An Interview with Jung Mi Lee and Charlie Jennison

Gatto: When you were a music student, how did you utilize sound recordings? Where and in what formats (i.e. LP, tape, CD) did you listen to recordings?

Lee: My use of sound recordings as a music student was two-fold: I would listen to various artists–some suggested by my piano teachers, some of my own favorite performers–of the repertoire I was studying or were connected in some way with getting to know a particular composer’s work I was engaged with; and then there were the recordings which were assigned in music classes (whether music history, theory, or composition courses). For the latter, we would listen to LP’s, tapes, CD’s, and videotapes at our school’s dedicated music listening library; for the former, we simply bought recordings in all formats to listen at home and in the car.

Jennison: From high school up through my first years in college, I largely used LPs and turntables. The music library at UNH had recordings on cassette tape as well, and I remember purchasing my first cassette deck while still an undergrad at UNH. I also bought an 8 track machine for my car, and eventually got a cassette adaptor so I could listen to more music while on the way to work or gigs. I purchased music in all three formats, LP, cassette and CD when it became available.

When I was first introduced to CD technology, I could not believe how quiet the background was!  I noticed a difference in sound quality, however, and still prefer the warmth of LP recording technology, but have accustomed myself to the brighter equalization because of the convenience. Another drawback to the CD format was the fact that many record companies only reissued the most popular jazz albums. Eventually, however, I was able to start converting my own LP collection to CD using my PC and a USB turntable, although this innovation has been only within the past three years. Now I look for my favorite artists on LP or CD and convert when necessary. I still listen to LPs on my stereo when the music is available only in that format.

Gatto: Has technology changed the way you teach music? If so, how?

Lee: While technology changes it is surprising that the way I use it in my teaching does not seem to. Nietzsche’s famous dictum that in order to get to know something one is inevitably confronted with the interpretations of others is certainly applicable to the learning (at least in part) of music: how fantastic to be able to study and engage with extraordinary artists from the last 100 years, their choices, their flights of imagination, their sound worlds…whether or not one liked or disliked a particular artist one is clearly changed and affected by this rich reservoir. So with my students, while the listening platform may change, how and why I have them listen to recordings has remained essentially intact. Along the same line, my teachers always emphasized the importance of recording one’s own playing and practicing: this is a tool which I also find valuable to pass on.

Jennison: I have been using Jamey Aebersold’s play-along albums since the 1980s, and when the CD versions began to appear, switched over to that format due to convenience. I have since converted most of my Aebersold LPs to CD format and more recently started to archive the CDs on iTunes so I have a backup on a hard drive separate from my desktop computer. I also have begun a similar process at PEA so my students can use the listening room for practice when available.

I now regularly send links to YouTube videos to my students when I find a performance relevant to their stage of musical development. I also use a DVD camcorder to record the stage band and combo performances for future reference, editing the raw footage on my PC and burning the final result to DVD or posting it on YouTube. If you want to see some examples, use the search term “CHAJEN” on YouTube for links to several PEA performances, and some at UNH. I have not yet embraced the iPod because, like CD technology before it, I feel that the mp3 format is seriously lacking in sound quality. When I am on the go, I don’t listen to music on my smart phone, but prefer to listen in my car on satellite radio or CD.

Gatto: Do you have a formal process for exposing your students to sound recordings, or do you share recordings with them more informally, as the need arises?

Lee: Each student’s needs are different so I would definitely say the latter. As much as studying music is an adventure, teaching too is one: I do not find formalized systems of teaching very resonant with this sense of exploration and creation.

Jennison: If I am teaching a course in music history, the answer is: yes, I do have a formal process in that the course has a playlist and I have made up a sampler CD with examples of various chronologically arranged jazz styles. I also have “sampler” CDs which I give my students that contain a variety of selected artists on their chosen instrument, whether it’s piano, saxophone, or flute. Ideally, I will eventually have other instrumental samplers available as well. Currently, my students and I also share tunes using iTunes files sent via email to each other.

Gatto: How do you feel about playlists (user-created collections of digital music files arranged sequentially on a computer)?  Is it logical to use playlists while studying music? Why or why not?

Lee: As long as the playlist is populated with a diversity of interpretative approaches, artists of different generations and perspectives, and even recording engineering, I like the idea in principle. On the other hand, I am very skeptical of principles, especially in terms of music and the teaching of music, so what I would really like is a playlist of those artistic exceptions (not just “exceptional” artists) whose seminal creativity has thoroughly changed my musical perceptions (for example, figures like Cortot, Callas, Schnabel, Furtwaengler, Wunderlich).

Jennison: I think the playlist can be handy in certain situations where the student’s listening experience has been limited; once their interest has been sparked, however, I encourage them to develop their own [playlists]. Jamey Aebersold is a great source of mainstream jazz playlists, for example. There are also innumerable websites that reflect their authors’ preferences, but I encourage my students to explore their own likes and dislikes through various sources and not uncritically adopt the opinions of others. If you are referring to compilations of recordings of the same tune by different artists, I usually reserve that type of activity for those engaged in the process of developing their improvisational vocabulary or studying the process of transcription.

Gatto: What has been your experience with music composition and notation software? If you’ve used one or more of these products in your teaching, how have they influenced your lesson plans and/or overall approach?

Jennison: I purchased one of the earliest versions of Finale and upgraded regularly for several years, although I stopped at V. 2006b because I have more recently been using the Sibelius software at PEA to do most of my arranging. I find it easier to compose with pencil and manuscript at the piano, and then transfer the music to the notation software, but I have been experimenting with arranging at the computer, using a nearby piano to check harmonies now and then. I like the playback feature of the most modern software that allows me to hear what I have actually written, and the advent of sampling has made the process even more realistic when I can actually hear the real instrument playing its assigned part.

As an example of how I use the technology in the classroom, last week one of my combo students asked if I could accompany him on a demo tape for a college application. The tune he suggested sounded like one that might be applicable for the combo itself, so during a free period I sat down at the music library computer and sketched out an arrangement for the combo, which I was able to print and take to class later that morning. The fact that the computer can print out the parts is a great timesaver, and being able to hear the sound in advance is very useful in determining whether the arrangement will in fact work or not in class.

A decade ago, I used the Finale program to create a method book for jazz saxophone which I still use in the studio; eventually I will produce a second edition, this time with a CD of the tunes I had written for the book. I also occasionally use the notation software to create various exercises for my improvisation students. Now I am accumulating a library of such examples which will eventually become part of that second edition.