Eric Hirsh

pianist, composer, producer

My Week at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute

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In my last blog post I announced that I had been invited to the prestigious Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute for a one-week jazz residency at their Chicago festival campus. It has been almost a month  and only now am I  able to decompress enough to write about my experience there.

When is the last time you had the luxury to focus on only one thing? My time at RSMI was a luxury, a blessing. At the opening session, on the first day, our coaches (jazz and education luminaries Dr. David Baker, Dr. Nathan Davis, Rufus Reid, Curtis Fuller) challenged us to explore our artistry deeply, to be open to learning from each other, to focus on growth. It was like going into a cocoon to transform. Normally, my daily life entails a tech job at a software startup, my wonderful wife, the three or four bands of which I am a member. All of a sudden that faded away. One stage, thirteen practice rooms, one kitchen, one dorm bed, and fourteen other top-notch jazzers. That’s it. Wake up, 3 hours of rehearsal, eat, 3 hours of rehearsal, eat, 3 hours of practice, sleep. Repeat.

But we weren’t entirely isolated from the world, only from our own responsibilities. Maybe less a cocoon and more a womb –  the Ravinia festival was our mother, nourishing us with the energy of touring acts playing right outside our window, the anticipation of tens of thousands of music lovers dining on the lawn waiting for their beloved John Legend, One Republic, Prairie Home Companion to serenade them. Us fellows could come and go, through the membrane, to witness the reality and logistics (ticket sales, trash cleanup) of making a career in live performance and then retreat back into the solemn space of the practice room to compose another four bars.

I was the eldest fellow. Most of the other musicians were still finishing their jazz undergrad or had recently graduated. Two were high schoolers from New Orleans, proving that even though the city has been through some rough times, its music community is still strong and its framework for mentorship produces jaw-dropping artists, wise beyond their years. All of the fellows were skilled technician at their instruments, possessed strong compositional tendencies, and most importantly, were kind, funny humans, adamant about jazz and teamwork. We had synergy. We were on the same page. We responded to each others’ suggestions, whether spoken or improvised.

The residency wouldn’t be possible without the Steans staff – a small militia of music majors preparing for grad school, taking a summer job in arts administration. Or maybe they were a gang of hooligans. Either way, they drove us around, printed our parts, and made sure we were amply fed. Fried chicken night twice? Thai night? Yes, please.

At the end of the week we put on a recital in which we divided into three quintets playing five pieces each – one for every fellow. During the week I had found inspiration to start writing again. That piece remains unfinished, but I know it will be called “To Comfort A Shadow.” Instead, at the recital, my group played another of my  recent compositions, “The Miraverse.” Here is the recording from our recital. In fact, you can listen to all of the great pieces on InstantEncore.com

I can’t tell you that I had a major epiphany at Ravinia. I can tell you that I reconnected to my musical self. The womb was nourishing and now I must bring that energy back into my own, local community. I need no more external validation – I continue to walk along the artistic path, writing and playing for those who would listen.

One Comment

  1. Wonderful write-up, thank you for sharing. My daughter is a fellow at Ravinia, arriving today.

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