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A child needs to see a clear goal — succeed in your studies, and you’ll perform with Raimonds Pauls

Evilena Protektore

Jānis Ivuškāns & Irita Kalēja talk about jazz in a rock music city, student motivation and great success

Vadims Kožins

During the last week of August I was lucky enough to work in Liepāja city as a vocal teacher at a local music school. Starting with the very first day I was amazed by how hard these musicians work… during their free time. I arrived to school a couple of hours before the lessons started, there were two young saxophonists playing licks with a metronome in one room. In another room I found a guitarist with a bassist playing something else. On the sofa in the lobby a girl doing her solfege exercises. In another room someone playing the piano. Ok, I thought, it’s Monday, the school starts in a week, it’s time to shake the brains a bit and get ready for the year, a big band has to prepare a new program, something else, maybe. And then the classes started, and every day the students are on time, ready, it was obvious that they did some studying at home, on their own. I asked the organizers whether the students had to pay for these workshops, but it turned out everything was free. Will they get a grade or credit points for that? No, it’s totally up to them, whether they want to participate or not, no one is obliged to attend. Maybe they really want to participate in the final concert? Turned out that not everyone was able to attend, but still, they learned every single tune. Ok, the week has passed, I come to the school on Saturday, when the students are supposed to be out (because please, find me a teen who chooses school instead of a lazy afternoon on a sunny day with his friends) — but it’s all the same — every classroom is occupied, everyone does something. I remember my childhood, and honestly? You couldn’t find me at school even 15 minutes earlier, and let’s not mention Saturdays. But I have to admit, it’s a pretty nice view. Who would have thought that in a city where rock music is passed on along with mother’s milk, jazz would become such a popular thing amongst the teenagers!

I’ve met Jānis Ivuškāns, Melngaiļskola big band conductor, and Irita Kalēja, project manager, and had an interesting conversation about how they came up with the idea of organizing such workshops as the one I was lucky to teach at, how the big band, that during the first 5 years of existence has managed to do concerts with such stars of Latvian pop music as Ralfs Eilands and Raimonds Pauls, was born, and some other exciting things.

Tell me, how did you come up with the idea of organizing something like this!

Irita: Truthfully about the workshops, the idea belongs to Jānis, he had it in his head for a long time now, but last year we decided to take it to another level. At the beginning we had some funding that would be enough for two workshops, so we invited Gerhard Ornig and Arta Jēkabsone. Jānis insisted that we needed 4 teachers, I wailed that we had no money… But in the end we did find the funding and everything happened and it was good! And that’s how we decided that this year we will be planning those 4 teachers from the start. I started searching for the money at the beginning of the year and here we are!

Why did you want to do this kind of workshops?

Jānis: For the last two years I have been a participant of Ventspils Groove, and I liked the idea of it. But at the same time I never intended to become their competition, I never wanted our workshops to be in the way, for our week to overlap with their week. So I came up with an alternative solution — they have open workshops, ours are meant for local students — our school and our big band. Other students are welcome to join, of course, but we never stated that everyone should come to Liepāja right now and participate! We have this thing going on, if you want to look and join — do that, but our goal was to help our big band, our school, our jazz department, involving local Liepāja musicians.

Is that the reason why there were no ads on the internet?

Irita: Yes. Basically there’s no wide advertising, we do that locally and we send out invitation letters to the students. Some information was available on local internet sites, we said that we start on Monday and so on. But as Jānis said, our target group consists of our own community, and we work on improving their knowledge and skills. That way this approach is more personal, the results reached are higher.

Jānis: Irita looked for funding for a year! Because we had to make this project so that our people could enjoy it, not so that all the country suddenly appeared at our doorstep… We can’t organize workshops for money and cover the artist fees with that income…

It’s totally unreal…

Jānis: Exactly. In reality that was all meant for our people.

How did you choose the teachers?

Irita: We chose them according to the big band groups — horns, woodwinds, rhythm section and vocals.

So this is connected with the big band?

Jānis: It started with that, yes, then all other ideas were built around that.

Irita: In reality every student of the jazz department is apart of the big band, also classical students.

Is there anyone in the jazz department who’s not a part of the big band?

Irita: Yes, there are some. We have some people in a small band, because you can’t make a big band out of a wind orchestra and stretch it out, also there’s the matter of level — those who aren’t skilled enough yet to play in a big band are in the junior band.

Jānis: 5 years ago, when we just started, we were at the beginners level, and today’s setup is far from what we’ve had then, thus the repertoire was adjusted to the level of skill those students possessed. Then with time the big band grew, and now if a new student isn’t yet suitable for it, he gets to play in a junior band, improving his skills. The junior band serves as a step towards the big band, and it’s a motivation — you play in the junior band, then the next year you might be admitted into the big one.

Irita: When we started forming the big band, we didn’t even have a jazz department in the school, we started from scratch. We had only classical music students.

Vadims Kožins

How old is Liepāja jazz department exactly?

Irita: 4 years old.

Jānis: The big band was 1 year old when the jazz department was formed.

[/q]How did you form a jazz department?[/q]

Irita: There were jazz departments all around Latvia, while Liepāja had none, and the previous head of the study department Liene Šteinberga was told that we need it as well and… everything is so slow…

Jānis: Nothing in life happens fast, it’s the same that this year we finally have rhythmic music in the school, and I was wailing to have one for ages, I said that it was important and necessary. So, slowly, but things are looking up!

Irita: All in all if you look into the process of establishing a new education program, you’ll see that the administrative strain is huge, the coordination process is excruciatingly slow and complicated, it’s not like it’s done at the snap of your fingers.

What complications were there when you were forming the jazz department?

Irita: Actually we were not the ones who opened the department. I’m just the project manager myself, I don’t even work as a music teacher anymore. I don’t even remember who opened the jazz department. Rustam wasn’t there yet. But i’m almost sure that there were no serious complications. It was formed, the students came…

Jānis: It’s more how everything begins. When those people finally realise that this indeed is necessary, everyone has that, why can’t we move our bosoms and do something good for our students? That’s the main reason why we were so late.

Irita: There surely are complications, like where to get the teachers, because we aren’t Riga, we don’t have abundance of jazz musicians here, and in fact, Liepāja doesn’t have a jazz tradition. Rock and pop are way more popular here. And so during this first year we had our pop stars as teachers. I’m not sure that what they were teaching was jazz… Now we are certainly on the right track. Our program is called «Jazz and Popular music», and in truth, as Jānis already said, we have to find that balance — not only jazz, but also pop, because they have jazz in other cities, what will our school have that will be so special? You have to offer something else, you don’t have to take the same direction as Ventspils, or Dome Choir school, because why should you choose Liepāja, if you can get the same education there? That’s why we have to find our own way and stick to it.

Jānis: For now it is what it is… but what can I really say, I’m just a big band conductor. I’m not even a teacher in the jazz department. I teach classical trumpet, big band conductors, from time to time I give free ensemble lessons but… the result is that most of the students after graduation choose jazz. But it’s also only the second year when we have graduates. We have a whole life ahead of us. There will come a time when one of our students will like metal, and he will have an awesome voice, and he’ll be amazingly skilled in guitar, or bass, or drums, and that will become our direction. Because you have to be open to new things.

Irita: Recently we’ve been to Denmark and heard that jazz orchestra from AArhus — they played everything from jazz to pop, although called a «Jazz Orchestra»… I think that nowadays you have to be versatile and be able to adjust to the demands of the audience. With our big band we do both jazz concerts and pop concerts, and the latter are easier to sell out and fill up the concert hall.

Jānis: When we organise jazz concerts, they are usually with no admission fee. That in turn brings us more listeners, and maybe in ten years they will be ready to pay for a jazz concert. For now it is what it is. Those concerts where pop stars were involved were completely sold out. We had concerts with Ralfs Eilands and cartoon music, with Balceris there was a Christmas-themed concert, with Igo it was pop.

Irita: And that’s when we can gather a couple of thousands of listeners, and they will buy the ticket to attend a concert in the Great Amber.

How did you come up with the idea to combine a school big band with the pop music stars?

Jānis: Our first concert was with Marhilevičs. We were on our way home from some gig and an idea to do a program together just popped into my head, that was on the second year of our big band. He is like a local version of Raimonds Pauls to the people of Liepāja… We filled the community hall to the brim, in the first part we played some jazz tunes and in the second one did some Marhilevičs’s compositions. It was also the moment when I started arranging music. Due to the fact that the program that would fit the needs and the skill of my band costs a lot, if you could even find something, I had to step up. And now National Armed Forces Big Band plays my arrangements! People like it and they attend concerts!

Irita: We’ve also played some original arrangements, something from the Radio Big band repertoire, when we had a concert with Raimonds Pauls, when our big band celebrated its 5th anniversary. And we did it, we were able to play that! That is one of our fears, whether we would be able to play the arrangements of this high level. It’s always tricky, you can hope to make it, but if in the end you don’t…

Vadims Kožins

You’ve got a lot of talented students here! Like that girl that played the trumpet for only two years, but in the yesterday’s concert she was amazing!

Irita: Actually it’s her first year playing trumpet!

Jānis: She used to play flute, but then decided that she wanted to play the trumpet. The moment she was able to produce a couple of decent sounds I moved her to the horn section. Now she plays both — trumpet and the flute.

Irita: She is highly motivated, that’s a bonus!

Jānis: If the child is motivated, he wants to work hard!

Irita: She even missed her 9th grade graduation ceremony, went to Czech republic with the band instead. Chose her way in favor of music!

You have a couple of multi instrumentalists in the big band, right?

Irita: Mārtiņš Zālīte, double bass, plays oboe professionally.

Jānis: He’s a concertmaster in the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra.

Irita: He graduated from the jazz department one year ago as a bass guitarist.

You do have a lot of talented students here!

Jānis: Liepāja! In truth, it’s like that everywhere. The most important thing is to give those children an opportunity. They need a place, good teachers, motivated teachers and motivated parents, the environment, a chance to play concerts. Big concerts with the stars. Same with the junior band — some students can hardly produce one decent sound, but they have already been filmed in a music video for Renārs Kaupers. Everything is clear to him and available — whether it’s the symphony orchestra or the big band. This is the most important, the taste — to be on the stage, to play with amazing artists. Same with the big band — they have big concerts once or twice a year — a grand hall, soloists. They see the complete process from A to Z, how I brought the arrangements after a sleepless night, how we put it together, then there’s the first rehearsal with the soloist, we correct our mistakes, make the tunes better, then when it’s done we prepare the rehearsal schedule. Then there’s a week before the concert, the schedule is crazy, then there’s the concert day. I myself never lived through anything like that during my years in the school and even afterwards, in the Academy of music.

Irita: Our youngest student is 9 years old, he has already played with Raimonds Pauls. I listen to the conversations those kids have amongst themselves and they think of the big band as of a dream — aaa, when will I be in the band… When will we play the «Chameleon»? When will we play «Take Five»? And how they talk about the music, it’s just fantastic! The sole fact that they talk about it is astonishing, because what do children usually talk about? And then we get hoodies with the big band logo and those kids that outgrown them pass it on to the younger kids, and my God, one of those kids was so proud to wear it! He thinks that he’s already one foot inside the big band!

Jānis: It’s cool that it took us only 5 years to get to the point where we are now, that the kids have their goal — to play in the big band, to play big concerts, to practice their instrument, they know the order of things they need to do to be noticed by the teacher and to follow their goal.