Lincoln Academy’s All-Rhythm Jazz Band rehearses in Poe Theater. Restrictions on playing wind instruments indoors led band director Liz Matta to teach her students rhythm-section instruments, all of which can be played in masks.
Playing and teaching wind instruments during the COVID-19 pandemic presents major challenges: Maine Department of Education restrictions have recently been softened, but until recently wind instruments could not be played indoors at all, and could only be played outside at 14 feet apart. In the fall the Lincoln Academy bands and jazz bands played outside on the softball field. Once the weather got cold, they had to improvise.
Luckily, improvising is what jazz musicians do best.
LA band teacher Liz Matta
“An all-rhythm improv class is something I have always wanted to teach,” said LA band and jazz band director Liz Matta, “In high school I took a history of rock and roll class that made each of us play all of the rock band instruments as well sing, and we had to learn the basics and put ourselves out there–it was great! COVID restrictions on wind instruments seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it.”
This winter Matta brought in two professional musicians who live locally and graduated from LA, as well as LA choir and piano teacher Emily Anderson, to bring the all-rhythm jazz band to life. The goal is to keep the skills and improvisational spirit of LA jazz alive until musicians can return to playing their primary instruments. The group meets on Thursday and Friday afternoons as part of the Big Band Jazz class.
“Jazz band rhythm sections include piano, drums, bass, guitar, and vibes, all of which can be played in masks,” said Matta. “Learning to play rhythm section instruments is a great skill set for any musician: we get to practice carrying a beat, listening to other musicians, and improvising. Plus, jamming is just the most fun you can have any day of the week.”
Core Redonnet ’88 leads the guitar and bass sections of the rhythm jazz band.
Core Redonnet ‘88 is a professional guitarist, guitar teacher, and Artist Relations Manager at NS Design in Nobleboro. He lives in Damariscotta and in addition to being an alum, he is also an LA parent: his son Avery is a junior this year, and his daughter Maya is in middle school in South Bristol.
Jackson Cromwell ‘11 is a professional musician who lives in Whitefield and plays with several local and regional bands, as well as teaching music at Chewonki Elementary and Middle School in Wiscasset. He studied music at the University of Maine after graduating from LA, where he was part of Ms. Matta’s first jazz combo in 2009.
LA Choir Director Emily Anderson (right) leads the piano section
Emily Anderson has training in jazz vocals as well as classical vocals, and experience playing jazz piano. “This has been a great way for students who are not in choir to get to know Emily,” said Matta. “She has real jazz chops and is not afraid to improvise on both piano and singing.”
Sophomore all-state saxophonist tries out the piano, but keeps his sax close by.
As part of the all-rhythm jazz rehearsals, student musicians rotate instruments at each rehearsal. Thus through the winter, students have gotten lessons and practice in drum set, piano/keyboard, vibes, guitar, and bass. After a very short lesson, the group jams on a song, and students improvise their solos, even when they are brand new to the instrument.
Students rotate instruments every couple weeks. This ensures that every student has the time to learn proper technique, and keeps the rehearsals fresh. “One student really disliked guitar but he knew there were only two weeks to play it,” said Matta.
“Playing a non-primary instrument helps loosen kids up for improvisation,” she continued. “They don’t feel as much pressure to get things right.”
“I have learned to be more carefree with my improvising,” said junior trombonist Will Sherrill. “‘Hey I just picked up this instrument 30 minutes ago, let’s give it a shot!”
“I always believe trying anything new is a benefit to learning,” said Redonnet, who leads the bass and guitar sections of the band. “Having non-string players learn about using their fingers and bodies in a new fashion, while still engaging in an ensemble and converting their skill is a way to grow and develop musically.”
Jackson Cromwell ’11 (center) leads the drum section.
“Instruments are just that,” said Cromwell, who leads the drum section. “They point us toward our own musical truths, where music itself is the sole teacher. Why not learn to use as many tools as you can?”
“It’s really fun to play different instruments,” said sophomore all-state saxophonist Cooper Schwartzentruber, “I have really bad blisters on my fingers from playing bass–but it’s worth it!”
“I fell in love with the bass,” said senior Fiona Liang, who usually plays piano.
The Friday jam sessions have helped fill a musical performance void for Redonnet and Cromwell. “Not being able to perform and play, it’s refreshing to connect with the students, Liz, Emily, and Jackson,” he said. “When Jackson and I connect musically or through eye contact, it almost seems like we’re onstage at Schooner Landing or The Publick House!”
“I’ve played in a dozen or so live stream shows in the last year, which have been fun,” said Cromwell, “but there is still nothing that compares to the energy I feel in a room full of passionate musicians.”
Bell covers like this one are mandated for wind instruments by the Maine DOE
The LA Wind Ensemble and jazz combos have already returned to primary instruments, staying 10-feet apart and wearing bell covers over their instruments as mandated by state guidelines. Later this week, the Big Band students will also go back to playing their familiar instruments.
According to Matta, they will take the skills they learned in the rhythm section with them, including “the rhythmic feel of a piece, keeping the tempo and how it’s not just a rhythm section responsibility, and understanding the chord progression of a piece. It will also help with phrasing of melody and harmony.”
The fact that they have been working on familiar Big Band charts makes the learning more transferable. “They’ve played these chord progressions on their primary instruments as well as their rhythm instruments, and they really are getting a deep understanding of these pieces,” said Matta.
“This experience helped us expand our musical palette and gave us the chance to see the other side of jazz that most of us wind players have never seen before,” said sophomore Liam Card, who usually plays the saxophone. “I am really grateful to Ms. Matta for this experience.”
“The students are pretty exceptional,” said Cromwell. “Perhaps it’s the process of learning a primary instrument and succeeding at it that gives them the confidence to plow through the often awkward first steps of learning a new instrument. They just dive right in.”
See more photos and watch a clip of Lincoln Academy’s Big Band All-Rhythm Jazz.