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Improvising with Visionary Young People
by Jeff Lederer, co-founder/director of the Visionary Youth Orchestra in NYC and Director of Jazz Studies at LIU Post
I co-founded the Visionary Youth Orchestra (VYO) along with Jessica Jones in New York in 2010. The idea of our project was to provide a workshop/ensemble of young musicians to explore structured free improvisation in a large ensemble setting. The results have been remarkable – this innovative group has garnered great praise in its eight years, and recently had the honor of performing at the Cecil Taylor memorial in NYC.
With regard to repertoire and musical approaches, this project is quite different from most Sistema youth orchestras. However, I have always attempted to follow the spirit of what I saw happening in the núcleos of Caracas many years ago. The Visionary Youth Orchestra is inspired by a model based on the transformative power of music in young lives. In our case, the engine of that transformative power has been musical improvisation.
Traditionally, the musical repertoire at the core of most Sistema youth orchestra programs has come from the Western classical canon, along with some folkloric sources. Many programs are increasingly supplementing this core with other musical forms and styles, from jazz and pop to diverse world musics. In addition, some programs have committed to using elements of improvisation in their curricula, including the OrchKids program in Baltimore, the MakeMusicNola program in New Orleans, and the InTempo program in Stamford, CT. But the movement to make improvisation a central element has been relatively slow to develop. OrchKids founder/director Dan Trahey observes, “Classical folks tend to be scared of improvisation, so sometimes they push it out of the way.” It’s interesting, he adds, that in our not-for-profit world, non-musical improvisation has become a common and necessary part of what we do as administrators, teaching artists and learners.
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. Therefore, the skill of really deep listening to the music happening in the moment quickly becomes the most important factor. Students need to hear the whole gestalt of an improvised piece of music, and to understand their place within that sonic landscape. This is a much deeper and broader kind of listening than 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 need to make quick decisions based on constantly evolving musical settings in real time. These decisions will have an immediate 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 fast and multifaceted. This experience is tremendously rich for young musicians, as practice for the kind of non-musical improvisation that happens in creative organizations.
An important aspect of VYO rehearsals is the student-led discussion that follows almost every piece in rehearsal. Our ensemble is a democratic musical community, and most important decisions about the music are made by consensus. Students have been exceptionally forthcoming in their reflective thinking. I think this is because we have always encouraged a workshop environment in which peer-to-peer learning is more important than instructor-led direction. This is quite different from the traditional social structures of ensembles playing classical music – and yet, in my own experiences in the núcleos of Caracas, I saw lots of peer-to-peer mentoring, support, and feedback that bypassed the traditional hierarchical structures of the classical orchestra.
We often start rehearsals with an “improvisation starter” – a piece of text, musical instruction, student-created graphic, or student-led conduction. It’s important to consistently stress that this type of music-making is just as disciplined as reading a traditionally notated score. It’s equally important to debrief the experience immediately with student-led reflections. Laughter is okay; in fact, it’s good. With consistent practice, students will learn the skills of big-picture listening, quick decision-making and critical thinking.
I’m convinced that the musical structures of large-ensemble improvised music have an impact on the way young people think about themselves and their place in the world. The experience of improvising together provides more than a metaphor for positive personal and social development; it is actually a direct pathway towards those goals.