Tag: music education

Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

A photo of a wrecked classroom with paint peeling from the ceiling, desks turned over and broken.

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

  • Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.

    Dave Molk
  • Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

    Dave Molk
  • Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. ... Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.

    Dave Molk

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Leveraging the Quarantine to Create an Online Music Camp

Young composer at keyboard wearing headphones

“So is your father an entrepreneur to have worked with you through all of this?” asked Benjamin Taylor, composer and founder of the Music Creators Academy.

“That would be my mother.”

I remember my heart racing two months prior to that call on one of my regular walks around the neighborhood with my mother. Only a day before our walk, my plans to attend the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute had been canceled due to COVID-19, and we were already planning out the logistics for me to host my own summer camp.

“The demand is there,” I said, “I’m evidence enough of that! But this could be the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken…”

The Composers Collaborative Project (CCP) is an online series of lectures designed for the benefit of composers of all ages and skill levels. It has been my project of the last three months, and my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills. The CCP currently features fifteen professional composition professors and freelancers – each teaching a 90-minute masterclass tailored to their individual strengths and passions. It has been one of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and fulfilling things I’ve ever attempted.

April 6th. The first email of many. If I was going to make this thing work, I would need a business entity. So I reached out to Steve Goldman, founding member of the National Young Composers Challenge (NYCC), in hopes of establishing a sponsorship or partnership. I wrote the email, took a deep breath, and pressed send.

Even though no professional partnership emerged from the conversation, Mr. Goldman was incredibly supportive and put me in touch with another NYCC judge, Dr. Alex Burtzos. Luckily for me, Dr. Burtzos had experience organizing festivals. He suggested that the best chance I had at seeing the project succeed was to turn it into a fundraiser. And with that, he introduced me to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund. Though the Solidarity Fund would end earlier than I had expected, my mother and I decided to follow Dr. Burtzos’s advice, and – encouraged by their Solidarity Fund and other programs – evolved the project into a benefit for New Music USA.  And with a warm conversation and a plan secured with their Development Manager Miles Freeman, my next step would be to find our teachers.

From the beginning, I was concerned that it would be difficult to find anyone interested in giving their time for the project. What I discovered instead was the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming. I started with teachers that I knew, and reached out to others they recommended from there. In a short time, we had enough support to schedule two weeks of masterclasses!

“It’s common for young composers to think of established composers as superstars. In reality, most composers are relatively unknown outside of the new music community… They will generally be excited to hear about your interest in their work, and much more open to donating their time than you might think.” – Alex Burtzos, on our call

As a high school student, it’s intimidating reaching out to any college professor. Imagine now if that professor was a Grammy award winner, or was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, or is known around the composition world, or has judged the competitions you’ve entered, and so on! The humanity of the people I have worked with has been one of the most surprising parts of this process.

An example involving my initial conversations with Dr. Marcos Balter comes immediately to mind. I always do my best to research a person’s title before reaching out to them. In his case, I made the mistake of using ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.’. When, in the next email, I realized my mistake and apologized, he responded that it was no problem at all and that I could call him Marcos! I was blown away.

With the panel of teachers squared away, I needed to build a website. In many ways, this was a family affair. I worked on the layout and graphic design, my sister took care of the photography, and my mother wrote out the copy. Stuck in the house, my sister and I worked with what we had to create professional-looking backdrops: we rearranged my room and created props out of old manuscripts and an easel from years ago. The end result, I must say, I am very proud of.

  • The Composers Collaborative Project is my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I discovered the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute.

    Brendan Weinbaum

Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp. This brings us back to Benjamin Taylor’s quote from the beginning. Days before launch, I traded details with Joseph Sowa, a professor of the Music Creators Academy. He described his program as “a band camp with a heavy dose of creativity” for middle- and high-school students. I was antsy for sure; nervous at the prospect of competition. Nevertheless, both Dr. Sowa and the project’s founder, Benjamin Taylor, were incredibly kind, and given our conclusion that the two programs were meant for different audiences, we agreed to support one another in what ways we could.

This brings me another one of my favorite stories from this whole experience. Somehow neither I nor Dr. Sowa had told Dr. Taylor that I was a high school student. When we had our call and I referred to him as “Dr. Taylor”, he laughed and responded, “Should I call you Dr. Weinbaum?” He thought I was a composition professor! Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever received one.

Launching the website and social media accounts brings us to where I am today. For the past few weeks and for the next few weeks, I have dedicated myself to promoting the event however I can: Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, group chats, etc. I have had to stretch myself to get my head around many of these platforms; nevertheless, the results have been promising so far, and I continue to hope for the best!

Regardless, my heart still races. People generally prefer to wait until the due date to sign up for an event like this (as I have discovered talking to many people), and so I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute. If that doesn’t keep someone in suspense.

The lectures will take place from July 20-31 and registration will remain open throughout. If you are interested in learning more about the Composers Collaborative Project, please visit our website or send me an email. I would love to hear from you!

Website: www.composerscollaborative.com

Email: info@composerscollaborative.com

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

Glass Half-Full, Mug Half-Empty

A glass of water that is half full (or empty), a mug with the caption "Do Epic Shit," a Black Lives Matter button leaning against a Buddha statue, and some books (Stavey Abrams's Lead From the Outside, Alex Haley's Roots, American Indian Stories, Dorothy Roberts's Killing the Black Body, and Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them), and another button ("She, Her, Hers") on a shelf in Anthony Tidd's home.

“The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people. What you gain from one year’s growth will be grains; what you gain from ten years’ growth will be trees; what you gain from a hundred years’ growth will be people.”—Guan Zhong

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

To every civilization education is paramount. The noblest job is that of the teacher. One could look at many problems today, and rightly place them at the feet of this nation’s failure to adequately invest in the truth and real education.

Question: Are our venues and arts institutions (whether for profit or non-profit) free to do as they please, or do they bear some level of obligation/duty to the communities in which they reside?

If art venues and institutions abandon their vital role within the arts scene/ecosystem, leaving the next wave of creative young nest-less, what will that mean for the arts overall in the next twenty years?

My friends and acquaintances sometimes call me “Pie-in-the-Sky-Guy”. What this means is that I’m the kind of guy who is always coming up with some new hare-brained scheme, usually in an effort to bring forth “improvement”, based on my core belief: We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them. I’m not sure where I first heard this ethos expressed, but it still makes a lot of sense to me.

We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them.

Thinking this way requires an abundance of optimism because more often than not, most of the ideas that I propose are either ignored, or met with a series of no’s. However, occasionally, while the powers that be weren’t really paying attention, I got to do some cool stuff.

Knowing this, it’s hard to write about the Philly scene in a positive light. Though I would really love to, there’s that nagging thing, the truth. The Philly Jade that so many of my peers suffer from is real. Just like real jade, this Philly Jade took years under intense pressure to form, and in most cases it formed because such peers actually cared about their city and everything that it could and should be. Many of them, some of Philly’s brightest, have already left for greener pastures. I feel it nipping at my heels right now.

The simple truth is that we Philadelphians live in a city which is over 40% black, and over 60% of color, but where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so via gentrification. Long before the recent headlong rush towards gentrification of its inner city neighborhoods, Philadelphia had a long history of underserving its communities of color, and an even longer history of undervaluing their contributions to the city. This all may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but it is also the truth. While some of us are fortunate enough to avoid this truth most of the time, people of color live in a racially tainted reality which touches every aspect of their lives, whether acknowledged or not. Such statistics should put a pretty big dent in anybody’s optimism. Mine is dented, but not gone, yet.

Philadelphians live in a city where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so.

If I were to think glass half full, I would say that Philly has a seemingly endless supply of talent. Philly is the kind of city where one might be living next to the inventor of the light bulb for 20 years and never know it. Everywhere I look there’s some amazing talent, poised to take things to the next level. Some of these amazing people are my colleagues, and others have been my students over the years. I am certain that there are many more that I am yet to meet.

I often find myself bumping into Philly’s music royalty, sometimes Jamaaladeen in Paris, or Orrin Evans at the North Sea Jazz Fest., or back in December at the Village Vanguard, Johnathan Blake, drummer and son of the great jazz musician John Blake. Pentad, Johnathan’s band, played the Vanguard for the first time. This amazing band featured Dezron Douglas on bass, David Virelles on piano, Joel Ross on vibes, and Immanuel Wilkins, one of my first students in the Creative Music Program, on alto saxophone.

A poster for Pentad's December 2019 gigs at the Village Vanguard. Pictured from left to right: Immanuel Wilkins (alto saxophone), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Johnathan Blake (drums), David Virelles (piano), and Dezron Douglas (bass).

They sounded fantastic, and thus, to those lucky enough to experience Philly musicians on stages around the world, there’s never any doubt regarding the outstanding level of musicianship that this city has and still continues to produce. Through mentorship and education (both formal and informal) many of these great musicians have managed to sustain a hundred year old enduring and ongoing tradition, which some call jazz, but which I more often call creative music.

The Philly area has also been home to a number of excellent jazz based music programs for young people, including Camden Creative Arts High School (Camden is Philly to me), run by Jamal Dickerson, the Clef Club of Jazz, run by Lovett Hines, and the Creative Music Program, run by myself at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

In the case of CMP, this program has provided opportunities for outstanding musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Doug Hammond, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, Linda Oh, Gary Thomas, Melvis Santa, Wayne Krantz, Miles Okazaki, Wycliffe Gordon, Sumi Tonooka, Tyshawn Sorey, Jen Shyu, Eric Revis, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Garrison, Yosvany Terry, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Finlayson, Greg Osby, Kokayi, Lee Smith, Kris Davis, Odean Pope, Cyro Baptista, Steve Lehman, Marcus Gilmore, Rajna Swaminathan, Nicholas Payton, Orrin Evans, Dafnis Prieto, Greg Hutchinson, Anwar Marshall, Laurin Talese, Eric Wortham, Joanna Pascal, Steve Tirpak, John Smith, John Swana, Erica Lindsay, Josh Lawrence, Venissa Santi, Khary Shaheed, Ursula Rucker, J.A Dean, Brent White, Tom Lawton, Tim Motzer, and so many others to pass on their unique approaches, experience, expertise and even life lessons to thousands of students for over 9 years. This list is long because I have to pay homage to those who helped to make this program great, however the clef club has an even longer list of amazing musicians, which goes back much further to the club’s founding in 1935.

Both have had an immeasurable impact on the Philly scene and for students, such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who recently graduated from the Juilliard School of Music and is now one of the most exciting young players in NYC. Or, pianist Joseph Block, who won the 2016 Essentially Ellington Competition while still in the program at 17, and who today at 19 still studies at Juilliard, whilst being one of Wynton Marsalis’s go-to arrangers for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There are many more, like Maya Keren, Nazir Ebo, and Yesseh Farrah-Ali, who you’ll surely hear about very soon.

One might reasonably expect based on such a stellar track record, high level endorsements from MacArthur fellows, Grammy recipients, Doris Duke recipients, and directors of some of the most prestigious jazz programs in the nation, that the future of such programs would be somewhat guaranteed.

If I were to think mug half empty, then I would say that in Philadelphia what is reasonably expected often does not come to pass. Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s brightest young artists will either: a) decide to exit the arts; b) decide to exit Philly; or c) stay in the arts and in Philly, probably to the detriment of their careers and overall happiness. This of course is not considering the millions of highly creative children in Philly and around the world, who will never even get an opportunity to explore the arts in the first place. Some of the most successful and vital music programs in the city (including the aforementioned) have the hardest time finding either institutional support, or funding, or both. The fact that all of these programs are primarily focused on a historic black art form (jazz) is not insignificant.

Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important.

Some people may believe that all artists are destined to suffer. I do not agree. While we can’t all be Wynton or Beyoncé, this doesn’t mean that all other artists don’t deserve a living wage, or the same path to a fruitful career that lawyers, doctors, and accountants expect, upon leaving school. After all, arts degrees are just as expensive and school loans sleep for no one.

The fact that we as artists do not enjoy the same prospects as our STEM counterparts has less to do with the true importance of the arts within any advanced civilization (art is one important metric by which all past civilizations have been judged), and more to do with the aforementioned dubious decisions taken by “the powers that be”, both inside and outside of the arts world. Besides this, we should also acknowledge that within the arts, as in all other fields, opportunity (and thus compensation) is more often sharply divided along strict racial and gender lines. In this respect Philadelphia is one prime example.

When the new owners of Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus decided to redefine their business model (once again), more or less completely abandoning the establishment’s jazz legacy, turning the space into a multipurpose black-box, focusing on DJs, local funk and rock bands, and entertainment that they considered more befitting of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that is Northern Liberties, it sent shockwaves throughout the arts community. Like so many venues they went from being a home for creative music to becoming yet another establishment that sells alcohol (with music accompaniment). (Exhibit A) Their description on Google reads, “Local funk, jazz & rock performers provide the soundtrack for burgers, burritos & beer drinking.”

Many of the elders on the Philly jazz scene at the time recalled earlier days, when they themselves were teens and were eager to learn all about the music that Miles, Ella, and ’Trane had played barely a generation earlier, and Ortlieb’s, like any other jazz club, was a good place to start. Jazz enthusiasts could listen to any number of the greats who would regularly perform or stop though.

Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

Better times: Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

After twenty-three years of attending and performing at the same venue, I imagine that those once teens began to feel like Ortlieb’s was their home, in much the same way that children, who were raised in the same house for years, might. Needless to say, these musicians, and the jazz community they built around such institutions, felt betrayed when said institution decided to abandon its role, its community, and them.

What happened to Ortlieb’s is indicative of a change in the culture which is sweeping our cities, partly brought on by gentrification (a favorite tool of White Supremacy), but also equally due to important changes in the overall goals of society as a whole. Just as the children of White-Flight are precipitating a rapid return to the inner cities, the resources, real-estate, neighborhoods, and culture within these big cities is being repurposed.

We see this clearly in what is presently happening to landmark Philly venues such as the Painted Bride. Though the Bride has been home to a number of creative movements within the city over the decades, even whilst surrounding properties changed hands and demographics shifted towards the entitled and wealthy, how does a grass roots community organization keep the lights on? How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity? The Bride’s solution is to become a venue-less arts organization by selling its building and using the proceeds to fund an endowment. It would go from being an able bodied participant within the Philly arts scene to a bodiless “arts ghost.” What Philly and the arts community most needs is space and stages, the very thing that the Fringe sought to acquire and that the Bride stands poised to lose.

How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity?

It is true that, due to years of being underserved by their host cities, many historically black neighborhoods are in a drastic state of disrepair, and so in some cases any new investment is welcomed and much needed. But, everywhere one looks, from North Philly to South Chicago, this investment has come at a price, and that price has invariably been the ongoing excise of black people, black influence, and black culture.

An Uber driver I rode with a few weeks ago commented on this. My home is in Brewerytown, which I feel is the present epicenter of the aggressive gentrification that is happening along Girard Avenue in North Philly. This Uber driver said, “It feels like all of this is part of some master plan!” He was an older black gentleman who had grown up in the neighborhood, and I could hear the pain in his voice, as he looked around and spoke those words to the soundtrack of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” playing on WRTI. It was like a scene from Do The Right Thing, except this was his life, in the third millennium.

If I had a dollar for every time an older black musician has expressed their belief that they are being pushed out of jazz, a music which they developed and which primarily came out of their struggle and community, I wouldn’t be so upset about spending $180 at Whole Foods Market for a week of basic groceries. No reasonable person can dismiss such fears, because we live in a country where since its founding, black people have been constantly pushed out of, well, everything. Why should jazz now be any different?

We all know that nationwide, American culture has changed. The numerous studies concur that people now read less. A new generation, raised on social media and reality TV, are now accustomed to everything being served up in bite-size chunks, which require the least amount of effort or attention span possible. We are suffering from a national form of attention deficit disorder, brought on by fifty years of flashing images on TVs, which rarely last over 3 seconds each. And the latest onslaught; a smartphone powered social media frenzy, is breeding a generation of introverts who live virtual extrovert lifestyles via Facebook or Instagram. Inevitably this trend has carried over into much of the “new” music available, which has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less, and find the mere idea of any sort of learning curve antithetical to their primary goal of being thoroughly entertained.

Much of the “new” music available has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less.

Within black music the once groove has been stripped down to a pulse. The lyric is always easily discerned upon the first listen. The melodies and harmonies are reminiscent of the sorts of I-IV-V nursery rhymes that were once reserved for toddlers. Even the exciting cadence of hip-hop, the most recent and last frontier of true mass-appeal-black-creativity, has been slowed to a syrup-infused crawl, where rhyming schemes which end in the same word are now considered clever. Emcees don’t even attempt to free-style anymore, and stellar improvisers, such as Rakim, Black Thought or Kokayi, are seen as anomalies. Astonishingly, each year music moves further and further in the same downward direction (or at least it has over my entire lifetime), and each year I wonder, “Have we reached the bottom yet?”

A view of The Painted Bridge from the street.

The Painted Bridge before “pre veil”.

I said I wanted to stay upbeat, and not tip the balance of this piece too towards the negative. So, thinking glass half full again, I would say that there’s still some incredible creative music being made right now elsewhere on the planet. American popular music may no longer be what it once was, but deeper underground, artists are forging ahead, pushing the envelope and reinventing art at the highest level, even if most of us may never get to hear it, or become aware of its existence. Thus, we could, in theory, change things for the better overnight by simply finding and supporting more creative music, made by more creative artists.

Ars Nova, an organization created by long time Philadelphian curator Mark Christman has worked hard to provide new and non-traditional spaces for creative musicians, many of whom are already well established outside of Philadelphia. Through his organization, Mark has managed to tap into audiences, who otherwise would have been ignored by the big venues and promoters. Ars Nova has presented some of creative music’s most prominent artists, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Kris Davis, and many others.

Over the last five years Ernest Stuart’s Center City Jazz Festival has managed to bridge the gap between live music enthusiasts and avid jazz listeners by programming shows, which straddle the “boundaries” between “jazz” and other genres such as rock, pop, and hip-hop. Based on its broad definition of jazz, his festival has managed to bring out audiences, who hail from varied walks of life, but who all come together to support both local and touring artists. Ernest has managed to do this year after year while literally “flying by the seat of his pants”, often not knowing whether he will have adequate funding to make the festival happen again and pay his staff until three weeks before the first show.

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival (on April 27, 2019 at Time Restaurant, Franky Bradley's, Fergie's Pub, Chris' Jazz Cafe, and Maison 208)

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival.

Sittin’ In, the concert series which I created and curate at the Kimmel Center, also focuses on providing creative music with a regular space. Audience development, and giving creative artists a place where their works can be exposed to new audiences, are both vital components of any healthy arts community. Over the last eight years, Sittin’ In has provided this and more to the community. My hope is that this model might one day be expanded, becoming something which happens more than once a month at a single venue, as this only just scratches the surface of the very great need in Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Ernest, as a black creative musician and curator, I’m often left feeling like I’m trying to plug a huge breach in the Hoover Dam with a toothpick. Like Mark, I spend my days saying no to people who I know deserve a yes (at least some of the time).

So, what’s the problem?

Back to mug half empty. The problem is jobs and money. Who holds those jobs with the power and capability to affect real change, and in whose pockets the majority of the money available for the arts ends up. There is certainly a shortage of arts funding in the U.S., but what little money there is out there rarely ever seems to find its way into the pockets of artists of color.

Cities which may have once had 30–40 buildings dedicated to the arts 20 years ago, now have five (at the most), and of those five, most (regardless of their 501c3 status) behave more like corporate entities than arts institutions or venues, making almost every decision about their bottom line, whilst all trying to sell the exact same thing over and over ad nauseam. This results in new artists and new creative music being deprived of a pipeline to audiences and revenue. It is the definition of a catch 22 situation.

Small venues are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music.

In the music world small venues, such as John Zorn’s The Stone or Rio Sakairi’s The Jazz Gallery, are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music. Creative music is not “a numbers game”, and nor should it be expected to be. Living music, a.k.a. new music, requires testing grounds/labs, where musicians can get together and try new things in front of audiences without having to satisfy the sea of criterion (specified by non-creative administrators, who themselves are mostly detached from the art) necessary in order to get the grant. Artists need spaces free from as much red tape as possible in order to create, and these spaces need to come without the expectation that said artist must consistently pack the house.

Audiences need places where they can go, and occasionally be one of the six lucky people who get to experience the next new thing. That new thing could be Charlie Parker on the precipice of establishing be-bop, or Steve Coleman on that same precipice 50 years later establishing m-base. These artist may go on to consistently sell 400–2000 tickets per show in the future, but they need to be able to start with 6.

The idea that Billie Holiday regularly sang “Strange Fruit,” one of her greatest artistic statements, to American audiences of 1800 plus, packed into halls that were originally designed for orchestras, is both ridiculous and antithetical to the very idea of creative music. The same goes for Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, and a host of other great innovators.

The difference in the mission of an arts institution and that of a straight forward venue, such as those run by Live Nation should be obvious to anybody who is lucky enough to secure any job of note in the arts or music industry. Venues operate based on supply and demand. Their primary motivation is money, and so they chiefly operate based on conditions dictated by the market and bottom line. To such venues it makes no difference whether the artist is Beyoncé or The Rolling Stones, so long as they believe that they have a better than good chance of selling enough tickets to make the maximum amount of profit. There’s nothing wrong with such venues. They have their place.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art. Their survival is intrinsically linked to the survival of true artists and the viability of the various communities which create said artists. Education is probably the most vital role for such an institution; To educate audiences about the art they present, to educate future generations so that there will be future artists who can create said art, to educate society over all to the true importance and the vital role of art, so that art will continue to hold a position of reverence within society, ensuring that it will be supported in the future. We can call education by many different names; Free concerts, Marketing, Audience Development, Workshops, Meet and Greets, Youth School Year Programs and Summer Camps, etc., but it’s still education. Like education facilities, their mission is primarily social in nature, and like schools, colleges and museums, arts institutions bear a solemn responsibility to the communities, cities and nations in which they reside. Ticket sales are of course linked to the survival of these institutions, but they are secondary to the important social role they play. Unfortunately some of our arts institutions are fleeing from this social role towards greater profitability.

Without true arts institutions and small venues which are committed to this ethos, all venues will just end up repeatedly booking “sure bets,” acts who themselves will likely end up afraid to stray from whatever successful formula got them the gig in the first place, innovation will grind to a halt, and this will be a terrible place for the arts and civilization to be.

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

American cities like Philadelphia may still be rich in talent, but today they are unfortunately poor in arts infrastructure; organizations populated by those who are committed to the mission of furthering art. The same is also somewhat true of our schools, colleges, and entire education system, which we must trust to stock tomorrow’s institutions with the next generation of well-informed influential thinkers. Without education there can be no meaningful change in culture. Education is about the future. Who do we want to be in ten, twenty, or thirty years? What do we want to achieve in twenty five, fifty, or one-hundred years? Some may still see the arts as unimportant or trivial, but we will be defined tomorrow by what we choose to support and celebrate today. Of all the investments that any nation can make in its future, education is by far the most effective. And, any education curriculum which is concerned with truth, progress, the realizing of potential, and the overall uplift of its students should feature creativity and critical thinking as central tenants. Without the ability to think critically, discern what is true, and create new solutions we are doomed to repeat the same old history over and over again.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals—Part Two (the good part)

In my previous article, I suggested that it’s time to move beyond the top-down, conductor-driven kind of rehearsals in education settings to be more inclusive and more student-focused. We also explored some “whys” of rehearsal, other than preparing the repertoire. Here come some practical ideas to experiment with.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t (well, just don’t) try all of them at once. That would not be successful. I certainly don’t employ all of these ideas all of the time. But I do use all of these ideas some of the time.

Instead of Always Telling, Ask More Questions

I get it. We like to fix things. We’re pretty good at it. And, most of the time it’s more efficient. But I can guarantee it’s not as collaborative or engaging as it could be when you are the one telling your students what to do 100 percent of the time. You can start with things like, “That was a pretty good run, but I heard a few things we could improve on. Before I tell you, what are you hearing?” Or, if you hear a balance issue, instead of “Trombones, please play softer.” You can ask, “Hey trombones, are the trumpets playing louder or softer than you are?” Or, “John, is Matt playing softer or louder than you are?” Be prepared for “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to ____.” Then be prepared to run that section again so they can listen. Nine times out of ten, it will fix itself. You don’t have to do this ALL of the time. But the more you do, the better the students get at listening and figuring it out.

As long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.

Here’s another idea: when you are approaching the concert and ready to run the piece, ask the students to listen carefully for things that need improving. After the run, have them talk in their sections about what needs to happen. (This can get cacophonous. You have to be O.K. with the idea that as long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.)

Talk Less/Conduct Less

My dear friend Tim Reynish likes to say, “Talk less; show more,” and that’s great. It should be a given that you are constantly perfecting your gesture and conducting to be the most musical/expressive/artistic/helpful it can be, and that you are consistently training your weaknesses. But more and more, I’m conducting less in rehearsal. When there is an ensemble pulse issue, it’s particularly important to stop conducting. We all know it’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch, so take the eyes out of the equation. It works nearly every time.

It’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch.

Also, get off the box and walk around. It’s amazing how differently you will hear when you do this. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but it’s tremendously effective.

Change the Seating

I regularly do a “scatter” rehearsal, often two or three rehearsals before the performance. The rules are that the students cannot sit in the same row as they usually sit, and they cannot sit beside a like instrument. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but the most important benefit is deeper listening. More specifically:

  1. Musicians hear things in entirely new ways. Or, they hear things for the first time.
  2. Musicians get used to hearing the “back” or the “front.” Now they have to open their ears and adjust to make the balance work and the blend.
  3. It’s fun. Tubas like to come to the front row, as do trombones. And flutes like to move to the back.
  4. You hear things in entirely new ways.
  5. You can’t cue sections without looking ridiculous, so don’t.
  6. More individual responsibility and musical independence.
  7. It builds community and collaboration. Have the students introduce themselves to their new neighbors.
Try the “monk” rehearsal … where you don’t speak.

Try sitting in a circle as well, and put percussion in the middle. And you can always try the “monk” rehearsal (students LOVE this one) where you don’t speak. Very interesting what can evolve in this setting.

Be Authentic

Talk about being “authentic” is really hip right now. But, it’s amazing how many people I see change who they are when they are on the podium. Be vulnerable. Demonstrate that you are a life-long learner. Let your students in. If you make a mistake, admit it. Everyone knows you made a mistake anyway so if you don’t take responsibility, you not only look silly but you model a behavior that is really undesirable. Sincerity and humility build a culture of trust and responsibility. Early on in my career I observed a choral rehearsal where the singers quickly put up their hands when they made an error. It’s a simple thing but gosh, not only does it save time (you don’t need to stop) but it helps create this culture of accountability and trust.

Guide-at-the-Side versus Sage-on-the-Stage

Have a second score and have a student sit beside you while you run a large section or a piece. Have them talk to the ensemble about what they are hearing. Choose these musicians VERY carefully.

Invest in Student Leadership

This is for middle and high school folks mostly. All that incredible student leadership that you build in to marching band—section leaders, rank leaders, drum majors, etc.—bring inside. For some reason, all of that peer-to-peer coaching goes away with a lot of programs in the spring semester. Why?

Open up the Programming Decisions

What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire?

In the previous article I said something like, “We tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it,” and then brag that our students are more engaged in our band class than in their math class. What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire? You can start with a theme then give them a choice of three pieces that “fit” the theme, have them listen to all three (hey, now they’re listening to more repertoire!), and afterwards choose (by vote…democracy! Cross-curricular learning!) the one they want. The “buy-in” on that piece goes through the roof.

Record Rehearsals

Sure, you already do this. But do you send the recording to the students? I can assure you they think they sound better than they do, and it is ear-opening for them to hear it. Try telling them that their homework is to NOT practice and instead their homework is to listen critically to the rehearsal. Have each section deal with one aspect. For example, percussion comment on intonation (which they tend not to think about); trumpets make suggestions on balance; flutes make suggestions about blend, etc.

Project the Score

It’s absolutely silly to me that in 2018 we are still handing out individual parts. On paper. (Some students are using iPads) Why, for goodness sake, is there only one expert in the room with all of the information? And why do we keep it a secret? For several years, I’ve been projecting the score from my iPad. We have a large screen in the rehearsal room at the Hodgson School of Music which I stand in front of and the score is projected behind me for the musicians to see at all times. I have used the app forScore, which is great and pretty intuitive, but we are now also using Newzik. Projecting the score and referring to it in rehearsals is not only more efficient, it’s more engaging.

How you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters.

The greatest gifts we can give our students are life-long. Years from now, they may not remember a chromatic fingering, a composer’s name, or a musical term. But they will remember how it FELT to be in rehearsal, that their opinions mattered, how they learned to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, that you cared, how to work with others in a community, that hard work paid off, how to lead, how to follow, and so much more. Quality repertoire matters (that’s a whole other article), it matters a lot. But how you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters, too. And frankly, it’s how we will stay relevant.

“Of a good leader, who talks little, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Lao Tzu)

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals

This is a two-part article about rehearsing a traditional large ensemble: orchestra, band, or choral ensemble. Many of the ideas put forward won’t be necessarily new, which is a good thing. It means that many conductors are experimenting with, even perfecting, a more inclusive, student-driven approach to large ensembles. But having traveled around this country and a few others visiting music programs, I’m still struck by the overwhelming adherence to the top-down, dictatorial method of running a rehearsal.

I’m convinced that the majority of conductors believe that simply because a student is in his/her ensemble playing an instrument, or singing, they are “engaged.” More and more, I’m convinced that this just isn’t the case. We stand on a box, with a stick, telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. And yet, I keep hearing from the music advocacy folks that what we do in the music classroom is somehow “different” or “better” than what happens in other classrooms. Well, of course it is—as far as I know, there aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom—but we really don’t teach any differently. And lest anyone think that I’ve got this completely figured out, let me assure you, I don’t. In 2013 I published an article in the Music Educators Journal on this topic and I still don’t pretend to have it all figured out. More on that later.

There aren’t any snare drums and saxophones in a chemistry classroom.

Broadly defined, the student I am teaching today in many ways is the same kind of student I taught at the beginning of my career—smart, engaged, overachieving, hard-working, dependable, dedicated, curious, kind…all that good stuff. But, in other ways, the student I’m teaching today is different. It’s mostly because of an addiction to technology but also trends in parenting and schooling—and societal changes, too. So I think it’s important to assess how we teach every once in a while. Trends come and go, I realize (who knew that leg warmers and high-waisted jeans would make a comeback), and there is a LOT of validity in teaching students to sit, listen, and be quiet. But there is also validity in more student engagement, more student involvement in learning and process, and more student ownership and responsibility.

Imagine, if you will, a gentleman plucked up from his late-19th-century life with a time machine plunked down in Times Square New York City in 2018. Absolutely everything would blow his mind—the cars, the lights (NEON!), the noise, the dress, the store offerings, the height and density of the buildings…everything. He would be completely lost. Until, of course, he walked into a classroom. Except for those white boards and maybe a projector/screen, nothing much has changed in that department. Now imagine a trombone player from the Sousa band plucked up with that same time machine and plunked down in your rehearsal room. With the exception of wondering what all that extra percussion equipment was doing in the room, he would know exactly where he was and where to sit. Now, I’m not saying this is all bad. But, it’s something to think about.

A gentleman plucked up from the late-19th-century to 2018 would be completely lost…until he walked into a classroom.

A decade ago, Randall Everett Allsup and Cathy Benedict penned an important wake-up call for band teachers called, “The Problems of Band” (Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16, no. 2, Fall 2008). If you haven’t read it, give it a go. It’s a no-holds barred exposé of the “band tradition” that even names names. Ouch. Here’s one of my favorite quotations from that article:

The problems of the American wind band…stem from an inheritance that is overwhelmed by tradition…predominantly teacher-centered, teacher transmitted, and content/repertoire driven…we are deluding ourselves if we think our students are actually taking on the responsibility of independent musicianship or becoming more musical.

Let’s think a moment about WHY we rehearse, especially in a school setting. I would think that what immediately comes to mind is something like this: to prepare a performance; to improve and perfect. But let’s go deeper. Rehearsing is something we conductors spend a tremendous amount of time doing, not to mention forcing our students to do it, too. What do we really want our students to learn in rehearsal other than the repertoire? Here are some ideas:

We rehearse to make mistakes because we know that we learn more deeply from failure than success.
We rehearse to facilitate LISTENING.
We rehearse to learn everyone else’s part in the whole.
We rehearse to learn how to lead. And how to follow.
We rehearse to build a musical community. To build trust.
We rehearse to develop musical independence.
We rehearse to co-create an environment of safety and the freedom to take risks.
You see where I’m going here? I think what we should be doing in rehearsals is more than getting the music right.

In a subsequent article, I’ll talk about some basics of good rehearsal technique, keeping in mind everything we’re talking about here. And then, we’ll move beyond the basics to get a bit more innovative and even more student-centered.

#ToTheGirls from The Most Powerful People in New Music

It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail.  (Often even a good one.)  But a bad teacher may kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils—Zoltan Kodaly, 1929

What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

Before some of you click away from this article, dismissing the notion of yourself as a teacher, consider this: Do you teach lessons in your home, or through a studio collective? Do you teach music theory and music history or composition seminars? Maybe you do the odd masterclass as a guest artist. Perhaps you get commissions to write for children’s choirs or you sing Carmenella in a traveling production. DO you slog through research and test data in the district where you teach or live to prove that it’s important that kids get reading intervention AND music? Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be a music professional at all, but because you are curious and excited, you listen and you tell others, “Hey, you should listen to this cool new thing!”

If you nodded your head to any or all of these, you are teaching. You are more powerful than any hiring committee. You are more powerful than the symphony board or arts commission or endowment. You have the power to enact far-reaching positive change on multitudes. You are a teacher.

Let me return to my original question: What are you doing with your power as a teacher?

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.

I have been a music educator in various capacities for more than 15 years. I have done all of the jobs I listed above. In addition to being a music educator, I am a composer. I am also the president of the International Alliance for Women in Music. The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music. Originally founded as a collective of composers, our membership is far wider, encompassing researchers, performers, conductors, critics, and—of course—educators.

Hooray to the women’s choirs! Bravi to the ten-member trombone section with nine girls! Now I ask the directors: What are you playing this season? I ask the theory teachers: What scores are you studying this week? I ask the general music teachers: What are you listening to today? I ask the aficionados: What’s coming through the earbuds today? I hear the same names. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to hear about a living composer. I am ecstatic and slightly shocked if I hear any of these teachers mention a female composer.

The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music.

In this battle of assuring lawmakers and policy enforcers and testmongers that the arts are a truly essential part of every student’s experience, we still must find ways and opportunities to teach our students and the public at large that music is not old, white, dead, and male. To ensure that music is and remains relevant to our students and our general education, we must be inclusive of gender in our classrooms, studios, and conversations about music. This issue, this problem of relevancy, should be every bit as important as the fattest prize, the latest commission, or the most admired new gadget.

Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime.  This experience cannot be left to chance; it is the duty of the school to provide it—Kodaly, 1957

In Song in The Heads: Music and Its Meaning in Children’s Lives (2nd edition, 2010), author Patricia Shehan Campbell recounts numerous interviews with children about their musical experience. The interviews reflect students receiving a broad range of music education: traditional Orff/Kodaly/Dalcroze-based methods at school, Suzuki or other private training, and wonderful family influences, which include traditional musics from multiple continents, popular genres, Western classical music, and their own compositions. One common thread these histories all share, though, is a lack of dialogue about female composers. There are female performing artists from popular genres mentioned, notably Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, and Fergie. These women are mentioned as performers, but never as writers or composers. In the classical field, we only hear children mention Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.

During those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women.

What’s funny/disturbing/confusing/disheartening in the mix of this is that during those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women. A 2015 analysis of music teachers in the U.S.A. (http://mtdresearch.com/gender-analysis-of-music-teachers/) shows that around 74% of K-8 general music teachers are women (the number climbs to 78% when looking at only elementary grades). Why are these teachers, who are mostly women, not promoting the works of women alongside the typical canon?

One cause may be found in the K-12 classrooms themselves. Most teachers must rely on what is offered by a limited number of education supply sources when decorating their teaching space, selecting music for a festival, or choosing listening examples. This bottleneck allows very little new and fresh material into the classroom, resulting in practically no ready-to-use resources featuring women in music.

Would you like to hang portraits of great composers of the Western tradition? Here are 40 of them. They’re all dead/white/male, by the way. Or, here’s a nice timeline that’s a bit more diverse. Glad to see Bessie and Ella made the cut. I’m not knocking them by any means, but I do think there should be room for more than two female names.

In addition to participating in great oral traditions of folk songs and dances, students may begin to listen to great works. Here is a package deal geared toward the classroom teacher, offering the “greatest hits.”

It’s a little, well… sad. Correction: It’s maddening. There’s no new music, not a single female composer, not a single composer of color.

It takes some digging to find this supplement. It’s a fine product, but it’s the only one. As a female composer, it is frustrating to find many of my role models set aside in an “other” category. Ruth Crawford Seeger should be listed alongside Berg and Messiaen; Fanny and Clara should be alongside Felix and Robert; Barbara Strozzi should be a recognized heir of Claudio Monteverdi. None of these should be shuffled off into an “also rans,” because the message it communicates to students is that women aren’t equipped to be great composers.

What about those concert selections? Looking for a unison or two-part choral piece yields 55 selections noted as “Editor’s Choice” in the J.W. Pepper catalog, of which 20 are arrangements or original compositions by women. 14/50 for SAB concert selections, 13/85 for SATB. If you are looking for band works, the website recommends a “basic library” list of 363 works, which includes five works by two women. Looking for a concert opener? The Editor’s Choice list of 96 suggestions doesn’t include a single piece written by a woman. In fact, the entire Editor’s Choice list of 1680 works for concert and contest band music only includes 16 works by women composers or arrangers.

The second probable cause lies in the curricula of the music education major itself. In the USA, changes in tests such as the Praxis series reflect the expectations that music teachers possess knowledge of music technology and world music. These are appropriate and needed changes. However, diversity in education is not limited to making sure students have exposure to non-Western music. It is equally important that students have the chance to absorb the concepts of gender inclusivity in music classes.

Our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers.

Unfortunately, our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers. Though there are recent gains in some music history textbooks, most music theory textbooks remain behind the curve in gender inclusivity. Researchers and educators such as Roberta Lamb, Rosemary Killam, and others have been questioning the paucity of women composers in our music curricula for decades. The presence of women composers is noted in music histories more frequently now, but the absence of their works in music theory topics undermines the thought that music written by women is worth studying. Many outside resources have been published in anthologies, on dedicated websites, and in blogs, but few have actually made it into the standard textbooks and curriculum packages.

And I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too.  It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.—Kodaly, 1957

At the beginning of 2018, the IAWM welcomed six newly elected members onto our board of directors. As with any great change, people brought ideas for new areas of advocacy and new projects emerged. One new focus of our organization is to aid educators through more explicit efforts to supplement curricula. A new grant initiative was proposed and a pilot grant will be announced later this year. This grant is specifically to help teachers who bring women in music into the classroom, whether by purchasing new classroom materials that include women composers, helping to commission a new work by a woman, or bringing in a guest artist.

As president of IAWM, I envision a second, more extensive set of projects that includes advocating not just for women already in music, but for all students of music who desperately need to see, hear, and experience music written and performed by women, not just taught by women. These will include resolutions and recommendations to NASM and NAfME on gender diversity in music curricula, more extensive resource listings on our own website, and documents such as lesson plans, long-range planning guides, and syllabi to bridge the gap between current textbook offerings and the research available on women in music. The last piece will be lobbying publishers for greater exposure of works by women.

You’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change.

So, you’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change. You want all of your students to feel that.  What do you do?

1. Actively seek out music by women composers. There is plenty of it out there, trust me. The 20th and 21st centuries have produced much wonderfully juicy low-hanging fruit by female composers. Pluck some.

2. Bring a score, pull up a recording, assign research. Actively studying the music acknowledges the worth of someone’s work. Simply mentioning a female musician’s name as “someone in the same school as X” is not creating gender diversity in your curriculum.

3. When teaching or reading, don’t assume that women composers were or are lagging behind the men. Just as often, we’re ahead of them, but don’t receive the credit.

4. Commission works by female composers. If you think you don’t have the budget to do this, form a consortium.

5. Have masterclasses with female musicians, or Skype interviews with researchers, performers, and other music professionals who are women.

6. Create and model more equitable opportunities for networking among your students.

7. Write to your local curriculum coordinator and/or standards writers and explain that they need to include gender diversity as a required component of K-12 music curricula, so that teachers have explicit guidance on the issue.

8. Think about the music teachers of your past. Just out of curiosity, how many of them were women? Find them, and write them a note to thank them.

Finding Ways to Entice Young Musicians to be Creative

Uneasy silence filled the room. Tight bursts of muffled laughter sporadically cut through an undercurrent of shuffling sneakers and nervous wriggling in chairs. Here I was, inviting a group of exuberant Los Angeles middle school musicians to make some NOISE with me in a rendering of Pauline Oliveros’s Sounds from Childhood, but all I got was some side-eye, a little healthy skepticism, and perhaps a touch of dread.

These students were the YOLA at HOLA Symphonic Winds, a group of young musicians from Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, an El Sistema-inspired program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic based out of Heart of Los Angeles, a non-profit that hosts programs for underserved youth in academics, arts, and athletics. YOLA at HOLA—a full, cost-sharing partnership between the L.A. Phil and HOLA—is a free, intensive music program in which students engage in 12-15 hours of group music lessons and ensemble playing each week with the goal of empowering young people to be both musicians and agents of change. The YOLA program, which operates at multiple sites in L.A., focuses on neighborhoods grappling with violence and high poverty rates, and is designed both as a haven from the outside world and as a way to provide a new lens through which students can view themselves, each other, and their collective creative capacity.

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s work at YOLA at HOLA was to pilot a new side-by-side initiative, called entICE, and our goals were multifaceted. We wanted to create a new piece of music, collectively, and workshop it together, from the early stages through its performance (much like any piece in ICElab). In so doing, we wanted to invite these students, who were mostly focusing on music from the distant past, to view this process and the resulting sounds, as theirs—their music, their work.

By playing together (literally sitting next to and among the young ensemble members), we were seeking to build upon and reinforce the ancient tradition of creating and shaping music with one another. Instead of “teaching” new music and telling kids how to play these outrageous new sounds, we would play side-by-side, teachers and students both learning and discovering in tandem.

As an intro (an ICEbreaker—tee-hee) and a way to build trust in the first few workshops with the YOLA students, we incorporated methods from ICE’s earlier education program, a graphic score workshop called The Listening Room. We invited the students to invent their own musical language—using pictures, words, and symbols—in order to compose a series of small graphic scores that allowed us to work towards building a big, collective piece.

When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!”

The Listening Room has always been a favorite of mine. I’ll never forget the end of my first workshop in Chicago at the George B. Swift Specialty School in a class of first graders. When they asked what a composer was, I said, “YOU! YOU are all composers!” In one particular child, I saw a look of wonder and awe and then a small but palpable recognition of her own POWER wash over her face. That moment still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Beginning with our residency at YOLA at HOLA, we used what we learned in The Listening Room and incorporated it into entICE residencies going forward, keeping the graphic score intensive workshop as a way to empower and get to know new students while creating a shared language and way of working together before venturing back into the world of notated music.

The overarching goals of entICE were clear:

  • Invite the bright minds of a new generation into the creation process, providing them with a sense of ownership over “new music”: THEIR music.
  • Play together, side-by-side, in rehearsals, workshops, and performances—learning from one another and inviting intense levels of collaboration at every turn.
  • Invite students to COMPOSE, to actually create their own work.
  • Illustrate, through the composers we select, the diversity, depth, and breadth of the artistic world in spite of a dearth of representation.
  • Create a space of trust and comfort; a place where there is no such thing as playing the wrong note, and no sound is “uglier” (or prettier, for that matter) than any other sound.

Tania León, the powerhouse Cuban composer, was our first entICE collaborator. Not only did she write a great piece for the ICE / YOLA experience called Pa’lante, she conducted and coached us all towards an incredible performance. She was TOUGH, but her high standards and her ability to relate to students on and off the podium, earned her the respect and awe of even the most skeptical young collaborators.

We learned so much in that first collaboration, and we are ever grateful to the amazing staff of YOLA for their insight and guidance and to the students for their trust and bravery. Over many intense days and several weekends, we worked on building that trust, finding a shared language, and making something NEW!

And the students, with very little encouragement necessary, ended up creating an AMAZING graphic score, which they called CW Rainforest, a dedication to the founding program director of YOLA at HOLA, Christine Witkowski, who had started them all on their journeys as young musicians. They were so successful in building this piece and rehearsing it on their own, we added it to the performance with León’s piece at Disney Hall; though ICE members sat with and among the student musicians, these young artists were the true leaders in every way. The conductorless ensemble was led by a team of internal firebrands: the percussionist who started the piece with a loud BANG; the sole bassist in a room of wind instrumentalists who bravely took a solo; the brass, who self-organized seven consecutive hits inside the macro-structure of the piece. At every turn, it was thrilling to witness to this collective creative energy and drive.

EntICE has since expanded to many cities nationwide. Our next collaboration was with the People’s Music School in Chicago and composer Marcos Balter, and after that we worked with the SFSYO of San Francisco alongside composer Anahita Abbasi.

Now, FINALLY, we’re in New York City! On March 31, we’ll complete a month of deep collaboration in the Bronx with the incredible students of UpBeat NYC and the amazing Nicole Mitchell, presenting both her work, a piece called Inescapable Spiral, and theirs, titled A Musical Storm, at the Five Boroughs Music Festival at Pregones Theater.

Making music together is a powerful tool.

As entICE grows and expands, so too do we learn from all our collaborators of every age and experience level. Making music together is a powerful tool, and I’m immensely grateful for every young student who has invited me to sit next to them (my bassoon possibly WAY too close to their ears for comfort!) and engage with me in the most resonant and human way I know how: by making sound with one another.

Through the constant work-in-progress that is entICE, one thing is crystal clear: there is much work to be done. As a community, we are only just beginning to start on the long road to recognizing and exploring how to upend the implicit and explicit biases that contribute to the incessant strengthening of the status quo and consistent overlooking of the creativity of the young artists.

And yet, in each of these deep collaborations there is a moment: when these kids see a composer who looks more like themselves than Beethoven or Brahms; when they perform their own pieces, written by and for themselves and one another; when, hopefully, they get a glimpse of their own creative power. That moment is why this work is vitally important. Now more than ever.

 

Béla Fleck: Things That Sound Right

Nowadays American musical creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but there have been few musicians who have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Béla Fleck. While he first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with his band The Flecktones, which merged jazz, bluegrass, funk, and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with traditional musicians from India and China, as well as multiple nations in Africa. He has also begun composing works to perform with classical chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. In March, Rounder Records released a recording of his second banjo concerto, Juno Concerto.

“I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in,” Fleck opined when we met up with him in between another interview and a soundcheck for a concert in New Jersey later that evening. “Your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”

Yet despite the extraordinary variety of the musical projects he has been participating in since the late 1970s, everything he’s done revolves around the banjo, an instrument he has been obsessed with since he heard it on TV while watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a young boy growing up in New York City. His grandfather bought him a banjo right before he entered 10th grade at the High School of Music and Art, but there were few opportunities for him to explore playing the banjo there. He recalled getting nowhere with the French horn before they decided to put him in the chorus where he “screeched.” Nevertheless, he “became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude,” took private lessons with “monster genius” Tony Trischka, and within just three years he “could play exactly like him.” In his senior year he navigated his way through the tricky banjo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school concert. But he didn’t apply to any colleges and as soon as he graduated from high school, he embarked on a professional music career.

“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo,” he remembered.  On Trischka’s recommendation, he was hired by the Boston-based band Tasty Licks and recorded his first album with them while still a teenager. But he quickly realized that he needed to do more than imitate his teacher.

“That wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he realized. “So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from [Trischka].” At this point he also started to compose his own music. That first album he appeared on, Tasty Licks eponymous 1978 LP, features Fleck’s first recorded original composition “Reading in the Dark.”

“At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally,” he admitted.  “I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now.  If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too.  But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.”

Wanting to get closer to the roots of bluegrass music led Fleck to move down South—first to Lexington, Kentucky, and then to Nashville, where he still makes his home. Yet ironically, instead of playing with more traditionally oriented musicians, he went from performing with the progressive Spectrum to the even more radical New Grass Revival to his own uncategorizable Flecktones. Yet despite all the innovations, he has always been extremely mindful of his antecedents.

“Time makes something traditional,” Fleck said. “I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.  … I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way.  They’re not just, ‘How hard can I play?  How difficult can I make things?’ but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.”

Béla Fleck has found ways to make his instrument “sound right” whether he’s improvising duets with jazz great Chick Corea, fusing Indian, Chinese, and Appalachian idioms with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen, accompanying the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangare, or playing with a symphony orchestra. According to him, “If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”

But nowadays he spends most of his time making music with his wife, Abigail Washburn, an innovative singer-songwriter who, of course, is also a banjo virtuoso.

“She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger,” Fleck explained. “They’ve almost never historically played together.  So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before.”


Béla Fleck in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at the offices of Razor & Tie, NYC
April 7, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You were named Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, after Bartók, Webern, and Janáček—three very important 20th-century composers. That’s a lot of weight.

Béla Fleck:  It is.  It gets even more complicated since, soon after I got that name, my mother and my father split up. I never saw him again until my 40s, when I went and searched him out.  So it was complex. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in that music for a while because of that.  It took me a while to go back and start to listen to Bartók with more of an open ear.  I finally did that when I was starting to write my first banjo concerto.  So I got all these names, but no influence.  Nobody was showing me why I was named those things.  Ironically, my mother remarried a cellist. Those weren’t necessarily his guys, but there was some classical music in my world at that point because he liked to play string quartets and quintets, and go and play with orchestras and stuff like that.  So I would hear him do that.  But I didn’t really think it had a lot to do with me and my musical identity because I had secretly fallen in love with the banjo.  I’d learned some guitar and I was playing some folk songs, Beatles songs, Simon & Garfunkel songs, and a few blues scales.  I actually loved the banjo, but I hadn’t told anybody because it wasn’t a very popular thing.  But the banjo sounded so amazing and fast and complex. I didn’t imagine that I could ever play it.  It was just a secret love.

FJO:  It’s funny to hear you say that you only came to Bartók recently, since I think of Bartók as someone who took folk music traditions and completely transformed them in a way that’s not completely unlike what you have done. And also, his music was chock-full of unusual scales and odd meters, which are also things I hear in your music going all the way back to your earliest recordings.

BF:  People have said that to me, “You and Bartók have so much in common; it’s cool that your name is Béla.” And I’d be like, “Cool.”  I only heard little bits of it.  It’s an acquired taste, like coffee. The first time you drink it, it’s like, “I don’t know why anybody likes this.” A little later you’re like, “It’s pretty good.” Then pretty soon it’s like, “I gotta have it; it’s so good.”  Bartók for me was kind of like that.  When I finally got into it, the harshness [I heard] at first stopped being harsh completely and it became so badass and cool, so interesting and deep and rich. So I’m a big fan of him all the way around, and I’m proud to be named after him.

FJO:  How about Janáček and Webern?

BF:  I don’t know much about their music.  I’ve listened to a little bit of it.  It didn’t hit me. I need to give it more time.  I haven’t put in the time. I’ve had a lot of other things that really did hit me squarely in the chest and changed me so that I couldn’t not do that.  I was just so in love with the sound of the banjo and bluegrass, and then I was in love with certain jazz and certain classical music that hit me that way.  Others didn’t.  But eventually time rolls on and you’re ready for some things that you weren’t ready for at another point in your life.  That’s how it was for me with Bartók.

FJO:  Now in terms of the banjo hitting you, you grew up in New York City.  That’s not an instrument you would have found here very much, at least not then.

BF:  Well, there was the folk boom—or the folk scare, as some people like to call it—which was happening, so it wasn’t totally alien. There were actually a lot of New Yorkers playing the banjo.  But in my world, where I was going to school and just among normal kids, nobody was into that kind of music.  I had just happened to hear it on a television show; The Beverly Hillbillies came on and it was Earl Scruggs.

Scruggs had taken a technique that was starting to become used in his region and exploded it into this comprehensive way of playing the banjo that changed the history of the instrument and brought a lot of people to that instrument. It was kind of dying out. The banjo has a long history, coming from Africa with the slaves originally and working its way into becoming the instrument of America in the late 1800s, the instrument everybody had around.  People were playing classical music on it. There were banjo orchestras.  It was in the early days of jazz.  It was in Louis Armstrong’s early groups and Jelly Roll Morton’s, before the guitar took over. It was also this Appalachian instrument in old time music. Then it morphed into this bluegrass music offshoot, which was kind of a performance art.  It wasn’t really a folk music; it was music that was designed to be played on microphones in front of people, but built out of folk music.

“I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.”

But I had nothing to do with any of that until I was 15. I think because he knew I’d been playing guitar and because “Dueling Banjos” became so huge because of that movie Deliverance, my grandfather, who lived in Peekskill, got me a banjo. It was just a garage sale banjo, a cheap little nothing, but when I went up to visit him, which was the day before I started high school at Music and Art up on 135th Street, I was so shocked and amazed and excited to see this instrument in front of me that I never would have had the nerve to go get.  So the fuse was lit. Someone showed me how to tune it on the train on the way home and I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.  Before that, when I played guitar, it wasn’t like that for me.  I was a kid who was interested in something, but I wasn’t on fire.  The banjo was different.  When I finally got the banjo, everything else went away.

FJO:  You went to the High School of Music and Art. I went there, too, so I know that there are no banjo classes there.

BF:  Right.  Yeah. But ironically, Eric Weissberg, the guy who played “Dueling Banjos,” went to Music and Art as well.

FJO:  I didn’t know that. Wow.

BF:  Yeah, he was there quite a while before I was there.

FJO:  I came in as a pianist-composer, so they threw me in the vocal department because they didn’t know what else to do with me. They could always use more voices in the chorus.

BF:  That’s what they did with me. I got in on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun”—I had a nice fingerpicking version.  And they said, “Okay, you have some musical aptitude.”  I remember there was a rating system of one to four, and I think I was a two.  I was definitely not in the ones, but I could tap back when they would give me rhythms. Then, I think I had to sing back some pitches.  I could do all of that pretty well.  So they said, “Okay, we’ll teach you to be a musician.” They gave me a French horn and a mouthpiece and said, “Go in that room and come out when you can play an F.”  I just sat in the room and I never could get anything out of the instrument.  Finally they said, “There really aren’t enough boys in the choir.  Maybe we can put you in the choir.”  I was disappointed, but I went and I sang. I screeched all the way through high school. I think I would have been a baritone. I was not a tenor.  I couldn’t hit the pitches, and I didn’t know how to sing.  I didn’t know how to read, but I could sort of sing along with the guy next to me and watch. I knew if it was higher I had to go up, but I didn’t know what a fourth was or a third or how to do it. So I was around classical music, even though I wasn’t playing it on my banjo.  And then I took banjo lessons.

“I screeched all the way through high school.”

One cool thing that happened was that partway through senior year, they said, “Béla, come see the conductor.” He said, “You can get out of chorus if you want, if you will play in Rhapsody in Blue in the semi-annual recital.  We found a banjo part.  If you want to play this banjo part, you can get out of chorus for the rest of senior year.”  I didn’t really want to get out of chorus with all my friends, learning this German music and this French music. I was social and it was music.  So I said, “I’ll do both.”  So I did.  The part was somewhere in the middle of the piece. There were a couple of things I never could figure out, but I got to sit next to a girl I had a crush on who played the oboe.  And that was good enough for me.

FJO: But instead of going off to conservatory after you graduated from Music and Art, you wandered off to Boston and started playing in professional bands. You were already recording with them as a teenager.

BF:  Yeah, I came right out of high school into professional life.  I guess to toot my own horn, I started playing the day before high school and three years later, I came out and I was on a pretty high level.  My third banjo teacher was Tony Trischka. Tony is one of the monster geniuses of the banjo of this century.  I would argue he’s changed banjo technique and ideas as much as Earl Scruggs did.  He was the guy of that time, and I had had a few lessons with him. But by the end of high school, we’d be at a party and jam together, and someone would say, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell which one is which.”  And it was true.  I was imitating him so well, I could play exactly like him by the time I was out of high school after playing for three years.  So I was moving fast.  I was also working on my own ideas and trying to think of what I could do that he hadn’t done. I realized there already was a Tony Trischka.  The guy who said, “I can’t tell which one is which”—maybe that’s not so good.  For a long time, that was my goal, to be playing just like him, but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from him.  He goes by feel.  He finds these incredible, complex ideas, but it’s not like he’s going to sit around and play all the modes and scales up and down the banjo and do this sort of scholarly thing.  So I thought, “Well, there’s something.” I started working on these ways of playing the scales methodically that gave me a bunch of tools that Tony didn’t have—and really nobody had at that point. It gave me the ability to play virtually anything because I wasn’t stuck in these keys with certain centers that were rich and had a lot of things I could do but that had holes in the middle.  I was basically filling in all the holes that people weren’t using on the banjo and just making it more of a workable instrument that could fit into different kinds of music.  That became my thing that I could do.

FJO:  Because of the way the banjo is played and the way it’s tuned, it’s optimized for playing diatonic music in common time. But what you’ve done is created super chromatic music for it with loads of complex meters.  You’ve done all these counter-intuitive things, yet they sound completely idiomatic.

BF:  Actually that’s the part I’m most proud of.  You’ve just hit the things that I’m trying to do—things that sound right.  I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.  Again, if I was going to toot my own horn, I would say I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way.  They’re not just, “How hard can I play?  How difficult can I make things?” but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.  It’s something that the banjo told me to do, that was obvious and that should be that way.

“I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.”

FJO:  You’ve really been describing all of this stuff from a performer’s point of view, being a player on an instrument.  But when you say that it was important to you to do more than imitate someone else’s sound and do your own thing, that’s starting to sound like a composer.

BF: Hmm.

FJO:  It’s interesting that for the very first professional group you were with, Tasty Licks, on the first album you recorded together, there’s an original composition of yours called “Reading in the Dark.”  I can already hear your compositional voice in that—the constantly shifting keys, the metrical complexity. It feels like it’s about to crash, but it always holds together somehow.  You already had had those ideas.

BF:  At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally.  I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. [Since then] I have learned a lot about playing the banjo with a good tone and with good timing; having a tight rhythmic focus hadn’t become my focus yet, but the creativity was there. I was also very Tony influenced.  If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too.  But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.

The cover of the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks released in 1978.

In addition to being the first recording featuring Béla Fleck, the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks also features the earliest Fleck composition on record.

FJO:  One thing I’m curious about in all of this is that what got you interested in the music in the very beginning was hearing Earl Scruggs, who was the embodiment of traditional bluegrass.  It’s funny to call it traditional because, in a way, how Scruggs helped develop bluegrass out of Old Time music parallels how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop from swing.  It was a similar seismic moment where it was somehow avant-garde and traditional at the same time.  By the time you came on the scene, it was definitely traditional. But even though it was what you first heard, and what got you hooked, you gravitated toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum—the progressive bluegrass scene in Boston instead of going to Kentucky or Tennessee or somewhere deep in Appalachia.

BF:  Right.  Well, I want to address one thing which is that Earl Scruggs was radical.  There’d never been anything like what he did before.  We call it traditional now because it was so right that it became imprinted on everybody.  Nobody had a problem with it.  Nobody was saying, like they have with Tony or even with me a little bit, but Tony a lot more, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go; that ain’t traditional.”  Nobody said that when Earl Scruggs came around.  They went, “Holy crap.  What just happened?”  It changed everybody’s perception about what a banjo was; it was incredible.  The thing about him is he’s so rooted in tradition. Even a lot of the songs he worked on were from before he came along, although he added a lot of new stuff to the repertoire. Time makes something traditional.  Now he’s traditional, but usually traditions are more than a hundred years old.  We’re not even close to a hundred years from when he got well known in the ‘40s.  That’ll be in another 30 years.

“Time makes something traditional.”

FJO:  O.K. This begs the question even more, considering how deeply you revere Scruggs.  If he was your hero, why didn’t you go to where he was instead of going to Boston?

BF:  Well, Earl was really not around very much.  He wasn’t out and seeable for a lot of the years when I was coming up.  He was out with his sons, but I wasn’t as interested in that music.  And I had become a Tony Trischka freak and a modern banjo freak, so I was interested in the people who had taken it to the next step.  I wasn’t that interested in Earl after the initial thing.  I got all into this new information that guys like Tony, Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, and so many other wonderful banjo players brought new to the game—Eddie Adcock, Allen Munde, Ben Eldridge, so many people. It was such a rich field, full of people who, when you heard them start to play, you knew it was them.  J.D. Crowe.  Sonny Osborne.  It goes on and on.  At any rate, at this point, I was into modern.  I wanted to do new things.  I discovered in high school that if I played a Led Zeppelin song, people would go, “Yeah!”  But if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms. And I didn’t like that.  So I already had realized that there was something to this “new thing on the banjo” idea.

Anyway, Tony got an offer to join a band in Boston right after I got out of high school, and he couldn’t do it because he had roots in New York and wanted to stay.  But he said, “I’ve got this student that’s really hot; you should hire him.”  I had graduated in the spring and this was in December. What happened to me was actually so fortunate. My mother and my step-father had a child kind of unexpectedly as I became a senior in high school.  The world had changed so suddenly and now this was their new focus and nobody paid any attention to me.  So I didn’t apply to any colleges and nobody noticed.  Now, if you can understand that my mother was a school teacher and my father was the chairman of guidance counselors of the Brooklyn school system, and then imagine that their son never applied to colleges, you see how bizarre this is.  But I snuck under the wire and got to the end of school and then I was a free agent, which is exactly what I wanted to be.  I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.  I didn’t want to go study theory.  I wanted to play the banjo.

“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.”

When they realized I hadn’t applied to schools, they were kind of dismayed and we found out that you could take courses at Juilliard if you just paid for them.  It’s called the Juilliard Extension School.  So they put me in a class that I went to starting in the fall, while I played little gigs around the city and tried to figure out how I was going to do this thing.  That’s when the call came to go to Boston and join a band up there.  There was a professional band that went around New England, and one of the guys in the band was a guy named Stacy Phillips who used to play with Tony Trischka in a band called Breakfast Special.  They were my heroes.  So I was going to get to play with one of my favorite musicians if I moved to Boston and joined this band.  Also, Berklee was up there.  There was a huge jazz scene up there.  I was excited about being part of that.  It was a great college town.  There was a music store called the Music Emporium.  There were jam sessions.  There were people playing traditional music of various kinds.  There was square dance music up there.  That scene was fun.  So anyway, I moved to Boston, and I was there for three years or so.  That was my first touring experience in a band that occasionally made it down south. I did a lot of New England touring, and I worked on my banjo playing in that band.

FJO:  And you had already gotten the attention of Rounder Records, which was founded maybe just only a few years before that.  And they put out a solo record of you already.  That was crazy.

BF:  Right, so that was part of the whole thing because the leader of the band was a guy named Jack Tottle. His girlfriend, Marian Leighton, was one of the three Rounder people.  I ended up living right across the hall from Marian and Jack and being part of that Rounder scene.  They were waiting for me to ripen.  They wanted to do a record with me when I was ready. I think that was wise on their part, but I wasn’t smart enough to understand that.  It was rankling that they hadn’t asked me.  At a certain point, I went and made a demo and let them know I was going to be presenting it to all the labels.  Then they immediately signed me before I could get away. I think it was a much better record than it would have been if I had done it right out of high school when I moved out there.

The cover of Béla Fleck's first solo record, Crossing The Tracks

In 1979, a year after his recording debut with the Tasty Licks, Rounder released Béla Fleck’s first solo album, Crossing The Tracks, which 38 years later still sounds fresh.

FJO:  Talk about having a long history, and we have a long way to go before we talk about the new recording of your second banjo concerto with the Colorado Symphony, but that album is also on Rounder.

BF:  I went back to them in the last decade. I’ve been through all the majors.  I was on Capitol with New Grass Revival, and I wanted to get away from Rounder when I started the Flecktones.  I had made eight solo records on Rounder. Some of them did well and some of them didn’t, but I wanted to be on a jazz label.  With the Flecktones, I didn’t want it to be a Rounder Record.  I needed to break from that scene.  So I went out.  We had Flecktones records on Warner Brothers, and then we went to Sony.  Then I was on MCA with Strength in Numbers.  I started to have all those experiences.  And then the music industry changed a lot. 

Basically what would happen is I would get signed and then I’d have these advocates, and we would have a great year or two. Then they would be fired, or things would change, and I’d be stuck with several more albums that I owed and nobody at the label that gave a crap about what I did.  That happened over and over again.  Then, I was getting ready to do an album—I can’t remember which one it was, it might have been the Christmas record with the Flecktones—and I wanted to take a meeting with Rounder because I had seen something they had done well.  I took a meeting and everybody was still there that had been there when I’d left twenty years ago.  That struck me.  And they were eager to have me back.  They’d been proud of everything I’d been doing and they started doing stuff with me.  They had much better results with some of those projects than I was having with the majors, so I’ve kept doing things with them.  I do a record at a time.  The first concerto record I did with Deutsche Grammophon—foolishly—because I wanted to get the banjo onto the major classical label of the world. But they didn’t do a good job.  They didn’t do anything.  So when I got the chance to make the second banjo concerto and I wanted to record it, I asked Rounder if they would do it, and they said they would.  They’ve already done way better than Deutsche Grammophon did because they know how to reach my audience.  There is no classical audience.  Nobody’s buying classical records.  This needs to be marketed to people that like my music and want to hear what I am doing with an orchestra.  We’re not going to sell a lot to folks who are hardcore classical listeners.  I wish we could, but I don’t know that that’s being realistic.

The cover of Béla Fleck's 2012 Deutsche Grammophon CD The Imposter

The first recording devoted exclusively to “classical” compositions by Béla Fleck was the 2012 Deutsche Grammophon release The Imposter, which features his first banjo concerto performed with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrerro as well as Night Flight Over Water, a quintet for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.

FJO: A discussion of how music is marketed could eat up the rest of the day, but it actually makes me curious about how marketing and musical genre—which I believe is largely related to marketing—played out in another early band you were part of called Spectrum, whose records I’ve had for many years and still treasure.

BF:  You’re kidding.

FJO:  Especially Live in Japan. I love your performance of “Driving Nails in My Coffin.”

BF:  That’s cool to hear.  I never hear anybody talking about Spectrum. It’s kind of the forgotten band.

FJO:  Which is a shame because those records are great. But what’s particularly fascinating is that while on the one hand it sounds very much like traditional bluegrass, a lot of the material wasn’t. You performed songs by Paul Simon and Paul Anka, as well as stuff by Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, so it was really open-ended.

The cover of Spectrum's final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983.

The cover of Spectrum’s final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983, but unfortunately currently out of print.

BF:  Yeah, it was freedom in the cage.  The cage had gotten bigger and we were filling a hole in the bluegrass festival scene.  That was the only place we could work.  We didn’t seem to be druggy.  We were clean cut, nice gentlemen, but we played progressive—considered progressive—music.  We weren’t far out like New Grass Revival.  Glenn Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau had been playing in J.D. Crowe’s band, after his great band—The New South—with Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas, that was so popular. Wisely, J.D. didn’t try to follow that incredible band.  I’d say it’s on a level of Flatt and Scruggs in impact, but he didn’t try to copy it and do that band again.  He got a whole different sound.  And he got these guys and they went in a whole different direction.  Anyway, I moved to Kentucky, because I had the opportunity to work with some guys that worked with J.D., and I really wanted to get some of that true bluegrass feel.  Ironically, what I was trying to get from moving to Lexington was not what these guys wanted to do, but I still was going to get it.

“I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.”

What I moved to Kentucky for was to get around and to be part of the real traditional stuff.  I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.  I knew there was a stigma to that, and that there are some areas that Yankee banjo players don’t tend to be respected for the way the southern banjo players are.  What we’re usually talking about here is tone, time, and taste.  The three Ts.  It all comes from J.D. Crowe, but originally from Earl Scruggs—certain periods where his right hand and his tone were just so glorious, creamy, and solid, metronomic but with soul, and everybody was aspiring to play like that.  The northern players tended to have a lot of imagination.  A lot of great innovations were coming from there, but not only from there—Bobby Thompson wasn’t from there.  There were some great people like Bill Keith and Tony, but Tony was widely frowned upon by the bluegrass community as a whole.  And I was very aware of that. I said, I don’t want to be like that.  I want to be able to do everything.  J.D. Crowe had these great bands in which the people were playing pretty progressive music, but he was playing just like Earl.  Or in J.D. Crowe language, he was playing very traditional, and I thought there ought to be somebody who can play with those guys.  I think there’s a hole in that scene for a banjo player who does a little bit more, but I wanted to be able to do it with the authority that J.D. did it with.

So after those three years with Tasty Licks, we broke up and I played on the street for a summer, in Harvard Square, which was a lot of fun.  Then I got this chance to go to Kentucky.  So I moved down there and just spent all my time watching J.D. Crowe when I wasn’t on tour.  There was this Holiday Inn—Holiday Inn North it was called—on Newtown Pike, and they would put on a bluegrass band for three weeks, then they’d bring in another one from a different part of the country.  The top people would come in and play this place.  When they didn’t have Ralph Stanley or the Country Gentlemen or whoever, they would have J.D. Crowe because he was their in-town guy.  So when I was there, anytime I wasn’t out of town playing, I was at the Holiday Inn sitting, listening, and watching him, trying to understand how he got that sound and how he had that feel which I did not have.  I couldn’t do what he did, and he was a god to me.  I never got to sit with him and he never explained it to me, but I was very focused on him.

At that time, I also made a lot of friends in the bluegrass community who talked to me about banjo set up, about how to get a great sound out of a banjo.  There was a guy named Steve Cooley who was a great young banjo player and who, like me, was a big fan of Crowe.  Then I started studying all these old Flatt and Scruggs live shows, which is the next inner circle.  You get past the recordings everyone knows about and you start to get into these broadcasts and you get to hear how much greater he was than on the recordings.  It’s so badass.  All of a sudden that became really important to me, being able to play the banjo in a strong, traditional, powerful way, which I would say is a lot of southern influence.  The things that are great about southern banjo playing sort of crept into my style at that point.  And that’s the point when I got a call from Sam Bush and New Grass Revival to move to Nashville. Well, the band was originally in Kentucky, but we ended up moving to Nashville, and that was the next big change in my life after that.

FJO:  So although you wanted to get immersed in the tradition, you wound up playing in super progressive groups.  That first record you made with New Grass Revival, On the Boulevard, is full of chromatic stuff, and there’s even a Bob Marley tune on it. I’m not sure a bluegrass purist would even acknowledge this as bluegrass.

BF:  No.  They called it newgrass, and lot of bluegrass purists didn’t think newgrass was bluegrass.  But the thing about New Grass Revival is that they were at a whole other level.  They had been a fixture and a prime mover in the modernization of bluegrass.  Sam Bush was beloved by everyone across the board, whether you liked traditional or modern.  He was often called to play on traditional records, because he was simply the best mandolin player on the scene, especially in the south.  A lot of people also loved David Grisman, but he was in California and he was doing his own music. But Sam—as a mandolin player and a fiddle player and a force—was one of the greats of the generation.

It was even clear to Bill Monroe, who showed his regard for Sam by treating him with incredible disrespect.  He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Sam was a force to be reckoned with.  He did the same thing to Earl Scruggs.  You know what I’m saying?  So Sam was the anointed one.

If Bill Monroe or Doc Watson wanted me to play with them, I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, “Hey, he’s good at this stuff” and not judge me for being a modernist.  I wanted to have that, but you can’t change your spots.  I was gonna be a modernist and a guy from New York City, even if I tried to get rid of my accent around these guys and tried to get an old banjo. I think they respected me for trying, though, and for valuing what they did.

“I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, ‘Hey, he’s good at this stuff’ and not judge me for being a modernist.”

Playing with Sam, I knew, was going to mean playing with one of the best musicians I had ever played with. Also, by joining that band and moving to Nashville, I would get to know a whole world of people I was really interested in—like Norman Blake and John Hartford, whom I was a huge fan of, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and all the people who were doing that.  I would learn a lot about music that I didn’t know about yet.  Things I hadn’t valued yet.  Like blues and rock and gospel, things that those guys were really into—the Allman Brothers, all these things that I was not paying attention to because I was a New York jazzer at heart who loved bluegrass. That was also when I found the local great jazz guitar player, and I took lessons from him.  I went to play casual gigs, trying to learn jazz.  I was in the closet trying to continue my work on my scales at the same time.  I was a busy little boy.

The cover of Béla Fleck's 1984 LP Deviation

Béla Fleck’s 1984 LP Deviation, in which he is joined by the members of New Grass Revival, is miles away from newgrass but according to Fleck still isn’t quite jazz.

FJO:  All these different kinds of music came together for you in a solo record you did with the other members of New Grass Revival as sidemen called Deviation. I think it’s a very apt title because it doesn’t sound like any of the other music you had recorded up to that point. Now things have gotten so blurry, to some extent as a result of what you and many of the musicians you’ve worked with were doing then. But at that time, the barriers between different musical genres were a lot less penetrable. You mentioned that Sam Bush could travel back and forth between bluegrass and newgrass, but what was the difference?  What couldn’t you do in bluegrass, and what can’t you do in newgrass?  When does newgrass stop being newgrass?  I think most fans of newgrass would have thought that Deviation wasn’t newgrass. I’m inclined to call it a jazz record, but I’m sure there would have been jazz purists at the time who would have said it isn’t jazz either. Purism versus non-purism was a big issue back then, no matter what the genre was.

BF:  Yeah, it was.  I love Flatt and Scruggs.  I love early bluegrass. Most of the modernists do.  That music really reflects a time and a place and, now, a kind of looking backward.  But at the time, it was still reflective of some people’s actual lives.  They were singing about their lives, so it wasn’t some history thing.  So if somebody loves hearing that kind of music—which I love as well—and that’s what they want to hear, I don’t fault them for it.  It’s like somebody saying, “I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. ” Well, I like Louis Armstrong and I really like Charlie Parker.  I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.  I’ve realized this because I’ve also been an elitist. I don’t listen to that, or I don’t listen to this, or whatever. That’s not good.  I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in, that I’m above this.  But people do that.  We all do that.  The truth is you have the right to make those choices.  You don’t have to listen to everything just because someone tells you to.  This isn’t school.  This is your life.  You should listen to music that turns you on and makes you feel something and makes your life more complete.

“I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”

So, back to your actual question, I think newgrass expressed the truth for the people of that period.  And newgrass is a dated thing, too.  Newgrass is actually the music that was done after Flatt and Scruggs, not the music New Grass Revival did.  Sam Bush was going to bring back some of the music that the people that followed the originals did, go back to the sound that Jim and Jessie and the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen had, and work from there.  That’s why they called it New Grass Revival, which is interesting.  A lot of people say, “Oh, that’s newgrass.”  New Grass Revival is newgrass, but it became newgrass in people’s minds after a while because the name of the band was New Grass Revival.

FJO:  Looking back at that time now, there definitely was stuff that was even more progressive than newgrass, like perhaps what the Dillards were doing or Frank Wakefield or, as you already mentioned earlier, Tony Trischka.

BF:  Right.  For a while, you wouldn’t really call what Tony did newgrass, but by current standards, we can go back and go, “All that stuff kind of fits neatly into this box.”  That’s where people are stretching: dawg music—the stuff David Grisman was doing; what the Dillards were doing with drums; Herb Pederson; what New Grass Revival was doing; what Bill Keith was doing with Jim Rooney.  Call it what you want.  I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter.  You either like it or you don’t.

FJO:  Now in terms of calling something jazz, did you find acceptance from the jazz community when you began heading in that direction?

BF:  Back then I was clawing my way in.  I wanted to be in, and I wasn’t really up to the task yet.  I tried to put together some groups to try to do that.  I don’t think you could really call Deviation a jazz record.  I guess you could probably call it a pop instrumental record with jazzy overtones, but pop with bluegrass instruments.  I don’t know what to call it, but there’s not a lot of improvising, just a little bit.  Everybody had little solos, but it wasn’t open. When I think about jazz, I tend to think that improvisation is the core—conversation from every angle: the bass player talking to the horn player, the drummer playing to the saxophone player. There’s a discussion going on and people are making decisions on the fly.  To me, that’s a lot of what makes it jazz. But a lot of music is like that, not just jazz.

FJO:  Bluegrass is like that sometimes, especially when groups play instrumental breakdowns.

BF:  It can be, but there are more immovable things in bluegrass.  The mandolin is generally going to play the offbeat and play certain chord shapes generally.  They’re not going to play that different just because of what the banjo player does.  The bass player’s not going to walk.  He’s not going to have a lot of freedoms. He’s going to play within a certain set role.  It’s not like he’s spontaneously deciding what the harmony’s going to be for the soloist from the bass.  That’s not going to be going on in bluegrass.  At least not so far.  It tends to be that when people expand bluegrass, with the exception of dawg music, it’s pretty scripted.  There’s a lot of planning.  With Strength in Numbers or the Punch Brothers, it’s very scripted. In a way, it’s more like classical composition, mixing with pop and bluegrass.  So it’s not often as free as it might feel like it is.

FJO:  But with the Flecktones, you did introduce all those elements.

Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)

Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)

BF:  Yeah, I think you could call Flecktones a jazz group, if you were willing to call all the different kinds of music throughout from Louis Armstrong up all jazz.  Duke Ellington’s jazz.  Charlie Parker’s jazz.  Those are very different.  Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is jazz.  Return to Forever is jazz.  Mahavishnu is jazz.  Is Shakti jazz?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  It’s very highly improvised, but is it jazz?  It’s probably more like Indian music.  We could be as different from jazz as Shakti was from jazz.  But that’s the world we were trying to claw our way into.  And we didn’t have such an easy time, especially at first, because it didn’t sound like it was necessarily jazz—a banjo player with a guy playing a drum machine guitar, a guy with a harmonica, and a funky bass player.  It was very confusing to people exactly what we were.  So for as much as we wanted to be embraced by the jazz world, it was very slow going.  The jazz guys would go, “Oh, okay.”  They weren’t going to fall all over themselves, but they didn’t hate us at all.  The musicians all seemed to like us and think it was pretty cool.  But luckily, regular people liked us.  And we would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, “Wow.  That’s hip, whatever that is.”  We managed to get quite an audience pretty quick—against all odds, honestly.  So when people would say, “Béla sold out now.”  I’d feel like, “I sold out?”  You could not plan the Flecktones, and you could certainly not plan for them to be successful.  There was one time people said, “They added vocals.  Dave Matthews is on the record just to sell records.”  If you heard the track, it’s in 17/8.  And it didn’t sell any more than any other Flecktones records.  It would have been nice if it did, but it didn’t work out that way.

“We would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, ‘Wow.  That’s hip, whatever that is.'”

FJO:  One of the greatest things in the world would be to get people on the street humming in 17/8.

BF:  That’s what’s always been exciting to the Flecktones—can we get people feeling an odd meter as if it’s not odd at all? Dave Brubeck did it wonderfully on “Take Five.”  There’s a pop sensibility, too.  We’re all kind of creatures of the pop world.  The guys were into James Brown, and I was into the Beatles. Howard was into Bulgarian music. It was a lot of different things coming together in that band.

excerpt from the leadsheet of Béla Fleck's composition

An excerpt from the published leadsheet of one of Béla Fleck’s most popular compositions, “Sunset Road,” which appeared on the first Flecktones album and which the Flecktones also later recorded with Branford Marsalis. Copyright © 1991 FLECK MUSIC (BMI)/Administered by BUG. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

FJO:  Now in terms of making contributions to different musical traditions, you mentioned Shakti, which was really about John McLaughlin immersing himself completely into classical Indian music and performing with some of the greatest Indian musicians, like L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain. So I have to bring up your own Tabula Rasa, which is probably one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours.

BF:  Thank you.  That’s another hidden one not too many people know about.

FJO:  It’s such a fluid synthesis, not just between Indian music and bluegrass, as per the dedication on the album to Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs; traditional Chinese music is also at the core of this music. It really is a fluid trio between you, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen.

BF:  I didn’t do the dedication; that was from the record company guy named Kavi [Kavichandran] Alexander.  He’s a cool guy and he has this wonderful recording technique.  He records stereo in a beautiful church in Santa Barbara. He arranges the musicians in front of the mic until it’s in balance.  He’s got a good ear for that, so maybe the mridangam player is back here and you’re over here because you’re louder, that whole weird thing that you have to do to record on one mic.  But then the room fills up with sound and it all comes into that microphone and he records it to tape, and it sounds awesome.  Part of the cement and connectivity has to do with that great recording approach and also the fact that you’ve got to sit there and play the music right in each other’s faces and really listen to each other since you’re super close to each other.

Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen on the cover of the CD Tabula Rasa

On Tabula Rasa, Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen seamless weave Appalachian, Karnatic and classical Chinese traditional music.

FJO:  What’s so wonderful to me about that record is how it references three seemingly very different musical traditions in a way that’s faithful to all of them, yet it’s completely fluid. A word that we haven’t yet used in our conversation with each other today is fusion. In terms of what the word actually means, I think it’s very positive, but critics coined this term and many have used the term quite disparagingly.

BF:  Because they got tired of rock drums with jazz and the way that the jazz players couldn’t have a conversation with the drummer.  It just became very bombastic. They called it fusion, and they got tired of it.  I understand why it happened.  The original fusioneers’ music was actually very interactive and responsive and very jazzy. There’s a lot of great music that came out of that. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were really special for that time and they hold up really well, as well as a lot of eras of jazz held up.  But what came after, when people started to imitate them—it just became a sea of sameness and less freedom and interactivity in the conversations that were happening in the music.  And I think that to the people that love jazz, fusion became a bad word because they weren’t seeing the things that they loved in the music anymore.

FJO:  Someone who was a key creative force in that music—in fact he was the founder of Return to Forever—is Chick Corea, but he’s also done tons of straight-ahead jazz and was also part of a free improvisational quartet with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. He’s even performed standard repertoire classical compositions and also composed his own works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. You’ve played some extraordinary duets with him in recent years, but you’ve been into his music for a very long time. You played his composition “Spain” on your very first solo album back in 1979, and it later became part of the repertoire of the Flecktones. So he seems to have been an important musical hero to you from the beginning.

BF:  Oh my God, he still is.  He’s a great example of somebody who not only is super talented, but is super good at being himself.  He has the strength to be himself over and over again, whether it’s popular or not, because what he does is very wide-ranging and a lot of things he loves to do are not for everybody.  When he likes to play his crazy atonal stuff, he can do it like nobody in the world. That’s not the easiest stuff to sell.  But he also has put a high premium on communication.  He’s learned that—and he knew this all along—there’s nothing wrong with playing beautiful music that people like, like the music he did with Gary Burton, or different periods in his life when he’s tried to do music that’s more consonant.  He doesn’t see it as one being better or worse than the other.  They are just a lot of different expressions for different times and different feelings.  And he’s gone after a lot of different things. So I’ve always listened to everything he does. I’m always curious and I also find it very inspiring because of his tight rhythmic command of the piano. You could either accuse it of being too perfect or too rhythmically tight, or you could say, “Holy cow, nobody in the world plays like that!” You know it’s him from the first second, and it gets you if you’re a rhythmic-based person.  It gets you in a way no other piano player can get you.  He has always gotten me that way.  So the banjo being a sharp-attack instrument, like his acoustic piano or his Fender Rhodes, I thought that’s more of a template for how I’d like to play the banjo.  Not that I ever could or ever will.  He also does a lot of short, stabby things that don’t use the whole piano. A lot of piano players have a hard time using just part of the piano; they’ve got to the use the whole thing.  But you don’t have to use everything.  You don’t have to use the whole orchestra.  You can use just a violin for a while. Because of the limitations of the tuning, I couldn’t get the banjo to do a lot of the things the piano could do or a lot of instruments can do. He showed me that I didn’t have to do that; a lot of that came from listening to him.

“I was a stalker.  I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.”

When we finally met, that was incredible.  I was a stalker.  I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.  I gave him some bluegrass records I made.  Then I ran into him at the Grammys and introduced myself again, and he had seen the “Sinister Minister” video when the Flecktones finally came up out of the ground. Anyway, one day I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and his agent came up to me and said, “Next year, Chick is thinking about doing these duets with three different people and he was wondering if you might consider. You’re on his list of possibilities.”  And I said, “Count me in.”  I just dropped everything, and we went and made this record and started touring together as a duo.  This was a dream come true.

We’ve done a lot.  He seemed to like me, and he’s given me a lot of rope to learn how to do the things that I’m not as good at.  We do a lot of the same repertoire, so I’ve been able to get better at it, and I’m throwing new things at him now that he’s interested in.  On the last tour, I taught him a really cool Bill Monroe tune, and he was really all over that.  It’s turned into a really great relationship.  We’ve been playing for seven or eight years now.  Almost every year we get together and do a month or a couple of weeks. This year it’ll be the same.  We’ll be going to Europe as a duo in July, and then in August, we’re going to put the Flecktones and his electric band together and do a couple of weeks of summer touring.  So that’ll be a lot of fun.

FJO: It’s surprising how well the piano and banjo blend with each other. They don’t seem like instruments that would complement each other.  The same is true for your collaborations with all these extraordinary musicians from Africa, like Oumou Sangare, although—as you pointed out earlier in our conversation—the banjo’s origins are in Africa. But to take it back there and actually work with musicians there is yet another re-contextualization. What is this music?  Is it world music?  Is it traditional music?  To my ears, it sounds like something else entirely.

BF:  Well, it’s more of a mash up than I usually like because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them so that they would change as I was changing.  It’s more of me trying to morph into their world.  It’s like them doing their thing and then, oh, look there’s Elmo in the middle.  I was trying my best to try to do that thing we talked about, where you try to make it feel like it’s supposed to be there, not like a mash up on the Grammys where B.B. King is playing with Metallica and they just do their thing at the same time.

For me, a great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.  They actually have to adjust to each other.  But because of the speed of that project, where I was in four countries over the course of essentially four weeks and playing with different people every day, there wasn’t time for that breaking in thing. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with some of those people if I could have played with them for two weeks before we recorded.  I was trying to do so much.  At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have enough time to learn each musical situation as much as I wanted to, so I could really fit in.  Eventually I just had to be myself in the situation—me with my positive and negative attributes in the middle of their music, doing my best.  In some cases, I could really study something and really actually learn some deep things about their music and be able to play that on the banjo. In other cases, I would play like a jazz musician and just play what came to me.

“A great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.”

FJO:  So-called classical music—the Western classical variety at least—is different from all the other kinds of music we’ve been talking about today. In all of these other traditions, whether it’s bluegrass, jazz, karnatic ragas, or the praise songs of Malian djeli, individual musicians come together and find their own musical voices as they navigate various pre-established practices. But with classical music, the blueprint for the actual music already exists in an idealized form on paper and it is then brought to life when musicians play it.  In a piece of music for a classical chamber music ensemble or an orchestra, each musician is given a specific written part. These musicians are trained to be the best they can possibly be at interpreting what somebody else has already written and then making all those parts fit together.  That’s very different from you coming and playing with them, and then you all grow and do other things in response to each other.  That’s not what classical music is about.

BF:  The way a classical musician can improvise is with feel and tempo. They can stretch things. They can take things at totally different tempos.  They can play with the tone and with the intensity.  They can play with dynamics.  The dynamics don’t have to be written in stone.  In fact, in a lot of Bach’s music, he doesn’t write any dynamics at all, which gives the musician a chance to play with it.  But no, I get your point.  I’m just being difficult.

FJO:  We talked earlier about traditions and how they evolved in bluegrass and in jazz; traditions evolved in classical music, too. Bach’s scores have very minimal dynamic indication and there are no metronomic indications at all because the metronome hadn’t been invented yet. So there are these amorphous tempo indications that musicologists now fight over.  What does andante mean?  How fast or slow should it be? But once you get to Beethoven, you get the metronome. Then throughout the 19th century, the details grow more and more specific.

BF:  Imagine how frustrated these guys were with hearing their music played poorly.  Why don’t they know to play this section stronger?  It’s obvious, but it’s not obvious.  They can’t tell, so I’ve got to write in these marks, just trying desperately to have some control over the situation. A lot of times, the premieres were disasters and got reviewed as such. Then you find out some years later that this is one of the greatest musical pieces ever created.  Nobody ever heard what the composer had in mind till a long time later.  Yeah, it’s got to have been very hard on those guys.

FJO:  Your first foray into classical music, Perpetual Motion, was as an interpreter, performing transcriptions of classical pieces. But before that you did Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall which, once again, is something else entirely yet it connects to classical music because it was embraced by classical music listeners even though it was an album of original compositions for instruments that aren’t necessarily part of the sound world of classical music. Perpetual Motion, however, consists of your own interpretations of classical music repertoire.  But that’s different than writing classical music compositions that other musicians are playing, which is what you’ve been doing for the past five years.

BF:  Right.  So Edgar Meyer is my entrée into that world. I met Edgar when we were both very young, and he was in Aspen going to school there in the summers, in the string school that’s there.  I was playing with New Grass Revival in one of my first years in that band.  I heard there was this great bass player who played on the street, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.  I used to play on the street in Boston.”  So I went to see him that night and ended up getting out my banjo.  We ended up having this jam and then going to someone’s house and playing late into the night. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Here’s a guy who’s a little younger than me who’s probably the greatest classical bass player who ever lived, but a lot more than that.  He also has a great love and ability outside of that world, but has a lot of training as a classical player and is also a composer, although he’s insisted he was never actually trained as a composer.  He just started writing. He’s been doing it the way he wants to, and he’s a genius composer.

So now I had a friend.  When I got into bluegrass and first started listening to Flatt and Scruggs, it was a long time before I had a friend who was great at traditional music.  It was a guy named Pat Enright, who joined Tasty Licks near the end.  That’s when I really started being interested in traditional music again, when I heard somebody doing it great right next to me.  Part of why I wanted to move down south and really understand that music was because of this Pat Enright character, who was such a great traditional singer that he gave me respect for the idiom.  My stepfather is a wonderful guy and a good musician, but he’s not a charismatic young figure on the cello.  He just loves to play classical music as a part of his life.  But now with Edgar I had a young guy who’s my age, who’s dashing and exciting, and he plays the bass like no one’s ever played it before.  And we’re peers, so I am not looking up at him like if he’d been Jascha Heifetz; he’s my pal.  So that opened the door. “Hey, you want to learn some Bach?”  I was like, “Okay!”  And he would sit there and teach it to me one note at a time until I could play it.  He had the patience to guide me through it. I would go see him do a recital with the piano and do some Scriabin and some Bach, and I would think, “Four hundred people sitting here listening to somebody play really beautiful, quiet music.  I never get to do anything like that.  For me to go play a recital with a piano player and learn some pieces like these, that would be neat.”

Then I watched him do his first orchestra piece, and it was brilliant.  Then my other friend Mark O’Connor did one and I thought, “People like me are doing things like this. I should be thinking about doing this someday!” Though it wasn’t something I was excited to hurry into because I just didn’t feel very qualified.  The door opened because there I was, in that orbit of Edgar.  At a certain point we wrote a piece for banjo and string quartet that was commissioned by someone in the Nashville Arts Commission for the Blair String Quartet.  That was the first writing I had done like that, and I saw how he did it.  I saw how he thought and how he built. I provided ideas and melodies, and he would say, “That’s good; let’s work with that one.  I can do a lot with that.”  And he would just start doing stuff; he was the mastermind.  Most people that are great classical composers are not good collaborators at composing.  Edgar’s actually very good at trying to find a way to take a lot from the other person while still having the control of making it the kind of piece it should be to stand up in that world.

FJO:  One of the most amazing things you composed together with Edgar and also with Zakir Hussain is a triple concerto that the three of you recorded with the Detroit Symphony. I’m curious to know how the three of you worked together on that.

BF:  Edgar was open at the right times and he was closed at the right times.  He took control when it was necessary.  He let us contribute, but he knew the backbone of the piece needed to come from someone with an overview.  So he was looking for the through story.  Zakir was like, “I’ve got all these tablas.  I can have different ones for different movements or different sections.” And Edgar said, “What if you have just one tabla in B and in the first movement we’ll play in F, and it will be the tritone, then we’ll move.  The next one’ll be in A, and the B will be the second or the ninth, and then, when we’ve finally reached the third movement, we’re in B.”  I don’t think that’s exactly the piece, but you get the idea.  The creative tension and the resolution would be when we got to the last movement and we were really actually in B.  That tone would be going through the whole piece.  That was a good idea; it gave the piece a storyline.  Anyway, first Edgar and I did a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Then they asked us to do a triple concerto when they built the new hall, because they wanted a piece to commemorate the opening.

“If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”

Then it was time for me to finally do my own.  I had done a string quartet with Edgar. I had done a double concerto and done the triple, but there was still no banjo concerto. In a weird way, I thought the banjo concerto was the biggest missing piece in the repertoire.  If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto. Until I started doing it, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do because it’s so different from the orchestra.  There are so many things you can show off that haven’t been heard in that context.  But the trick is: Where’s the backbone?  Where’s that brilliant Edgar mind to figure out how the whole thing’s going to go?  That was where I struggled: not in coming up with ideas, but coming up with a big picture.

Excerpt from the full orchestral score of Béla Fleck's The Imposter

A page from the full orchestral score of The Imposter (Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra) by Béla Fleck (from the third movement, “Truth Revealed”)
Copyright © 2011 Juno Jasper Music
Administered worldwide by Hendon Music, Inc., a Boosey and Hawkes company.
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

FJO:  You wrote very extensive notes for the DG recording of your first banjo concerto, and in them you mentioned that you never felt particularly comfortable reading staff notation.  You were really good at reading tablature, and so instead you composed with a banjo in hand then jotted down stuff in tablature. Thankfully, you could enter tablature into Sibelius, and it would convert it into notation.

BF:  Sibelius changed my life. When I did Perpetual Motion, it was a much harder time to do a project like that.  There were these transcriptions, and I had to get all the notes right.  Somebody can play them all into MIDI, and you can have all the pitches and you can manipulate them if you want. Finale was the only program that was working at that time, and they had this goofy little tablature thing that didn’t take itself very seriously.  The closest thing I could find was a four-string banjo tablature.  I would copy all the notes and paste them onto that.  There was no fifth string [in the tablature], so it would just put the notes anywhere on the neck it wanted to.  They were the right notes, but I couldn’t manipulate them.  Once they were on, they were on; I couldn’t change them.  So I would print that out and then add an extra line and start whiting out them and moving them to the right string, to create fingerings that were possible.  Before I learned each piece, I would go through this extensive process of getting the notes right and getting the fingerings right, because you don’t want to learn them before the fingerings are right.  Banjo playing is all about playing things in the right place, because there are a lot of places to play the same thing.  But if you play them in a wrong place, it’s not going to lead to the next phrase and you’re stuck.  You can’t get to there from here.  Everything has to lead properly, so it was a hell of a project.  But then Sibelius came out and their tablature program was so great. If an E was a two on the second string, but I needed it to be at the 14th fret of the fourth string instead of down there, because the next note was going to be way up here, I could just pull it and the number would change, and it would go to the right number all of a sudden. It was a very effective tablature program, and it would have made Perpetual Motion so much easier to do and so much more fun.  Now I have a way that I can really manipulate the tablature. If I write something complex, I can take that tablature and paste it onto a music staff and Howard Levy or Chick Corea can read it.  I have a way to communicate with those guys, even though I can’t read their notation.

excerpt from the leadsheet (in staff notation) of Béla Fleck's composition

An excerpt from the published leadsheet (in staff notation) of Béla Fleck’s composition “The Sinister Minister”
Copyright © 1991 FLECK MUSIC (BMI)/Administered by BUG. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

FJO:  So when you were working out individual parts in the concerto like, say, a part for clarinet, did you originally write it out in banjo tab and then convert it back using Sibelius?

“Sibelius changed my life.”

BF:  Not exactly.  Writing the banjo concerto, with orchestra staves which have all the instruments, I had a variety of things I could do.  One is just throw notes on there and move them around until I heard the pitch I wanted, and then change the value until I got the value I wanted, and then add the next note—do it one at a time like that.  Or I could come up with a banjo idea, put it into tablature, and then orchestrate it slowly with that same procedure.  Or I could get an idea in my head and try to put it in one note at a time on the clarinet—sing along, like I would if I was producing a record and someone came in to do a clarinet part, and we’re trying to come up with the part.  I would just start singing until I found something that was missing from the music. They’d learn it and then they would embroider it.  I could do that by myself.  I could build the bass part, build the melody, then look for inner voices that were missing and sing them, then try to find them and put them in one note at a time.  I did the orchestral writing more that way.  Because if you put a note on a staff and pop it up until you find the note you want, it’s kind of like writing in the dark, writing by ear rather than by writing by knowledge.  So that’s how both of those concertos were written.

FJO:  What’s interesting though is they’re written and they’re fixed on the page.  It’s not the same as humming a clarinet part to a studio musician who could learn it that way and then, as you say, embroider it. In classical music, the musicians expect to have the music that you want already worked out—down to tempo markings, dynamics, and articulations—so they can do right by you.

BF:  Yeah, you’ve got to give them everything.  But you don’t start out with that.  You start out with: where’s the heart of this thing?  Where’s the beat coming from? Then gradually, as you get closer to the end point when you have to deliver it, you start to fill in all the dynamics.  Now you know what they all are because you realize as you’re going along that you actually know everything you want.  But you don’t know that when you’re first writing.  I do it as a constantly evolving process. I keep on adding to it.

FJO:  So how flexible are you then with it?

BF:  You mean once I get to the orchestra?

FJO:  Since you come to other music with an improvising player’s sensibility, I wonder how open you are to musicians reshaping your original intentions.

BF:  When I work with Brooklyn Rider, who are also on the new Juno record, it’s so much more of a flexible situation where we could talk about every measure. Everybody’s going to have an opinion about every single phrase, about how they should bow it, about whether we should pull it back rhythmically.  You can’t have that dialogue with 90 people on an orchestra stage.  But you have the illusion of that kind of dialogue with the conductor where he says, “Maestro, it’s your music.  Just tell me what you want.” And I go, “No, you’re the conductor. If you have a strong feeling, please let me know.”  But in the end, it’s really going to come down to us doing it as close to what I envisioned as possible, and he’s going to be a sweetheart about it, and he’s going to try to get it there.  I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get. I’m going to be cautious and not overstep my bounds as a visiting artist with the symphony.  It’s this dance.  It all has to happen very fast.  You get one rehearsal and then a dress rehearsal the next day.  It’s hard music.  So there has to be a structure and free will is not really an option. Sadly.

I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get.

FJO:  You wished you had more time to work with the musicians when you were travelling around Africa, rather than only a week, but with an orchestra you’ve got just two hours.

BF:  Right.  That’s why everything has to be set.  It really is two hours.  We’ve got a two-and-half-hour rehearsal.  You only get the first hour because they have to practice the Copland for the second.  And the next morning, we get to do a run through, a dress rehearsal.  We play it down and we fix a few things, and then that’s it. Luckily I’ve got my part down.  I know how valuable that rehearsal time is and when I show up in front of an orchestra, I need to convince them this is worth them caring about somehow.  So I play every rehearsal as if it’s the final performance.  I try to play my parts as convincingly as I do at the concert because I want them to go, “Oh, this is actually pretty good.  I’d better sound as good as the soloist.”  I want the band to sound as good as the soloist. A lot of times they’ve got 150 services that year. They’ve got to have a reason to care about each one. Everyone wants to do a good job, but it’s just coming at them day after day after day.  You’re going to be gone in two days.  It’s just like being a session player.  You want the session player to care about your song.  You want passion.

FJO:  You called your first concerto The Imposter, which can mean many different things depending on how you interpret it. It could be about feeling like you’re somehow not a “real” composer because you’d never written such a thing before.

BF:  Right.

FJO: But now you’ve written two of these things, so you’re definitely not inexperienced at this anymore. The second one had to have been easier to write than the first one.

BF:  I wasn’t as frightened while I was writing it.

FJO:  And in your description about this second concerto, you described how writing music has become an activity that you can do at all hours, really late at night or early in the morning when your wife and three-year-old son are both asleep. You treasure having this alone time to write this music, but this is completely different than how you’ve been creating music your whole life—making music with other people and getting ideas from being in that zone.

BF:  It’s really different. I’ve also had to learn that if you’ve only got a half an hour, or 45 minutes, you can’t go, “Well, that’s not enough time to get something done.”  It’s kind of like being healthy.  I need to learn these things, too. I’ve only got 15 minutes; that’s not enough time to work out.  Well, it is.  You can go do some pushups.  You can go walk around the block.  So I say, “Okay, I’ve got 15 minutes, maybe I can just work on that counterpoint in movement three.”  I can work on that because I know I haven’t got that piccolo thing working right with the bassoon, or whatever thing that I’m working on.  I’ve learned that you can accomplish a lot of little things.  You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.  Just put on the headphones.  Go listen and do some work on something you’re not satisfied with.  At some point, you’ll have to put in enough work to have something worth working on.  Tweaking is just a piece of it.  You have to have inspiration.  You have to have melodies you love enough and materials that you think are meaningful enough to develop.

Excerpt from the full orchestral score of Béla Fleck's Juno Concerto

A page from the full orchestral score of Juno Concerto by Béla Fleck (from Movement I)
Copyright © 2016 Juno Jasper Music
Administered worldwide by Hendon Music, Inc., a Boosey and Hawkes company.
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

“You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.”

The great thing has been that I don’t have to travel away from my family very much.  If I go do actual performances, it’s going to be three or four days.  It’s not like I’m joining a band and going around the world to promote a new record.  Orchestra dates are not constant.  They’re occasional, and the writing is a way for me to continue to explore and be the kind of musician that I want to be in the context of this new life where my wife and I are playing a more folk-based kind of music as the center of what I’m doing with my life, so that in this period where my son is young, we can all be together.  We travel together as a family.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to do complicated music.

FJO:  So now that you realize you don’t have to tour around the world and that you can write music from your home, the next step is for you write pieces that you’re not playing in.

BF:  I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t quite crossed over to that.  Edgar finally did his first one, just a few weeks ago.  He wrote a piece for the Nashville Symphony, his first symphony, and he’s not playing on it.  I have to talk to him about how that felt.  I’m not sure that anyone would be that interested in it if I wasn’t playing, but we’ll see what happens.  Maybe someone will ask me to do something like that one day.

FJO:  I’m totally interested.  I want to hear a wind quintet by you, especially after hearing about your attempts with a French horn in high school. You could get some other French horn player to finally play that F!

BF:  Yes.  You get the F, man. I’m not getting the F.  I’ll get the G.  The banjo’s tuned to G.  But it’s exciting to put the banjo in front of an orchestra.  It’s a classy situation.  It presents the banjo in a way that has been very rare, and I’ve been able to do it a lot now. And it broadens the reach. My audience, a lot of them might not go to a classical show; some of them would, but a lot of them might not.  But because they like what I do, they will come and see an orchestra and have this different experience. They want to see what that’s like. Then there’s the audience that only goes to classical shows, which is a lot of people in our country. They bought the series tickets in this town or that town, and they come to all the shows, ten shows a year, whatever, and that’s their musical life.  Now here I am stuck in the middle of that, and then they see that.  Between those two audiences, it’s usually a pretty good audience.  A lot of times the orchestras tell me that it was a really solid turnout for what they do, or better than normal.  So it makes me feel good.

FJO:  How would you feel about another banjo player playing one of your concertos and you sitting in the audience?

BF:  That’s fine.  I’m hopeful that that will happen one day.  There are certainly four or five now that could do them probably better than me in terms of ability—like Noam Pikelny or Ryan Cavanaugh. They wouldn’t conceptualize things or write things the way I can, but they can play the things and they have their own music that they’re obviously great at.  There was a long time when I was the only person who could play this stuff, but I think that’s changed and I’m excited for that.  And that’s part of why I want to create a lot of repertoire for the banjo in the classical world, so that banjo players have something they can do.  There was no repertoire.  Playing transcriptions is really a losing game because a piece that’s written for the piano, by the time you reduce it to fit on the banjo, it’s just not what it was made for.  But if you can write some new music that is made for what the banjo does well, then it can win.  It’s not trying to be a violin.  You can learn a lot from learning music for other instruments, but in the end you’ve got to be yourself.  Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great, just like Chopin is written around what the piano does great.

“Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great.”

FJO:  The banjo has been so central to your life that you’ve even married another banjo player, Abigail Washburn, who is also an extraordinary musician and now—which you’ve already mentioned—you play music together. I’m curious if living with someone else who is also a formidable force on the instrument has changed your musical aesthetics in any way and vice versa.  Are you influenced by what she’s done?  And she by you?  How has that played out?

BF:  I think we both helped each other be better musicians, and she’s certainly helped me to be a better person.  And the process of having a child has taught me a lot about putting things into perspective. What’s important is not always the same at every given moment.  Music doesn’t always win.  But sometimes it makes you a better person to realize that, and then it makes you a better musician—the things that you care about writing and the way you approach it.  And she’s taught me.  She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger.  They’ve almost never historically played together.  So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before, which is a musical form based around these two banjo styles interacting.  And luckily she’s a fabulous singer and a very good songwriter.  What she does great is she creates bedrock parts to build the songs around, which means I can be free-wheeling on top, being a soloist, or I can be the bass player.  Or she can be the bass player and I can do the other parts.  There are a lot of different ways to arrange those two banjos.  She also gives me a chance to play some beautiful music in a different style than I’ve gotten to do in a long time and to work with a vocalist, which I haven’t gotten to do really since New Grass Revival days in a regular way.

“I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals.”

I love working with vocalists.  It’s not that I’m anti-vocal.  I love the banjo being the center, too, and not having to have a vocal for the music to be complete.  I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals. She has a purity and a warmth and a truth-ness to her singing that moves me, and I get excited about working with it and creating musical structures around it and improvising around it, too.  So that’s really good. And I teach her, because her style and the way she’s learned it, she was never ambitious to become a hotshot banjo player.  In that world of banjo, that’s not really what it’s about anyway.  Old time playing is more about groove and rhythm.  But I’ve helped her to add things to her toolkit to make the songs better and voicelead a little bit when we’re creating a song.  I’ll say, “Well, that part’s great.  Just add this note.  That’s going to give you the flat sixth, and it’ll be really cool as a passing chord on the way to this.”  Then suddenly we have a voiceleading in her part that gives me the opportunity to do something else on top.  You know, those kinds of things.  But I try to point her towards things that are super natural—not supernatural—for her style.  And she seems to enjoy just getting pushed out of a corner.  She’s used to doing this. What if you have to restart after five notes? It’s the same pattern you always do, but you’ve got to restart it.  That suddenly gives us a new kind of groove to play with.  I throw ideas at her, and she throws ideas at me.

FJO:  You named your son Juno, but as far as I know there are no significant 20th-century composers named Juno.

BF:  Right.  Some writers.

FJO:  So is Juno going to be playing the banjo?

BF:  He plays a little ukulele banjo now, strumming.  And he loves to buck dance.  He sees momma dance on stage with me and so he copies that.  It’s really fun to watch him do that.  He loves to play golf.  That seems to be his biggest passion so far.  Neither of us are golfers.  It’s just one of those fluky things.  He saw it on TV when he was with his grandfather, because we don’t watch TV with him right now very much at all.  We don’t want to get that going.  But once he saw that, all of a sudden, he wanted to golf, and so he’s been pretty serious about that for the last couple of years.

FJO:  Beware of watching TV because watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV is what set you on your way.

BF:  That’s right.  It was a very special thing that they let us watch TV for that hour in my grandparents’ bedroom when I was four or five.  It was an unusual thing.  We weren’t afraid of TV back then.  This would have been like ’62 or ’63.  Now we know we should be afraid of it.

The cover of Béla Fleck's latest CD, Juno Concerto, which features his son Juno, wearing sunglasses.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s son Juno graces the cover of Fleck’s latest recording Juno Concerto, released by Rounder Records on March 3, 2017, which features his second banjo concerto performed with the Colorado Symphony conducted by Jose Luis Gomez as well as quintets for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.