Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Recycled Orchestra


volume 2

The Recycled Orchestra ~ inspiring young minds one note at a time!

Perhaps you've heard about this, a surprising YouTube video that went viral.  In South America, the people of Cateura, Paraguay, living in slums, faced with poverty and waste pollution, have made an extrordinary effort at recycling.  This is truly upcycling as they are making orchestral instruments out of trash.  The product is amazingly resonant instruments organized into a performance group, appropriately named The Recycled Orchestra.  Their video: shows their efforts.  A 19-year-old boy nicknamed Bebi shows how his cello is primarily comprised of a discarded oil can and scrap wood.  The recycled-wood finger board sports unmatched tuning pegs made from a tool formerly used to tenderize beef and one to make gnocchi.

Families in Cateura sort through the trash dump and sell the recyclables.  One man comments that a real violin is worth more than a house there.  He also speaks of the happiness it gives him to present a child with an instrument formed and risen from the ashes.  Ada, a 15-year-old girl, says of her recycled violin, "when I listen to the sound of a violin, I feel butterflies in my stomach.  It's a feeling that I don't know how to explain."  Writing from the land of plenty (literally, I write from the fabulous, newly opened SFJAZZ Center), this is very stirring.  I am so happy for Ada and her violin.

The director of 'La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura', Favio Chavez, grew up in a small town about 2 hours away.  He learned guitar at a very young age, worked as a choir director at 11, and also worked for his family since the age of 9.  Studying environmental science later had him working at a recycling project centered around Cateura, where the country's main landfill exists.  Seeing the needs of the children there gave him the idea for the Recycled Orchestra and a music school was born.

Their video was created with the idea to raise funds so they can tour the USA.  I think this sounds like a very interesting ticket.  I hope Ada gets to tour with that violin.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

First Educator Interview with Keith Johnson from the Jazzschool

Stay tuned for TheLeadSheet's FIRST EDUCATOR INTERVIEW with Keith Johnson, Young Muscians Program Director at The Jazzschool in Berkeley, Calfornia.  Keith will be coming to us right after the Monterey Jazz Festival, home of the Next Generation Jazz Festival, April 6 and 7, 2013.


5 Q's for Josh

Josh is one of those extraordinary teenagers that seems to have it all: great grades, major musical talent, outgoing personality, lots of friends and a bright future in music.  He plays french horn in his high-school wind ensemble and piano in jazz band.  This year, he attained his goal of auditioning into the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra horn section.  Josh plans to pursue music in college.


Primary Instrument: French Horn
Secondary Instrument: Piano
Additional Instrument: Bass Clarinet

MUSIC I PLAY:  Jazz, Classical
MUSIC I LISTEN TO:  Jazz, Classical, Pop, Electronic


1. How do you approach improvisation?

The way I approach improvisation is probably quite similar to how most people deal with it. I want my solos to be free and full of my inner thoughts, but not forget the fact that my music still needs to communicate. When Im playing a solo improvisation, I want my audience to be drawn into what Im jamming on and not allow them to think about anything else. That doesnt necessarily mean playing the fastest runs, or the most interesting chord progressions, but something that the audience can relate to. I also think its best that we musicians use our instruments to our advantage each instrument is unique and has a voice that is completely different from one another. Playing something that suits the tone and timbre of our particular instrument is very important. As a pianist, I have a humongous range and the ability to play many voicings at once, which I take advantage of.

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find inspiration? Group vs solo?)

I tend to be more of a lyrical player than a technical one. Ive grown up listening to tons of slow, lyrical violin sonatas and cello suites that my parents always used to play in our house back when I was very little. Even though I dont play a string instrument, I still try to imitate the phrasing of master string musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. I believe that there are lots of things that can be learned from listening to different instruments. Very frequently, Ill be tackling a new etude at home and Ill look at a certain passage and say, Oh, I think this will sound nice if I try to sound light like a high woodwind, or This should be heavy and broad like the tuba. I get most of my inspiration from San Francisco Symphonys recordings of Mahler symphonies. Their interpretation and playing are just so precise and brilliant, and these recordings inspired me to become a musician in the first place.

3. When you're frustrated & want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument?

The horn is such a versatile instrumentthe famous Tchaikovskys 5th symphony horn solo, the horn call from Wagners Siegfried, the horn solo from Brahms’3rd symphony, and the opening horn call from Strauss Till Eulenspiegel, all convey emotions that are drastically different from one another, but are all part of the standard repertoire that all horn players should know. The horn is special in a way that it can be used in so many different moods. In addition to its versatility, it has such a lovely sound. Listening to a good horn concerto after an extremely tiring day makes all the stress go away. I love that about the horn. It has a voice that can soothe anyones mind. Even though I get frustrated very often playing the horn, its sound is something I just can’t stay away from.

4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance?

Pressure is something Ive learned to deal with since I was little. I started playing the piano when I was very little and entered thousands of competitions, so I naturally got rid of any kind of stage fright I had. Playing an audition, however, is quite different. Its tough when I see people in front that are ready to judge me. It does affect me negatively. My breaths get shallower and I sometimes choke up, so I constantly need to remind myself that I need to relax.

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement.  How does parent support look in your family?  How does it affect your ability to succeed? 

My parents are very generous in supporting my musical career. They have had to deal with my late-night practicing since forever ago. My horn lessons are extremely pricey and my teacher lives fairly far from where we live, but they still provide the money and the ride. Whenever there is a cool concert coming up, they offer to buy me tickets. It affects my ability to succeed because Im open to so many opportunities to hear great symphonies played by great orchestras, a type of experience which in some cases can be life-changingAlso, Ive been fortunate enough to study with the assistant principal horn of the San Francisco Symphony, a privilege that not many people can have.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013


The Lead Sheet
music and the brain

Volume 1

"Music is a perfect storm for the human mind:
 beautiful in form, intricate, and eternally new."
2012: Unplanned Birth of the Momager* ~ it happened to desire to write about my experiences sprung from feelings about what my teenage son, a high school junior, is accomplishing playing string bass.  Surprised!  And just a little bit in awe of what he has been able to do on his own, taking full advantage of what the San Francisco Bay Area has to offer in  extra-curricular musical instruction, performance and recording.  In the beginning, my support was mostly utilitarian: rides and tuition, the occasional request for advice, extreme calendar management.  But, in the space of one year, I'm a full-on 'Momager'.  I didn't know, I didn't expect, I didn't choose to have my own world become as deliciously embroiled in serious music and the making of such.  In addition to the 3 excellent groups in which he plays in high school, I find myself managing the demanding schedules of 4 extra-curricular bands and orchestras with weekly rehearsals in Berkeley and San Francisco.  The Bay Area music education scene is thriving: these experiences have been incredible, the instruction specialized and unique, the educators experts in the field.  We ride the train a lot.  We also spend hours in the truck and here is where the magic happens: these bandmates of his have crazy conversations about the differences in how they each view certain compositions, how they approach improvisation, the amazing solo their friend just laid down, and the absolute joy that ensues.  That joy, so deep and multi-layered, unique to each, that joy deserves more attention, it's passion.  (Some one should really write this down!, I think to myself.)  Their answers are all different and they are all correct.   From a brain standpoint, it is like a perfect storm of synapses, hormones and electrical signals, all the more elusive to the teenage male brain.  Because of a book I’d been reading about music education written by a cognitive scientist (more on this later), I struck upon the idea of asking musically gifted kids a few questions...
The big idea for The Lead Sheet is to document the ideas of the next generation of professional musicians about music, their relationship with their instrument(s), and how they each approach the concept of improvisation.  I got help from the kids crafting 5 good questions.  I will ask each young musician the same 5 questions in an interview planned for each volume.  On special occasions, I would love to interview masters and educators in the music field and perhaps ask the same 5 questions.   
Because of their age, these students must have some parent support in order to consider extra-curricular, specialty programs in their geographic area.  And, as many of these parents are also dear friends, I know they have something to say about their loud houses and their experiences raising these unique children.  In the next volume, I'll share defining information about music and its brain correlate that will hopefully add to your understanding and enjoyment of music.  
I am a great believer in the idea that there are many ways to do something right.  I am always interested to hear other people's take on things.  I find that often, even a slightly different perspective can open a whole new view.  
Please sign up for regular email updates.  Be part of the conversation and share your experience often.  Pass the link on to your friends and family, teachers, music teachers, kids in school music programs or taking private lessons, and their parents.  You will be amazed at what goes on in your head while you strum or pluck or blow or bow or...even just think about it.    
#Face the Music

* I am advised that Kris Jenner has coined and trademarked this new term.  My compliments, Kris, it describes how my situation feels perfectly, minus the celebrity aspect. (MOMAGER - Reviews & Brand Information - Jenner Communications Inc. Woodland Hills, CA - Serial Number: 85021877,