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Learning Jazz in Omaha and understanding the value of home

Aleksandra Line

JVLMA students: going to America, we realized that Latvians are a unique nation

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Which European jazz musician doesn’t dream of ending up in America? Those who haven’t been there yet probably at least want to take a look at the country where jazz was born and is now thriving, spreading its roots in most countries worldwide. The Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music (JVLMA) has established cooperation with one of the US universities: the University of Nebraska in Omaha (UNO). Its students and faculty regularly travel to Latvia, while Latvian students participate in exchange programs there. Bachelor’s program students from the academy’s Jazz Department, Matīss Žilinskis and Jurģis Lipskis, went to UNO at the beginning of this year to gain new experiences, play with locals, learn in America, and, in the process, tour the world with concerts. We asked them about it.

Please tell us about your travel experience! How did it go?

Jurģis: It went exceptionally well. We both went with an open mind, not knowing what to expect — we absorbed all the impressions without any expectations. And that’s why the trip couldn’t fail. We went, and there we did as much as possible. The trip didn’t radically change anything in my life, but I got proof that America is not so far; it’s an attainable continent. The impression was that we could return there; it’s not that complicated, and there are people who want to listen to us and find it interesting. Until now, America was just heard of in movies, and it was like an unattainable dream — now it has become closer. And that’s cool.

Do you think it’s better to go on such big trips when you’re prepared to gain more, or, as you say, with no expectations?

Jurģis: I don’t really know how we could prepare. I tried to gather information about our teachers but didn’t find much — I tried to prepare, but fate apparently had different plans. And, I think, in this situation, it played in our favor. I don’t think it’s the best or the most prestigious school in America, so if we expected a high level of education or musical development, we would have been disappointed.

Matīss: We spent almost five months there, and at first, it seemed like time was dragging, but then it started flying very quickly. One thing that really touched my heart was meeting with the Latvians in Lincoln — we went to them three or four times. Even before going to America and getting to know the school and people, we realized that Latvia was cool, too. And that Latvia is not that bad. Meeting the Latvians in Lincoln made it seem like Latvia is not so far, and we can return to America someday — there’s a warm feeling in all Latvian communities.

Were there any disappointments or things that seemed unsuccessful?

Matīss: A big surprise for me was that they didn’t have composition and arrangement as subjects at school at all. I was also stunned by the level of the students — but that’s because they don’t really have children’s music schools and music high schools, so most of them go to the academy prepared by private teachers. It can’t be compared with Latvia — here, a musician comes to the academy like a sculpted statue, and only details need to be refined. And it should be this way concerning music theory. And they lack sharpness in criticism — they are terribly good-hearted and always speak positively, and then it seems «fake.» They were born and raised in that environment and learned it, so it seems normal to them. Asking them, «Hello, how are you?» and leaving is normal.

Jurģis: That’s why I was afraid to express my genuine opinion on the spot — it seemed like people would get offended. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone there that their composition didn’t appeal to the ensemble — that would have been suicide; we would have simply ruined those people if we told them everything we thought. Sometimes, I wanted to change something in the compositions. Many asked — do you like it? Do you like my song, my group? Am I playing well? And we didn’t want to say no.

Matīss: That’s why it seemed like they lacked that push for growth so that they understand that something needs to be changed in the compositions. In reality, if you write your music in that American school, you’re the cool guy because they don’t compose much. And if they do, it sounds similar and is based on the same things. Sometimes, it seems like a computer randomly generates the melody — there’s no melodiousness.

Was there anything that surprised the unprepared?

Jurģis: The openness of people. People in the Nebraska region are incredibly lovely, welcoming, and helpful. We didn’t hear a single bad word about anything during the five months; there were no rejections in any situation. Personally, I also found it astonishing that we could access the school 24/7 — we could go to school to practice at three in the morning or at six in the morning.

Matīss: I was also surprised by the big band culture. Every high school has a big band — just like we have a choir or folk dance ensemble, they have a big band. And they don’t lack instruments at all — they have all brass groups, all trombones and trumpets…

Jurģis: We had a jazz festival at our school organized by our teacher, Pete Madsen, which was like a big band festival. Over a hundred big bands participated this year — that’s just talking about Nebraska, which is about the size of Latvia. It’s like having about a hundred big bands in Latvia — it’s hard to wrap your head around that. It’s like in every school for us — there’s some kind of choir. They would create a band with just ten people — a reduced big band, but it would always be there. Ironically, they only have one professional big band — the Lincoln Center Orchestra, that employs musicians. It’s the other side of the coin — there are a lot of ensembles in high school, but when it comes to professionals, there’s very little work for big band musicians.

What conclusions did you draw for yourselves upon returning home?

Jurģis: Personally, it seemed that we, students of the Academy of Music, aren’t so different from them. Earlier, it seemed like any American school is at the top, and then somewhere below are us — but in reality, it’s not that wild; we are on the right path, and all the narratives we learn come from America. So, we were on the same wavelength with them. The system isn’t that different — we aren’t lagging behind them so much. It was my positive discovery — we are on the right path, and there’s no need to be afraid of distances. Latvia is not some distant pit that can’t achieve anything.

Matīss: Definitely, we need to continue what we started. Sometimes, going to other places and returning makes you want to change something in your work and path, but after this trip, it means just continuing what we started in a positive sense. In a way, we follow their music fundamentals and learning methods, but still, we are different in playing and composing. And this trip showed how special we are and that we need to stay on our initiated path.

Jurģis: We are a unique nation. Americans don’t have folk songs; there’s no folk element that connects them all. And we have folk songs, folk dances, ethnic rituals, and they don’t have anything like that. Their patriotism is cool — we are such a small nation, but their territory is so huge, and they don’t feel as attached to any one city or state. They keep changing their places all the time — like in Soviet times when, after finishing college, the state could assign you to a job on the other side of the Union. Essentially, it’s the same for musicians in America — you can’t really choose the city where you’ll work. You’ll work where the job is — so they move with their whole families. I asked locals in Omaha if they felt any patriotism or belonging to this place. And they don’t feel it — America is so vast that everything is impersonal.

Matīss: Someone said, «My mom is from Los Angeles, and I feel that Los Angeles within myself.» But he has only been there twice in his life.

Jurģis: And it seemed cool that we are in Latvia — a united nation that is not huge. The small size of Latvia seemed more cool than not cool to me. We aren’t many, but we have a good environment. Such patriotism now seems to make more sense. When you meet such people, you understand the actual value of home.

Matīss: When you go there, you can feel it better, especially when meeting those Latvians; you understand — the warmth they are willing to share and how much they miss home. They haven’t been in Latvia for sixty years since they left for America — due to health or financial reasons. And it is emotionally significant for them. In Latvia, for example, we have legends we respect, for instance, Raimonds Pauls; we have respect for him, but we don’t put Raimonds Pauls on flags or magnets, we don’t turn our respected artist into a brand, we don’t stick him on cars. But Americans look at everything so commercially — artists often lose value and, consequently, respect. Elvis Presley will be on pants and socks, becoming a business.

Jurģis: And it turns out that in the hierarchy, musicians in America are at the very bottom. If you have a musician’s degree, many perceive it as if you don’t have a higher education. Therefore, of course, you must be a private teacher — in Latvia, you can still try to be just a performing musician, and there, it’s impossible due to social guarantees. Many local Americans don’t feel good as musicians — they want to go to Europe because they think they will be more appreciated there. And that was also a big revelation for me. Of course, as a teacher, you can find a job more easily there, but they don’t feel special as musicians.

Matīss: The whole system is entirely different for them. For example, he learns to play the saxophone and is quite a good saxophonist, but studies simultaneously in two programs — engineering and saxophone. And the whole system is developed so that you already know that you won’t earn a living from music alone, so you also devote time to something else. All musicians have a Plan B because if you’re only a musician, you won’t be able to support a family.

Jurģis: Even the fees for performances of the same caliber as in Latvia are about the same. Even though their salaries are three or four times higher, the fees for corporate gigs are about the same — thus, percentage-wise, much lower than in Latvia.

Do you feel special as musicians here in Latvia?

Jurģis: More special than there. Here, it is more appreciated — to be an artist.

Speaking of this exchange trip’s administrative and educational aspects, is there anything you would like to improve or change in this process?

Jurģis: The reason why Americans have more good musicians is the big band and the fact that they start playing together already in high school. I was surprised that they are all naturally quite good improvisers — in Latvia, there is quite a struggle with improvisational skills, and I don’t really know why. Maybe the big band is one of the answers — they start playing not from the theoretical side but start improvising, and then they learn the theory on top of that. And that seems to work a bit better. There are significant problems with improvisational skills here — it should be changed somehow.

Matīss: It’s fantastic what Maija Sīpola has done to get this grant for the trip. As soon as you arrive in America, you end up in the hands of Pete Madsen, and he is terribly meticulous, so everything on the organizational side was perfectly arranged.

Jurģis: American meticulousness is really good — everything is straightforward; you know your entire course and everything you will do in that course when there are tests right from the start. And a week before each event, we get a «gig sheet,» a sheet of paper that states where you need to be, at what time, who is responsible for what, what you need to bring, and how to dress. We had clarity about all events half a year in advance. And in Latvia, it’s often like: «Oh, do I have to play with you tomorrow? I didn’t know.» Everything is left to chance, and study courses have many problems. Something like that would be unimaginable in America. Of course, it’s related to the fact that they pay a lot for it, but orderliness and knowing everything you must do are very convenient.

Matīss: Teachers are also terribly orderly — that’s because the teacher has finally maybe got a job at that university. He can work privately for ten years until he finds out that they are looking for a piano teacher at that university and is ready to move with his family ten states to the other side to be able to work finally. And that attitude is also reflected in him — the teacher’s attitude is inspiring. If the teacher can’t make it to class, he will definitely make it up; nothing is left unfinished.

What would you recommend changing for the Music Academy or music school teachers in Latvia?

Jurģis: I also understand the situation from the teacher’s side — the pay for the job in Latvia is so meager that hands don’t rise to invest more of their time than necessary. The main thing I can recommend is the structure of study courses — when the teachers themselves know at the beginning of the year what they want to do and what results to achieve. I can’t say this for everyone, but teachers often come to one lesson and know what we will do in that one, but a broader vision of what needs to be achieved during the year or what the goals are — that is very rare.