Lynne Arriale: Teaching Fearlessness

December 9, 2009

Lynne  Arriale: Teaching Fearlessness

First making a major splash when she won the 1993 International Great American Jazz Piano Competition, Lynne Arriale has subsequently claimed a prominent position in the world of modern jazz through a string of lauded performances and recordings including her most recent CD/DVD, Nuance: The Bennett Studio Sessions (Mote;ma) that have charmed critics and fans, alike. Collaborations with such heavyweights as Benny Golson, George Mraz, Randy Brecker, Rufus Reid, and Kenny Barron, among many others speak both to her skill as well as her stature within the community.

In addition to being an accomplished jazz performer and scholar, Arriale is equally dedicated to sharing her knowledge and experiences. Currently on staff at the University of North Florida as director of Small Ensembles and assistant professor of Jazz Piano, Lynne also conducts clinics, workshops, and master classes internationally.

All photos by: R. Andrew Lepley

JAZZed: Let’s talk about your early music instructors. Could you describe some specific experiences that influenced you?
Lynne Arriale: I started playing by ear when I was three years old, mostly playing songs that I had heard, as I loved to listen to musicals. I had a little plastic toy piano and I begged my parents to let me study, but the local piano teacher told them I was too young. She accepted me as a student when I was around four. I studied with her for several years, then with Sister Mary Romano, Adelaide Banaszynski, and continued my classical training with Rebecca Penneys for eight years, earning my Masters degree in classical piano performance at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. I was very fortunate to study with Rebecca during her time in Milwaukee. She is an internationally renowned, brilliant performer and teacher who has been a professor at the Eastman School of Music since 1980.

JAZZed: At what point did you begin to zero in on jazz, specifically?
LA: It was around my time at Wisconsin I had a passing thought kind of out of the blue: “You should study jazz.” Though I knew nothing at all about it, I decided to take some lessons and began studying with David Hazeltine in Milwaukee. It was a great revelation to find out that jazz was improvised music that each night the actual content of a performance changed, even if the same pieces were played. For example, we all know the tune “Summer Time” by George Gershwin. Just think of the melody and imagine that it could be totally your creative choice to play it fast, slow, in any meter, any key, or with any feel. And that’s just the melody! After that, during the solo, new melodies are played over the same chord changes and a new and different piece of music is created every time it’s played. That was truly amazing to me. I had no idea that this kind of music and these kinds of creative musical options existed. At that moment, I had an epiphany and decided to put all my energy into learning how to play jazz.

Over the years, I’ve studied with many great teachers. Richie Beirach has been my main teacher and mentor and he’s had a profound influence on my playing through his teaching of motivic development. Of course, we hear this in classical music all the time, but to apply this to music that is created ‘on the spot’ has been extremely exciting and rewarding. An idea is stated, and then developed throughout the improvised piece. This creates continuity within the solo and a sense of ‘telling a story.’

JAZZed: When did you first become interested in teaching others? Did you have a specific instructor who inspired you to teach?
LA: I always knew I would perform and teach. Each person I studied with imparted more information to me than I ever would have discovered on my own. Being so grateful for everything that I’ve been taught, it was a natural progression to want to share that information and experience with others. Over the years, I have learned that it is essential to find as many ways as it takes to communicate a concept effectively to a student. It’s my responsibility to see to it that every student grasps what I intend to convey.

JAZZed: What was your first teaching gig?
LA: I lived in New York for 14 years and began teaching private students there in the late ’80s. I have been a faculty member of the Jamey Aebersold Summer Music Institutes, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and Jazz At Port Townsend. I have also conducted clinics and master classes internationally.

JAZZed: Can you describe some particular lessons learned throughout your years as an educator?
LA: From the beginning of my teaching career, I realized that there are several very important elements that must be present when I’m teaching: honesty, compassion, kindness, being ‘solution oriented,’ trust and excellent assessment skills. Honesty can only be effective when all the other elements are present. My mentor, Richie Beirach, always gives me his honest perspective and presents it in a way that inspires me to want to expand my knowledge and sense of musical possibility. By doing so, he has cultivated a strong trust between us. I know when he says that something works well, he really means it. And, if something isn’t working as well, his comments are always constructive and solution oriented.

My experience has taught me that if we are not truly careful with our teaching approach, students can respond by closing down and believing that they cannot improve. I always think the phrase attributed to the Hippocratic Oath ‘first, do no harm’ is pertinent.

As trust is established between teacher and student, the student needs an honest assessment of what specifically, not generally, is going on with their playing. I try to identify the positive things that are present and then, when approaching issues that are problematic, I usually say, “Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what you need to do to correct this.” In that way, students are presented with a solution to the problem, and the focus shifts immediately from what is wrong to what needs to be done to correct it.

JAZZed: Talk a bit about your work with Golson, Brecker, Mraz, Barron, et cetera What collaborations were most influential on your development as a player?
LA: I have been very fortunate to play with many jazz icons over the years. Their creativity, consistency, individual style and professionalism were all great examples and sources of inspiration for me.

It was extraordinary to work with such masters on my latest release, Nuance, and I feel that the music reaches a deeper place every time we perform together. I felt, the first time we played, as if we had been playing for years as a group.

Lynne  Arriale: Teaching FearlessnessWhen I think of George Mraz, what immediately comes to mind is impeccable time, intonation, concept of note choice, exquisite arco technique, beautiful resonance and a signature lyrical and emotional quality that resonates with my own personal style. George’s playing adds immeasurably to the intricate nuance of the arrangements and emotional quality of what I want to convey.

Randy Brecker possesses such a broad range and spectrum of dynamic technique that he makes every melodic contribution and harmonic detail sound completely organic to each piece.

Benny Golson is a brilliant composer, iconic musician and performer. It’s impossible to enumerate all the ways in which I am impacted by him every time we play. Benny’s influence on jazz and jazz performers is as monumental as his skill as a world-class saxophonist.

Kenny Barron plays so beautifully, every note is in its perfect place. His playing and compositions have influenced several generations of jazz musicians.

Each of these brilliant performers is responsible for my having to set the bar higher in terms of my composing, arranging and performance skills. These truly gifted masters have inspired me to work even harder by adding more emotion and purpose to my work. Through them, I have come to realize that mastery is achieved only by a lifelong commitment to continued education, discipline, practice and a need to continually set a higher standard of personal excellence.

JAZZed: Can you describe how you came to be on staff at UNF? What, specifically, are your responsibilities there these days and how have they evolved?
LA: Three years ago, I was offered a one-year visiting professor of Jazz Studies position at UNF. Subsequently, I was offered a tenure track, full time position as assistant professor of Jazz Piano and director of Small Ensembles.

Being at UNF continues to be a richly rewarding experience for me. The students enjoy being challenged, are very gifted, and have a great thirst for learning. The jazz department has a world-class faculty of internationally recognized musicians lead by one of the great musicians and educators of the world, Bunky Green. He has established an extremely high standard of educational and performance excellence, humility and generosity of spirit. Bunky is a former president of IAJE.

JAZZed: What do you find to be the most rewarding element of teaching?
LA: My students have gone on to pursue graduate degrees and professional jazz careers, which also often include plans to teach. Beyond music, I am constantly rewarded by watching personal growth occur. I relish the opportunity of working with diverse talents and unique musical personalities. I derive deep satisfaction from each student as they develop their own musical style and personal identity. I’m very happy that many of them still stay in contact with me and feel that I played a part in motivating and inspiring them to be their best.

JAZZed: What’s the most frustrating or challenging aspect?
LA: Balancing a professional and teaching career can be challenging. I applaud UNF for demonstrating the flexibility necessary to maintain faculty with active international performing careers.

JAZZed: How would you advise a music director at the junior high school or high school level to most effectively go about introducing jazz education into their overall curriculum?
LA: Listening to the many different styles and genres of jazz is essential.

I recently wrote an article for DownBeat Magazine (Sept. 2008) outlining very easy steps a student can take to get his/her feet wet and experience, ‘hands on,’ how improvisation works.

Additionally, I would recommend that teachers have students play a basic F blues, using an F minor pentatonic scale as their pool of improvisational notes (F Ab Bb C Eb) for the entire form. First, the students should just play the notes in random order to get them under their fingers, and then take short rhythmic figures and use the notes to create little melodies. It actually sounds good whether the student is paying close attention to their note choice or not that’s the beautiful simplicity of this exercise. A beginner can sound good right away!

JAZZed: Specifically pertaining to piano study, can you discuss common snags that younger players run into and offer advice for teachers to help their students overcome those challenges?
LA: I always recommend that students sing everything they are going to practice, before playing it on their instrument, because that will guarantee that the mind is engaged and the student really knows the material thoroughly, which is essential. This technique streamlines learning and creates a more efficient use of practice time. If a student can’t sing an exercise or tune that they are learning, a strong foundation won’t be created.

The most direct path for successful development is for students to master each exercise and step along the way before moving on to the next and by ‘master,’ I mean that they must be able to play it flawlessly, in a variety of tempos, and be able to reproduce it anytime, anywhere, whether it be in their practice room, in front of their teacher or an audience. I often hear students say ‘I played it perfectly in my practice room.’ But that is a totally safe environment where no one is scrutinizing each note. Ideally, the exercise should be repeated so many times that students can, metaphorically speaking, play it in their sleep. Most students move on to the next level of an exercise after they’ve played it correctly just a few times. That is not nearly enough. When repeating an exercise, new neurological pathways are being created in the brain, and a tremendous amount of repetition is needed for that to happen. I tell my students that if they ever listened to me practice, they would be stunned at how much repetition is involved.

If an exercise is practiced incorrectly or insufficiently, it is likely that the student will get off track in a matter of minutes and possibly get more off track as the week progresses

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