Performers in the Time of COVID: Gary Prince
I met the brilliant electric guitarist, Gary Prince on Zoom for a lovely chat this past weekend. Gary spoke to me from his home on the border of Washington DC and Maryland, an area where, he told me, he has lived all his life. He explained to me that having come from a family devoid of musicians, he had developed a passion for the guitar in high school and begun to play gigs while studying for a degree in Psychology at the University of Michigan. At the time he was playing in the Creative Arts Orchestra, a free improvisation ensemble and it was through this experience of learning to play with intention and sensitivity that he decided to enrol on a new degree programme created by flugelhorn player Ed Sarath. So Gary became one of the first to graduate with a degree in Jazz and Contemplative Studies, an innovative programme inspired by the free jazz and non-idiomatic improvisation movement of the 60's and the role of spirituality in music.
'I was playing gigs at the time but I found that a lot of the work was pretty boring. Yes, it was challenging to learn a musical theatre book, but after I'd learnt it, the succession of performances became increasingly dull. It did improve my sight reading skills though,' he laughed.
'I interviewed for a part time job teaching the guitar at the Levine School (one of America's leading community music schools) in 2008 and in 2013 became Chair of the school's Jazz Programme. I found that teaching suited me better than gigging. It just felt more creative'. In 2017 Gary began a 3 year Masters in Music Education which was taught in the summers. Knowing that he would need a different work schedule with a second child on the way, he applied for a full-time job at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and gave two interviews just as Washington was locking down.
'So lockdown didn't feel very locked down to you?' I asked Gary. 'No,' he agreed. 'My wife and I have been very lucky. My wife's job has always been virtual and we had our second child during the pandemic. Meanwhile I started my own full time teaching.'
Gary explained to me that all his teaching at the Charles E. Smith School has been virtual since the beginning. As he is responsible for teaching ensembles to both the Middle and Upper Schools, I was curious to know how he has managed online. Gary told me that for one thing, he creates his ensembles out of all levels and abilities. 'I'm a bit like a chef who looks in the fridge and thinks: what can I make with that, that and that?!' And because the end goal of the ensemble classes is a video rather than a live performance, he has been able to adapt his methods to work well virtually. Through his music education course he had found out about Flipgrid, a platform which allows students to upload videos easily in real time and for him to comment immediately and Soundtrap which allows easy collaboration between students. He also uses the music notation platform, Finale which has a helpful playback function.
'I am grateful that the school employs a videographer,' Gary said. 'I'm not someone that has been hugely interested in technology but the pandemic has forced me to become adapt with Audacity (the free recording platform) although I only use a simple Zoom usb mic. I have also improved my skills with Finale. I suppose that has been one of the benefits of lockdown.' At the same time, Gary acknowledges that the last year, a year in which his wife went through a pregnancy and childbirth and one in which the couple has been unable to see grandparents and friends, or avail themselves of childcare, has also presented difficulties. Gary said that he has found the situation humbling; that it has definitely put things into perspective. 'The spring was tough. I was learning to teach online and all my gigs were being cancelled.'
Gary however has been fortunate to be involved over the last months in a wonderfully innovative and satisfying online performance project as one quarter of his ensemble, The Modern Music Ensemble. In January of 2020 the ensemble had made a proposal to the series, 'Levine Presents' to create a performance of the work of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla whose centenary falls this year. 'It was a turning point in my life when 10 years ago I had played 'Four Seasons of Buenos Aires' with the wonderful Québecois Bandoneon player Denis Plante. I really wanted to repeat the experience.' The original idea for the performance was to give a retrospective of Piazzolla's life but somehow after March of last year that seemed a bit irrelevant. 'In the end , Gary said, 'we decided to refer to the 4 seasons of this past year and connect the performance to the wider world, the pandemic and our own lives.' The members of the ensemble recorded their parts and synced videos at home. Then vibraphonist Manny Arciniega compiled, edited and transformed the videos into an exciting online performance which premiered from Levine this month (http://modernmusicproject.com/).
The work, collaboration, discussion and recording that went into creating the performance was obviously a great joy to Gary. As is the clearly inspirational work he is doing with his online ensemble classes. But he does look forward to playing music with other people in real time again. In the meantime he is taking it one day at a time. 'And,' he told me, 'I have bought myself a mandola (a larger version of the mandolin which is tuned like a viola) and am learning the G major cello suite!' I can't wait to hear Gary perform the G major Prelude, even if I have to do so online!