by Jacob Greenberg, pianist and Education ICE Artist Partner
Meanwhile, on the left coast of America, in between exciting performances and recordings, ICE started to establish a teaching presence. In the second week of December, the group began a major education initiative at Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which is the El Sistema teaching program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On one of the three YOLA campuses, in the central L.A. Rampart district, eight intrepid ICE artists worked with forty-three middle school wind, brass, and percussion players on activities familiar to us but totally new to the students, involving improvisation skills, a classic American "process piece," and other mind-stretching activities. Over three days of work, we all got along famously.
Improvisation is always the hardest kind of activity to start, especially in a group. How and when does one begin to play? How can one spontaneously generate material that is not practiced or familiar, and distant from traditional ideas of harmony and rhythm? How does one engage a colleague in a “conversation"? Though hesitant at first, the students really latched onto the extended playing techniques that ICE introduced during our sessions, and these were a good point of entry. Sometimes it is easier to start with sounds not associated with one’s own playing, at least as one knows it. The students overcame their self-consciousness, and beautiful things emerged.
Josh and Rebekah led a choir of clarinets, bassoons, and oboes to create a forest of subtones, shadowy notes activated by special fingerings and light breathing. Claire and Alice worked with the flutes to make a structured improvisation with a storyline, using different techniques to convey each scene: key clicks, tongue rams, and whistle tones, among others. And Peter Evans and David Byrd made a game of rapid-fire directives, using a number system to start and stop each type of playing within their brass group.
ICE also focused on American composers that we’ve known and worked with: George Lewis’s Artificial Life was a point of departure for improvising, and tested the students’ knowledge of musical concepts. Christian Wolff’s Microexercises, an ICE commission, encouraged the young players to adapt musical material for different instruments. ICE also showed off one of our own composers: in addition to teaching in the residency, Levy Lorenzo brought his invented joystick instruments to a lucky group of four percussionists. Four video game joysticks controlled a wide range of sounds and dynamics, and the players learned Levy’s score, a evocative system of graphic symbols. Levy rehearsed and brilliantly conducted the group.
A final presentation for the students’ families and the community included all these activities, and one more: Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, a favorite of our friends in eighth blackbird. This process piece has players construct an additive melody note by note, played continuously but always going back to note one in the sequence. ICE finished the piece with each student instrumental section taking a virtuoso solo turn.
And that’s not all! Happily, ICE has brought education programming on each of its recent tours, including an elementary school group in Morelia, Mexico, during El Festival de Música de Morelia. This was a session of The Listening Room, where the students got to know each of the ICE players and composed colorful graphic scores for us to play together. At the end of our time together, they gave us a cheer! And after David Bowlin and Jen Curtis’s amazing Chicago OpenICE performance, both players had memorable sessions with second graders at the Lycée Français and with students at the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts. Improvisation was the common link; the young students accompanied the violinists with handheld percussion, and Jen had the high schoolers play freely over a chord sequence from Vivaldi.
ICE education knows no limits! In the spring, we’re looking forward to more activities in New York public schools, and a continuing collaboration with CSIC, Composers and Schools in Concert, involving many of our ICElab composers. Stay tuned!