Creating Visionary Youth

By Jeff Lederer

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The Visionary Youth Orchestra

On May 26, 2018 a diverse group of young musicians ages 12 to18 and guest pianist Dave Burrell took the stage at Roulette in Brooklyn to kick off that night’s Vision Festival.  Guest conductor Karen Borca, a veteran of many of Cecil Taylor’s ensembles, joined them on stage and kicked off their interpretation of  “Poles of Light,” a score from Mr. Taylor’s large ensemble repertoire.  The music, a combination of graphic notation, repeated cells of fixed pitch sets and spoken word, swelled up from the ensemble in waves of sound, sometimes in glorious unisons, and then splitting apart like fractals of light emanating from a prism.  Borca led by simply cueing the sections of the score, and by indicating the general movement of the music with her hands.  At the conclusion of the 12-minute piece, both the players and the audience knew that they had been on a unique journey which bore the stamp of Taylor’s spirit, as well as the spirit of the young players. It was a remarkable moment. 

Background – The Visionary Youth Orchestra

In 2011, my fellow saxophonist and educator Jessica Jones and I attended a meeting of the Education committee of the NYC non-profit Arts for Art which produces the Vision Festival, the world’s premiere festival of free jazz and improvised music for more than 20 years.  It was clear that we all felt a need to create opportunities for young people to engage with creative, improvised music.  I looked back on my own years as a young musician in Los Angeles where I attended a pop-up school housed in a storefront in Culver City called the “College of Winds.”  The faculty there included Bobby Bradford (cornet), James Newton (flute), and the great clarinetist and educator John Carter.  Separately, as a young musician in the Bay area, Jessica Jones (along with her contemporaries Peter Apfelbaum, Tony Jones, Peck Almond, and Steven Bernstein) had spent extended time in the company of the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other luminaries of improvised music.  Based on the impact these experiences had on our own lives, it was decided to create an ensemble/workshop of young musicians of diverse ages and skill sets to make improvised music together.  The Visionary Youth Orchestra (VYO) has now performed at the last seven annual Vision Festivals alongside many downtown NYC luminaries and free jazz legends. 

Visionary Youth Orchestra Trio

Jazz Education and ‘Free Jazz

There are many divergent ideas about presenting less structured improvisation in the jazz education world.  Some believe that improvisation outside of fixed forms and chord changes is something that is best left to student musicians after they have developed a firm grasp on the more traditional languages of swing and bebop.  Some jazz educators recognize the value of students experiencing improvisation in non-traditional jazz contexts, but are not sure how to begin to integrate that into rehearsals and performances with their ensembles.  There are some who think that there is nothing to “teach” in free-jazz, and do not believe that it has a place in the institutions of jazz education at all.  Our experiences in the Visionary Youth Orchestra over the last seven years have confirmed what I knew in my heart already – this type of music-making is an incredibly important activity for young musicians of all ability levels and should be incorporated into every students’ experiences. The rewards for the student musician are rich. 

Diversity

Our musicians have come from a wide range of experiences in jazz, some of them being experienced players who also participate in the more traditional student ensembles at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and others being quite new to playing their instrument altogether.  Entrance to the group is based on an interview, not audition, and students are not only diverse in their experience levels, they are diverse in age, socio-economic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, and come from all over the city.  Instrumentation for the group is not fixed – in some years the group has resembled a traditional big band, and other years have looked more like a mixed chamber ensemble including strings, winds, and voices.

I have had the gift of experiencing first-hand the work done in the miraculous “El Sistema” system in Venezuela and much of my own thinking about ensemble work comes from that setting.  In the “nucleos” of Caracas, students are grouped in diverse skill and age levels and the more experienced students mentor the younger players informally during rehearsal.  Another aspect of “Sistema” that was incorporated into the VYO model was the integration of adult members of the Vision Festival musical community into rehearsals and performances. 

Repertoire and Approaches

It was decided that the repertoire for the group would include important pieces from post-bop large ensemble composers such as Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, and Anthony Braxton, as well as newly created music.  The students have played the music of Roscoe Mitchell, Albert Ayler, John Carter, and William Parker (along with Mr. Parker).  The music ranges from traditional notation and fully orchestrated pieces to graphic notation scores, game pieces ( a la Zorn’s “Cobra” ), and improvised pieces based on text.  Student-created compositions have also been a feature of our repertoire, as well as the music of our various community music members and guest artists. It is important to remember that this way of approaching jazz is not new – it is more than half a century old and an historical perspective on free jazz is fostered through brief biographical looks at these important musicians.  I often tell people that the historical distance between these students and Albert Ayler is the same as the distance between Mr. Ayler in 1968 and Louis Armstrong’s innovations – this is jazz history, not the “New Thing.”    

Deep, Active Listening and Quick Decision Making

Much of the repertoire being played in the VYO is interactive – that is, the music can go in any number of directions during the performance.  For this reason, the skill of really deep listening to the music happening in the moment quickly becomes the most important asset of the student musician.  Students need to really hear the whole gestalt of an improvised piece of music, and understand their place within that sonic landscape. This is a much deeper and broader kind of listening that just tuning with your section leader, or making sure you are playing in time with the drummer.  In improvised music pieces, structured or unstructured, musicians then need to make quick decisions based on constantly evolving musical settings in real time.  These decisions will have an immediate and collective effect on the whole musical organism, and the consequences are experienced right away.  There are not many activities in life in which the decision-feedback loop is so quick, so multifaceted, and so fast.  The learning is constantly happening in improvised music settings, in a way that cannot be replicated in traditional music-making.  This is an experience that is tremendously rich for young musicians in particular. 

Frequent Reflection and Critical Thinking Skills

An important aspect of VYO rehearsals are the student-led discussions that follow almost every piece in rehearsal.  Our ensemble is a truly democratic musical community and most important decisions about the music are made by consensus.  Students have been exceptionally forthcoming in their reflective thinking about each musical direction, without excessive prompting by the adult community members.  I think this is because from the beginning we have encouraged a “workshop” environment in which learning peer-to-peer is more important than instructor-led direction. 

Applications for Every Jazz Band Director

Following a presentation made by Jessica Jones and myself at the 2015 JEN Conference we have received many inquiries from jazz band directors across the country who are curious to implement more large ensemble improvisation into their program, but are not sure where to start.  It is less important how you implement more freedom into your big band program, and more important that you actually do it – not only in rehearsal, but in performance as well.  We often start rehearsals with an “improvisation starter” – a piece of text, a specific musical instruction, a simple student created graphic, or a student-led conduction based on a vocabulary of shared signs.  It is important to be consistent in messaging that this type of music making is just as disciplined as reading a score from traditional notation and to debrief the experience immediately with student-led reflections.  Laughter is ok, in fact it’s good. With consistency of practice, the students will learn the skills of big-picture listening, quick decision making, and reflective critical thinking – and this sounds like music education doing what it’s supposed to be doing to me. 

Conclusions

To close our concert on May 26, 2018 the students and adult community members played an Albert Ayler theme, “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.”  I believe strongly in these words and the practice of the Visionary Youth Orchestra over the last seven years have borne out this axiom. We look forward to many more years together, creating music in the moment that means so much to our students, instructors, and community members.

You can find more information about the Visionary Youth Orchestra, as well as examples of their work at www.artsforart.org/vyo

For more information/resources, please reach out to vyo@artforarts.org.  The education director for Arts for Art is Melanie Dyer who can be reached at Melanie@artsforart.org

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