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Jan 2019 Feature: Madison Bohrer – Let There Be Improv!

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January 13, 2019 by kidmoe11

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The man behind “Groove Lab” – our latest and greatest experiment at Music Time (learn what it’s all about) – took a few moments to chat with me about his musical experience, and how deeply he believes in and feels the power of creative, musical improvisation. Meet Mr. Madison Bohrer, both scientist and artist of groove.

How did you first get started in music?

I have been playing for years and years, as long as I can remember. I first started playing piano, but I really got into it with saxophone in elementary and middle school.

Were your parents musicians?

My mom is a cello and piano player. She played in a bunch of different symphonies when she lived out here. She definitely pushed me towards music. My dad plays guitar as well, so it was always around.

What was it that changed for you, when you got into music with the saxophone?

Definitely listening to James Brown in the car all the time! My mom had 2 CDs, and that was just standard fare for road trips. When it came time to pick instruments in school band, that’s what made me gravitate towards saxophone. I remember the first day when my mom brought a sax home – I played it for like 6 hours!

Nice! You didn’t continue playing it for 6 hours every day though?

No, definitely not! I played it in elementary school a lot, and then when I started getting better I got lessons. There were definitely tough times, arguing with my parents about practicing. There was almost a time when I quit playing because I was just so sick of going to lessons and playing scales, and I just didn’t think it was doing anything for me. But I’m glad that I pushed through it.

It can be really tough making the transition into playing outside of lessons or school. Did you play in school too, or in bands besides school band?

That’s what actually turned it around for me, when I was getting so frustrated playing in school band and playing at home and playing with my teacher. As a desperate move, my mom got me into a middle school jazz combo that was being run from an outside jazz education organization. I had no idea what I was doing, and I jumped in, absolutely cold! They had me show up and play a little bit. It was literally the first time I had ever improvised, on that audition! They said, “Yeah, sure. Come hang out and play with us.” That was the first time I had ever got into playing in a group, and really understanding how to actually play music. And that was how I got my interest back in it, from a passing interest to something that I could actually dedicate time to.

Awesome! That’s exactly the sort of spark that we hope kids will feel from Groove Lab. What do you remember from your own experience in this class?

There were definitely a couple other kids that were a lot more advanced than me, so just the fact that I got to play with someone who was way better than me helped me a lot – not only just in my confidence, but in realizing where I was, and where I needed to go for the next step, so I didn’t just get stuck where I was.

Did you get to also see the other side of that, being the more advanced one sitting next to a younger player?

Totally! By the end, by my senior year in high school, I was on staff there. I was a mentor to the middle school kids. There are two sides to the relationship – you’re going to learn just as much if you’re trying to explain something as if you’re trying to understand the thing being explained. Even just seeing concepts that you think you’re familiar with, being broken down through a different perspective can be really valuable. You can see the kind of art that can be created. Even though someone may not have the experience on an instrument. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice. And you can really understand someone’s voice by playing music with them. It doesn’t matter how skilled they are.

That’s it, yep. Let’s continue going through your personal experience. I know you did the standard music courses. Could you tell me a bit more about some of the classes you’ve done outside of the usual theory, history, etc.?

I did a improvised music ensemble at the Jazz Conservatory for about a year and a half. We would start with absolutely nothing on every single song, and not have any preconceived notions about where we were going. We would create completely different music every time we would sit together. Sometimes it would be loud, sometimes it would be soft, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes it would be all of that at the same time. It really just taught us to listen inwards and around us, rather than concentrating on the music in front of you or the repetition that you’ve learned.

We would do exercises that would really open us up. We’d all get on the same rhythm and have one person just slowly speed up, going against everyone else’s rhythm, until they were completely in a new tempo. They would play at that new tempo while everyone would hold the old tempo, then slowly merge back down to the group. Then someone else would take a turn and they would slow down the tempo against everyone else’s constant tempo, and then slowly bring it back up. It’s learning how to play with and against, contrary and mirroring each other. All the different ways of communication can really heighten your senses, because there was no material to focus on.

Now you did this at a conservatory, so I would assume the musicians were what you would call “advanced.” Could this work with any skill level? Do you need to be advanced?

Not at all. I saw my teacher do the same thing at a week long camp retreat with musicians of all skill levels. It went just as well, if not better, just because more people and more energy, regardless of who was skilled and who wasn’t.

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What other sort of ways would the teacher lead you in improv?

Sometimes he would use spoken word, just reading sentences from a book. When you’re dealing with music, things can get a little abstract, so sometimes it helps to ground it with an image, or a word, or a phrase or a feeling that you know in the real world. Sometimes he would just say random stream of consciousness words and we’d all be on the floor laughing because it was just so ridiculous!

I can definitely see how this can be called abstract or “out there”? How does this all tie back into groove music, or pop music, or the types of music we all know and love?

Well the whole point of any music is to make you feel something, right? And if you’re rolling on the floor laughing, then that’s a pretty intense feeling! It’s definitely relatable to take that kind of energy and emotional control and direction. You can really put it into any type of music, even if it came from the world of complete improv. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take that energy and extreme awareness that it give you, and put it into any type of music. Playing in an improvised manner does nothing but elevate your emotional, rational and “groove spider sense,” if you will.

Was there anything else in your education experience that you remember making a large impression on you?

Yes, definitely playing Latin, Brazilian and Cuban, based music really taught me a lot about tempo, rhythm, pulse, groove, and accenting. They treat pulse and groove in ways that we really don’t think about. I had a teacher that would always talk about how you’re just “letting the pulse go through you.” You’re not going out and grabbing it or controlling it. The pulse is just happening and you’re just laying in it. You can’t push, you can’t bully. You have to let it come to you.

What was your course of study at the Jazz School?

After high school, I spent a couple years at community college before the Jazz School, which was great because it gave me a lot of time to practice. I had a couple of inspirational teachers there, mostly focused on motivating us to practice. I later earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Studies from the Jazz Conservatory. I did a big final show with my own arrangements, but the other major project was to run a public workshop at the community school. I did mine on chart writing and chart formatting, organizing sheet music basically.  

And what is your teaching experience?

My high school job was actually teaching swim lessons. For about 5 years, I worked with kids of all ages, and adults. We’d work with people 3 times our ages on learning water safety! In music, I taught at a bunch of high school and middle schools, while I was in community college, helping out with jazz band and concert band. I currently run a high school jazz band over in Mountain View. I pick all the music and run the rehearsals and concerts. I’m coming on my third year of doing that.

Why are you doing groove lab?

I really want to spark a different kind of interest that a lot of people might be missing out on. Between academic music and private music lessons, there could be a gap in the musical experience. For people at an early or moderate stage of musical development, it’s hard to find opportunities to get together and experiment, and to make music for no reason, other than making music.

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