By Raffi Wright
Looking forward to Summer at Eastman 2022, I sat down with Eastman alumnae Hannah Dick (percussion) and Mina Esary (composition), who will be teaching their new online course “Notes From Scratch: Introduction to Improvisation and Composition.” Here are some highlights of our time talking together:
For both Hannah and Mina: How did your love for improvisation come about? What inspired you to create this course? How did it come together?
Hannah: I first experienced improvisation at age 16 during the Eastman Music Horizons program (now Summer Classical Studies). I enrolled in “Creative Music Making” at the recommendation of my studio teacher, but I was terrified: my training as a classical percussionist left me absolutely clueless about how to approach improvisation. Once we began, I was immediately enchanted by the organic energy of the music and the thrill of creating. Since then I have continually introduced others to improvisation, from friends in youth orchestra to students in after-school programs to young musicians abroad. As a member of the Global Leaders Program, I had the opportunity to lead improvisation workshops for youth orchestras, community music programs, and universities around the globe via zoom at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. InspireLAB evolved from this experience and feeds my passion for introducing others to their ability to create, discover, and connect–especially classical musicians who, like me, were never invited to improvise or compose and developed a fear of these creative skills.
Mina: My compositional practice has always involved improvisation – from an early age, I was more interested in creating my own sounds on the piano than practicing, and that’s how I got started writing music. Improvisation for me is a way to generate ideas and explore musically within the context of composing, but it’s also a powerful outlet for emotional expression, catharsis, and introspection. Through improvisation, one learns how to externalize ideas and feelings while also listening and communicating without the use of words. The experience of learning how to improvise and compose music, especially within a group setting, not only builds creativity, problem solving, and imagination, but self-awareness and empathy–skills which are so needed in our communities right now.
Hannah and I are both passionate about making improvisation and composition accessible to everyone who is interested in making music and sounds. There are so many resources and tools available for people to explore self-expression in other artforms, but often in music beginners are encouraged to mainly learn other people’s work. Even professional musicians are often hesitant to try their hand at communicating using their own musical “words.” Over the past few years, we had numerous discussions about this gap in musical education that many people experience, and we started crafting a curriculum which integrates key concepts of creating music through both improvisation and composition. Hannah’s main focus is improvisation and mine is composition, but each of us has a practice of making music which includes both. After Hannah started teaching improvisation workshops, we decided to integrate composition into those offerings and create our dream curriculum! Notes from Scratch is our series which specifically caters to students with previous musical experience (i.e. that play an instrument and read sheet music) but who have little to no experience making their own music.
Hannah, what do you love about percussion?
I love the variety of the percussion family. Worldwide, there are an innumerable number of percussion instruments and corresponding musical styles, yet even within the realm of classical percussion, there are dozens of instruments to master: timpani, marimba, snare drum, drum set, multiple percussion, auxiliary instruments, theatrical percussion–and the list continues. This breadth is both overwhelming and exhilarating, but it ensures that there is an instrument for every mood and feeling. Sometimes it’s a drum set day and other times a marimba day, but either way I have many options for expression. Additionally, I enjoy the “activeness” of percussion as we coordinate multiple limbs in complex rhythmic patterns that make others want to move!
Mina, what do you love about composition?
Everything. I’m kidding of course, but anyone who knows me can tell you how much composing is an integral part of my life. For me personally, it is an essential form of self-expression, a way to share my ideas, perspective, and experiences with others in a way that they can feel and connect with. No one else can create my music – and that is true for every person undertaking an artistic endeavor – which is why I keep doing it.
What are you each most excited about for this course?
Hannah: This course is about guiding musicians to tap into their creative potential. I am most excited to see what they create and to be of help along the way!
Mina: It’s always a joy to see students open up musically and start to explore new ideas and just be themselves. I look forward to providing the space and tools for them to be able to do that as well as the foundation for them to continue creating their own music after the course.
What do you hope participants gain from this experience?
Hannah: Our goal is to provide tools for the creative process so that even participants who have never created music before walk away with the self-confidence and knowledge to improvise and compose.
Mina: Empowerment. All our students need to bring in is a spirit of openness, and we will provide everything else they need to help them get started on their own artistic journeys of musical creation.
Is there anything else you would both like to share either about yourselves or this course?
If you are scared of improvisation or composition, this course is for you. If you are excited by the idea of making your own music but don’t know where to start, this course is for you. If you have started making your own music (hurrah!) and would like to explore further, this course is for you. In short, no matter where you are coming from, if you have even THOUGHT about doing composition or improvisation, you’ll get something out of “Notes from Scratch.” We can’t wait to make music with you!
Notes from Scratch: Introduction to Improvisation and Composition – ONLINE is open to high school, collegiate and adult participants (high school students should provide a letter of recommendation from a music teacher when registering). Registration is open now; visit the Summer@Eastman website for details.