From Bach to rock: Jacobs School of Music works to expand options, preserve tradition (HT: Jon Blau)

Kenny Aronoff

Kenny Aronoff

By Jon Blau 331-4266 | | Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 12:00 am

Alice Edwards is Miles Edwards’ instrument of desire. Wearing a long black coat and a yellow-and-blue bow tie around his neck, he stands, his gloveless fingers running along the curves of her black case.

If you call it a marriage, Miles Edwards is the partner who has sacrificed more. As a freshman at Indiana University, he scored among the top 20 in the national William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. He had limitless potential.

Four years later, however, his dreams remain solely with Alice Edwards and the music they partner to make. Having graduated, he talks about the “math work” he’s picked up in Chicago as if it’s an odd job, something to get by.

Up and down his fingers go, up and down the case of his cello, the instrument he affectionately named Alice Edwards.

“I thought when I came out, I’d be ready to join a full-time orchestra,” Miles Edwards said. “I knew the job market was bad, but I really had no idea how bad going in.

“But I loved it so much.”

Edwards, who has grown the bushy beard of a Russian mathematician, has calculated his odds of a career in classical music. They are not good. In fact, it’s like being a professional athlete, he said. There are 30 full-time orchestras, give or take. But, without the wear-and-tear of sport, cellists aren’t limping away from their chairs and turning jobs over.

The audience is changing, too. In a world where “The X Factor” and “American Idol” permeate the culture, and non-music majors walk around campus with their iPods tuned to anything but Itzhak Perlman, the question becomes how a music school and its students adapt.

Or how they don’t.

Despite a reputation defined by the classical, IU has not frozen in time.

Glenn Gass

Glenn Gass

The music school pays homage to popular culture with classes dedicated to the Beatles and Frank Zappa. But the foundation of a student’s education at the Jacobs School still hinges on mastering Bach and Brahms — five hours of practice a day, on average, by Edwards’ math. A little more if you want to play in an orchestra, he says, a little less to teach.

A couple of “hot shots” from Edwards’ class are in Europe, he said, but most have gone on to grad school, precisely his next move. Until then, he’s getting by with a patchwork of math and playing with a small orchestra in Wisconsin.

The pluses and minuses of his path to music work through his brilliant mind – “Can I afford to spend this year practicing for auditions?” he asks – but the resonant sound of Alice Edwards disarms his reasoning.

“It’s worth it for me. I’m definitely having a rough year, but I have this thing,” Edwards said, hands on his cello. “It keeps me going.”

Rock ‘n’ ukulele

Gwyn Richards is interested in numbers, too. They tell him 65,000 pianos were sold in America last year, the bottoming out of a line graph that has steadily dropped from 365,000 in 1909. On the other hand, guitar sales just hit 2.5 million.

The dean of the Jacobs School moves right past those statistics, however, excitedly asking another question: “Did you know, one of the greatest crazes today is the ukulele?”

The grand piano’s loss to the electric keyboard, or the guitar’s victory over them all, comes back to one point: They may one day fall to the ukulele, or music synthesis on a computer. A foundation against the ebbs and flows of music is the Jacobs School, and change within its walls comes slowly and cautiously, with a place reserved for Beethoven’s Fifth.

Jazz, for instance, came to IU sooner than most, but only because David Baker ignored 1960s musicologists who saw the genre as uncivilized. Glenn Gass has taught a course on rock ‘n’ roll history for more than three decades, but it was a middle finger to fellow master’s students at IU who rolled their eyes when he wore a black wristband in memory of John Lennon in 1980.

“There was this old guard who saw rock as moronic, the enemy of good music,” Gass said. “That’s not a battle that has to be fought anymore. I kind of miss it, because it was kind of amusing. Every kid who loves rock ‘n’ roll wants to be the rebel.”

Retirement by retirement, Gass has seen the makeup of IU’s music school change to the point where some faculty grew up on Jimi Hendrix and “Purple Haze.” But all of Gass’ offerings are in the music in general studies department, for non-music majors, as “music appreciation classes.” Most of the school’s expansion into the contemporary has been through general studies, though there will be a composer’s class this spring on the Beatles to match such regulars as Vivaldi and Chopin.

For the most part, cellists aren’t splitting their time between Lennon and Leonard Bernstein. If one has to win out in a time crunch, the Jacobs School wants its students concentrating on the tried and true.

“If you want to play as a violinist and have a solo career, that requires incredible focus,” said Tom Walsh, the chairman of the jazz department at IU. “There is a certain repertoire you have to have, and that can take up all of your time.”

The fourth floor

Walsh attended IU when Grammy Award winners Chris Botti, Edgar Meyer, and Bob Hurst spent nights jamming on the fourth floor of the Musical Arts Center. Class time was spent laboring over Bach, nighttime honored Duke Ellington — but, in Bach’s defense, Walsh calls him a jazz forerunner, an improviser of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

If things have changed over the last decade at IU, “ad hoc” jam sessions like the Grammy trio’s have become formal ensembles. The school has also brought in more one-on-one instructors for specific instruments, such as string faculty who play the electric jazz guitar and a percussionist, Michael Spiro, who specializes in the Afro-Cuban style of drumming.

But one thing hasn’t changed – and that’s the brand. IU is known for the orchestras that back up the operas and ballets. For years after his graduation in 1976, Kenny Aronoff, the rock ‘n’ roll drummer who played with John Mellencamp and the Smashing Pumpkins, wouldn’t talk up his IU roots backstage – years spent reading symphonies and playing the timpani – because he didn’t think it would mean anything to bands who trained on drum sets in their garages.

“I wouldn’t talk about it, because I thought it was uncool,” Aronoff said, who decided his freshman year to translate a violin piece he heard from Perlman into one for the marimba. “Now that I’ve become what I am, I’m proud as hell about it.”

IU believes the classical regimen has value, and all graduate students admitted to IU, even those looking to be Aronoff or Botti, have to pass classical auditions. If they ace jazz but fail classical, they might be admitted, but they will have to take remediation classes when they arrive.

Trumpeter Marlin McKay, who teaches the “Jazz for the Listener” course at IU and graduated with a master’s from the Jacobs School in 2010, described the potential class load for a jazz graduate musician as something like working “twice as hard to be considered half as good.”

McKay wishes the road went both ways. Like his music appreciation class, which educates non-music majors to walk through Macy’s and know when they are hearing Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite,” he wonders if just listening to 20th-century jazz would help broaden the emotional Rolodex of a classical musician rather than sticking to 19th-century compositions.

“Who wants to pickle pigs’ feet?” McKay said. “I want bacon, I want something that’s kind of moving. I don’t want something in a jar. It’s not helping the music to keep it in this one confined area.”

Botti, the country’s best-selling instrumentalist, would say classical, by nature, heads down a single track, while the improvisational art of jazz runs off the track and in its own directions. It’s a worthwhile skill, but Walsh would counter by asking where students would find the time to drop their concertos and jam on the fourth floor.

The straight line of classical is the thread that runs through IU’s history.

“The hardest thing about giving someone a degree in a certain subject, you are certifying that they are good at something, but musical styles continue to proliferate,” Walsh said. “Human experience and modes of human expression will continue to proliferate. The question becomes, which mode of human expression are you going to validate? Can we be all things to all people?”

Gym versus music

Richards, for one, believes classical music can be relevant to all people. One day, he says, when music class rivals gym class in public schools, there will be a crop of young players who will appreciate the challenges of the pas de deux in “The Nutcracker” as they do a groundball double-play. IU has begun the process of trying to reverse engineer an audience, the guitar program at Bloomington’s Templeton Elementary School is an example of that.

Today, first-graders play Johnny Cash. Tomorrow, Perlman.

“Societal integration” is what Richards sees as the key to reviving classical music. When the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011, Richards didn’t see that as an indictment of Perlman and the music his students refine. He wants to believe the orchestra failed by containing itself to the stage.

“If the Philadelphia Phillies had the same issues (as the orchestra), how would the citizens of Philadelphia respond?” Richards asked. “The answer is frankly, they are not as socially integrated as the Philadelphia Phillies.”

He dreams of money flowing through public schools for music programs, converting the young. Another dream involves taking the 11,000 people who will turn 65 every day for the next 19 years, people who the recording industry has turned into listeners rather than “music-makers,” and see if IU can help them make their own melodies again, in turn having them cherish professional players in their twilight years.

But one of his close colleagues believes it’s only a dream. Larry Livingston, a professor at the University of Southern California, attended Michigan like Richards, who later served as associate dean under him at Southern Cal. Livingston imagined surveying folks at airport terminals to gauge the state of music appreciation in the United States. The masses are more likely to know Coldplay than Perlman.

Therein lies the gulf between a music student’s dream of their career as a freshman and the one they will find after graduation. IU, Juilliard, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, they churn out alumni who are bound to go into the real world and quickly turn around in hopes of a master’s and a teaching job, he says.

“It’s a scandal we call ourselves professional schools,” Livingston said. “We are training them to be in the academy.”

On the other hand, USC just received a $70 million donation from rapper Dr. Dre and producer Jimmy Iovine to create a music business academy. They are looking to create rock stars, something you might find only at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where men played electric guitars, with hair down to their knees, a half-century ago.

But even with such a huge gift directed at the business of music, Livingston can’t imagine such a sudden shift in gears for USC or IU. Silos too often separate the classical musician from everyone else at the “great music schools,” he said, their violinists tasked with serving the traditions propped up by “old white men” who pay to have their names affixed to the program.

And the students, obsessed by their love of music, aren’t going to save themselves.

“Playing the music is very addicting, so they haven’t been eager to beat on the desk,” he said. “If we had $1 trillion, gave it to the music schools students and said ‘You can do this all your life, stay in school,’ they would.

“Problem is, that’s not reality.”

The practice

Bass player Justin Kujawski is a fourth-year grad student at IU who spent another four years at Juilliard. He admits his prospects for a seat in an orchestra are grim. But he just stares ahead, breathing in the dank air of his practice room, the armpits of his red polo shirt sweat-soaked.

He takes a swig from his water bottle and returns to his work.

The basement of the Musical Arts Center is nearly empty during finals week, instrument cases lining one hallway like vampire coffins, the doors to practice rooms closed and the muffled chirping of flutes and singing of violins is absent. The sound of Kujawski’s bass breaks the silence.

The melody pays homage to Bach or Beethoven or Brahms, but Kujawski wouldn’t know who to credit. He’s not reading from sheet music, just repeating fine and familiar thrusts of his bow across the strings, imprinted in his muscle memories after years of training.

Over and over again.

Kujawski’s endless practice, even while knowing the odds are against him, is, Botti would say, the exact kind of insanity a music student needs. He’s going to need it when he graduates, as well.

“I was playing all the lousy gigs — weddings, bar mitzvahs on Long Island — all the stuff I wouldn’t want to do now,” Botti said. “Someone gave me $50 for playing Christmas carols, I felt like I won a Grammy.”

Kujawski is the “good soldier,” as Aronoff called himself. The drummer “jumped on the treadmill” and went through IU’s music school, and didn’t worry about the fact that he had always wanted to be in a band since he had seen The Beatles. Kujjawski’s life has played in reverse; when he first picked up the bass at 14 years old, it was a bass guitar in a jazz band. He came to IU, not because of David Baker, the man Botti calls the “Nelson Mandela of the jazz.” He’s right where he wants to be, with an IU faculty refined by European styles.

In the end, the idols of the music school, models of success etched into students’ minds like a Mount Rushmore of Jacobs – Joshua Bell on the violin, Botti, Aronoff, Meyer on the bass and Michael Brecker on the saxophone – would all say the genre a student chooses doesn’t matter. Regardless, they’ll have to work at it and work at it and work at it, and they may very well end at the head of a classroom, not on the front of a solo album.

But the love of the melody keeps Kujawski at work. It’s the lifeblood of his school, along with the classical composers that he has memorized. The days of men in tuxedos, wearing opera glasses and being “stuffy in concert halls” are over, Kujawski said. The audience may change. The instrument of his obsession won’t.

“It’s kind of on us to find a way to rejuvenate this art form that we care so much about, and find new ways to inject life into it,” Kujawski said. “I do believe it’s something that’s valuable for people – that it’s valuable for society.”

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