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Jamming at Club Milbank

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Jamming at Club Milbank

"If you learn to improvise in music, you may be able to improvise in life, adjusting more easily to changing situations,” said Bert Konowitz, founder of TC's Music Improv Camp.


By Suzanne Guillette

The scene in Milbank Chapel this past July was straight out of “American Idol”: a group of middle and high school students, clutching their instruments—guitars, trombones, saxophones, violins, basses—in front of a panel of fellow students and professional judges as the final notes of their original blues composition died away.

“If you guys made a Facebook page for this song…” The speaker, a guest from the American Society of Arrangers, Publishers and Composers Foundation, paused for dramatic effect. “I would make ten other Facebook pages, just so I could be your friend.”

The room burst into applause.

So it went at TC’s seventh annual Music Improv Camp, a five-day immersion in improvising, songwriting and performing in music of all genres. Founded and run by Bert Konowitz, Adjunct Professor of Music Education, the camp operates on a philosophy best summed up by the famous Duke Ellington line, “All ideas are good ideas.” The main criteria for admission is a desire to play and expand spontaneity (some students are very experienced, others much less so), and the emphasis is on learning how to develop spontaneous creativity: the students performing for the judges had composed and improvised their piece that same day.

Konowitz and his staff—some of whom are TC Music Education faculty or students—encourage the campers to do something not always sanctioned in the music world: take risks and accept the result as a new starting point. Even over the brief course of the camp, the campers become more confident about voicing their opinions in rehearsal and performing in front of their fellows—so much so that when a colleague of Konowitz’s, overhearing the sounds emanating from Milbank, asked him, “Do they play downtown?” he replied, “They play in Club Milbank.”

The camp began at the insistence of Konowitz’s graduate students, who suggested that such an experience would offer them invaluable opportunities to put theory into practice. An accomplished performer and composer who directs his own improv group—SPIRIT, the Resident TC Improv Ensemble—Konowitz nonetheless was skeptical about attempting something so ambitious during summer break.

Still he allowed himself to be prodded, and before a few hours of the first camp had elapsed, he was sold. Now it’s a time he looks forward to all year. “It’s really such a special experience for the kids,” he says, noting that they come from all over the New York metropolitan area and beyond, and from a variety of social and economic backgrounds. “If you learn to improvise in music, you may be able to improvise in life, adjusting more easily to changing situations.”

Indeed, a recent study of a similar though more extensive workshop called the “I Am a Dreamer Musician Program,” which Konowitz runs in cooperation with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, found that participants emerged with a stronger academic self-concept, particularly in math, and higher self-esteem. Students in the study were also more interested in having future musical experiences.

Hayes Greenfield, a jazz musician and Improv Camp instructor who teaches applied music at TC, says Konowitz gives the camp much of its special spirit. “He’s an amazing cat,” Greenfield says. “I’m happy to do whatever I can in support of his vision.”

The essence of that vision is a big-picture approach to music improvisation and composition, combined with some very practical advice. Camp faculty speak in very concrete terms about how to translate inspiration and ideas into song. Campers, who are asked to share their ideas, hear advice ranging from “Start at the ending, envisioning the success” to “Melody first, then chords.”

For his part, Konowitz told this year’s students, “In movies, you get the sense that there’s a flash of lightning when people get ideas”—he banged the piano for a clap of thunder— “but whether you’re Beethoven or Konowitz, that’s not how it works. It’s not magic. This is hard work.”

But joyous, too. On the last day, the campers paraded out on 120th Street and up Broadway, improvising a rousing, New Orleans-big band rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

“These kids are crazy talented,” said Lezane Trapani, who began attending the camp as a student four years ago and returned this year as an associate faculty member and guest artist. “They’ve grown so much over the past week that they seem like they’ve been playing for a long time.”

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