned out, Sharon, also originally from Taiwan, knew this song well, so she plucked a bassline. Suddenly Nicole stopped - she recognized that progression. "Wait, I'm going to sing something for you -- you're going to laugh," she said. As it turned out, the Taiwanese song "Holding Hands" matched perfectly with the American tune, "Stand By Me." Ken played, Nicole sang, and it was beautiful. Then we really wanted to hear the Mandarin words, and so Sharon sang it for us. Again, it was beautiful.
When Ken and Sharon finished, Sharon stopped for a moment and then looked over at me and saw a few tears rolling down my face. "Why are you crying to the hospital song?!" she demanded.
For me it felt like a lot more than a common chord progression. It felt like a gift: something personal, something shared, something deeply felt, something beautiful that effortlessly brought everyone's worlds together. Music.
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