A testimonial from a former student, Rebecca Wexler
One of my earliest memories is of showing my violin teacher worrisome marks on the surface of my instrument. He took one look and asked, “Have you been crying while you practice?” I never would have pointed them out had I known they betrayed my tears of frustration. I began studying classical violin at the age of five. Despite often unruly childhood practice sessions, I adored the violin. Suzuki camp, and later Interlochen Arts Academy, were the only overnight camps I ever attended. My best friend and I shared a violin teacher. Very early on, I understood that the discipline involved in technical training on the violin provided a psychological structure that helped me in other pursuits, particularly academic. Immersed in classical music, I grew up largely unaware of, and predominantly uninterested in, other musical genres.
Eventually, I attended an arts high school, The Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), where I fell in love with jazz. I had never listened to jazz seriously before, or understood it as something producible by young people like myself. Here was music that was cool and also turned me on. I desperately wanted to play myself. But when I requested permission to join the ECA jazz band, the music department vetoed my request on the grounds that violins did not belong. I was shocked. An instrument should be a tool, not a determinant, of expression. After years of training on one instrument, why should I have to learn another? This veto was one of a series of obstacles I would encounter in my struggle to learn jazz and improvisation. Most frustrating was a pervasive feeling of cultural barriers. My first improvisation teachers assumed falsely that I had been listening to jazz for years. As a result, they asked me to “play what I felt” without providing structure to initiate me into the “feeling” of a genre I knew so little about. The jazz bands I saw performing were so loud that a violinist had no hope of being heard. Not insignificantly, every single jazz instrumentalist I knew at that time was male. As an adolescent girl, this gender discrepancy had practical, as well as psychological, exclusionary effects. I had neither female mentors nor peers to jam with in a socially comfortable environment.
Studying improvisation with David Mills at the Neighborhood Music School (NMS) shifted my position via these obstacles and opened jazz playing up to me. David provided a structure to help me begin improvising that catered to what I was already familiar with – the physical spaces of the violin fingerboard, the melodic sense of phrases that had always been central to classical violin. Only later, when I was comfortable with the feel of jazz, did he push me to expand my concept of the instrument by playing rhythm and exploring the percussive potential of the violin and bow. Transforming my instrument into something I hadn’t realized it could be –a rhythm instrument –helped me to understand the harmonies of both jazz and classical music. In addition, David Mills and the NMS jazz camp offered a social atmosphere that was much more free of exclusionary cultural impediments. At jazz camp I met and jammed with young women and men who were strong players from African-American, white, and Hispanic backgrounds, from COOP High School and from Hopkins, from downtown New Haven and surrounding suburbs. This diversity helped me to feel part of a larger and inclusive jazz culture, one which respected me for wailing on the violin as well as any of my peers could wail on the electric guitar.
David Mills also introduced me to electric strings, giving me the option and the thrill of wailing through an amp with as much force as any electric guitar. In David’s electric string ensemble, I played with other young women like myself who had classical technical training and a passion for jazz, and I was able to experiment with a wide range of electric instruments. When I eventually left New Haven to attend Harvard College, I brought with me my own Mark Wood electric “sting ray” violin as well as a sense of power and ownership over my musical destiny.
I played the violin throughout college, participating happily in classical orchestras and chamber groups. But my greatest personal commitment was to create an outlet where I could continue to learn improvisation. To accomplish this, I co-founded the Harvard Klezmer band during my sophomore year, along with a jazz-trained saxophonist. The band included two electric violins, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, keyboard and vocals. I played melody and rhythm, and improvised everything. We performed on the central Harvard stage, “Sander’s Theater,” did party and bar mitzvah gigs in the Boston area, played on the street in Quincy Market, and eventually recorded a CD. I eventually had to quit the classical orchestras because my academic commitments could no longer accommodate the rigidity of rehearsals. Had it not been for the Klezmer band and for my learned ability to participate in and enjoy improvisational and social music, I would not have been able to keep music in my life. Instead, my background of studying aural traditions with David Mills and NMS gave me the confidence to keep jamming with my band. I hope many more people will be able to have a similar opportunity to study with David, and I am envious of each one who will.