A few weeks ago I gave a masterclass at LSU Baton Rouge for the weekend of the Louisiana Viola Society Competition. The weekend comprised of a blind listening competition, guest artist concert, various master classes, and culminated in a performance by three student finalists competing for the grand prize of $600, time in a recording studio for their own album, and awesome bragging rights.
I was invited by my friend Ruth Navarre, the violist from my quartet at Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival in Vermont a few summers ago. Ruth always showed an interest in the other styles I played at the time: swing jazz, bebop, a little world music, and a lot of Turtle Island String Quartet sounding music. We kept in touch over the years and updated each other on our musical endeavors and lives whenever we could.
At the end of last year she explained that her viola professor at LSU Baton Rouge, Matthew Daline, would be organizing this Viola Competition and she thought it would be a neat idea if I came and gave a masterclass on Jazz and Folke styles. I jumped on it, eager for the opportunity to spread alternative styles to classical stringers. I worked out a masterclass that would teach basic fiddle tunes and give an overview of folk and jazz techniques.
I was thrilled to be invited to instruct at this event, especially after arriving and meeting the other visiting artists: Bruce Owen, Assistant Principal of the Louisiana Philharmonic; Kim Fredenburgh, Professor of Viola at the University of New Mexico; and Timothy Deighton, Professor of Viola at Penn State. All three of these amazing players and teachers were warm and welcoming, and eager to talk about their own professional experiences and lives.
Ruth also suggested throwing together a string concert while I was in town, something String Revolution-inspired. I thought up some tunes and asked if she could get some players, and we set a date for the Thursday night before the Viola Competition.
I arrived Monday of that week and set to rehearsing. I met two incredibly talented players while at LSU: violinist Raul Gomez and jazz cellist Marcelo Vieira. They both joined me in a string quartet performance of Skylife by Turtle Island, and Marcelo and I performed a duo set of his brilliant arrangements of jazz standards. That man is a one-man band, a very impressive solo performer and vocalist with serious chop and accompaniment skills on cello. Check out his website!
A few nights later I had the pleasure of performing with him again, as we both helped kick off the Viola Competition weekend with a saturday evening concert after the guest performers’ concert. Highland Coffee graciously hosted our jazz string night, donating their outdoor patio for a casual evening of music. At first I thought Marcelo and I would provide more background music for listeners, but it quickly turned into a private concert with a rapt, attentive audience. We had a great time going through our two-day-old repertoire list, and when that ran out we improvised some arrangements on favorite tunes out of a borrowed Real Book. On a personal note, we realized after two minutes of flipping through pages that The Real Book Volume II may not have all the recognized standards that you traditional jazzers are familiar with… But it turned into a successful evening, culminating in a very spirited improv on “The Nearness Of You.” I remember lyrics better than I thought!
The next day I had two hours to give my masterclass on jazz and folk string styles to a class of nine eager students. I successfully taught an old-time fiddle tune “Leather Britches”, a Mark O’Connor transcription of “Jerusalem’s Ridge”, led the ensemble in a groove string arrangement of “Cissy Strut” by The Meters, a blues tune I wrote and honorably dubbed LSU Blues, and gave a quick chop lesson. Halfway through, Tim, Bruce and Kim entered and were trying out the chop techniques with air-bow motions themselves! Afterwards I got great positive feedback from students and viola professors alike. Looks like this masterclass thing might work out for me!
I hope that I at least left the students with an opening into the other worlds of string playing, and most importantly, a good impression. There’s nothing wrong with having a passion for classical music and giving it your all, but I can never approve of rejecting another style of music based on the principle that you don’t think it’s “good” or “official” enough. I hope to teach that just because a style of music doesn’t have a well-rehearsed conservatory-style pedagogy doesn’t mean that it should be taken any less seriously. I’m learning more and more how different styles of music for strings are taught, and how truly difficult they can be to master, more than years training for a doctorate in some cases.
I read an excerpt from Mark O’Connor about his most recent concert series in San Francisco with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. He talks about the premier of his work “Elevations,” saying, “Indeed, the complexity of indigenous American string music is often overlooked; mastering the techniques required to perform it well is an immense challenge to string players irrespective of training. “Elevations” offers classically trained musicians, in particular, just this challenge – and those who overcome it unlock the door to a compelling American musical world.” Props to those classically trained violinists who challenge themselves to harness the true essence of the “fiddler” in their playing, instead of just assuming it requires a dumbing down of their technique. For example, have a listen to Joshua Bell on this Edgar Meyer album, Short Trip Home. Long, smooth phrases, crystal clear sustained tone, and a musicality in each bow stroke that tells us he’s listening and deeply connected to the sound he’s making with himself and the players around him. There’s no automatic pilot going on here. Way to lead by example, Josh.
My time in Louisiana put me back in touch with the conservatory-styled string world. I had to think of alternate ways of describing the sound I wanted, instead of just saying, “Chop it. Sound like a horn. Lay back on the beat.” I wanted to try a variety of descriptions that the players would relate to, not just demand they understand my lingo. We met somewhere between two worlds, past the edge of private lesson classroom rigor and into listening and feeling something brand new, and exploring it for yourself. At least, I hope I brought them that experience. I hope they feel better off by seeing it.
It was a week I’ll never forget. I hope to return to LSU again soon, or at the very least return to the south. It’s mighty friendly down there, and I love the biscuits and gravy.