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Want to know what life is like as an ANAM musician?  In Between the Lines is a blog post written by one of ANAM’s first year students.

It is the month of May – the crazy one, where so much is happening!
To start it all off, Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 1 (a big tick on the list of Beethoven Sonatas) starred in a Mother’s Day concert that I performed in. Admittedly a little hastily put together – maybe all within the space of about three weeks, but I guess the good thing about a work like this,  because I will have it in my repertoire for as long as I live, and will have a lifetime to refine it.

So, from  Beethoven sonatas to Beethoven violin concerto with…..(insert drum roll here)…Pekka Kuusisto! Enter the one-week residency of Pekka Kuusisto, violin and Iiro Rantala, piano.

I’m not sure I had any idea what to expect, apart from lots of fun and experimentation. And that’s what we got. Their residency was all working towards a final performance that featured three ‘sets’:

Set I: Beethoven’s violin concerto and Haydn’s 88th Symphony
Set II: Great Mistakes (Hietala) for piano trio, and some improv
Set III: Subterraneo, tango improv (Finnish style…)

I signed myself up for Set III with little idea of what was expected of me. I had obtained a copy of (their most recent collaboration) Subterraneo and had a listen of Pekka and Iiro tango-ing it up. ! If you are looking for something new to listen to, I highly recommend this; it is INCREDIBLE. I have had it on repeat for at least two weeks now.

So, we turned up to our first Set III rehearsal with some nervous anticipation. I seriously felt not qualified to be there, but we got into it.

Our first task was to learn a Finnish song that would be featured in our performance (words below):
Lämpöni lempeni annan
Kaunis on nuoruutein
Näät suven ruusut kannan
Itseni yksin tein

Ei ole muuta antaa
Kuin tama nuoruutein
Sulle sen tahdon kantaa
En ota itsellein

Let  me tell you: learning a new song and its melody is made significantly more difficult when you don’t know what you’re singing about, let alone how to say the words. Lucky Matt (ANAM Program Manager) pulled out his iPhone and recorded Pekka and Iiro singing it so we could all have this forty second sound clip of sheer spontenaeity and helpfulness.  Within this session we did some improvising on a basic G chord (‘white notes’) that would form the sections between more structured bits that P&I (yes, this is how I’m going to refer to them from here on in) play. We came up with various combinations where the voices would interact with each other while others provided a background soundscape in which to improvise over. .

Day one complete (tick!).

The next day, I was fortunate enough to have about an hour or so one-on-one with Iiro. I didn’t really know what to expect; I’m not sure he did either! It wasn’t until much later in the week when I had the opportunity to reflect did I realise how fortunate I am for this time with Iiro. I admire him because he’s a classically trained pianist who is now an prolific jazz artist. I love the way he uses the instrument – technically and tonally. So, what does one who hasn’t really played much jazz do in a private lesson with such a great artist?

Well, he was really nice and genuinely interested in my story. He asked what I was currently playing, what sort of stuff I listen to, who my favourite composers are, whether I’d improvised and played any jazz before.We then talked about what might be good ways to start improvising, listening and trying out  new stuff. I never dreamt that I would ever hear or witness the likes of ABBA, Queen or The Beatles being played on the pianos that are within the walls of the South Melbourne Town Hall, but there you go. No kidding. Awesome.

Then we experimented with some of that floaty stuff that we had done the previous day in our rehearsal. He encouraged and murmured approvingly as I added some colour notes and fiddled about with different motifs. Then he suggested adding a rhythmic pulse, which totally changed the feel of things (funny that).
He was very encouraging. We also tried some improvising on the chords in the intro of Autumn Leaves.

During my lesson, Iiro talked about improvising on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, whereupon he whipped out a well-thumbed copy (Henle, no less) of the piece and opened up to the first page and started playing a bit and improvising. I remarked that it was astonshing that even though he was adding colour notes, like 9ths, 11ths and other fun things, the basic harmonies were not shocking – they all sounded plausible as Bach had written them. I think this is one of the things that makes me admire Iiro so much, he is classically trained. He is well-informed about the history of Western music and technical security (there is no way he’d be able to play half of what he does if he didn’t have it!), yet there is that understanding of how music has evolved over time.  It was also quite humbling that such a great jazz artist would still return to Bach and love every moment of it.

Our next few rehearsals for Set III involved more improvising and having fun with the Finnish tango. In one of the songs, Adios Muchachos, I put my hand up for a 32-bar solo. Deep end? Bring it on I say! The ever-encouraging Sam (Marketing Coordinator) popped in to have a listen during the week and had some very wise words for me that included “don’t freak out about your solo!” and reminded me  that I wasn’t Iiro, and that we are totally differnet people with different ideas and totally different experiences. She said that I should just play what I play, and be me, and not worry about any sort of comparison.  In the concert,  I decided that I should just get on with it and do it and have a whole lot of fun!

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember exactly what I did in my solo, but I remember thinking, ‘Who cares about wrong notes? Make them into something. Do something fun and interesting!’  A few people commented about how much fun it looked like I was having through the entire set. It was such a joy to do this concert and to be (almost) totally spontaneous and love doing it.

Maybe that’s what I need to be practicing more of – having fun!

I think this project is one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever worked on. I know I’ve raved about other things ( so many this year already!) but this one has been hard to put into words and I’m not even sure if I’ve articulated any of the sentiment this week well at all. You might just have to imagine how amazing it was if I tell you that my eyes glaze over when I think about how incredibly fortunate I was to experience this.

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