Tag: music education

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.

The Role of the Mentor

Michael Tilson Thomas and Teddy Abrams

Music is one of the remaining professions where the master/pupil relationship still thrives. I had a number of incredible mentors; some of them were positive, encouraging types, others not so much. I’ve seen it all. I would say it’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor for a young musician. It is one thing to hear someone play in a masterclass; it’s another thing to actually care about that musician’s progression and development over months and years. I fortunately had that, and I think under pretty cool circumstances.

It’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor for a young musician.

I’ve told this story many times, but it is still something I think about every day. I saw my first-ever orchestra concert when I was nine years old. It was pretty much my first live concert of any type—a free, outdoor concert in San Francisco. The experience was so magical and overwhelming I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a conductor for the rest of my life. I wrote a letter to the conductor—Michael Tilson Thomas—and I went on and on about the experience, about how much I loved what I saw, the kind of music he was leading, how enthusiastic I was, how I knew I would be a conductor, and then asked if he would give me a lesson.  It probably came across as a crazy person’s letter, but I was nine years old so I guess I got a pass because two weeks later I got a response. I have that response hanging in my room right now. If Michael Tilson Thomas could take the time to write me a letter, give me conducting advice, and basically teach me a conducting lesson right then and there, then I can do the same thing for any young musician who comes across my path.

So for our first Classics concert in the Festival of American Music, Michael Tilson Thomas is coming to Louisville to conduct the Louisville Orchestra in a program filled with uniquely American composers and including some of Michael’s own work. It can’t be overstated how special this is, because Michael is one of the real icons of American music. The span and diversity of his career is extraordinary, and the impact he’s had on orchestras, composers, and education is vast, so for him to come to the Louisville Orchestra is a very big deal for us. This is a musician who collaborated with Audrey Hepburn and who used to regularly work with James Brown. He was Leonard Bernstein’s protégé. Michael’s mind is so active and so curious that it’s impossible to lock it down and his compositions reflect that. One of his signature works is From the Diary of Anne Frank created for a series of benefit UNICEF concerts in 1991 that featured Audrey Hepburn as the narrator. Michael has a contrabassoon concerto that’s all about night creatures in urban environments. His newest work is an incredible vocal and jazz-inspired work on Carl Sandburg’s poetry that combines populism with heavy subject matter. Michael is just fascinating; there’s nobody quite like him. You can talk to him about anything, just name it. He’s one of the most brilliant, well-read, and knowledgeable people about virtually anything.

I will always look up to him as a mentor and teacher. He was always interested in my opinions, and that’s something that distinguishes him as a teacher. He would always ask me, “What do you think about that?” or “How did this affect you?” But now we’re also colleagues to a certain extent, and he’s entrusting folks like me to take these messages and all the things that I’ve absorbed from him and his work, and apply them. Had I not been around people like Michael Tilson Thomas growing up, I’m not sure I would have the same drive and desire to do all this work in the community, to do all this work with young people, and to be out there in ways that are beyond what you would expect of a conductor. In 2014, the Louisville Orchestra launched a new series that would take the orchestra out into the community to do performances outside of our usual venues. Since then, we’ve performed in churches, synagogues, and community centers throughout Louisville as well as across the river in southern Indiana. Our musicians are out in the schools with ensemble visits and I also do a series of masterclasses throughout the community with all ages of young musicians from elementary through high school. And in 2015, we started two youth leadership/mentoring programs for elementary and high school students. The 4th and 5th grade students learn to conduct and have a chance to conduct the orchestra as part of our legacy education program MakingMUSIC. This is the age I had my opportunity to conduct so I really wanted to pass that love of conducting on to these young students and I thoroughly enjoy getting to teach them!  The high school program centers on juniors and seniors who have a passion for the arts and are considering an arts career. I meet with them monthly to discuss everything from auditioning and looking at universities/colleges/conservatories to having them sit in on rehearsals. They also have to do a service project that connects their community with the arts. We have thirteen students in the program this year and they just presented their ideas for their service projects and I am so inspired by what these young people have in mind. These projects include helping middle school students connect with classical music, performing in senior assisted living homes, setting up performances for a local orchard, and an Eagle Scout project to turn an empty room at a local high school into a performance space.

4th and 5th grade students have a chance to conduct the orchestra.

I keep thinking to myself if I don’t mentor folks and get involved with them, then who’s going to care for the next generation? In my mind, a mentor is someone who can actually serve as a role model for what a great person or a great musician might be and that’s where you’re going to get folks hopefully emulating and striving to do that kind of work because those are the kinds of musicians you want around.

That’s the whole point of doing this kind of work in the arts to begin with, and I think Michael understands that innately—that we’re sharing something a lot deeper than a piece of music. That’s what was passed down to me and that’s what I’m trying to do for other people too, to help them see that music is far more powerful than they may have ever thought.

The Empowering Art of Music

If I could go back in time and talk to myself before I embarked on my 37 years of teaching, I would be kind. I would gently omit the pain of carrying too much of the student’s world home with me. I would subtly sidestep the bureaucratic framework that often made teaching a challenge. I would not want to discourage anyone from the vastly underrated but magical career of teaching. Teaching students who have allowed the art of music to deepen their sense of humanity has been a privilege. This parade of students who still march through my mind in colorful colliding recollections learned how to live peaceably with each other. They shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.

The students I’ve taught have shared the common bond of music and learned to celebrate their uniqueness while respecting the differences of others.

My first school position was at Hugo Junior High School in Hugo, Oklahoma. My assignment was to teach general music to all seventh and eighth graders. I jumped in and taught each class as if it were the most important course of their lives. Music theory, singing, choreography, classical solos, ensemble competitions, musical theater—these talented students responded to the energetic call for musical excellence. One of these students went on to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music. I forgot to mention that at that time, we had no air conditioning in our building and our county had the highest welfare rate in the state of Oklahoma. I visited one student in a home that had no running water. When my principal helped us find money in the budget to assist some students with purchasing choir uniforms, it was a beautiful day.

My next position was at Valliant High School in Valliant, Oklahoma. In a rural school community whose lumber plant funneled tax dollars back into the school district, the school’s facilities were extremely new and luxurious. I not only had AC, but my own office, a music library, classroom risers, and a new performing arts center with excellent lighting and sound. What a contrast in public school equity and access. The students were unlike the suburban kids I grew up with. These rural students really only liked country music. I knew that in order to influence them to develop their musical skills, I would have to find some common ground. My strategy was to perform songs that they liked, and then present them with more traditional choral repertoire. We did a spring concert of all country music and the auditorium was packed. After that, they would sing anything (including classical music) that I put in front of them. They saw that I was willing to accept their cultural norms and meet them halfway. I learned from my students that square dancing was fun and that country music is a soul-stirring form of music.

One afternoon, we were gathering donations of farm implements for an upcoming concert’s set design. While visiting the barn of the grandpa of one of my students, he showed me his working bootleg whiskey still! The lumber company donated material for our set. The community took great pride in supporting the students and the school music program. I witnessed music bring out a new confidence in some of the introverted students. One of my students had been physically abused as a child. The shadow of this haunting past disappeared when he sang beautifully with others. He, along with other students, discovered musical gifts that they did not know they possessed.

Students in music class working with a tool to assist in learning musical notation.

While living in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, I taught at Wilson Elementary School. Some 420 elementary students from kindergarten through fifth grade marched in and out of my classroom weekly. The principal was very supportive and backed many creative initiatives. The principal even allowed me to purchase 30 small keyboards and set up a piano lab. It was a creative outlet for the students and their musical skills grew.

The fifth graders wrote a rap called “We All Need to Read” which won a competition to inspire literacy. It was performed at the State Capitol with choreography. The video was played on our city television station as a public service announcement. The students were champions of literacy through this original composition.

In addition, our school presented a dramatic interpretation of the book Aida, the opera by Verdi as told by Leontyne Price (1997) and even our janitor, Robby, gallantly portrayed a character (in costume) so that the story would come to life for the students. One of my favorite exploits was the kindergarten presentation of The Nutcracker, for which students made glamorous masks for each character out of the Enfamil baby formula boxes that I had saved from home. At Wilson Elementary I also team taught a multi-handicapped class with the physical education teacher. Some students who struggled with the inability to talk or walk learned to keep steady rhythms on large drums. Students who had limited forms of communication learned to imitate rhythmic patterns on the hand drums. Their joy was contagious!

Students who struggled with the inability to talk or walk learned to keep steady rhythms on large drums.

I was so excited to teach secondary music in my next position as high school choral director at North Lamar High School in Paris, Texas. There was one small problem. Only twelve students enrolled in the mixed chorus of this newly consolidated rural school district. They were very talented, just few in number. Four years later, we were 43 members strong and the sweepstakes winners of the Texas UIL choir and sight-reading competition. These young singers learned varied choral repertoire in German, French, Italian, and Latin. We started a yearly tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah with other schools in our city accompanied by the Northeast Texas Symphony. These students learned so much about teamwork, unity, and support for each other, as well as discipline, focus, and hard work. Several of these young men are now community leaders in the Dallas area. The soprano All-State winner became a high school choral director. One young man returned to this same school many years later to become the theater instructor. What an inspiring example of giving back to the community by investing your life as a teacher of the arts in your own hometown.

Next in my professional music timeline, I began a doctoral program in music education in the Dallas metroplex. In addition to the course work, I began my next assignment at the much-beloved Dallas elementary school, Walnut Hill Elementary. Our class was in the basement directly below the stage. It sounds pretty spooky, but thankfully a large bank of windows lined the outer wall. The stairs were very steep, so I taught the students to hold onto the rail and chant, “Stay to the right and hold on tight….” The classroom was decorated with instruments from all over the world. The Hispanic English-language learners were especially emboldened in music class. Learning English with the help of elongated speech or singing was so beneficial to their phonemic awareness and language development. I observed a stark contrast in these jubilant faces and voices in music class when compared to the stressed and intense demeanor they had in their regular academic classrooms. The music class was their oasis; in our classroom, they were treated equally by all of the other students in the school. We learned songs from all different countries and performed them with costuming and colorful props… celebrating the many kinds of “us”. That year our school was awarded the “National Blue Ribbon School” status.

Music class was their oasis.

On the recommendation of a Fine Arts Coordinator, my next position was in an inner city middle school that was struggling to regain the music program. This very diverse school population was 82% at risk of dropping out before high school graduation, and in most instances, their home lives were very fragile. After establishing a sense of order and routine, the students embraced the creativity and joy of our music classes. For a Martin Luther King program, I asked students to write a short piece of prose on what freedom meant to them. It was so powerful to hear the strong verbiage that came from these 7th and 8th grade students. Hardship was no stranger to them. They shared these readings in a performance of songs honoring Dr. King. It was unusual to hear that such young students had such fierce understandings of freedom. They sang strong that day of peace and liberty for all.

The fifth hour class was challenging. The majority of the boys had spent time in the juvenile detention center. The ugliness of life emanated from them through their speech, their body language, and their tough demeanors. The most musical thing they did was to beat on their desks throughout the day with their pencils. I decided that this was a starting point. I brought in every kind of drum I could find and a culturally responsive pedagogy evolved. We learned how to notate rhythm, how to create new rhythms, and before I knew it, the boys were putting prose with their rhythms. They were writing songs, chanting and rapping. The context of the lyrics they chose were phrases describing their world as they knew it. They were composing in groups of three and four. They were performing in class. They added choreography. With much practice, they began performing at a very high level.

I asked the students to perform one of their best raps on the spring concert. They knew that the rules of only “G rated” lyrics were required. They honored this requirement and after performing at the concert not only had they validated their journey, but their peers observed that music was a form of release from their angst. The second year our girls’ choir won the Texas University Interscholastic League Choral Sweepstakes in sight reading. I continued the strategy of allowing students to share their favorite popular music. Every Friday we watched Beyoncé or some other pop star as a reward for the week’s hard work of singing, sight reading, and music theory lessons. One of my girl’s uncles taught salsa dancing at Gloria’s Restaurant in Arlington. After school we all learned to salsa and performed this while singing “Maria” by Santana. The cultures intermingled in harmony in our classroom. They learned to respect each other through the words of Martin Luther King, Latin chant, and through the choreography of the salsa. It was a melting pot. What had started out as chaotic was not perfect, but it was a rich, mesmerizing mix of 64 different native languages that lived together in the Irving Independent School District. Music was a bridge to cultural competence and communication. This is the experience that served as the catalyst for my dissertation topic, “Elementary music teachers instructing Hispanic English language learners: Reflection on practice” (2005).

Music was a bridge to cultural competence and communication.

My music teaching led me next to a large public suburban high school in Grapevine, Texas, just minutes from the Dallas International Airport. One morning as I led the 50-member varsity choir in warmups, there was a break for announcements before our rehearsal began. I needed to check with the band director next door about the instrumental students who would be accompanying us on the upcoming concert. As I walked into the band room, I noticed that several students were gathered around a television set and an eerie sight was on screen. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I discussed with the band directors that surely this was just a poorly trained pilot who had mistakenly crashed into the building. As the next few minutes unfolded and the second tower was hit, an unsettling fear hovered over us. I returned to the choir room and announced the tragic scene. Several of our students had parents who were pilots or who worked for American Airlines, which headquarters in nearby Fort Worth. We were in shock. We were all broken. After a few minutes of wild speculation and discussion, I decided we would watch the news on our classroom television as well. As the gruesome scene came to life, I could sense the fear and anxiety in our choir. After the facts were made known, I decided that a choral piece we had just learned was just the medicine needed to calm our fears and help us make it through the next hours. Lutkin’s arrangement of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” was the selection I asked the students to perform.

The members of the Grapevine High School Varsity Choir standing on a stage and singing.

The Grapevine High School Varsity Choir

After the first run through, I had an idea. “Students, follow me down the hall in single file order.” So they followed me down the long hallway past the office and the auditorium. We exited out the front door and circled around the tall flagpole where the cold wind was whipping the American flag. Our school was in the flight path of DFW Airport. All of the normal air traffic had stilled in the sky above us. Even the birds were flying erratically. I stated, “Students before we sing this song, let’s have a moment of silence, reflection, and prayer for all of those people who have been affected by today’s events in our country.” At this moment a small white pickup careened into the adjacent parking lot and a man hurriedly got out of his vehicle and walked urgently over to our circle. “Do you mind if I join you?” he said. “Of course,” I said. And we joined with this total stranger in singing these strong and meaningful words:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.”

Many lessons were learned that day in music class. Mostly love.

It is the right of all students to express themselves creatively.

As I reflect on these and other teaching experiences, I count it as a blessing to live in a free country with public school for all students. During this economic season, many public schools are considering cutting funding for music and other arts. I hope that reading these accounts of music in public school has shown the many positive ways that music serves to inspire students to respectfully engage in a global world. Reflecting on these music education experiences reminds me that music has brought comfort and joy to a great many students. Our schools should be academically rigorous and support creative, critical thinkers. It is the right of all students to express themselves creatively. I consider it a great privilege to teach the empowering art of music.

I don’t have to choose, do I?

A guitar surrounded by a pile of leadsheets and scores

My love for music always seemed clear to me, regardless of the style or form, but there was a disconnect for me as a young writer. I had the desire to compose, having an opera and another multi-media project in my head at age sixteen, but I had massive anxiety over not knowing how to make the music come to fruition. I was overwhelmed by my insecurity, thinking I didn’t know how to do it “right.” I had no mentors to guide me in compositional vision. I didn’t even know what to ask for. I was a suburban teenager with no family background in music, attending piano lessons each Tuesday and practicing four to five hours a day in secrecy from my rock-n-roll friends. The training I received was very traditional and I loved it, but it also intimidated me. Perhaps that intimidation is endemic to the culture? A lot of feelings weren’t clear to me until many years later when I analyzed my own relationship to music.

Professionally, I identify as both composer and songwriter. I don’t have to choose, do I? I can have both, yes? What is the difference between songwriting and composing anyway? When does a songwriter call herself a composer, or the other way around?

Typically the word composer refers to a person who writes notated music on paper—or using software, as the case may be. Music that is composed is usually thought of as concert music of the Western tradition and is commonly referred to as “classical music.” The ol’ Wikipedia states, “In broader usage, ‘composer’ can designate people…who create music, as well as those who create music by means other than written notation: for example, Blues or folk singers and guitarists who create songs through improvisation and recording and popular music writers of musical theatre songs and arrangements. In many popular music genres, such as rock and country, musicians who create new songs are typically called songwriters.” Fairly broad, indeed. Let me try to break it down from my perspective.

Music has a long history and many traditions. New generations of composers study the music of composers who came before them. Because humans tend to organize and categorize, many forms in music have been built and coined over centuries. Form is basically the shape, order, or architecture of a piece of music. There are most likely a hundred or so recognized forms in Western music, for example: symphony, opera, oratorio, fugue, mass, string quartet, piano trio, sonata, etc.…and song. Each of these forms has their individual identity and structure. Composers typically study these forms, filling their compositional toolboxes, using standard historical contexts, putting their own signature on the music, and taking pleasure in the tedious analysis of music. They study the ranges and capabilities of various instruments and often compose according to logistical performance opportunities. They sometimes stretch sonic possibilities and procedures, forging new sounds, creating new techniques for voice and instruments, this changing current practice.

Song form has a long history and diverse cultural contexts. Songs can be complex or simple in their form. They are shaped with repeated melodies and harmonic structures organized into verse, chorus and often a bridge, in various orders. The lyrics of a song often speak the language and reflect the heart and mindset of the songwriter. Songs can be heard in musicals, on blues records, in rock, country, standard repertoire and other genres. Typically songs are reflective of popular culture. The accessible melodies become recognizable to the listener. Throughout history, songs have been written to encourage, accompany, reflect and tell stories of the human condition. Even simple songs composed of just three chords can have a lasting effect on generations because of their catchy and accessible melodies. (I am choosing not to discuss here the specific topic of formulaic songs written for the sole purpose to sell records.)

A songwriter writes songs. Some songwriters read music, and some do not. Some do analysis of their songs; some don’t analyze the chord progression or think about form. Songs are typically between 2 and 5 minutes in length. Some songwriters write lyrics and others work in collaboration with a lyricist. Regardless of the songwriter having formal music education or not, writing a good song is a well-honed craft.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of a group of scores and leadsheets and a pen.

Photos by Angela Castañeda

Music is not the notes on the page. Music is what we feel when listening, what moves us; and since we are each little snowflakes, different music will affect each of us in different ways. When working with musicians who are not fluent in the language (“What is a I IV V chord progression for chrissakes? Just play the song!”) I’ve often thought of the countless classic stories written throughout history by storytellers who don’t read or write. Ya don’t have to write the words down on a page in order to tell a great story! And you don’t have to be musically literate to make great music. Beloved folksongs that have survived through generations have been created and taught by ear.

All through my studies of traditional Western music­ starting at eight years old, practicing classical piano all through high school, attending college at a jazz school as a piano major, and later as a composition major­, I always listened to a lot of rock-n-roll. Songs. I was a serious piano player and a lover of sloppy guitar licks. While I basked in the beauty of Beethoven and Chopin melodies, I equally rocked out to Aerosmith and Janis Joplin. In high school, I was excited to learn of Frank Zappa who merged concert music with song.

Improvisation. There is a stereotypical understanding that the so-called classical musician does not improvise. Jazz musicians improvise. Rock musicians improvise. Songwriters improvise. But classical musicians do not improvise. But they used to be adept improvisers. Many of the composers in the 18th century were incredibly prolific. Haydn, for example, wrote more than 100 symphonies, approximately 75 string quartets, operas, oratorios, etc. His responsibility to entertain the court on a regular basis would only be possible through the improvisational talents of the musicians who played his work. He most likely had something akin to lead sheets at times, not totally unlike what jazz musicians read today. (A lead sheet is a page with a short hand map of the music: melody, rhythm, and harmonic progressions). Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms were all adept improvisers. In fact, the cadenza, a common indication in a piece of music, was for the player to improvise­ to show off his virtuosity. I heard a story once that Beethoven was not fond of any ol’ musician interpreting his music, so he began writing out the cadenzas. Other composers followed suit and eventually the art of improvising was lost to the average classical musician. So I did not learn how to improvise as a young student. I only learned to read what was on the page. And I learned in a very traditional manner, steeped in a mindset of hierarchy, vigorous, competitive, intimidating hoopla that resulted in insecurity.

Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged.

Music, like dance, is primal to humans. Why are we not dancing and singing like we did as little kids? Because our puritanical culture dictates that only the very good, educated artists have that right. This thinking hurts our collective psyche, our mental and physical health. It breaks my heart when an 8-yeard old piano student says she can’t sing. Someone told her that. Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged. But tradition is so engrained in us that only the great musicians get to do that. Of course musicians do earn the credit and praise that come with countless hours each day over years to become virtuosic at their instrument and compositional skills. But experts should not intimidate the right to create music out of people.

So I taught myself how to play guitar. At first I bought a few chord books of songs by Neil Young, The Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I learned how to position the chords on the neck, and I started writing my own chord progressions. Then I took a page from Joni Mitchell and began tuning my guitar in all sorts of ways, until I didn’t really know what chords I was playing. I allowed this instrument to be my creative compositional outlet. To this day I don’t know the neck with anywhere near the understanding I have with the keyboard, and I have always liked it that way. (Although I am trying now to become more proficient.) I do improvise on the piano now, a lot, which is how I most often start writing a song. I combine both my love for song and my knowledge of composition to guide me in my music writing.

I know I am not alone when it comes to the intimidation factor of improvisation. A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life. I think a great balance can be achieved by marrying the creative impulses with a plethora of tools in the composer’s toolkit, not unlike a painter who studies how to mix color. More knowledge can lead to various options, making music richer, more compelling. Intimidation has no place in creativity.

On the other end of the spectrum, I grew up during second wave punk, and the mantra amongst most rock and punk musicians I knew was: “I don’t wanna know too much about what makes music,­ the theory behind it; I just wanna play it.” The energy of the music was what was important. The fear of knowing or thinking too much was endemic in the punk rock movement. I think disengaging from the macro­, that puritanical­ culture, played no small role in this mindset. The beauty of not having to know a lot about music theory is that more people are able to play and write music. This mindset broke down the wall of music being only played by well-educated musicians.

A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life.

At extremes, there is a prejudicial intolerance between these two mindsets of musicians that has always bothered me. I see that as a misunderstanding between non-literate musicians (meaning they don’t know the “language” or theory of music) and traditionally trained musicians. I see this rift as a bit of ego getting in the way of appreciation. I’ve experienced this conflict first hand at the college I first attended and later taught at for a cumulative 15 years. The school’s excellent composition program focused on 20th century standard practice, but in the early 21st century the school was inundated with contemporary songwriters in the genres of folk, hip hop, and electronic music—and the faculty had little idea of what to do with them. Some schools have started songwriting programs in the last few years, but the influx of young people wanting to study composition for songwriting is a fairly new thing. Questions arise. Should songwriters learn to write fugues? Should they care about John Cage and Edgard Varèse? Should departments limit their rigorous expectations to accommodate one form of writing? Should all composition students study all musical forms knowing they only want to write in song form? These questions also play into attitudes about music composition and literacy that can get heated on both sides. I think there’s room for all, but academia is going through understandable growing pains.

We are products of what we are exposed to and what we let into our lives. My record, Element 115 (Uup), is a hybrid from a composer and songwriter. I am sure that the experiences I’ve had playing hard rock and composing for chamber ensembles and theater have played a significant role in my songwriting and arranging, just as concert music and pop songs are intermingling more today than ever before. My piano students are reminded regularly that the Mozart piano sonata and the Chopin prelude they are learning are not “songs.” Composers and concert musicians who grew up with a heavy diet of pop songs are bringing those songs into their concert repertoire. In his residency at Town Hall a few years ago, cellist Joshua Roman presented chamber arrangements of Radiohead alongside Messiaen. He intentionally introduced the audience who came to hear Radiohead to acoustic instrumental arrangements and, more importantly, to a 20th century music great. At the same time, he enabled concert hall subscribers to openly hear music by artists they may not have otherwise known about. During Ludovic Morlot’s inaugural concert year at the Seattle Symphony he programmed Frank Zappa next to Beethoven, speaking to the audience and instructing them on how to listen to Zappa. Although Zappa’s Perfect Stranger is not in song form, the artist is widely known for his songs for The Mothers of Invention. This cross-disciplined programming is exciting, and a natural product of the current generation of concert artists’ exposure to pop and rock songs.

Songwriters may or may not have knowledge of the written language, a.k.a. notation and theory, but music is not on the page. It’s what and how you communicate. Good music is good music. A simple three-chord rock song can move me just as intensely as an Arvo Pärt symphonic work. Young songwriters are influenced by the multitude of music available online, and young composers are appreciative and knowledgeable about simple and not-so-simple songs and write in both forms. Amen.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of Gretta with a group of scores and leadsheets.

Music is So Flippin’ Hard: Adversity Training for Musicians

Image of a tree extremely bent from harsh winds
Image of a tree extremely bent from harsh winds

Adversity, creative commons image by Carlos Donderis created for despair.com

If you are reading this, chances are that you are in this music game for the long haul and are dedicated to advancing the cause of music and art. Each concert we produce is a battle on our own frontline with our own increasing expectations and with an ever more discerning audience that will likely be anticipating a CD-level performance. Every piece we write is a wrestling match with the achievements of our predecessors, our heroes, and our own internal struggles. We have spent thousands of hours in practice rooms and countless hours alone composing, practicing, and pursuing funding.  Music students realize the daunting task of potentially investing decades of work attempting to elevate their talent to a world-class level while remaining cognizant of the competitive job market in a fast changing industry.  Music is hard.

Yet we do persevere. Maybe we land a big job, start pulling down big commissions, or have a series of successful events that gather attention. Even after we demonstrate that we are artistically solvent or financially “making-it,” we musicians usually only become that much more aware of how much we still have to learn, and how deep the layers go in fully understanding music.  It’s an ongoing struggle.  And I say that this is a good thing.

Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has done some amazing work studying the power of perspective and attitude on achievement and performance.  In her book Mindset, Dweck describes two types of attitudes that permeate our daily lives and directly affect our learning and happiness.  People of all ages generally exhibit either a fixed or a growth mindset when they are learning or are presented with a problem. To oversimplify, a fixed-mindset person believes we are born with certain gifts that we have and therefore are judged by others as being only as good as what we can outwardly demonstrate. As failure and success are overt reflections of inner worth, this mindset often leads to general disengagement and a reluctance to risk learning or trying something new and/or difficult. Meanwhile, a growth mindset believes that we can always improve with hard work and determination. Here challenge and difficulty become opportunities to learn and grow and the risk of failure is seen as a necessary part of the process that should be feared no more than we feared learning to walk.  While we all carry both these mindsets within us—and we do have the ability to skip back and forth as we encounter different tasks and challenges—the habits we develop early in our lives tend to keep us predominantly rooted around one mindset.  These are powerful attitudes that have dramatic effects in our lives.

For example, in one of Dweck’s most cited studies, the reactions of primary school-age children were observed as they encountered puzzles that were deliberately too hard for their age level.  It was noted that students who revealed a fixed mindset said things such as “this is too hard” or “I’m not good at puzzles,” and quickly deflected or disengaged with the activity.  Students who revealed a growth mindset said phrases like, “wow, I didn’t expect to learn something today” and “this puzzle is fun and is really challenging me.”  These growth-mindset students were engaged with the activity more intently and for longer periods of time than their fixed-mindset peers. Not surprisingly, when they checked back in with the same students years later, the kids with the growth mindset were significantly outperforming the fixed-mindset students.

The big take-away here is that we can choose to alter our mindset and can practice bringing a growth mindset to our unique challenges making music and art. I believe that this is the key to our ability to improve as lifelong learners and to our continual development as musicians.

Anecdotally I know this to be true by watching my own peers and students over years. This past fall we even ran a study at Seattle Pacific University through the Center for Talent and the Arts (website launch in Spring 2016) during which my students and I accidentally discovered a powerful connection between positive attitude (growth mindset) and music performance.  This study was originally set up to test the effectiveness of improvisation on learning a new musical task.  The results for our original intended study ended up being inconclusive; however, it was observed by the research assistants that subjects with positive attitudes (i.e. subjects that were enthusiastic and saw the fun and challenge in the activity) performed better.  When cross-referencing the data for this variable, we found a clear and overwhelming connection between the ability to learn in music and a positive growth-based mindset.

In my own life outside of music, my partner and I have made a deliberate choice to actively introduce additional adversity into the lives of our two young boys. We live in a relatively affluent neighborhood in Seattle and attend the neighborhood school where the majority of the children have two loving, engaged, and professional parents. In fact, many cynics might argue that the majority of parents in our neighborhood are a bit too engaged, are generally overeducated, kind of entitled, and could potentially create children who grow to expect the privileges they inherited. While children need a safe and compassionate community to thrive, we also believe strongly in the values of self-reliance and determination that are developed by learning to overcome adversity. One of the ways that we build in extra challenge and strive to increase the level of difficulty our boys encounter is through travel. Occasionally a few days on a beach is wonderful, but we tend to do that while exploring internationally, often in third world countries, which is coincidently also a reality of my musician bank account.  Not having a clear itinerary, foraging for food, keeping to a small budget, not knowing the language, going without the comforts of our posh Western existence (like refrigerators, hot showers, and computer screens) all while surrounded by supportive family, positive people, and compassionate messaging helps to teach the boys (and us) about grit and, more importantly, the importance of keeping a flexible and positive attitude.  We call it adversity training.

I think that we can use this adversity training idea to fully embrace the challenge that music, and the surrounding industry, brings to our lives.  Without sounding Pollyannaish about the realities of the music business or the difficulty of our craft, I believe that with the right perspective, we can start to see each challenge as an opportunity to make us better musicians—or at least help make our music unique. Through years of hard work and determination, I am starting to see the struggle of music making differently and am grateful I am in a field with such growth possibilities.

A Few Things I Failed to Mention

The first two systems of the engraved score of Susan Kander's composition A Few Things I Failed to Mention

From the score of A Few Things I Failed to Mention Copyright © 2015 by Susan Kander (BMI). All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

It is December 15, concert night for Purchase New Music: student instrumentalists, after serious coaching from faculty, will perform the pieces written by student composers. I am finally getting a master’s degree after many years in the composing business, and it is my first time participating in such an evening. I’m not too bummed that my teacher, composer Huang Ruo, won’t be there. In the first place, he knows the music well and has taught me a great deal during the composing process, so I don’t feel he needs to hear it realized. In the second place, he’s in Amsterdam where he is composer-in-residence at the Royal Concertgebouw and his new piano concerto is premiering. I can hardly begrudge him that!

This is one of the neat things about the Purchase composition faculty: professors Laura Kaminsky, Du Yun, and Huang Ruo are all extraordinarily “happening” these days, with premiers and productions of their operas, concerti, and chamber music going on all over the map. No one of them is anything like the others in their music and I am very eager to find out if that is reflected in the students’ work. Tonight I will get to listen to nine other pieces besides my own, ranging from solo studies to sextets. I’m excited to hear my young colleagues’ music. Looking at the program is illuminating: every composer’s birthdate is listed in the usual practice, and they cluster around the mid-to-late 1990s. Two birthdates are a bit earlier: one woman already has a degree in visual arts and is an adventurous singer-songwriter and guitarist. The second is my fellow grad student, a jazz pianist and composer with a flourishing career already. Both women have come to the program to deepen their skills in orchestration and non-improvised music in order to grow and push their own boundaries in their primary fields. Both are exciting artists, a bit older than the others. Then there’s me: “b. 1957.” It just looks so funny there on the page.

The newcomers are featured early in the program, those who are working with one to three instruments. They are clearly learning their way around gathering and developing the contents of their mind’s ear and putting it on the page for a player’s eye to interpret. There is some surprise lyricism in one, all are decidedly interesting, and no two are alike. The former visual artist has written a moving program note articulating the frustration involved in reconciling her deficit in musical notation proficiency with her musical imagination and intuition. She notes that “the drive of an artist relies heavily on dissatisfaction” and I think she has said a True Thing. I can’t wait to hear what she does next as her skills increase.

There are three works for the same sextet—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and piano—conducted by the head of the program. Again, they are quite different one from the other. The senior has written a quiet, beautifully textured work of subtle complexity that makes me grin as I listen with my eyes closed. It flows, delights, surprises, all without huzzah and with extraordinary control, and the players both understand and reveal its magic. A piece by a junior has a more programmatic approach, some very appealing atmospheric writing and a beautifully controlled, lovely ending. My graduate student colleague, the jazz artist, is pursuing shapes and layers of sound in a gentle, beautiful stream that intensifies to a Zen sort of climax and then falls back to earth. She has told me she had so much fun writing it—her first non-improvisation-based work in which she controls every beat—that she plans to continue and extend it next semester. She has found a new path.

At a certain moment, sitting in the recital hall that is very gratifyingly full of audience members—a hallmark of Purchase Conservatory: students go to each other’s recitals—I ask myself, “What am I doing here? What can I get out of this collection of youthful assays, aside from the energy that is ever-present and contagious?” I listen more, and after a while it comes to me: just as these kids are not afraid of clicking this or that button on today’s technology (which both my husband and I very much are), they are not afraid of poking into any musical corner. There doesn’t seem to be any outside to the box marked Music. Everything is inside. The senior had the percussionist toss individual coins of different weight onto the floor during his piece, adding a varying, gentle accent to the texture. All of sound, I think, is at their disposal—unburdened either by aesthetic or historic expectation or by their own previous successes. Not that they don’t know history and music, but for them what counts as music is a sound world vastly larger than mine. This is what I’m here for. When I realize this, I can almost feel the walls of my own mind push back and away. I listen more.

Another freshman has written a violent work for viola, cello, bass, and guitar, which he conducts himself. I am surprised by the music: it bespeaks an extraordinarily intense musical life residing in the mind and spirit of this polite, genial gentleman. His conducting is unorthodox but apparently communicative to the players who give him the intensity he is looking for. It is miles from anything else on the program and I can’t wait to hear his next several pieces.

Woodstock, the girl who was the lone female last year and is now a junior, has written for the same whackadoodle quintet as I have: bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. By keeping the music light and jazzy, I think she solves the essential balance problems of the group better than I have. I’ve heard pieces of hers before. Her music is often theatrical; she cannot hide either her inborn ebullient showmanship or her gourmand’s compulsion to pack too many things into one piece. In this case, not only has she written a long, sardonic text, spoken by the players over the music, but she and a friend dance in a free-form, silly way throughout the piece, hopping and rolling over under around and through the players. The result, intended or otherwise, is to obfuscate the music, which is inventive, cogent, fun, and well-played. I’m sorry about the dancing: it makes it hard to really listen to what is very enjoyable stuff. In addition, it makes me wonder, is she simply reminding us that not all music is serious, which is great; or worse, is she undermining herself, urging us not to take her music seriously? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that musical history tells us, if anyone is likely to make an actual living writing music from this group, chances are it will be Woodstock!

I’m happy to report that my musicians go beyond themselves when they perform A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Lots more dynamics help shape things, more notes fall in the right places. (I can finally make an informed decision that I should have followed my instincts and thrown out the opening movement back when I threw out two others.) There are two successive measures in the fifth movement that have demanded the most time in rehearsal: the players get really close on the first one, the second one not so much, but the movement itself achieves more continuity than ever before. In the sixth and final movement, the players start well, keeping a tight rein on the slow, suspenseful beginning, managing nicely the gradual build-up of tension and anxiety. The increasing rhythmic density of the middle section rolls out more smoothly than ever before and I remind myself to breathe. The last page, a sudden, short, fast freak-out—rhythmic, high, and loud—is absolutely primo. The piece doesn’t really end: it just stops like someone pulled a plug. In the sudden silence after the last blast, the players’ surprise and relief is wonderful to see. In that moment, I love them all.

I can’t wait for my second semester to get under way.

The Long and Winding Road

A country road that twists and turns

A country road that twists and turns

The Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase is on a flat green campus an easy forty minutes north of New York City. Mine is the only car in sight as I am rounding the long campus drive to my first day of graduate school. In an eye-blink, out of the woods on my left, a golden animal darts across the road in front of me, lopes across the green field on my right and disappears into more woods. Cat-like but more than twice cat size, with sharp ears and a stubbed tail, I hear myself shout: “Bobcat!” A stunning wild animal, independent, insouciant even; I feel as if my bobcat has consecrated, in unforgettable style, the first day of the next two years of my life. Midway through a career as a composer and librettist, I am a (late-ish) middle-aged graduate student in composition.

Today I am just a bit trepidatious, however, because over the summer a change has occurred: Suzanne Farrin, head of composition at Purchase, has left to be head of music at Hunter College and Laura Kaminsky, who founded the composition program years ago at Purchase, is back from a sabbatical and is acting interim chair. I’m concerned because Suzanne had met me on a very collegial level; she had invited me to mentor the other students, promised they would not “waste my time” with unnecessary classes or requirements, and urged me to come directly to her with any concerns. When I meet Laura on day one, though I register her puzzlement, she is welcoming. The one concern I sense, behind her polite querying, is whether I am only there for the piece of paper; she wants to be sure I will be a fully participating, exploring, contributing member of the group. I am impressed by this. She laughs off my complete belly flop over online registration—I had to call the office more than once for technical help—and I am confident we’re going to get along just fine.

Although I live these next four months in linear fashion, it doesn’t really tell that way. It breaks down, for the telling, into Thing One and Thing Two. Thing One is my weekly lesson with Huang Ruo and the music that I write. Thing Two is everything else. Let’s start with Thing One.

At my first lesson, though Huang Ruo and I have met before over coffee, we begin to get to know each other by talking about the contemporary music scene. Then we discuss what I’m looking for from him: he completely understands and wants to provide the kind of leading and pushing I seek. In a generous nod to my unique status, he has offered to do an independent study in analysis with me instead of my taking the regular graduate course with all the young musicians, and the administration has accepted this proposal. We will study what I want and need to study as it comes to us. I now have someone to personally lead my learning in the directions I want to go, which is the whole point. And we laugh a lot together. I am thrilled.

At that first meeting, I am given my composing assignment for the course called Purchase New Music, the core of the composition program. There are three instrumental groupings available this semester in the course. Composers, with their teacher’s guidance, are to choose to write for some or all of the instruments in the group of their choice. Two groups are sextets of more or less normal instrumentation; however, Huang Ruo chooses for me the wackadoodle group of bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. He tells me I am to compose eight minutes of music for the whole group. Okay: as Du Yun said, I’m here to play in the sandbox of composition, and this ensemble definitely counts as a sandbox!

One adjustment I have to make right out of the gate is to digest the idea that I am expected to bring fresh music in every week. I have spent more than twenty years writing to deadlines and I am proud to say I’ve never missed one, but this feels different. I don’t know why. For each lesson, I bring in music. Huang Ruo sits at his desk, peruses the score, asks me why this or that. No one has ever asked me why. He laughs heartily when I anthropomorphize the instruments—e.g. “the trombone is an outlier” or “the bassoon ignores them”but at the same time urges me to stop thinking in terms of dramatic action and to get more into abstraction. (All my music is choreographed in my head, and this is something I want to move beyond.) He is quick to identify both habits and missed opportunities. At no time does he suggest anything that will specifically make my music sound like his music. It is all about making my conceptual process more expansive. All the comments are small, but over time they begin to lead me to more abstract, hopefully more interesting articulations, movement by movement, week by week. I come out of every lesson terrifically energized.

Over the course of eight weeks, I write eight movements for this off-brand group and title it A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Huang Ruo acknowledges that I am making progress. I can spot my own habits now and have identified patience within the music as a primary value I want to pursue. I worry, having never written with students as end users before, that it is too hard. The players range from freshman to grad students. Huang Ruo insists I not worry about that. I throw out two junk movements—I love throwing out bad music!—and reorder the remaining six. Doing this, I notice a potential through line that will help draw the piece into a whole; a little massaging here, a little cadenza there, and I wrap it up. Now, Thing Two.

Aside from my lessons, I am with the kids. I register for the Contemporary Ensembles course in which we will prepare and perform Terry Riley’s In C, because if I’m going to be a member of this conservatory I’m going to do it all the way. Dominic Donato, head of percussion and new music, runs the rehearsals with skill and savvy, and every week we step up the music. I come to understand why this piece is such an iconic work. When we perform it one evening in late November, I am surprised and gratified that the audience members outnumber the performers. I see this again and again at Purchase. Students show up for each other.

But my fellow composers are my pod within the conservatory. Whereas last year there was one lone female student, this year—big news—there are four. We almost hit 33%. All together we are thirteen composers. It is not too hard to keep the mother in me in the background. These are my peers, not my children. That they are all, well, adorable, is lovely, but mostly it is their energy and their thinking that I respond to.

In fact, at the beginning, that is all I have to go on because I have no idea what anyone’s music sounds like. The tone of discourse in Composition Seminar is set at constructive and positive. That’s fine, but I am continually gratified by how observant and articulate this bunch is. They listen. More than that, they grasp what the student composer is trying to do and offer specific ideas towards achieving it. I notice that students who are beyond freshman year have a great deal of faith in this process. No one shrinks from presenting; rather, several welcome it as a way to push past a bump in the road. They trust their fellow composers, seeking feedback from them as much as from the teachers who, in fact, are conservative and strategic with their comments. I sense zero competitiveness. Having heard last year’s one and only graduate student’s new complexity work, I am expecting more of it, but as the students present their pieces I discover a smorgasbord of styles, approaches, and philosophical inquiry. Some music works or will eventually work, I think; some not so much. Some is esoteric, some theatrical. Some makes use of machinery I don‘t understand. (That’s next year.) I figure the permission and encouragement to explore this broad a range of music and sound art must come from the top. There is simply no stylistic line to tow: that much is clear and it makes me very happy.

When I make my own presentation, there is a balancing act to be aware of: I am part of the professional world—there’s no hiding it—but I want to assure them that I am a seeker as well. I play parts of a duo, an aria, and an orchestra piece. They are very complimentary but also insightful; I am intrigued by the things they focus on. In addition, I feel a change: I am no longer an unknown quantity. I feel more like one of the gang. We’ve all had to stand up and reveal our desires.

Back to Thing One: after eight weeks writing music, we move to the next stage, handing it to the musicians.

Still B.A. After All These Years

A large clock displaying the time 5:32 in front of a building.

It’s never too late. (A clock on the campus of Purchase College, photo via Wiki Commons.)

I’m staggering to the end of my first semester in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in composition, but I am thrilled to report that my comrades in the department are just as worn out as I am. This counts as a win because I am 58, and they are younger than my own children.

A flashback, for perspective… 1976: I am a freshman at Harvard, declaring music as my major. For reasons having something to do with being swept away by The Ballad of Baby Doe, which I have seen in Kansas City at the Lyric Opera, and its composer Douglas Moore, on whose knee I have perched as an eight year old, I propose to my adviser double majoring in English and music with a thesis on American opera. There is dubious scowling in the music department, and I am sent to run this up the English department flagpole. I present myself to the Head Tutor, an academic martinet—I remember his rotundity and his Brylcreem—who listens to my wobbly proposal and bursts forth with a viscerally condescending guffaw: “Opera in English is an excrescence, with the sole possible exception of Oedipus Rex.” I have not forgotten his vitriol these forty years. I did not do the double major; I did not explore American opera; I did develop an enduring antipathy for academia.

Now, suddenly, after 40 years of committed avoidance—and a rewarding career as a composer of necessarily American operas, chamber music, music of all kinds—fall 2015 finds me schlepping to the State University of New York at Purchase three days a week for classes, lessons, rehearsals, seminars, and my young colleagues’ recitals. I am studying both composition and analysis with composer Huang Ruo who, along with Du Yun and Department Chair Laura Kaminsky, make up the unusually diverse faculty. I will come back, in another column, to life at Purchase, but will just say here that so far, I’m getting what I came for and much more besides. The first question, however, is why?

The truth is, when I decided to do this, I couldn’t even imagine what a composition lesson looked like. I had never engaged in a formal discussion of how a piece is written, mine or anyone else’s. Though I had participated in or observed lessons like this in the fields of literature, art, and architecture, I had never done it with music. My reconnaissance visit to the school a year ago gave me my first experience of a composition seminar. Sitting in a windowless room with ten students in their teens and early twenties, I listened to a graduate student present his Feldman-esque chamber piece in preparation for his upcoming interviews for Ph.D. programs. That day, I was surprised by so many things: the young man’s compositional style and his passion for it; the other students’ respect and incisive observation about his piece and his work in general. I could see there was considerable knowledge floating around this group and felt that the extraordinarily positive yet thinking atmosphere in the room was clearly driven by the faculty. Most of all, I was floored by the general articulateness of the kids. Every one contributed something to the discussion with clarity of thought and precision of language. And no one gave me the fish eye.

I can do this thing, is what I thought that day. And I can do it here, if they’ll have me. But how and why did I come to this? Why did it suddenly come to me that I needed to blow up my comfortable, autonomous Upper West Side existence and formally study the thing I’ve been pretty successfully doing for so much of my life?

A little more history.

Music is my second career. My first was in theater, writing plays. I did okay—regional stuff, Off-Broadway stuff, a TV show—but in 1993 I decided I was not the fighter I needed to be in a theatrical world that was still enormously hostile to women writers. Ask any woman over 50. Or 40. Or 30. Or… There were a couple of children born. The lever of my switch to music, in fact, was writing an opera for their public elementary school to do. There was a strings program and a band program, but no choral program. So I volunteered to fill that void, writing a 40-minute opera (on a one-and-a-half octave yellow plastic Playskool piano, but that’s another story) and discovered I had returned to something that felt like home.

But with two kids and a more or less instant take-off with commissions, first for more youth operas and then branching out into all kinds of music, I never considered graduate school. I simply set out to a) relearn everything I had forgotten since majoring in music and b) investigate all the new stuff. And the fact is, you can get pretty far doing that all by yourself using New York City as your classroom.

With each new commission, I gave myself new things to explore, new challenges. It’s been a continuous exercise in autodidactics: using music libraries at Columbia University and Lincoln Center; attending concerts at Juilliard New Music, Bang on a Can, and Composer Portraits at Columbia University’s Miller Theater; and encountering an increasing number of 20th- and 21st-century operas in big and little productions. This town’s happy/infuriating tumult of new music, along with its not-new music, is a damn good classroom.

My most recent commissions allowed me to push my music further than I’ve ever taken it, in very different directions. My 90-minute chamber opera The Giver (2012), for which I did adaptation and libretto from the seminal dystopian novel by Lois Lowry, commissioned by Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has a pit ensemble of ten players and many orchestral interludes. Hermestänze (2013), a 30-minute cycle for violin and piano commissioned by Jacob Ashworth, artistic director of Cantata Profana (also my son) allowed me to explore those two instruments more fully—both alone and together—than ever before. After these two large and intense projects, however, I found myself wondering if I had exhausted my learning curve. The thought crept in: maybe it’s time to find someone else to lead my learning, my discovery, for a while and to experiment further from my comfort zone. Music having revolutionized and exploded itself so many times in the last 40 years, there is so much of it I don’t understand just on a technical level. And in the span of a few seconds, the idea of graduate school became the obvious next step.

I did not cast a wide net, but I did talk to composition professors to try to gauge whether this was at all a viable idea. All of them were encouraging and no one made me feel weird. I wanted a degree program that emphasized composing rather than history or theory, with performances of student work built in to the curriculum, not catch as catch can.

Purchase satisfies those requirements and has a faculty of extraordinarily happening composers besides. When I went on audition day, I was welcomed by the students who remembered me from last spring. I specifically asked the one and only girl in the program, let’s call her Woodstock, to give me a tour of the music school. Her energy alone could run a railroad, and her enthusiasm for the school, the department, the faculty, the other students, and the making of music itself is inexhaustible. In fact, one of the most striking things about the little group of composers, who were all turned out to welcome prospective students and answer questions, was their love of their own school and respect for each other. They had all been there long enough to have a realistic view of the place, but what came across was this shared love. As the parent of a violinist, I have been inside many a conservatory and stood among many groups of young musicians, but this vibe was unusual and very real—it is the sort of thing that comes directly from the top.

When I interviewed—nervous!—that day, Suzanne Farrin had been department chair for ten years. She and Du Yun and Huang Ruo sat across from me, listened together to some music of mine and asked me to explain why I wanted to do this. I am giving them my spiel when suddenly Du Yun pops up, expostulating: “Oh I get it: you want to play in the sandbox!”

Yes! Exactly! And they voted me in to the sandbox.

***
Susan Jander

New York-based composer Susan Kander has been commissioned by a wide range of performers, ensembles, symphony orchestras, and opera companies. She is nationally recognized as a leading composer in the field of youth opera. Her most-produced work, One False Move, “an anatomization of girl bullying,” has been done by opera companies, conservatories, schools, colleges, and choruses all over this country and in South Africa and China. Kander’s current project is the libretto and score for The News from Poems, a three-act opera about New Jersey poet/doctor William Carlos Williams.

Incarceration and Musical Inspiration Part Four: The Last Class

A group of inmates wearing graduation caps and gowns walks down a prison corridor.
I inserted a quarter into the small locker holding my wallet, keys, and cell phone. To enter the maximum-security prison, I would need only my ID, which the guards would keep at the front gate until I returned. I walked through the metal detector for the last time. Claire, my fellow TA, and Stuart Paul Duncan, the course instructor, followed. The prison guard leafed through Stuart’s music books to make sure nothing was hidden between the pages.

It was our last day teaching music theory and appreciation at Auburn Correctional Facility, one of New York State’s largest all-male maximum-security prisons. A semester had flown by, and I felt a deep sadness at the thought of never seeing or hearing from my students again. The inmates had little means of communication with the rest of society. There was certainly no internet access, not even computers. And we were discouraged from writing them letters. At the Cornell Prison Education Program training sessions, program leaders warned us not to stay in touch with our students. You do not want an inmate to become attached to you and there should be no relationship or friendship beyond the classroom. It is not that I wanted to become friends with anyone, but the thought that my students would just fade back into anonymity disturbed me. After today, I would never know if a student went on to accomplish something, to continue his education, or even to be released from prison. I would never know if their lives or circumstances changed. They would disappear behind the prison walls, and I would go on with my life.
I was also nervous. Every week, the inmates asked me when they would hear my music. Stuart promised that on the last class I would share my compositions. Claire had played for them one of her original folk songs, which they seemed to enjoy. She taught them the chorus and they clapped along. I was less sure of how they would react to my chamber music, even though they had spent the semester listening to 20th-century classical music and discussing compositional techniques.

After a half-hour of walking past security gates, across the prison yard, past the rec hall, the make-shift weight room, and the license plate factory, we reached our empty classroom. We set up the desks and chairs while a guard brought us the prison’s boombox and electric keyboard. Our students arrived, escorted to class in single file. With enormous smiles, they entered the room one by one, as they always did, greeting the three of us individually and shaking our hands before sitting at their desks.
Shane was visibly nervous. In addition to sharing my music, Stuart had promised that he would perform one of Shane’s compositions on the keyboard. This was not Shane’s idea. He was by far the brightest student in the class, but he was painfully shy. He shared his thoughts quietly and eloquently, garnering great respect among his peers. In a few short months, Shane had learned to notate his own melodies, achieving the goal he had set for himself at the beginning of the semester.
Shane was a leader in the class, a role that he never experienced in prison. It was known among the inmates and prison educators that Shane was gay. In his other classes, he wrote openly about his struggle to maintain his identity in the prison environment. Shane seemed perpetually downtrodden and timid, unlike some of his fellow students who were spirited and full of energy. Others were more subdued, some seemed angry, and a few had days during which they could not focus. In essence, our classroom was filled with students experiencing a full range of human emotions, just like any other classroom.

Shane handed Stuart his composition, a ten-measure melody in C-sharp minor written for the piano. He looked absolutely terrified as Stuart performed the piece for the class on our little keyboard. The inmates were completely silent, listening with as much attention as they had given to Joseph Lin when he performed Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for them earlier in the semester. They treated Shane with the same respect and it was clear that they were inspired. Shane’s composition had ascending triplets in the right hand and a slow chromatic descending bass pattern in the left. As the melody reached higher and higher, the bass moved downward. The harmonies were clear, the ideas consistent. I was very proud of him. When Stuart finished playing, the students burst into applause and Shane turned bright red.

Next, Stuart met with each inmate individually to go over the final exams. He wanted to conduct another pedagogical experiment. What would happen if the students were asked to assign themselves a grade for the semester? Would an inmate’s self-assessment match the grade Stuart planned to give? “What happens if a student tries to convince you he deserves a better grade?” I asked Stuart on the drive to Auburn. As it turned out, all of the inmates assessed their grades accurately, with two notable exceptions. One man, who we knew had led a violent gang and possessed an intimidating demeanor, believed he deserved a B-plus when he really achieved a C. The second was Shane, who felt he deserved a C-minus even though he received an A-plus.
After the meetings, it was time for me to play my music. I had printed out scores for each of the students. My piece was called He Disappeared into Complete Silence, named after a set of nine parables and engravings by the artist Louise Bourgeois. The parables were short, quirky, dark poems that accompanied Bourgeois’s stark, semi-abstract line drawings. As the title suggests, the poems dealt with the extremes of loneliness and the inability to communicate.

I realized as I distributed the scores that I had included my full name as the composer. I was supposed to protect my own privacy.
“Can we keep these?” Gherald asked.

“Yes,” I replied instinctively. Gherald began flipping through the images and penciling in his own drawings alongside Bourgeois’s illustrations.

I pressed the play button on the boombox and my piece began. The students were able to follow along in the score by reading the text. I watched with fear. Some looked noticeably bored, others completely enthralled. There was one movement in particular I was very nervous about. I even asked Stuart if we should skip it but he said no. The text is as follows:

Once a man was angry at his wife
He cut her up in small pieces
Made a stew of her
Then he telephoned to his friends
And asked them for a cocktail and stew party
They all came and had a good time

In my setting, the soprano repeated the word “party” several times, finally arriving on a high C while the wind players put down their instruments in favor of party blowers sounding in unison. How could I possibly think, when I composed this piece as an undergraduate student at Cornell, that these words would be heard by men who had committed murder? I knew from reading articles online that one of my students had, in fact, cut up the body of his victim.

When the movement finished, Gherald said, “Julia, we need to talk.”
“I didn’t write the words!” I cried hastily.

Gherald laughed. “Oh O.K., we’re cool,” he said. “I was worried about you for a second there.” I would like to note that Gherald, along with about half of my students, was not incarcerated for murder.

While the inmates listened to my music, I felt more uncomfortable than I had during my entire time teaching in prison. I felt exposed, not because they knew my full name or because I was a woman wearing oversized clothing in order to hide my form. There was no hiding behind my music. I wanted to teach at Auburn because I wanted to know if and how contemporary classical music could be accessible to an outcast population who had never been exposed to it before. My students had proven to me that they could appreciate a wide variety of music. They could read themselves into a myriad of compositions, ranging in style, cultural origin, and time period. It did not matter how distant a piece seemed to be from their daily lives; they could engage emotionally and intellectually. Would my music make the same connection? Would it engage them, move them, compel them to share their experiences? Would they see themselves reflected in my work? Was my music strong enough to outstrip my own identity and reach others whose experiences were vastly different from my own?

My piece ended and fear bubbled inside of me. They clapped, as they always did, and then waited for me to speak. Panic spread throughout my body. I suddenly found myself asking the question that I had been afraid to ask all semester: “Does this music mean anything to you?”

I stared at my students, waiting for someone to speak. I looked at them as they had so often looked at me, hoping for answers. When no one said anything, I stammered on. I found myself confessing a deep fear: “Sometimes, when I write, I wonder if it means anything. I mean, what is the point? Does my music do anything? So few people listen to classical music and sometimes I wonder if it’s selfish to try to be an artist. What are you giving to society, especially when most of society doesn’t even listen to classical music? I guess what I’m asking is,” I took a deep breath, “is anything that I write relevant to you and your experiences?”
There was silence. Then Gherald spoke. His voice was calm.

“As long as you write from a place of love, other people will love it too. When I hear your music, I can tell that you love what you do. I can sense how much joy it brings you to create, to express yourself, and that makes me feel good. That brings me joy. All you can do is write the music that you love.”

I was stunned. No one had ever said this to me, or at least not in this way. Gherald’s advice was so simple to understand yet so difficult to follow: write the music that you love. It took hearing it from a man who lives in prison—who has to work every day to find a sense of peace and happiness in a cold, dehumanized environment—for me to really understand. Gherald taught me that passion for the creative process, dedication to one’s craft, and a yearning to communicate is what makes an artist. To write from a place of love is to have a vision, to imagine a reality and bring that world to life. It means quieting the voices in your head, voices of doubt, distractions, even the voices of other composers. It means concentrating on one idea, focusing, yearning, inventing, analyzing. The act of artistic creation is a form of unconditional love. It requires complete devotion in spite of its flaws. You must believe in your own work to the point that you are compelled to create it and need to convince others of its existence.

Even if it seems that no one is listening, you have to keep going. I think Gherald understood this. From what I saw of Gherald, I believe that he had come to terms with his own imprisonment. He had about him an air of serenity and deep spirituality. His eyes were always wide and full of life. He was powerfully built but possessed a gentle demeanor. He was not the best student, but I knew he was intelligent. What struck me most was that Gherald seemed the most capable of living freely in the midst of incarceration. He seemed free. Perhaps Gherald had a vision too, a vision of his world and his place in it, that put him at ease.
All of my students touched me in a way that I will never forget. Even if I did not mention everyone’s names, each individual made a significant impact on me. I know that Stuart and Claire were changed, too. Since our experience together at Auburn Correctional Facility, Stuart has dedicated himself to researching education systems in prison. As a doctoral student at Yale, Stuart co-authored “Who needs music? Toward an Overview of Music Programs in U.S. Juvenile Facilities,” “Expressing the Self: Critical Reflections on Choral Singing and Human Rights in Prison,” and a forthcoming book with Mary Cohen entitled Behind Different Walls: Restorative and Transformative Justice and Their Relationship to Music Education.

For Claire, teaching at Auburn Correctional Facility affirmed the power of education. Claire now teaches at a public elementary school in Los Angeles. In our class, Claire helped the inmates with the least educational experience. She imagines that they struggled to learn as children and did not advance far in their schooling. These men reminded Claire of the importance of primary education, of starting children off on the right footing. Her strongest memory of Auburn is when Gherald told her that she would make a great teacher and that she should pursue her dreams.

When I asked Stuart what impacted him the most, he recalled his last conversation with Shane, shortly after performing Shane’s composition for the class. Shane told Stuart: “For the first time in my life, I feel like a human being.” Hearing his music, his internal melodies, sound through the classroom and shared with his colleagues, made Shane feel heard and understood.
Saying goodbye was hard, even though the inmates all smiled at us as we collected the books. I noticed that Gherald had written on the first page of my composition, which had the printed title He Disappeared into Complete Silence. Around the word “He,” Gherald had scrawled a “T” and a “y” so that the title now read They Disappeared into Complete Silence. I looked at him, and my sadness must have shown on my face.

“Don’t you worry about me, Julia!” Gherald laughed. “I’ll be fine.”
I smiled and said, “Being here has made such an impact on me. This is an experience I will always remember.”
“Good,” he said. “We won’t be forgotten.”

In times of doubt, I return to Gherald’s advice again and again. He has no idea how much his words have stayed with me. I try to remember that all I can do is strive to express myself through my work, to trust my artistic and human instincts, and to believe that if I dig deep and share my interior world that it will reflect the worlds of others. Our lives are not so different. Art frees us from the chains of our individual identities and connects us to something greater—our shared humanity.

Incarceration and Musical Inspiration Part Three: A Live Concert in Prison

A full view of the Auburn Correctional Facility building from across the street

The main entrance to the Auburn Correctional Facility, photo by Julia Adolphe

Violins are not allowed in maximum-security prisons. Auburn Correctional Facility had generously permitted us to use an electric keyboard during our music theory and appreciation course, but a violin was out of the question. Stuart Paul Duncan, the course instructor, played what he could on 44 keys. As his teaching assistants, Claire and I tried to describe what different instruments looked like. We brought in photographs. Our students—17 male inmates—were starved for culture, communication, social interaction, and creative expression of any kind. They understood that they brought this harsh, dehumanized reality upon themselves, committing the horrendous acts that lead to incarceration. Yet in the classroom, these men transformed. They were no longer nameless criminals, demonized murderers, or monstrous outcasts, but fellow human beings who cared about art, education, and each other.

In three short months, my students had progressed beyond my wildest dreams. Shane was learning to write down his own compositions. Gherald could notate the rhythms he created for his rap songs. Josh could perform the phasing part of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music by himself while the rest of the class sustained the repeated pattern. Christopher understood the difference between melodic, harmonic, and natural minor and could write scales in any key. As we listened to recordings on the prison’s small boombox, Williamson could identify motifs as they recurred and transformed. Others were still learning how many eighth notes make a quarter note and on which side of the note head they were supposed to draw the stem. Each student was at a different level, yet everyone wanted to learn as much as possible. The diversity of educational needs coupled with the students’ insatiable hunger for knowledge enlivened the classroom to an electrifying degree.

Some of my students were able to practice between classes. Clean behavioral records inside prison walls granted certain privileges, including access to the prison’s electric keyboards, a makeshift gym where anything that could be lifted served as weights, and typewriters. Being enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program was an enormous honor that the inmates cherished. One mistake would expel a prisoner from the program for five years. Men gave up their meals and recreational time in order to attend classes. Most students took full course loads. The remaining hours of their days were spent working in Auburn’s license plate factory, bringing in revenue for the correctional facility.

In the evenings, if my students were not in class, they would do their homework in their cells, trying to block out the noise of their fellow inmates. Prison life is harsh and unpredictable. I remember one class when three of my students were absent. We were worried: absence is impossible when a guard escorts you to and from the classroom. Those who were present told us that an inmate in Cell Block A had figured out how to steal a wireless connection. Until the guards found the culprit, the entire cell block was being punished with solitary confinement. Those three students still somehow managed to turn in their homework, passing along their booklets to students who lived in cells on the other side of the facility. I do not know how this happened.
Our students were devoted to us, to each other, and to the pursuit of learning music. And we were devoted to them. We desperately wanted to give them a real musical experience: a live performance. How could we do this in a prison? There had not been a live concert at Auburn Correctional Facility in ten years.

Stuart wanted violinist Joseph Lin to perform Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for the class. At the time, Joseph Lin was a professor at Cornell. A year later, he became the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet. Professor Lin was eager and curious to enter the prison walls, to share his artistry with men who had never been exposed to live classical music. The only hurdle was gaining permission from the Auburn Correctional Facility itself.

There was great concern among the prison administration that the violin was a dangerous instrument. The strings could be turned into a weapon. A knife or other harmful object could be hidden in the wooden violin body. Officers in the prison administration asked if Professor Lin would mind taking his violin apart, bringing it into the prison in pieces, and assembling it once he was inside. This way they could ensure there was nothing concealed within the instrument. Could he possibly use thinner strings, ones that would prove less harmful if they ended up in the wrong hands? Emails and phone calls went back and forth for months as Stuart and the former head of Cornell’s Prison Education Program, James Schechter, argued that the violin had to enter (and exit) the prison intact.

Even once permission was granted, we did not tell our students that Professor Lin was coming. We were afraid that there could be last minute objections at security. When we finally did arrive with Joseph, our students were shocked and thrilled, almost ecstatic. They could not believe that they were about to hear live music.

As the first G minor chord sounded on Joseph’s violin and the melody floated gently downwards, a somber stillness filled the room. No one moved or seemed to breathe. My students were mesmerized. They could tell immediately that Joseph Lin is a fantastic musician, a truly talented artist. His performance of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, given to a small room of incarcerated men, was unlike any concert I have ever experienced. The men were completely enraptured. I believe that my students heard every single note that Lin played. They watched each individual bow stroke. They stared at Joseph’s face, full of concentration and passion. Little by little, the inmates swayed in their seats, mirroring the way Joseph’s body naturally moved with the music. It was as if the music held some secret answer and if they listened hard enough, they would understand. These men took in everything. Nothing seemed to escape their notice.

As Bach’s sonata resonated through the air, I could feel emotions rising. The intensity and passion of Bach’s music permeated the environment. It was as if the sound emanating from Joseph’s violin filled every single particle of the space. It touched every human being in that room. I looked around. Some of the men had their eyes closed and were breathing deeply. Others had their eyes wide open, staring at Lin with shock and admiration. Some were silently crying, wiping away tears while they listened. They were not self-conscious. They were present, alive, and alert.

As I listened, I understood. Art is powerful when it makes us feel alive. Music enables us to transcend time and space, unlock memories, leap over the edge, remap the universe. In that moment, all of us were so far away from prison. We entered another world. Yet we knew, acutely, that we were behind bars. We felt freedom in the midst of incarceration. I felt that sense of liberty too, even though I could never fully understand the realities of prison. In that moment, I experienced the yearning for life and freedom because it was so powerfully present in the people beside me.

Listening to music allowed these men to explore feelings that are constantly suppressed in the prison environment. Those of us who live at liberty in society understand this feeling too, even though our life circumstances differ drastically from those who are incarcerated. Music is healing and freeing. Watching Joseph Lin express himself through music inspired the men to turn inward. The intimacy and direct access between performer and audience created an emotional dialogue, a sacred space dedicated to internal reflection.

My students had a lot of questions for Joseph Lin. Gherald, always outspoken and confident, spoke first. He said, “It seems like you’ve done this before.” I was about to laugh when I realized this was not a joke. Gherald genuinely wanted to know if this was Professor Lin’s first time playing the Sonata in G minor. Lin explained that he had been practicing and performing the work for years. More questions followed. Is the piece the same or different each time you play it? Why do you keep playing this particular piece over and over again? What is practicing like? Why did you decide to play the violin? Are you going to keep playing the violin? When are you coming back to Auburn?

Williamson spoke next. He observed: “I noticed that when you play, you closed your eyes, your mouth twitched a certain way, and you leaned your head a little to the left. Do your facial movements affect the way you play? Do they change the sound?”
Professor Lin paused. I wondered if he was as startled by this question as I was. Immediately, I began to imagine what it would be like to compose a piece inspired by subtle changes in facial expression. How do our facial expressions reveal our thoughts, our musicality, our connections to the internal and external world? While additional movements made by performers, either in the face or body, help them interpret the music, how do sympathetic movements in listeners help them process what they hear? A whole line of questioning opened.

Williamson’s observation was thought-provoking and intelligent, yet it was also naïve and childlike. This was the astounding contradiction of prison life. Here were grown men who had experienced horrors beyond imagination, who had made devastating choices and had suffered the consequences. Yet most of these men had been in prison since their late teens or early twenties. In a way, they were still like children who had seen nothing of the world. Their only mature experiences had taken place behind prison walls. All of this was evident in Williamson’s comment. People accustomed to seeing live music know that musicians’ faces and bodies move during performance. We take it for granted as an indication of self-expression. The visual signs of emoting or communicating were foreign to this man.

As I looked around the room, I saw the tension between experience and innocence, intelligence and childlike intuition, strength and vulnerability. This is the very tension that makes art: the struggle between mind and heart, logic and passion. Composing requires a constant dialogue: intuition, improvisation, and accidents guide certain musical choices while formal planning, theoretical knowledge, and practical constraints inform others. When I write, I try to evoke my inner child, to let my imagination run wild. Yet I also try to control her with conceptually and rationally defined principles.

That day in the prison’s music class, I learned an important lesson about my own compositional process and the power of art. The stark reality of incarceration illuminated my creative world in a way that I could never have anticipated. Artistic expression is an enactment of freedom. This is a maxim that we learn about, that we know and say we comprehend. When I witnessed men who were not free transform, attaining a sense of liberty through their contact with music, I understood it in a new way.