MAW Faculty, Fellows Making the Most of MARLI

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 9, 2020
Veteran clarinetist Richie Hawley (photo by Phil Channing)

Faced with closing down the campus this summer, the Music Academy of the West’s summer festival performed a pivot so dramatic that anyone watching in person might have suffered whiplash. Rather than having the 134 fellows from around the world immersed in studies, classes, rehearsals, and performances on the Miraflores campus in Montecito, everything would have to take place remotely over the Internet.

The result of the shift is known as MARLI – the Music Academy Remote Learning Institute – where the fellows have been exposed to seminars with industry leaders that focus on a wide variety of topics surrounding innovation and adapting as well as career advice and coaching. A typical day might include private or group lessons with faculty members via Zoom or reviewing performances at home that make use the equipment contained in their provided tech packages. Meanwhile, MAW has been posting daily videos on its website to provide a glimpse of the activities to the public, which makes up a big part of a typical summer festival but has been otherwise excluded this year. Those snippets include picnic concerts from the fellows, excerpts from master classes and performances by faculty members in an attempt to offer a small semblance of what would normally take place live on campus and around town.

We caught up with two of the faculty members to get some perspective on the program so far. Veteran clarinetist Richie Hawley is spending the summer with friends and family here in Montecito and conducting his MAW activities from his normal studio on campus.

Q. How has the transition to the online learning format and Zoom been for you?

A. We’ve all been teaching online since mid-March so that’s not new. I’ve got a great studio at home and all of my technology there, so I’m used to teaching that way. But what’s really different about this summer is this is a really specific program and the lessons are only a small part of the entire scope of MARLI. We have a studio class and masterclasses that I do with my students, but it’s all part of the curriculum that also involves seminars, the lecture and learning new skills that are just not part of their regular study (at a university) but yet are essential skills that most people have not taken the time to teach or learn.

They’ve got seminars about writing grants. They’ve got a lot of career enhancement opportunities. So being able to learn how to layer and do electronic recording and work with ensembles is definitely a big part of the summer, but my students are finding that the seminars have been one of the greatest things that they have experienced during any sort of musical academic life.

Obviously Zoom sound quality isn’t great. How do you cope with that?

Well, there’s no point in trying to argue the audio quality of Zoom. It’s at best half the recording quality of a compact disc, so everything is muted. Dynamics are limited because the software is designed for working with voice. And for some reason, whenever I or any of my students play a B natural on the clarinet, it makes the whole program just kind of short circuit for a few moments and it sounds like they’re playing underwater. However, what my students do is pre-record what we’re going to work on in lessons and masterclass with the high-quality microphones and digital packages the Academy provided and then upload it to YouTube, which has a very high resolution. So we’re all listening in high fidelity and then discussing the pieces and working on them in person live on Zoom… We have gotten to a point where I can freeze a frame, I can screen share or zoom in on some physical issues with the fingers that they might be having and then circle it almost like John Madden does in an instant replay for an NFL football game. Basically, there’s been a lot of ways that I’ve adapted to being online that augmented my teaching, in a manner that makes me almost want to have a virtual video grease board when I teach normally when we can be in person again.

You are a personable guy, and I recall from whenever I’ve attended one of your masterclasses on campus that you are very open and friendly with your students. So much so that the audience can feel that connection. Have you been able to establish comradery and cohesiveness online?

Before MARLI started, when we were just starting to wonder how the world was going to work, I reached out to the students because I was really worried that we wouldn’t have that connection. But I’ve noticed through these three weeks so far that there’s a definite personality to my studio and it is a result of (the fellows) interacting with each other in our classes, and acting as a team… So we really have gone from zero to a tremendous working relationship and respect for each other very quickly. It’s something I believe that the Music Academy seems to foster, even if it’s only in a virtual electronic form. I don’t know how, but there’s some magic about MAW.

The leadership has inspired us all to foster these relationships with our studios in the same manner as before. So the fellows are looking forward to working with each other again in person next summer, which helps create camaraderie. It’s really fun to say, “Oh, by the way, I just got back from getting takeout from the Public Market.” Then I show them the food and say, “Don’t worry. Next year after our masterclass, we will be eating the same meal together.”

What has been among the highlights for you?

Seeing how a couple of my students played live in the masterclass last Friday when the Compeers were there and hearing how much they miss performing. It did seem like we were in the same room when one even said he was feeling nervous like he would at a concert, and he forgot what it feels like. They all felt this sense of pride and excitement about giving a performance live for other people.

What has been the most unexpected aspect, a hidden asset if you will, of working remotely with the fellows and other faculty?

The beauty of (MAW President) Scott Reed‘s vision. He realized early on that all these students would be floating out there between the end of this past school year and the coming one in a manner that’s quite surreal, without knowing whether they’d be in person in the fall, or back online, or perhaps taking a deferment. And that’s amid the uncertainty around musical performance and the ability to audition. He recognized the need for this musical island, this place that would be a sanctuary of learning, an almost holistic case for us to come together as a community. His team figured out how to manage everything from the equipment packages to coordinating schedules across the planets, and it’s been extraordinary how Scott’s vision for (MARLI) has come to life.

I’m wondering if in teaching from your studio on the MAW campus, you get more a sense of that Miraflores vibe. I imagine it’s got to feel different than if you were at home.

Definitely. But for me, it’s bittersweet because I can feel the ghosts of all my colleagues from afar and I miss their presence. But even though the campus is empty, knowing that everyone is part of this electronic musical current that is going on with MAW is really inspiring and I’m really proud to be part of it.

Speaking of colleagues, you recently recorded an album with MAW pianist Conor Hanick – and a video of one of the pieces ran last week on the daily Concert Hall Online. What drew you to each other to form the duo? Why do you think it works?

Because we both have a collective interest in exploring new music that is very accessible yet still incredibly rich in its authenticity. (What we play) isn’t like a solo flute and piano or solo violin and piano, where it’s a showcase for a single instrument. It’s truly collaborative music where the piano and the clarinet voice are one in their musical importance, more like three-hand piano where the composer’s voice is pulled across two instruments.

Looking ahead, they’re saying it could be at least another six months before we’re going to have indoor concerts. What happens when you contemplate that possible reality?

lt’s an anxious time for all musicians. But there’s more of an unsettling feeling if you’re in the age group of the fellows, 20-24, where they’re just about to launch their careers and they’ve got all of these hopes and dreams and nothing is tangible for an audition in the fall or a possible competition in the spring. It’s abstract on a level that they’ve never known. So it’s wonderful that MARLI has given them the electronic tools to start their own broadcasting of their musical expression. Supplying the fellows with technology packets and then the knowledge and practical experience of using it with some of the projects that they’re doing together – it’s incredible.

Navigating the Cyberspace World

MAW collaborative piano chair Jonathan Feldman, who is operating out of his home in New Jersey, has yet to make peace with the coronavirus-created conditions that have forced him to spend the summer connecting with the fellows from nearly 3,000 miles across the continent from Montecito.

“I’m very happy to be home in the summer for the first time in twenty years, but it’s a challenge for my department,” he said. “We make music with partners, so it’s debilitating in many ways to try to do something online. It’s impossible with Zoom because of the lag time.”

The first encounter with Zoom delay was a doozy, Feldman said.

“One of my piano students would play and I started to sing with them and they slowed down to be in time with me. Then I accommodated the slowing down by going even slower, and they slowed down even more because they were hearing it later and they wanted to be with me. I realized it was better to keep my mouth shut.”

Instead, Feldman has focused the studio on talking with the pianists about preparing a score, perhaps for a first rehearsal.

“I have been showing them particular places that they have to watch out for, things where they might be uncomfortable physically or technically, and so that they have a concept of where the articulations are and how to approach the fine details,” he said. “It’s been very productive from that standpoint. And what MAW is doing with MARLI is quite remarkable in showing all the fellows how you can navigate in this cyberspace world, putting together all the pieces to the puzzle.”

Working with the fellows and fellow faculty on layered recordings has been valuable too, he said, because, when it comes to COVID-19, “we’re in it and it ain’t going away.”

“The (layering process) pinpoints your own musical interpretation because you have to be precise as to how you’re playing. When you’re playing live with someone, things can vary. Sometimes you want to hold a particular note for emotional purposes a little longer than you were earlier during rehearsal, or maybe you need to accommodate (a wind player’s) breathing. But with these processes you have to be very, very exact as to how you want to put it down. So from that standpoint in my business, it is very important. And it’s been good for me, because when it comes to computers, I’m techno-moronic.”

PC ineptitude aside, Feldman teamed with MAW trumpeter Paul Merkelo for a performance of Honegger’s Intrada, one of the signature entries in the Music Academy Concert Hall Online daily postings.

“It was done in sections and it was a lot of work, and it wasn’t very satisfying for me on a musical level (to make it),” he said. “Yet I was amazed at how the technology can be learned and utilized, which was fascinating.”

Feldman, who also hosted an online masterclass with legendary pianist Emanuel Ax earlier in the summer at MARLI, his former classmate and current fellow faculty member at Juilliard, said he’s even more curious to see what happens with the project that the MAW fellows are putting together for the last week of the MARLI program and the two-week mentoring program that follows.

“It’s really quite remarkable what can get done.”

Feldman will close out his portion of the summer with a masterclass with Anne Epperson, who created the collaborative piano program at MAW. And he was also looking forward to the last studio meeting with the students which, he said, will be a conversation about what they’ve accomplished and what comes next. He interrupted himself while relaying that last part, though, because he caught something outside the window in his Bergen County, New Jersey, home.

“There’s a deer crossing my driveway here, just looking around for something to eat,” he said. “It really is nice to be home.”


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