The thoughts and ideas expressed in this blog post belong to the author and are not in any way affiliated with American Music Abroad or the U.S. State Department.
Turkmenistan is considered by some to be the “North Korea of Central Asia”. My band Break of Reality traveled there as music ambassadors for the U.S. State Department. Here’s what happened:
When I received word that American Music Abroad, a U.S. State Department program, was sending my band Break of Reality to Turkmenistan, my immediate reaction was “Where is that?” Probably a common American response, as most of us are pretty unaware of the country, its policies and its culture. So I looked at a map. Turkmenistan is located in Central Asia and shares borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
As I did more research, I became a little worried. Turkmenistan has serious human rights issues. Almost everything in the country is government owned, like newspapers and television stations. Speaking out against the President can get you in serious trouble. Being gay will get you thrown in jail. Many internet and social media outlets, like YouTube and Facebook, are not accessible. Things like “Asia’s Other North Korea” and “The North Korea you don’t know about” popped up in my Google search. Now, I was really worried.
On February 20th, my bandmates Patrick Laird, Meta Weiss, Andrew Janss and I flew into Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan to begin our music diplomacy tour.
City of Marble
A van pulled up to take us to our hotel. It was 3am, and before we could lift a finger, at least seven workers from the airport came outside to load our luggage and instruments into our van. Hospitality was a common trend in Turkmenistan. We were guests, and guests are to be taken care of.
“This Is Like Jazz!”
During our week in Turkmenistan, we traveled around the country to perform concerts and give educational presentations for music students. One presentation at a music school in Ashgabat is especially memorable.
We walked into a beautiful concert hall filled with music students from 1st through 10th grade, all dressed in traditional Turkmen gowns and hats. This was the first, and maybe the last time they’d see, hear, or interact with an American in their lifetime. As soon as we walked in, they all stood up in unison, and didn’t sit until we gestured for them to do so.
Our translator jumped in and said, “No, they don’t play jazz here.”
I suggested they improvise a song at their next concert, in a non jazz style. Our translator turned to me and in English said, “they won’t be able to do that, but I’ll tell them anyway.”
After our clinic, I asked our translator why these kids can’t improvise, who said Turkmenistan is all about control and order. I’m not sure how true this is, but a local said something to the effect of: “When a music student is not playing a piece “well enough” for a performance, music schools will sometimes play a recording of the piece and have the student (and accompanist) fake their way through the performance.” Lip sync. For them, this is a better alternative than showcasing a “raw” sounding student.
We were well taken care of too. We were escorted us to all of our functions and had translators everywhere we went. We even went shopping at a bazaar, where we bought traditional Turkmen things like carpets, silk, and jewelry.
We also visited a small local music store to rent equipment for our tour. This was the best music store experience I’ve ever had. The owner served us cakes, coffee and tea as we looked through his catalogue of equipment, and he even gave us a traditional Turkmen stringed instrument called a guijak before we left. (Guitar Center: STEP UP YOUR GAME!)
The speakers and drums from this music store would follow us around the country, as the music store workers were also our traveling roadies and audio crew. Despite our language barrier, we became fast friends with the crew.
The concert halls were beautiful in certain cities, but we also noticed some very poor regions during our travels. In some parts, houses weren’t really houses. They were more like shacks. It seemed like the complete opposite of Ashgabat in every way, except for the hospitality.
I couldn’t help but think about our five star “water droplet” hotel with 15 guests in it. I thought to myself, “Couldn’t the funds used to build that hotel be used for something better, like funding some of the poor regions we traveled through?”
An acquaintance told me “That hotel is not a water drop. It’s a tear drop that looks over the city.”
It made me sad to think about.
During our travels, we noticed men in black suits who were always around. I asked our crew who they were. “They are government minders; they work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are making sure everything goes according to plan.”
We nicknamed them the “Men in Black.”
MEN IN BLACK
The Men in Black showed up everywhere, accompanying us wherever we went. Black suits, white shirts, black ties. Turkmen versions of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. They were at sound checks, at restaurants, and even at our concerts. At first, I felt like we were being spied on, but after a while, we got used to having these guys around. In a weird way, they became part of our crew too. They helped with pre and post concert loading and unloading, drove us to dinners, and were perfectly cordial.
They would surprise us from time to time, though. For example, they showed up in Merv with two white mini-buses while we were sightseeing. They started moving all of our gear into these new vehicles and sent our drivers away. Someone decided the Men in Black should drive us the rest of the way, and so they did.
“They’re just doing their job–doing what they are told,” a local told us. Part of it was making sure everything goes smoothly for us. Again, that whole hospitality thing. And, that whole control thing too.
After a concert in Mary, things got crazy with crowd control. A large crowd of audience members waited for us outside of our tour bus and just went crazy. They wanted photos, autographs, hugs, handshakes, anything. I’ve done post show autographs before, but this was different. We were being pulled in all directions. Arms, hands, clothes; whatever they could could get their hands on. “Picture please! Picture please!” echoed throughout the loading area. It began to get even more crowded as people realized where we were, and more dangerous too. It was just too many people in such a small space.
I felt a sharp pain as one of the Men in Black gripped my arm and pulled me away from the crowd, towards the bus. All the band members were being pulled away too as police showed up to dissolve the crowd. Yep, police. It was that crazy.
The Men in Black did their job. They ensured our safety, and we were grateful. As our bus drove away, a group of teenagers began running alongside our bus, shouting, waving and taking photos. We opened the window, waved back and shouted, “Thank you!” A true rock star moment, in Turkmenistan of all places.
Our last concert in Turkmenistan was back in Ashgabat. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever played. We collaborated with a local orchestra and played a traditional Turkmen piece and some Break of Reality arrangements too. This orchestra was REALLY GOOD. Like, really good:
Back to the concert… The ambassador of Turkmenistan gave the opening remarks and introduced us to the stage. The crowd was beyond enthusiastic, and the hall was filled over capacity. There must have been 800 people in this 700 person hall. People were standing in the aisles for the entire show, a fire code violation in any American concert hall.
The crowd was unlike any I’d ever played for too. If they heard something they liked, they cheered and clapped, right in the middle of a song. The peak of a phrase, the end of a musical section, etc. They were completely into the music. It was special.
During our last song, many of the audience members took out their cell phones, turned on their flash lights, and started waving them in the air. The view from the stage was so beautiful, like a night sky filled with moving stars.
I’ll never forget that moment, and will never forget Turkmenistan. The people are beautiful, welcoming, and were sincerely thankful that we visited their country. Audiences love music. Every concert hall we played was filled to the brim. We learned so much from the musicians we taught and performed with, who seemed so grateful that we were there, and so eager to share their culture with us. It truly was an exchange of music and life.
Many of the things I read about Turkmenistan are true, and can’t be ignored. The human rights issues are there in plain sight. That’s why programs like American Music Abroad are so important. I believe these cultural programs can foster positive change in places like Turkmenistan, and also make Americans more aware of what is happening outside of ourselves. That is really important too, I think.
And maybe we planted a seed for improvisation for those high school musicians. Maybe they will improvise at a concert one day. That alone would make the whole trip worth it.
– Ivan Trevino, March 2015
Hands Up was composed to encapsulate the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO. The words used are not my own; the text comes from numerous interviews and twitter hashtags from protesters at these events. Given the ongoing events in Ferguson, I’d like to make it clear that this work is intended to capture the protest feelings in Ferguson, which in my opinion, hold significant historical and societal value. I am opposed to violent protests and police violence, and believe the best course to create change is through peaceful discourse.
The piece is scored for 10 players total: drum set soloist, four percussionists who rhythmically vocalize text (ala Cage’s living room music) via amplification / megaphones, two marimbas, piano, xylophone, and crotales. It’s art / rock / rally music; perhaps my Zach de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine influence comes through. Take a listen:
Thank you to Dr. Colin Hill at Tennessee Tech for taking the lead on this commission, as well as consortium members Justin Alexander at Virginia Commonwealth University, Chad Floyd at Campbellsville University, Bob Breithaupt at Capital University, Jeff Moore at University of Central Florida, Jesse Willis at Coastal Carolina University, Brian Mason at Morehead State University, Wayne Bovenschen at Oklahome State University, Charlotte Mabrey at University of North Florida, Julie Hill at University of Tennessee at Martin, and Jordan Kamps at University of Illinois at Chicago. I will be premiering Hands Up alongside the Tennessee Tech percussion ensemble on April 23, 2015 at TTU.
-Ivan Trevino, 2/3/15
Percussionists at Florida State University have released an absolutely stunning studio recording of my percussion sextet, Catching Shadows. Not only is the playing top notch, but the recording is equally impressive thanks to Dr. John Parks, who has become one of the most sought after engineers for percussion. Thanks to Sabrina Peterson, Glenda Lopez, Andrew Bockman, J.t. Forrester, Tripp Gwaltney and John Thomas III for their stellar playing and to Dr. Parks for his engineering wizardry. Take a listen!
I am excited to announce the release of my new signature series marimba mallet! I’ve spent the last year with Malletech designing my ideal “go-to” mallet, one that speaks in all ranges of the marimba. The mint green “IT13″ mallets made their debut at PASIC 2014.
I wanted to design a mallet that covered the sound spectrum of my marimba music; fat low sounds, clear melodic sounds, and delicate soft sounds. To do so, I decided on a rubber core with synthetic blend yarn, creating a subtle two-tone sound. I’ve been using my mallets on the road lately, both in solo and small chamber music settings, and the feedback has been great which is SO EXCITING to hear!
Not only did Malletech and I spend time getting the sound just right, we also spent time on how the mallet feels in the hand. The mallets are of medium weight and have a slight rebound to them, making faster passages feel easier and more fluid to play.
If you’re going to PASIC this year, plan on stopping by the Mostly Marimba booth to check them out! I think you’ll dig what we came up with.
JOIN CONSORTIUM for DRUM SET SOLOIST w/ PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE
I LOVE DRUM SET! I’ve been composing more for the instrument lately, like Heat Stroke, a new piece for drum set solo + tape that I wrote for Aaron Staebell’s Solo Drum Solo project. Hold Fast, a duo for vibes and drum set, was also recently premiered by percussionists Luis Rivera and Justin Alexander, who will record the piece this summer.
I’m currently writing a large scale piece for DRUM SET SOLOIST w/ PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE. This one is going to rock!! The consortium is organized by Dr. Colin Hill of Tennessee Tech University, who is currently looking for a few more people to support this project to make it happen. If you’d like to join the consortium, support me and this new piece, and have exclusive performing rights before the piece is made available to the public, contact Dr. Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org. The piece will be appropriate for both a college percussion ensemble concert or recital, FYI.
I’m really looking forward to PASIC and hope to see you many of you there!
I am so happy that my blog post My Pretend Music School has created dialogue about music school curriculum! It’s had over 40,000 readers (!!!!) and has been used as a talking point for higher ed administration, committees, and faculty meetings around the country. As a working musician, I am not in the position to make decisions about these topics, so creating dialogue is the most I can do. So, THANK YOU for reading, agreeing, disagreeing, and talking about the issues!
One general response to my blog post was especially thought provoking:
“I like your ideas but I’m not sure how they would apply in a traditional college curriculum…”
For me, this is one of my major issues with music school curriculum: “If your ideas don’t fit into our system, then we can’t use them.” How about this, music schools? Rather than changing these “new age” concepts to fit into your traditional framework, perhaps a better solution would be to change your system to allow these new concepts to be introduced and experienced by our students.
Since I have self-appointed myself pretend dean of my pretend music school, (I know, that sounds ridiculous), and since I have some newly enrolled students (readers!), here’s one idea for our pretend school:
Forget everything you know about your senior year of music school. You’re going to do this instead.
SENIOR YEAR FIELD EXPERIENCE
I would love to see students receive actual field experience before graduating. LOTS of it. Get real world experience before actually entering the real world. I think a music student’s senior year could consist of lessons with their primary teacher (yes, being a good musician is still priority #1), plus a number of different field experience projects. Having already taken their required course work during their first three years of school, seniors could focus on putting their education into action. For lack of a better name, let’s’ call it Senior Year Field Experience. Here’s how it could work:
Some might be asking, “Can’t you just do that stuff when you graduate? Why do you have to do it in school?
Student loans, paying bills, and simply putting food on the table can be stressful for young musicians. It’s the nature of our job; it’s a very difficult career path, and will always be. In his address to the Eastman School of Music graduating class of 2010, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman summed it up best. “You are brave” for doing what you do. I remember sitting around my fellow classmates thinking “What is he talking about?” Now, I know.
I would much prefer students have a practice run at being a working musician before diving in. When a student is in school, they can afford to take creative risks, and ultimately, make mistakes and learn from them. Once you’re in the real world, that luxury dissipates pretty quickly.
I can’t take credit for the concept of “field study”, as it’s been happening for decades in the music school world. Most music education majors around the country are required to student teach. Some schools and educators have adopted independent studies that might focus on a particular topic of interest, while others are applying field studies on a broader scale, through creating ensembles and community residencies, an idea that my friend Michael Drapkin encourages students to do. I am simply taking the concept of field study and applying it to an entire year of a student’s degree program, so that students can realize first hand what it’s like to be a current day working musician.
Before you say I’m crazy, (which many people already do), here are the experiences a Senior Year Field Experience could provide:
– organizing and self presenting concerts
– creating outreach initiatives
– day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month planning
– real life teaching experience
– creating an online portfolio
This sort of curriculum change, I believe, could also have a broad social impact, creating more musically immersed and affluent communities. Can you imagine if multiple colleges and universities from around the country adopted a field experience music curriculum? In those particular cities, there would be more concerts, more lessons for underserved music students, and more outreach presentations for young people, which could lead to more appreciation for music on a broader scale. Pretty utopian and idealistic, I know.
Back to my main point. The most important thing a Senior Year Field Experience could offer a student:
An entire year of being a real musician; gaining a real life understanding of what it takes to piece it all together. That’s what the job title “musician” has become, whether we like it or not.
This is just one idea that reimagines what a music degree could look like. Maybe this isn’t for every school out there, or for every student out there. But wouldn’t it be nice to at least have the option?
Ben Fang, a wonderful musician, member of the band Grey Light, and current Eastman student, once said to me regarding entrepreneurship in the music school curriculum: “I want to be a working musician, which means I might not make a lot of money. I’m ok with that. Ultimately, I want these classes to teach me how to be a little less poor doing what I love to do.” I don’t think Ben is asking for too much.
I understand there’s an argument that a college education should not be gauged in the light of economics, that college is about enlightenment and knowledge, not about making a career in the end. I agree that college is about gaining knowledge, being enlightened, and ultimately becoming an independent thinker. All I’m asking is that music schools give their students the tools necessary to pay for their enlightment. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for either.
You might be asking, “Is a Senior Year Field Experience even doable at a real college? Would it meet all of the requirements for a real life college degree?” Honestly, I’m not sure, but it certainly meets the requirements for being a real life musician.
– Ivan Trevino, 11/9/14
My marimba solo Memento is now 10 years old (2004). CRAZY. I’M OFFICIALLY OLD. To commemorate the anniversary, I have a released a new edition of the piece via my website. More on that below.
Memento is a very special piece for me! It was the first “classical” piece I ever composed and is dedicated to my former teacher at Eastman, John Beck.
While writing Memento in 2004, I remember being very hesitant in approaching Mr. Beck about my writing. I was worried he would be upset that I was spending too much time writing music and not enough time doing the stuff I was supposed to be doing. After all, I was a performance major and not a composition major…
I’ll never forget talking with Mr. Beck in a lesson one day, and confessing to him that I was spending a ton of time writing music. And I’ll never forget the sense of relief I felt when he said, “GREAT! Let me hear what you’re working on. Maybe I can help.”
So I played through fragments of what would turn into Memento, and he gave me comments. Great comments. About my score, about flow, about dynamics. It was awesome. So the rest of that year, me and Mr. Beck worked on my writing. It was the happiest I had ever felt at Eastman, and I was so excited for each lesson, so excited to be doing what I loved the most.
Memento is an idiomatic marimba solo with a pop sensibility and set the groundwork for my compositional style moving forward. The piece has gone on to win a PAS composition contest and today is recommended repertoire for collegiate auditions and competitions.
Now that I publish Memento, I’ve decided to release a 10th anniversary edition with a couple of updated musical decisions. I’ve also created a condensed 4.3 octave version for those who may not have a 5.0 readily available. The new editions are now available via my sheet music store.
Here is a recording of me playing Memento from my senior recital at Eastman, many moons ago. Thanks again, JB!
– Ivan, Oct. 2014
“We can’t lose who we are as an institution.”
“We have expectations that we need to meet.”
- Every student at my pretend music school is required to take a class in Audio / Visual production: How to operate a camera, sync recorded audio to video, learn about aperture / brightness / editing / splicing / etc. Why a required A/V class? Other than playing live, online videos are currently the biggest platform for reaching new audiences, which is critical to a musician’s survival. If this means I omit a semester of music history from my pretend music school’s curriculum, then so be it. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT. Just look at Evan Monroe Chapman, a perfect example of a musician / videographer / completely awesome and creative person. Evan has created a platform to showcase his music skills because of his video skills. Since we don’t live in the same area, I might not know how sweet Evan is at percussion if it weren’t for his awesome videos. Now, I follow his career and own his record. I’m a fan. At my music school, every student will develop these skills and graduate with a basic online portfolio, including a YouTube channel, SoundCloud page, and a website.
- Career Counseling: Every student at my school will have frequent meetings with career counselors. This will be more than just a one time meeting to discuss interview skills like “make your weaknesses your strengths…” It will be a comprehensive plan to figure out student goals, and more importantly, actively doing things to reach those goals, while in school. By the time a student graduates, they should have already planted seeds to build their career. This could mean releasing a solo album, commissioning a fellow student composer, starting a band, creating an outreach program at inner-city schools, or taking orchestral auditions while in school. My career counselors will also be active in the field of music. I want my students to get advice from people presently doing things in the field.
- Less large ensembles, more chamber music. Given the amount of orchestra & concert band jobs currently available, why does a music student have to take so many semesters of large ensembles? While certainly important historical and pedogogical genres of music, the amount of time typically spent in these groups doesn’t equate to the amount of jobs actually available in those fields. Last time I checked, the amount of chamber groups are growing while the number of orchestras are decreasing. Shouldn’t a school’s curriculum adjust to meet these changes? My pretend school will have large ensembles, but will have a focus on chamber music; string quartets, quintets, rock bands, jazz combos, mixed ensembles, ukulele band, whatever. Maybe my students will be in charge of choosing what their chamber group is like; what genre they play, what music they play, where they play, their instrumentation, etc.
- Music Theory: Composing & Arranging. Having experience composing & arranging can create supplemental sources of income for musicians, i.e. marching band arrangements, chamber music arrangements of larger works, and even writing your own music, which gives you your own voice as a performer. Just remember, when someone asks you to arrange Sia’s Chandelier for piano and cello for their wedding, you should be able to do it. I mean, why not have that skill and make some extra income? Maybe this means we axe that last semester of atonal theory in favor of some more practical theoretical skills that we can immediately utilize in our post college lives.
- My pretend music school will have pour over coffee and ice cream readily available at all times. These things make people happy. Ice cream.
- Classical music will be a focus at my school, but so will other genres of music. For example, students should know how to play and improvise in many different styles. Don’t turn down gigs because you “don’t play rock”. You do want to make money, so you should have the skills to do so in many different musical contexts.
- Which is why students will all improvise! Yep, that liberal arts class you hardly ever go to will not exist at my pretend music school. Instead, you’ll go to a class focusing on improvisation and creativity. (Not that liberal arts classes are a bad thing! It’s good to be well rounded, but if your liberal arts class has absolutely nothing to do with what you want to be doing, you probably shouldn’t be paying for it.)
- Of course, there are private lessons with really great faculty members at my school. You have to be really good at your instrument! Scales, arpeggios, technical exercises, standard repertoire for your instrument, etc. My band member Patrick Laird, who is one of the most accomplished rock cellists I know of, says he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without the strict classical training he received from his private teacher at Eastman. So yes, you still have to practice and be really good!
- Eurhythmics: Eurhythmics is required. If you can’t walk, clap, and sing in time, you don’t deserve a degree from my pretend music school.
- Required Music Business classes. Do I even have to explain this one?
- Standing Room Only Concert Halls: Yes, my school will have standing room only concert & recital halls, with a bar readily available. Cheering will be encouraged. Have a good time. Music.
- On that note, my school will have a bi-weekly open mic night to encourage student performances. None of this one-recital-a-year business. If you’re at a music school, you should be performing all of the time, on a regular basis. That’s how you get better at performing.
- My music school will be located somewhere where the weather is perfect. Perfect weather!
- The DMA: I’ve thought long and hard about whether my school would offer a DMA degree. OK, maybe I didn’t think super hard about it, but I did think about it! I started thinking about the amount of DMA graduates currently in the world vs. how many jobs are actually available. It is scary to think about. Do I really want to send even more DMA graduates out into the world and encourage even more national student loan debt? Put them in a position where they potentially start their lives with what amounts to a mortgage in a job market that is mainly producing adjunct jobs with no benefits? Sorry for being dark, but it seems the education system in this country has developed a “must have” DMA protocol for acquiring any sort of college teaching job, even at the community college level… That’s CRAZY to me. Maybe not to you. But it is to me. It’s also especially startling when I think about the fact that none of my former college percussion teachers have DMA degrees. None of them. And they are all wildly successful, master teachers and performers, and essentially shaped the landscape of classical percussion music. But times change, and since colleges are in the business of selling degrees, they want you to have one. I guess that makes sense. I guess…perhaps a blog post for another days…For grins, let’s pretend my pretend school has a DMA program. Here are three things it would focus on:
- Performance: If you graduate with a DMA from my school, you damn well better be a beast at your instrument. If you’re not, how will you compete with your beastly peers from other schools? My pretend school’s DMA’s will be beastly performers.
- Teaching: If the purpose of acquiring a DMA is to teach at a college, shouldn’t your degree be less about the academics outside of your field and more about the stuff in your field? (I’m not sure a DMA candidate should spend months on end studying for a test that is mostly irrelevant to their end-goal.) Shouldn’t it be about bettering yourself as a teacher? Building a sustainable studio & program? Focusing on your field of study; repertoire, teaching pedagogy, lesson plans, etc.? My pretend school will focus on the actual stuff you need for your job, which ultimately leads to becoming a great teacher, which should be the definitive end goal of a DMA program. My pretend DMA’s will be beastly teachers and educators.
- Recruiting / Outreach is the third thing my DMA program focuses on, and probably every degree at my school. What does that even mean? Well, why would a college hire you if you can’t fundamentally rally people behind your cause? Once you get a job, you still have to get students to want to study with you, to want to come to Such and Such college to learn from you. If you can’t keep the numbers up, your job could very well diminish or get cut altogether. If you don’t have the personal skills to get out there, meet people, community build, and inspire people to want to study with you, then it will be hard to land a job, or worse, keep a job. So maybe some of those irrelevant tests and courses are replaced with seminars and classes in interpersonal skills and community building. My pretend DMA’s will be beastly interviewees and community leaders.
- Ice cream and coffee. I know I said that already.
- Ivan Trevino, Sept. 20, 2014
UPDATE 9/4/14: Full performance video below!
Legerdemain may very well be the most challenging piece I’ve ever written. It is HARD, but man it’s fun too! The term legerdemain means ‘slight of hand’ and the piece requires just that. It’s scored for a percussion soloist who plays both drum set and vibraphone simultaneously, sounding like two people playing at once. Check out Phillip O’Banion, the consortium organizer, perform the piece:
Sheet music for Legerdemain is now available! The piece is part of a larger suite for multi-percussion solo entitled Crossed Wires. Be on the look out for the other movements soon.
I just recorded this video of Strive to be Happy, my newest piece for solo marimba. It’s written for 4.3 octave marimba. It’s a great piece for intermediate level players or for advanced players looking to add something simple to a recital. Thanks to Ellen for the GoPro camera and Aaron Staebell for the inspiration and friendship.
If you’re interested in purchasing the music, click here. Thank you all!
I am excited to announce that Lone Star Percussion and Steve Weiss Music will now carry physical copies of my sheet music! I will continue to sell PDFs via my website, but I’m happy to make “hard copies” available via Lone Star and Steve Weiss.
If you’d like to see my music in your school’s music library, please share this information with them.
I’m very happy to be working with these two great percussion companies!