I firmly believe that travelling for study, especially internationally, is one of the best things a musician can do to learn and grow as an artist. Having just returned from five weeks abroad, I am still blown away by what I have taken away from this incredible experience. Amazing teachers, new experiences, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones, my trip to the U.S.A. and Brazil has given me so many gifts.
The first stop was to the New Orleans Jazz and Pop Harp Weekend, in the jazz capital of the world. Having never visited the Big Easy, I was blown away by its rich history, amazing food, friendly people, and of course world class music. The course introduced me to New Orleans jazz styles, as well as other diverse styles of harping, presented by leading harpists Brandee Younger, Patrice Fisher, Jacqueline Kerrod, Becca Babin, Rachel van Voorhees and Luke Brechtelsbauer. Each afternoon finished with a concert featuring members of the teaching faculty, followed by evenings on Frenchman Street, absorbing the variety of live music available in the French Quarter. I jumped at the opportunities to perform in the various open mic spots available over the weekend, including performing for high tea at the Windsor Court Hotel, testing out what I had learnt in these intensive few days.
Next stop, the Big Apple! It's been over 20 years since I've visited New York City, and this brief trip made me hungry to go back. The purpose here was to take in as much live music as I could. This was considerably more challenging than I anticipated as the amount of great music happening any night of the week meant having to choose between more than ten acts I wanted to see every night. First stop was The Stone, an experimental music venue run by John Zorn. The resident artist for that week was saxophone player Louie Belogenis, who performed with his Flow Trio including Joe Morris on bass and Charles Downs on drums, as well as guest musician Joe McPhee on trumpet and sax. The two sets of free-improv on offer epitomised much of the Downtown Scene Zorn and his contemporaries are known for, displaying a seamless narrative right up until the final note. Wednesday afternoon I had a very special treat, watching one of my harp heroes, Zeena Parkins, perform live in Madison Square Park. Performing a 45 minute improvised set with "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" drummer Brian Chase, the pair led a variety of park goers through an extensive journey of colours and timbres, wild distorted lines blurring with eerie trance like drones. This was my first chance to see Parkins' custom made electric harp up close, and what an amazing machine it was. Eager to explore more of the city's experimental music scene, that night I ventured to a venue called The Sump. Set in a semi-industrial area of Bushwick, below a pizza shop and through a winding series of tunnels and staircases I finally found a basement, set up with a small stage and PA. Where The Stone showcased the leaders of the free-improv and experimental music scene, here was a collection of emerging musicians, the next generation of New York artists. Turntables, percussion, electronics, saxophones and projections brought new life to this sparse, hidden space, where soundscapes collided with harsh industrial noise. The next night called for something totally different, jazz at the New York institution, The Blue Note. Pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran sat at dovetailed grand pianos, improvising epic and lyrical duets that took my breath away. The level of musicianship and obvious connection between the two musicians quite simply left me speechless, and craving more, long after we had left the building. The final show down was consummated by hardcore punk band Pissed Jeans, New York No Wave scene singer Lydia Lunch and punk/noise artist Richard Papiercuts at stalwart of New York alternative music, The Knitting Factory. A sea of hardcore fans of all ages drank in the dark sounds of each artist, a backdrop against the grit of the city.
Having barely scraped the surface of New York, but feeling inspired, I continued on to my next destination, Boston. Here I was spending a week at the Global String Intensive, a short course for string players around the world run by Berklee College of Music. Each day's busy schedule saw students participate in style labs for blue grass, new grass, gospel/r&b, free improv, Arabic music, Celtic music, jazz, funk and pop, led by leading experts in each style. Small and large ensemble rehearsals were interspersed with theory labs, faculty clinics and talks, with every evening culminating in a jam session on a different style. The extraordinary Felice Pomeranz, an incredibly versatile player in classical and jazz, runs the harp department at Berklee, assisting harpists from around the world to find their own voices as young artists.
After a series of cancelled flights and rerouting, I finally made my way to the last leg of my journey, Brazil. The purpose here was to attend the Brazilian Jazz Harp Immersion, set in the exquisite surrounds of the Uaná Etê Music Garden, two hours north of Rio in the rolling hills of the Atlantic Forest. Once again I had the opportunity to work with Felice, as well as an incredible faculty including Carol Robbins, Cristina Braga, Ricardo Medeiros, Kurt Schwab, Sabine Meijers and Brenda Dor-Groot, and other students from around the world including harpists from the U.S.A, the U.K., Brazil, France and the Netherlands. Every morning began with a sunrise walk through the mountains, followed by harp "boot camp" and hands on theory. Each of the ten days incorporated private lessons, rhythmic workshops, jam sessions, dancing and singing classes, ensemble rehearsals and listening sessions.
The goal for this trip was to expand my skill set as a harpist and to feel more comfortable in Brazilian and jazz styles. On my return I am astounded at how much I have learnt in such a short time. I thoroughly recommend summer schools to all musicians looking to expand their musicianship, or who are wishing to learn intensely from world renowned teachers that they might not otherwise have access to.