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A talk with Inga Bērziņa on the future of jazz education


Santa Šillere

Learning to stand up for yourself, not being afraid of creation, applying one’s energy right and uniting as a whole

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AEC or European Association of Conservatoires is an important platform which annually brings together European music high school teachers to analyse and share opinions on various aspects and questions concerning education. This association is created on top of different platforms, but this time we’ll pay our attention to the most important one — jazz education. Latvia has already been a member of this association for many years. This year at the conference in Trondheim, Norway Latvia was represented by a vocal teacher Inga Bērziņa.

«The conference on where we are going in jazz education. The world is changing. Jazz world as well.» Inga has described her impressions on the matter in her social networks. It was immediately clear that her experience had to be shared, so I’ve invited Inga for a talk.

So, some time has passed since you’re back from the AEC conference in Norway. How do you feel about it? How long was the event itself?

The event lasted for 2 days, which is not a lot. Usually conferences like this are longer, for example, if compared to IASJ (The International Association of Schools of Jazz), a part of which we also are — that event lasts for a week, the students are participating actively, communicating with each other more, workshops are organized as well. In this case the students were an element of communication with just the meetings in discussion groups, which we were divided into at the very beginning.

So it was your first time at the AEC conference?

Yes, I was there for the first time. It’s nice that the association has changed the rules, and now not only department leaders can participate in the conference, but also regular teachers. Everyone is actively communicating with one another at events like this one, this is especially encouraged, dedicating some certain amount of time to communication by rotating — special hours per day when there’s a chance to talk for 15 minutes to a colleague whom you don’t know at all, and after a while you go on communicating with another one. Of course, there happen to be less and more communicative people, but the so–called inter–institutional contacts are being established, and we know which schools which teachers are a part of, and later on we can invite some of them as jury members to some exams in Latvia, to lead some workshops, there’s a chance to meet amazing teachers to advice to students in Latvia when planning ERASMUS studies. Indriķis Veitners is doing an amazing job by continuously maintaining these contacts.

What was the main topic of this year’s discussions? What was the main emphasis put onto?

This year the conference topic was «listening». On the first day four lecturers presented their researches and talked on the topic from different points of view. It was interesting to try and evaluate opinions of a practicing musician, a jazz teacher and a psychologist. In jazz listening was always an actual topic, because, while being a communicative form of art, it is strongly based on ability to listen, reply and transform ideas. In jazz so much is based on doing music with one’s ears, everyone has to have strong inner hearing. Here much is based on relationship with one another, tolerance, how do we hear each other, do the others hear you. This is a feeling of being right here and right now, creating this music in a certain environment, at a certain moment, communicating with certain people.

Can you please tell me more about some pedagogical aspects and tendencies which were discussed at the conference?

We’ve talked a lot about ideas which happen in jazz pedagogy in whole — where and why it’s going, what is or isn’t changing, some actualities of today, because the world doesn’t stand in one place, that it is in constant action. Jazz as well is a field which is changing so fast, I’d even like to think that it changes faster than the world of classical music. There are so many new tendencies happening now. If course, there are things that don’t and won’t change, for example, the fact that jazz history is what it is. Everywhere in the educational field changes are happening, jazz education is among the ones that actively resonates and reacts to the things happening in the world. Of course, in some regions it doesn’t happen the same way, it resonates with some local impulses of the moment.

I have to say that at this conference some Scandinavian impact did dominate. Of course, we have to take into consideration the fact, that the conference took place in Norway and neighbouring organizations were represented vastly. The influence of Southern and Eastern Europe was felt way less, there were some representatives from Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, wider representation from Holland and Denmark. There were only two representatives of the Baltic countries this year — me from Latvia and Tanel Ruben from Estonia. We heard a lot of Scandinavian view on jazz education.

Could you define some specific points of Scandinavian view?

Respect, tolerance, lively and analysing interest, responsibility — these are just some of the aspects that were vastly dominating the talks. Here I’m thinking of the attitude of both teachers and students. Another current tendency we’ve discussed a lot — a process of entry exams. When the students are enrolling, a lot of attention is paid to aspects of a musician’s personality, evaluating the person. The generations differ a lot, youngsters come with their own view of the world of music, life in whole. Many teachers noted that they feel that an informational space of today and it’s broad horizons make a huge impact on a young person as a personality, because there’s so much information that people often disappear in it, losing their focus in things that seemed important some 10–20 years ago, when young musicians were way more ready for jazz environment, because they were focussing on specific things to be able to enroll into a certain high school. Nowadays people listen to a lot and know a lot, but don’t focus on specific things, so they develop in certain directions way less.

We could hear a lot of discussions among the teachers with a teaching background of 15–20 years, when, remembering their experience, everyone noted how much they were interested in fundamental things in jazz to realise what jazz is and which direction they have to head to. Now the students have relatively mixed knowledge — they know something about jazz, something about rock, pop music, r&b, music in whole. There’s so much available in the informational environment that they lose their focus and vision on what they really want to become. The questions appear: what is jazz at all? It modifies, mixes, nowadays jazz is really different and changing all the time. So a young musician can be very interesting and different as well, offering his point of view. You have to be a bright personality to realise what you want to offer the world yourself.

You’ve mentioned that the actual tendency is changing the enrollment process, focussing on the aspects of personality more. How does that happen?

The concept of exams isn’t changed itself, but the focus is put onto exams of an interview type, where the jury spends quite a lot of time, in discussion with a young person. Let’s say there are 10 minutes for a student to say something musically, then 15 minutes dedicated to a discussion to understand what his personality is like, why is he here, what does he want to achieve, why picked this school specifically, how does he see himself in the future. Some global things that many schools don’t pay so much attention to. Some ambitions of a person are noted, the drive to reach his goal and a balance between possibilities and ambitions. Probably at at the moment of the exam the student isn’t too skillful, but his arguments help him persuade and become a professional as time passes.

In which countries does this concept work?

A powerful message came from a Copenhagen Rhythm institute’s representative Henrich Sveidahl who said that the programmes themselves were also adjusted and changed together with the concept of entry exams. Of course, a balance between motivation and professional ability is important as well for a student to be able to hop into all the processes and start studying.

A question which is probably less acute in Latvia was also mentioned — ethnic problem cases concerning refugees, how those people get accepted and integrated into a study environment in some certain countries. The question of the races is still on top — there was a student from Munich at the conference, sharing some sad experience and feelings on the topic of race problems in Europe.

One more important topic was relationships between a teacher and a student, mutual tolerance. The question of if we’re still able to adequately react to things that happen between a teacher and a student, if there’s a feeling that you always react right? Does a teacher hear a student? I specially noticed a mutual respect of the teachers in the questions of study programs as well — everyone has his own experience and opinions and respects those, because it really depends on the views and opinions of the teacher on the result achieved. We have to understand that the teachers are also bright personalities. We still can meet some kind of a teacher who will say «I am older therefore I know better»… A thought was voiced that some programs of the teachers of one educational institution or even one and the same program don’t correspond, even though they teach the same discipline or instrument. For example, if you’ve graduated from Berklee or Copenhagen, you have two really different systems — in one, for example, Berklee — there’s a really structured learning process, however, in Copenhagen a student gets offered some really creative concepts and goes ahead with his studies with a feeling of freedom and individuality. Those are very different approaches, and those teachers have to understand each other as well, not rejecting an approach of the other one. An ability to listen and provide arguments.

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I want to speak about a popular topic — the fact that the student has to learn to accept, accept himself as a personality, accept his ideas, accept the fact that you compose and the way in which you compose, not just hesitating all the time. The process goes on through the idea that your teacher is a mentor with a view from aside, who respects you, helps you, is interested in seeing a good side of you, stimulates your progress and teaches you how to accept yourself. This is a very important topic for our students as well — torturing yourself with the questions «can I even show it to anyone?», «am I good enough?». It’s so important to accept your ideas, to share, offer, be brave. The longer the student is scared, the more he’ll delay his development process.

Yes, but do you agree with a phrase that a student is a mirror of a certain environment, educational institution? Most probably that abroad the students are more open and not afraid to experiment, because the environment around them has open views on things as well. Isn’t it like that in Latvia that we are a step back from all this?

I think that every environment and every school has its own things. I think that we, living in this certain place and environment, are more interconnected because quite recently we went through so many difficulties in a historic sense that we as people have to be more encouraged, maybe we even feel tired in many aspects, still living a survivalists life. The consequences of our past are still felt, they dissolve slowly. People living in some other countries probably feel more free because their lives are more free on a governmental level — income, work, possibilities. I don’t think we’re unhappy or doomed! I really don’t think so. Yes, probably we sometimes cannot find this creative flight so quickly, although I think that all of this is a question of communication and a story about personalities. I don’t think that everything is so sunny in the world, and so bad at our place, it isn’t like that. In the Soviet system as well people were living and surviving, there were genius musicians and artists, being able to create an art of a highest form. This time has passed, the generations changed, and I see the youngsters with a completely different inner feeling. Probably we, a middle generation, still have to learn to be more free, open, supporting, natural. This is a great chance to live through a feeling of a modern world and flow together with it.

And, continuing on an aspect of education in Latvia — when jazz education has begun in the newly independent Latvia, people put huge work into it because nobody guaranteed that everything borrowed from an international program will be integrated just as planned, it was really thought through, taking the situation in Latvia 20 years ago into consideration. I think that the new jazz generation in Latvia of this time is a powerful one, and it has indeed begun somewhere there those 20 years ago, so we didn’t do everything wrong, after all. Everyone was learning at that time — the teachers, the students. So I think that all of this huge job we put into that has to be appreciated. The people who got the first jazz education impulse here and continued their studies abroad happen to be great jazz musicians now! And now I can sincerely say that our young jazz generation is bright and strong. So many of them can be teachers now and educate the next generation, as it happens in many regional music schools.

Continuing on your impressions on the conference, it’s quite clear that now is a time of changes, and the educational institutions and society in whole reacts to them. What do you think, how that would be possible, and would that be needed at all — to integrate similar changes as in Norway or Denmark into the Latvian Academy of Music as well? Starting with the new concept of enrolling exams and the programs in whole.

Yes, the changes are visible and obvious, when attending those conferences, however, I see that the differences in the programs are not as big, we also try as much as possible to enrich the programs and range of teachers. When returning home from such conferences, I always try to write the main ideas and fresh impulses down, offer some ideas back home. For example, on the entry exam process — how much do we communicate with a certain student during his initial exams? Or — which are the criterias of the questions of what did the person reach in life at that moment, where is he heading. Maybe this is a story of a deeper listening and looking into a young musician?

Teaching jazz in every time and way has always been very actively changing, because the genre — jazz — itself changes its sound and tendencies. Jazz personalities and teachers in the whole world are creative and naturally try to implement some new things and changes. I believe that Latvian jazz teaching is evolving as well, especially in some things that are connected to the ensemble play, where creativity, communication, spontaneity and daring are especially stimulating. This is obvious that it’s more and more stimulated in the world — such creative acts as composing, arranging, creating in a special manner.

How important, in your opinion, it is for the teachers to attend such conferences?

Extremely! Every teacher has to at least once a year go abroad to notice the things happening, exchange ideas, see things. It doesn’t necessarily even have be a conference, it can be an exchange program to a certain school, to try to figure out some specific things, meet the local teachers, colleagues. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to take part in events like this, even though it’s not that easy, taking into consideration the amount of work we’re doing, to go there, participate in discussions, share. I appreciate an active participation of Indriķis Veitners in events like this, it really provides a result. Indriķis, within his capabilities, also tries to invite some new teachers to our academy, and this isn’t easy at all. It’s almost impossible for young teachers to join, considering the insignificant pay the school provides.

How big is the role of activity of the students themselves? Are Latvian students active enough?

I think that students have to be active. They have to go abroad themselves to broaden their horizons, establish contacts. Many things are connected to the students’ activity. Why do they rarely use ERASMUS opportunities provided by the academy? The reason isn’t always the fact that they can’t get into a desired school. They have to be active, keep themselves interested, apply every year and use every opportunity to change the environment, see how things happen somewhere else. Even going to the neighbours, to Estonia or Lithuania, is a good thing to do.

The main thing is to communicate! Our jazz community isn’t large, the same people meet together in the workshops and different projects. We have to be more open towards one another. We have to avoid building some generation barriers between musicians, for example, who come home back from their foreign studies — we have to become a whole. I personally like playing music with young musicians because that’s a great opportunity to create a personal contact with those musicians, see the changes in them, we’re doing one thing, after all! And the fact that there isn’t any barriers between a «teachers’ community» and «students’ community» because we’re a whole, after all!

Are we, in your opinion, a whole in Latvia?

I want to believe we are a whole, which is positively reacting to one another. All in all, everyone just has to do his job — both a teacher and a student. You don’t have to wait for some impossible things to evolve, but just to accept and evaluate the information received, as well as a simple support and understanding of people. It’s pretty clear that you can learn a lot from every person.
In my opinion, Latvian musicians being together is very important. I think that it’s time to create an association of jazz musicians. I believe that young musicians have more energy than, let’s say, a middle generation who’s very busy with teaching and families. Youngsters have way more time and energy to put into things like this. Keep building your society, share experiences, search for contacts in between associations abroad. I have no idea why there still isn’t a jazz association in Latvia? Does everyone keep waiting for a leader to undertake it? So, please, unite altogether and find those people, charismatic enough to start doing it. We have been talking about this for 20 years, and there’s still no sign of it. It’s good that there is «Wise Music Society» — I sincerely appreciate the work of those young people who are into those processes and want to improve the situation and the quality of life of jazz musicians. I also got amazed by a phenomenon of Toms Rudzinskis who has revived the jam life in Riga. It’s great that Deniss Pashkevich finds some time in his intense musician’s life to do things in «Hamlets», sharing with the young generation, inspiring and supporting. I would like to see the new generation being more active. You are great youngsters, creative, talented — don’t be alone, let’s come together, think and do! I want all the young ones to be able to stand for themselves, present what they done, not be afraid to create, be able to put the energy and unite in a whole powerful unit!