The Email that Started it All
In 2004, I checked my email and found this in my inbox:
My name is Matt Small. I am a local bassist and composer and I got your email off of your website. I checked out some of the clips on your site and they sounded great and it’s great that you put that book out with your own compositions. I just had a quick question or 2 for you regarding a potential playing opportunity coming up in the spring. A few months ago I did a couple of concerts with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at Carnegie Hall. After those concerts, one of the directors of Carnegie invited me to send in materials for a grant opportunity in the spring. It is for jazz composers who have their own ensembles (I have a local ensemble that plays my music, details can be seen at my wesite, http://www.mattsmall.org/) to go to New York for a week in April, workshop material with some well known people, and do a concert with maybe one other ensemble at Carnegie Hall.
If they approve my application, Carnegie pays for the travel, lodging and a per diem to cover expenses. Unfortunately, the pianist that I regularly work with will be abroad in the spring and I need to train a sub for him as soon as possible. I was wondering if you might be interested in this or if you knew of anyone locally that would. The piano parts are completely written out and are challenging, but not impossible. I can’t afford to pay too much and it would require quite a bit of practice and rehearsal time, but would be a terrific opportunity for someone with the time and interest in it. They would need to learn about 30-45 minutes of music. The music is a mixture of jazz and modern classical aesthetics. Ideally, I would like to find someone with some jazz and free improvisation experience along with being a great classical player, but I’m not expecting to find both and it’s more important that they be a strong classical/ modern classical player. etc. etc. etc.
It almost sounded too good to be true, as if it could possibly be junk mail. I mean, really. What stranger emails you and asks if you might have time to rehearse and play Carnegie Hall. At the end he said, if you don’t have time, can you recommend someone? Um….. I made time! I remember being giddy with excitement. I called Matt that night and officially met him for the first time over the phone. I could tell he was an eccentric character, in the best sense of the word.
How did he find me? I worked at a non-profit music school called the Community Music Center. The school had a binder in the front office, full of faculty bios and photos. This unique composer wandered into the music school in search of a pianist to play in his group Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble. He was impressed by my bio and saw my picture and thought “she looks nice.” He went home and sent me this crazy email. I immediately jumped on a phone call with him and later practiced his highly complex book full of two hours of music.
Big Apple, Here We Come!
We got accepted to workshop with world renowned trumpet player Dave Douglas and improvisational master pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Andrew Cyrill, and other very famous jazz musicians who I can’t remember now since I am not a jazz musician! Throughout all of our arduous rehearsal hours learning Matt’s wildly inventive music, Matt always assured the classical members of the quintet that we would absolutely not have to improvise in New York. We just needed to nail our music that he wrote, and we could leave it up to Matt and the incredible jazz saxophonist Mitch Marcus to do all of the improvising. At the time, the quintet consisted of bass, sax, piano, violin, and clarinet. An odd combination, I know. At this point in my life, I had very limited experience improvising. Fortunately, I had taken about one semester of a Flamenco and Latin ensemble where I had just started dipping my toe into improv.
Sure enough, during the first day of the workshop, each one of us had to do a solo improvisation. IN FRONT OF WORLD FAMOUS JAZZ FACULTY AND TWO OTHER INCREDIBLE JAZZ ENSEMBLES! I was initially somewhat horrified, but by the end of the week I started to really enjoy my public improvisations. Our time together included lots of improv coachings and many moments of me being fully vulnerable at the piano. At the end of the week, I remember Dave Douglas saying “I highly encourage you to keep exploring improvisation.” As a classical pianist, to hear words like this from a living legend are truly invaluable.
Our week filled with coachings and camaraderie between the faculty and the two other ensembles culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall. What a dream come true. Our performance at Carnegie included- you guessed it- a long, solo improvised piano solo. Can you imagine? As someone who barely considered myself an improviser, I was suddenly called upon to be completely exposed, and take a free improv right in the middle of the Carnegie stage on one of the most gorgeous Steinways I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
Was it all A Dream?
That priceless moment on stage is forever etched in my memory. It was just like a movie, where time stood still and nothing else seemed to be happening in the world. It was completely magical in every way. I was completely immersed in what I was playing and enjoyed every note that came out of that gem of an instrument. I have no idea what I played. I would love to hear a recording, but maybe it’s better this way. Forever etched as a life-changing, joy filled moment in my life. I am so grateful to have had many of my family members, including my grandmothers, supporting me in the audience, which made the experience even more powerful.
My Struggles Evolved Into My Joy
One myth of improvising is that some people can just do it and they were born that way. I’m sure there are some folks like that in the world, but improvising is a skill that you can learn and cultivate, just like anything else. Really, it takes a whole lot of courage, vulnerability, tools, and practice. You have to allow your true self to be seen and it may or may not sound “good” at times and that’s okay. It’s all a part of a delicious journey of discovery and exploration. If you have support systems in place that deliver the information and accountability, it makes the path to creative flow a lot easier and more enjoyable. If this former score dependent pianist can do it, anyone can.
If you’re a pianist and want to find more creative freedom for yourself, please join us this Friday January 15-17, 2021 for Piano Connect- a Virtual Retreat for Creative Pianists. I have assembled my dream team of presenters and the weekend will be full of classes, camaraderie, creativity, cooking, and cocktails. It’s going to be a wild ride. Not quite as wild as my trip to Carnegie Hall, but close! Hope to see you there, expanding your creative skills and embarking on a lifetime of fulfillment at the piano.