Jazz Bridge Journal Post #10: Official Meetings

Posted on December 20, 2011

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I’m sitting in my hotel in Vladivostok, which seems like Seattle to Khabarovsk’s Portland.  A whirlwind two days here and we will be back on the plane toward home. (barring any unseen complications-weather, visas, baggage, etc)  I’ll try in the next couple of days to catch up on some posts begun but not completed in Khabarovsk.

Music School #2

We started off our second full day in Khabarovsk by visiting Music School #2, whose name does not reflect the innovative, virtuosic and otherwise fascinating recital we were witnessed.  The recital hall was a small room.  The first thing I noticed, after the workstation synthesizer and the first Apple computer I have seen in Khabarovsk, was the fact that the two beat up old upright pianos were pushed against a wall on one side of the stage.  In the middle of the stage stood two sleek looking Roland digital grand pianos.  This should have been my first clue that this was not your typical music schools-in Russia or America.  Nonetheless I was stunned when they turned down that lights and switched on the disco light ball that set the room sparkling. A demure little blonde girl stepped on stage and bowed gracefully, pushed her keyboard buttons to get to her pre-set sound, and then waited while they revved up the orchestral accompaniment track to which she performed her piece.  Actually it wasn’t a traditional orchestra. It sounded more like the soundtrack to the blockbuster action movie.  The piece she played was full of scales and figures I would have thought were beyond the grasp of a nine-year old student.

The rest of the concert continued in like fashion.  Piano students of varying ages but the same flawless Russian piano technique came out and performed to orchestrated track.  They played everything from Russian pop to Bach.  Some pieces they played using a tradition piano sound.  Others used flutes or strings or even out of tune honky tonk bar piano.

The instructor told us this style is called “Estrada.”  It is based on the a style of Russin pop music from the mid-eighties.  Estrada was and is very popular in Russia.  His is the only school in the Russian  Far East that teaching this way.  He is quite the entrepreneur.  He has created the curriculum, hired all the teachers, creates the orchestrated arrangements for each piece the children play.  He also knows all 200 of them by name.

The financial set up is equally interesting to me.  Lessons are free.  Students go to this school after their regular school day.  They are there for about five hours.  In that time they take classes in theory and solfege, and take private lessons.  They also get 5 minutes per day in that room with the keyboards and the disco ball.  Their love of Estrada keeps them in music much longer than traditional lessons.  Although he says they make the transition easily.

What is not free are the monthly public performances he sets up in a 500 seat hall in Khabarovsk.  To play in these recitals, you have to pay.  They are extracurricular, as it were.  But the kids love to do them, and willingly pay.  Maybe it is getting to dress up and be on stage.  In fact, at every concert we have seen in Khabarovsk, from this recital to the largest public concert, the performance attire has been several notches above ours.  From what I have learned, appearance in general, and dressing for the stage are a point of pride here, as if getting to wear a fantastic dress is a big part of the fun.  This, and there innovative use of technology to provide kids with an engaging and stimulating music experience is something that we can take home with us.

Diplomacy in action

Later this same day we had two official meetings.  The first was a formal meeting in a big conference room at the Ministry of Education in Downtown Khabarovsk.  It was the real deal, where we sat on one side of the table and their delegation sat on the other.  There were little American and Russian flags in little holders.

Their side of the table is all women.  One was the Deputy Minister of Education. The Minister is on vacation until the end of December. (Like in Europe, they get four weeks a year.)  We have a translator, a woman named Masha, who is the sister of one of the students at the college, and getting her masters in English.  The Deputy Minister welcomes us and gives some rather long remarks about how she is delighted that we are here, and hopes to discover how we can help them in the area of music education.  The other women don’t say anything- for the whole meeting

As we go through introductions, I’m wondering about how we get from formalities to substantive discussion.  Fortunately, Valery Khusainov takes care of that.  He begins talking about his desire to implement music programs in the public schools.   I’ve heard him talk about this enough by now that I can pretty much follow it, even in Russian.  I think that one of our roles in coming here was to give him an opportunity to lay his plan out for this audience.

The discussion moved on to the importance of the arts in education.  Maybe it is the challenge of translation or just American presumption, but we feel compelled to harp on the importance and the benefits of arts learning-as if they don’t know.  The Minister of Education hasn’t said much up to this point, but now she weighs in with some rather emphatic rhetoric about how they do in fact know this.  It seems there was a time when all their schools had music and art, just like ours did.  But times have changed, just as they have for us.  They would very much like to put arts back in the schools, just as we would.

What came out of this meeting, in addition to my introduction to the protocol of international diplomacy, was an appreciation of Valery’s vision.  They seem willing to implement it in one school to begin with. They assured us that they heard our passionate call for improvisation to be added to the music curriculum.  They were also emphatic in saying that before they changed the way their schools are set up, they need to approve a curriculum.

The good news is that we can help with that.  We have state standards for music education.  We have a myriad of jazz education curricula for all levels.  We have skilled educators to draw on.  I didn’t come away with a clear top to bottom picture of the challenges to music education in modern Russia, but I think I know what should come next.

The difference between the first meeting and the second was like night and day.  We met in a much smaller room, in the Khabarovsk City Hall.  In fact the table only fits five of our group, so Mark, Katie and Inna decide sit this one out.

The Deputy Mayor enters, accompanied by four other women and a translator.  She is an energetic and dynamic woman, who tells us that in 1988 she was a member of the first delegation from Khabarovsk to visit Portland.  She was  also a part of the group that established the Portland-Khabarovsk Sister City relationship the following year.  Even after 20 plus years, her enthusiasm for her experience of Portland and its people is still evident.

In this meeting we also talked about broad ideas first, albeit at less length.  After the welcome and the introductions, I talked about my vision of a bridge between two cities built on music and cultural exchange.  She talked about Khabarovsk’s love of culture.  I talked about the Amur Suite.  She told us that they built a new performance hall.  I was very curious to ask how that process came about, thinking it would reveal a great deal about how things get done in Khabarovsk.  But I didn’t get to ask about it.

I talked about my interest in bringing Khabarovsk performing groups to Portland, not just jazz, but whatever culture they thought represented their city best, in the way jazz represents Portland.  She talked then about their folk choir and dancers that often travel to other countries.  I also discovered that they send an invitation every year to Portland to attend their annual city celebration which happens in May.

As we did in the first meeting, we ended this one by exchanging gifts.  They presented us with books about Khabarovsk and some music CD’s. I gave them the Jimmy Maks painting by Diane Russell.  She said that next time we came, we might see it in the art museum. We also gave them some of the Portland Timbers scarves that we have handing out like candy every place we go.  Good gifts, scarves.  Make for a good photo op and the make people smile.

I left these two meetings feeling on one hand,  like a seasoned veteran at the diplomatic process, and on the other hand, having a deeper respect for the fragility and importance of this age-old process of communicating across borders.

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