This past March, as part of an outreach program through the Lake Tahoe Music Festival, the Afiara String Quartet visited three different elementary schools on the North Shore and in Truckee to share their brand of classical music with the kids. After performing a couple of classical pieces with the quartet, cellist Adrian Fung queued the violist to start a hip-hop bass line while the violinists filled in the beat with a repeating melody and other hip-hop elements. He then asked the young audience to yell out a word. Out of the chorus of shouting voices, he picked ‘bus’ and, over the string beat, began a freestyle rap – making up rhymes on the spot, based on that one word. After drawing the young audience into his performance, Fung made the connection between his rap and the quartet music: While rap and classical music may seem like vastly different genres, they are actually closely related and, even, interchangeable.
Local teacher, Brian Hess, makes the same connection for his students in the North Tahoe Jazz Band, which he has been teaching for the last two years. While he spends most of the school year focusing on jazz and swing charts from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the band performs a theme concert at the end of each year that introduces something new. Last year, that something new was ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ the first rap song to break hip-hop out of the Bronx and Harlem and onto popular radio in 1979. The song was not only fun to play, but demonstrated how influential jazz has been on the modern, popular genre of hip-hop.
In a recent National Geographic article, ‘Hip-Hop Planet,’ James McBride put it this way: ‘You can point to jazz musicians such as Oscar Brown Jr…. and Louis Armstrong, and blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, and easily find the foreshadowing of rap music in the verbal play of their work.’ A jazz lover, McBride was slow to come to terms with the sounds of rap and hip-hop until he made that connection. When Adrian Fung demonstrated the relationship between classical music and rap, Rita Whitaker – cellist, founder of the Truckee Wire Choir and elementary school music teacher, among other musical vocations – was similarly swayed: ‘[Fung] made me see that rap is poetry, it’s clever and you have to be smart. It’s not just young people yelling bad words and rhyming them.’
Whether a seasoned musician, a high school student, or an elementary school beginner, to see the relationship between your genre of choice and one that seems completely foreign is a priceless experience in music education. ‘You can go and play punk music, then come back to your music and look at it differently,’ Hess said.
While taking lessons and performing in school ensembles are fundamental building blocks for young musicians, also essential are the extra experiences that teach, inspire, and challenge students in new ways – the chance to see quality performers, to perform in a live setting and to learn from visiting musicians. Learning the interconnection between genres is just one of many useful pieces of musical knowledge that can be reinforced through these added experiences. Still developing its musical personality, the Tahoe/Truckee area has prime ‘extra experiences’ for young musicians, though some holes remain.
One place that local kids can find those experiences is at the Annual Jazz Kids Camp, part of the Annual Jazz Artists in Residency at Moody’s Bistro. The week-long program brings in jazz greats from all over the country to play together at night and teach children of the community during the day – all for free, thanks to generous sponsors. The last two nights – this year July 13 and 14 – feature the Shotgun Wedding Hip–Hop Symphony and asks for donations to benefit the Truckee Youth Music Program – a mentor program where instruments and instruction are provided for free to low-income children with high school music students as teachers.
A typical day at the Jazz Kids Camp starts out with a performance. Then there are master classes separated by instrument and finally a group ensemble which performs at the end of the day. Last year, while talking about styles, drummer Josh Jones took one song and played it with different beats such as latin, reggae and hip-hop – as well as traditional beats. By demonstrating how one song can be played so many different ways, he (once again) showed that music can be revitalized and that just because a song is old doesn’t mean that it’s that different from the popular tunes of today.
The Lake Tahoe Music Festival outreach program, which brought the Afiara quartet this year, also offers the chance to learn with professional musicians, to watch them perform and to take a variety of classes with them. Besides doing presentations at the schools, the quartet also performed for the community and did a workshop for strings students on a Saturday. During the performance, the quartet was joined by the Sierra Wire Choir – a group of elementary school students led by Whitaker who was thrilled with the experience ‘for the kids to sit and play right next to the quartet members.’ In November, the Festival plans on bringing The Great Basin Brass Quintet to do similar workshops and presentations.
Other opportunities for ‘extra’ music education include programs of visiting artists brought to the schools through Arts for the Schools. There are middle school and high school band programs. A growing selection of private teachers and the Tahoe Conservatory provide private and group lessons. For those looking to get involved in classical ensembles and willing to commute to Reno, there are the Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestras, the Junior Honor Orchestra and the Honor Orchestra. There is also a world-class jazz program at the University of Nevada, Reno, that brings musicians from all over the country each spring for an annual jazz festival.
However the Tahoe/Truckee area is still young in music culture and one thing missing is an all ages venue. To expose his students in the North Tahoe Jazz Band to an all ages club, Brian Hess takes them to the Bay Area. Along with chances to play in places such as elementary schools, assisted living facilities and Union Square, the band has also visited all-ages clubs in Berkeley, such as The Jazzschool – a nonprofit venue with topnotch performers who come to teach by day and to play at the club by night. When the North Tahoe students visited the school, they had the chance to see a five-piece band including Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Joshua Redmond of the San Francisco Jazz Collective on saxophone and Scott Amendola on drums. Hess described the music as, ‘Borderline free jazz, pretty out there… but the kids really enjoyed it.’
When asked what kind of musical opportunities are missing in the Tahoe/Truckee region, J.J. Morgan, co-owner of Moody’s Bistro and founder of the Annual Jazz Artist in Residency, said, ‘An urban environment that lends to [music] culture.’ For an example he, like Hess, looked to the city of Berkeley. ‘How cool is it to be in a high school band? That’s money… To be in the Jazz Band in Berkeley is like being the star quarterback here: You’re not a band geek, you’re a band stud.’
The Truckee/Tahoe area is known for people being committed to its outdoor playground, not for people being committed to an indoor activity. ‘People don’t understand the commitment [that music takes] and taking it seriously because there’s not a long history of it. Sports – people get that – but it’s the understanding that music is a commitment too,’ Whitaker said.
In the city, Hess’s Jazz Band saw how music can be infused into one’s life. ‘Life influences art and music… For instance, to see graffiti on the walls and [understand] how hip-hop has been influenced by life. Or maybe a guy plays punk music and they dress punk all the time because that’s who they are.’ In other words, music is a way of life for people in the city.
Here’s to making it a way of life up in the mountains. Keep playing, everybody!