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Behind the Scenes and Takeaways From the John Beasley Workshop Series

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Written by Catherine Wang

Additional reporting by Angelina Ge

Throughout his 40-year career as a jazz pianist, John Beasley has garnered an impressive and wide range of achievements. He has produced albums, composed for notable films, toured the world with his MONK’estra big band, traveled to prestigious events and music conservatories as a director, and earned multiple Grammy and Emmy nominations in the process.


A few weeks ago, QuaranTunes had the incredible honor to host a free Zoom workshop series led by the highly experienced musician.


The series consisted of three sessions:

  • Session 1 (6/23) from 2-3 pm PT: Essential Listening before Playing

  • Session 2 (6/30) from 2-3 pm PT: Improving Rhythm: the Heartbeat of Music

  • Session 3 (7/7) from 2-3 pm PT: Life is a Hustle: Being a Professional Musician


Thanks to the collaboration between Athena Zapantis (Workshop Director), Rebekah Bodner (Chief Event Coordinator), and Lorna Chiu (Beasley’s manager and wife), the whole event was made possible. How did everything come together? Read on to find out what went on behind the scenes and some of the experiences of QuaranTunes teachers who participated.


How it all started

In an interview with her, Chiu revealed how the workshop was formed. The idea was sparked by Athena, who is a part of her high school’s big band. Her teacher bought one of Beasley’s MONK’estra charts and she liked it a lot. Since Athena is also a part of QuaranTunes’ event committee, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for a collaboration. With Rebekah’s guidance, Athena reached out to Chiu and asked whether Beasley would be available to do a workshop with QuaranTunes.


Beasley is a huge advocate for motivating young musicians, which perfectly aligns with QuaranTunes’ mission and origin, so he had a great first impression.


“I think he was very touched … that there were young people who wanted to help other young people cope during all of this uncertainty with COVID,” Chiu said. “He was really impressed that there are young people saying, ‘let's motivate [and] … help young musicians.’”


After many calls and emails, the John Beasley workshop series was born.


A different experience

The format of the workshop was atypical for both parties.


“Most of QuaranTunes’s workshops are from professional musicians who volunteer their time to work with us, but this is QuaranTunes’s first-ever commissioned workshop, meaning John Beasley was compensated for his time working with us,” Athena stated.


Chiu added how the COVID-19 pandemic made this experience “unusual” in Beasley’s extensive teaching experience.


“Because of COVID, [he’s been] doing a lot more workshops … online,” Chiu said. “We don't get commissioned to do workshops; we get teachers calling us to book John [for] workshops.”


Planning

Chiu proceeded to walk us through the steps of planning the workshop sessions and the reasoning behind them. First, she got to know the QuaranTunes teachers and their qualities.


“The first thing when you do any workshop is to understand your audience [so] ... we [can] … leave them with takeaways that they can then make use of,” Chiu said. “So the idea was, okay, what would be the first workshop, what would be the second, and then what would be the third, how, what are the themes the topics, how would we shape them, how would the flow be.”


She and Beasley learned that the audience would mostly be made up of classical musicians and QuaranTunes teachers in high school or college. All this information was crucial to prepare the content for each session. For example, teenagers and young adults would want to learn more about how to turn their passion for music into a career or how to pursue it in college. That was exactly what the third session (Life is a Hustle: Being a Professional Musician) was about, and it ended up being a popular favorite amongst the participants (go to What we gained from the experience to learn more). In addition, since most teachers had a classical background, the organizers thought the workshop series would be a great way to help those musicians gain exposure to jazz.


So, what was each session like?


Overview of the sessions


Session 1: Essential Listening before Playing


“So [for] the first session was we thought, what motivates people when you listen to music?" Chiu said. "Do you listen with your legs crossed, and your head up and your body doesn't move, or does music make you feel like you move, and then it makes you smile? [We] … wanted to take people back to that using jazz because [while] John is … a musician plays all kinds of genres, he chose to also focus a lot of his energy on jazz.”


Beasley spent time having people listen to music, talk about how you should listen, what you’re listening to, and seeing how people respond to it. He also delved into some history of music by talking about griots, or a class of musicians and storytellers from Africa.


Session 2: Improving Rhythm: the Heartbeat of Music


For this session, the goal was to shift from a technical perspective of music to a more rhythmic one. Beasley focused on the clap method and encouraged the participants to clap along to some tunes that had similar patterns and pockets (relationships between two rhythms). The music ranged from John Coltrane’s jazzy “My Favorite Things” to pop star Ariana Grande’s savage “7 rings”.


Beasley also made improvisation seem less intimidating and more fun by describing how the modal method worked, where a musician creates interesting melodies based on a chord or scale.


Session 3: Life is a Hustle: Being a Professional Musician


Beasley brought a guest he has been mentoring all summer: Joey Curreri, a rising senior at the University of Miami and a trumpet player. This was because Curreri was close to the audience in age and could provide some insight into his journey of turning music into a career. Beasley and Curreri talked about when they started music, how it influenced their life, how they studied, and how their careers were developing. Most notably, the duo did a live jazz performance (Beasley on the piano and Curreri on the trumpet) with colorful improvisation.


What we gained from the experience

We asked a few QuaranTunes teachers and Lorna Chiu to reflect on the whole experience. Read about their responses below!


Athena Zapantis - Piano and clarinet

*written interview


Besides helping make this workshop happen and hosting the Zoom sessions, Athena gained more respect for jazz and interesting perspectives of music. It was a fulfilling experience to listen to other students participate that had a stronger classical background than her.


“When I started learning jazz, I was not at a very high level in classical music,” Athena stated. “I developed the beginnings of my skills in jazz and the more advanced parts of my classical musicianship concurrently, so I never got to see what it was like to learn jazz as a more advanced classical musician. I now see that jazz, classical, and other genres of music are more closely intertwined than I thought.”


For Athena, the second (Improving Rhythm: the Heartbeat of Music) and third sessions (Life is a Hustle: Being a Professional Musician) gave her useful tips that inspired her to change some things in her already established musical routine as a jazzer in a rigorous program at school.


“I improvise every day [and] … transcribe regularly, but Joey (from the third session) suggested some awesome players to transcribe that I may work on to expand my jazz vocabulary,” Athena explained. “Lee Morgan is the player I'm most looking forward to. While I do often critically listen to jazz and classical, [I will start to] critically listen to the other genres that I enjoy listening to, like rock music and pop music [in the second session].”


The third session was Athena’s favorite, from the live improvisation at the beginning of the session (Beasley on the piano and Curreri on the trumpet), to the big Q&A section at the end.


“To start off the session, Joey and John jammed over a Benny Golson tune, just the two of them,” Athena recalled. “They improvised burning lines and to be honest, John’s comping performance was a masterclass in itself. … The Q&A section was really insightful for fostering a musical life. Joey, as a college student, knows what it’s like to be a high schooler in this time, and John has been living through a highly successful musical career, so they both had very valuable insights. Their deep love and appreciation for music and jazz could be felt through the screen.”


Finally, Athena beautifully described the key lesson she learned from the whole experience.


“Being a technically excellent musician is only the first step,” she wrote. “The elocution of music is what’s most important. Feeling music in your heart and soul will get you far. Music is an expression of the heart, not of the notes on a paper. Once you express what is true to yourself, and play or sing with a voice that is unequivocally your own, then you are the most genuine musician you can be.”


Zachary Hommel - Trumpet


Zachary will be studying classical trumpet performance this fall at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. In the past few years, he was gotten more into jazz and decided to learn more about it through the workshop. He had some similar takeaways to Athena’s.


“The biggest takeaway I had from the sessions in regards to jazz was the importance of listening and creating a melody," he said. "He talked a lot about modal music and how we shouldn’t be as focused on complicated progressions but rather playing a melody and improvising something from the soul and the heart. That was something my jazz teacher talked a lot about and it was good to hear that from him."


The trumpeter could relate to Beasley and Curreri’s experiences of growing up around music and starting as a classical musician.


“[Beasley] was talking about influences when was younger and listening to vinyl records and how his student was heavily influenced by his parents," Zachary said. "My parents are classical musicians so I grew up in a classical household. Now I’ve begun studying jazz more, I also prioritized listening and how it is as important as practicing.”


Unsurprisingly, his favorite session was also the last one. He made sure to get the most out of the session by writing down the recommended tunes and albums that were mentioned to practice more improvising. However, thanks to Beasley and Curreri’s advice, he will be practicing with a new mindset.


“I’ve been improvising for a while, but one piece of advice that I’m definitely going to be thinking about when I practice is that it’s okay to suck,” Zachary said. “I started out as a classical musician and it’s definitely been an adjustment switching over from classical to jazz. I’m often self-critical when I try to improvise with backing tracks, but we all have to start somewhere.”


Laura Ni - Piano


Laura was one of the most active participants during the sessions, from asking questions to demonstrating some improvisation on her instrument when asked to. Like some of the other interviewees, she is a classical pianist with little knowledge about jazz before the workshop. She was encouraged by Rebekah, the Chief Event Coordinator, to attend because of the wealth of experience Beasley had.


The mentor showed Laura a new side to jazz. She usually likes impressionist and romantic music (two classical movements) and isn’t as keen to jazz on the piano. However, Laura still came to like the jazz music Beasley played. And the interesting link between impressionist and jazz music might be the reason: Impressionist music is known for creating colors and texture through sound by using dissonance and harmonic structures. Many jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane use impressionist approaches because jazz also includes harmonic structure and a blend of sounds. Perhaps classical and jazz music aren't as different as some people think.


Laura also appreciated Beasley’s teaching and dedication to the audience. He would spend about 10 minutes per question. More specifically, Laura mentioned that in the second session, Beasley responded well to the participants’ needs by playing tunes live when the audio wasn’t good and helping out on the piano when no one knew the answer to a question.


Laura's favorite session turned out to be the last one. Like Athena, she was impressed by Beasley’s smooth improvisation and how Curreri played the trumpet during the performance in the beginning. She got a new impression of the trumpet, realizing that the instrument didn’t have to be played loudly all the time.


For her main takeaway from the workshop, Laura realized the importance of music theory because of how often Beasley referred to it during the sessions to describe what he was playing. While the workshop motivated her to study more music theory, Laura will also start checking out jazz music and incorporate it into her routine.


Ariane Chen - Piano


Ariane was completely new to jazz when she first participated in the sessions. As a classical pianist, her musical journey has always been about technique and playing music exactly how it’s written on paper.


“After listening to the jazz stuff Mr. Beasley showed, I didn’t realize how random and how much improvisation they do, compared to classical music,” Ariane said. “Now I understand what people mean by jazz music. It’s a lot freer and they can play almost everything.”


Like the previous three teachers, Ariane liked the third session the most because she learned more about the difference between a typical classical musician’s career and a jazz musician’s.


“As Joey mentioned, he only started formal lessons for trumpet when he was 16, but for classical music, you have to spend a lot more time working on technique to pursue it as a career,” she explained.


Overall, as someone who attended all three sessions, Ariane enjoyed Beasley’s teaching style.


“Mr. Beasley was very laid-back and eager to teach," she said. "When a teacher is passionate about a subject, it’s a lot more interesting to learn from them.”


Lorna Chiu


Even Chiu learned more about Beasley during the workshop and his goals.


“[He’s]... at the sunset of his career because it's 40 years since he started playing right out of high school,” Chiu said. “What I learned was that he really wants to make sure that the next generation of musicians is as enthusiastic and inspirational to other people, too.”


Even though the workshop was virtual, she enjoyed hearing and seeing the participants. It reminded her of the event’s importance.


“It was nice to see the faces, it was nice to see them move when they're listening to music,” Chiu said. “It was really nice to see, hear the questions, and we hoped that we were all three of us were able to demystify some ideas and present new ones and stimulate inspiration.”

_________________________


Lastly, a huge thank you to:

  • John Beasley for being such a patient, inspiring, and helpful mentor to the young musicians who attended the workshop and helping them see jazz in a different light

  • Joey Curreri for making an appearance in the popular “Life is a Hustle: Being a Professional Musician” session and sharing your musical journey and advice to the audience

  • Lorna Chiu for moderating the workshop and collaborating with QuaranTunes to make this whole experience happen

  • The QuaranTunes Event Committee for providing unique and free opportunities like this through their outreach, professionalism, and hard work

  • The audience for being engaging and respectful and passing on the passion of music

  • All of the above for contributing to QuaranTunes’ mission to spread the love of music and increase youth participation


QuaranTunes will continue to create workshops for its community, so be on the lookout! In the meantime, check out more QuaranTimes blogs and like and comment. Learn more about all of the services, initiatives, and events we have to offer by exploring the navigation bar at the top.


_________________________


Also, as more and more people get vaccinated and become confident in going to concerts, check out John Beasley’s upcoming performances, one of which Joey Curreri may be a part of when he returns to finish his fourth year at the Frost School of Music, at the University of Miami. The legend Chucho Valdes will be having a world premiere of “The Creation” Suite which will be performed by his Afro-Cuban band, along with the Frost Big Band on November 5th in Miami.

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