Eric Hirsh

pianist, composer, producer

My Week at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute

July 16, 2014 by Eric | 1 Comment

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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

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.

I Have Been Invited To Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute

April 24, 2014 by Eric | 2 Comments

I recently received the most surprising, amazing phone call  – I have been invited to participate in a one week long jazz workshop with other young, rising jazz talents at the Chicago area’s famous Ravinia Festival! This is the kind of thing that you can’t even apply for – industry folks nominate you and…well, you ‘get the call.’

The full name of the program is Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute (RSMI), which has been nuturing artists for over 25 years . Me and umpteen other artists will gather for one week under the guidance of an amazing faculty, learn each others’ latest compositions, and perform at the festival on Friday June 20th. I’ve already worked under two of the faculty at the 2009 Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Institute – Dr. Nathan Davis (saxophone) and Art Blakey’s legendary trombonist, Curtis Fuller. I hope they both remember me. Rounding out the faculty are David Baker, a hardworking figure in jazz education (especially composition and arranging) and none other than Rufus Reid on bass.

I am humbled, honored, and excited to take part in the RSMI this year. And I know I could not have gotten to a place in my artistic career such that the ‘right folks’ would take notice if it hadn’t been for the Durham music scene, all of my wonderful colleagues, and especially my bandmates in The Beast, Orquesta GarDel, New Music Raleigh, and Shana Tucker. Thank you, thank all of you so much. It takes a village to raise an artist. That’s a Hillary Clinton thing, right?





October 3, 2013 by Eric | 3 Comments

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the best decision of my life so far – to embark on the sacred journey of marriage with Lauren Ann Schlenger Hirsh. Early  in our courtship, Lauren gifted me a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s 1923 classic, The Prophet. Part of her inscription to me reads “Few books have touched me so deeply as The Prophet. The very act of reading Gibran’s words is like uttering a prayer. It has been the same way with loving you.” We carried this idea of poetry-as-prayer forward a few years, when preparing for our wedding ceremony. Though Lauren is not a musician by training, she has the soul of one (and is certainly a gifted artist in other media). We thought it would be both fun and meaningful to compose a song together for the ceremony, and it became obvious rather quickly that we should set some of our favorite parts of The Prophet to music (specifically, excerpts from “On Love” and “On Marriage”).

So many aspects of our lives were woven together in this collaboration. To this day I maintain that we truly did co-compose as equals, with me suggesting ideas for the rhythmic and melodic trajectories of text at the piano, and Lauren giving lots of feedback on those choices. We wrote the song for three (count ’em, three!) sopranos, as both of my sisters, Rachel and Rebekah, are lovely singers, as well as my college BFF, Catherine Jones. Another college friend, Yuri Broze, played piano at the ceremony, while Lauren and I stood watching, teary eyed, in front of my parents’ farmhouse in rural Chapel Hill on a beautiful fall day in October of 2009. A few months later, I brought Rachel, Rebekah, and Catherine into the profoundly magical acoustic space of Zenph founder John Q Walker’s recital hall to make a recording of this composition for posterity. But I have been sitting on the raw tracks for years, never finding time to mix and master the performance.

So, Lauren, today I gift you with the completion and publication of our first, but definitely not last, song together. We titled it “Orphalese,” for the city from which the prophet delivers parting words of wisdom to his community.

Here is the audio:

And for all you music-types out there, here is the score, should you want to study it or even perform it. On a professional note, I think this is some of my better arranging and engraving for classical piano. So far at least. I am ever a student of the craft.

Download (PDF, 195KB)

Love you, babe! Happy anniversary!

Community Chorus Project endorsed by R.E.M.

August 18, 2011 by Eric | 0 comments

This summer I was commissioned with Shana Tucker to co-arrange two pop songs for high school chorus and band.  The end result after two weeks of rehearsal at a summer camp would be a fully produced recording session and music video.  The first video, a cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” dropped this week, and is quickly picking up views from around the world.  Check it out, please share it with your friends, and then read the backstory after the jump!

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Eric receives fellowship from NC Arts Council

August 15, 2011 by Eric | 0 comments

I am thrilled and humbled to announce that I have been named as one of two composer recipients of a $10,000 fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council to support creative development and the creation of new work.  From the press release:

Raleigh, N.C. — Eighteen artists living and working in North Carolina are recipients of the 2011–2012 North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award in the categories of poetry, prose writers, songwriters, composers, playwrights and screenwriters. Artists receive a $10,000 fellowship to support creative development and the creation of new work.
Recipients were selected by panels comprised of artists and arts professionals with expertise in each discipline. Since the program’s inception in 1980, more than 500 artists have received awards.
The Artist Fellowship program operates on a two-year rotating cycle by discipline. Applications will be accepted this fall for visual art, craft, film/video and choreographers.

I have won composition contests before, but never a full-blown artistic fellowship.  The NC Arts Council’s program is one of the more generous in the country, which I’m sure has benefited all of the recipients across time, and thus the cultural wellness of the state.  I hope to use the fellowship to make my first big moves towards being more of a jazz/post-jazz composer and bandleader.  I’d love to do a big collaborative, community oriented project, or delve into some serious training and artistic development with an album at the end.  It’s too early to promise any deliverables, but the vote of confidence has certainly inspired me to turn towards a side of myself that is informed by, but often takes a backseat to, my work with The Beast and Orquesta GarDel.  Thanks from the bottom of my heart, North Carolina!

As A Sideman

August 1, 2011 by Eric | 0 comments

If you ever find yourself looking at the discography of a jazz artist, you’ll often see at least two sublists: “as a leader” and “as a sideman.”  The second list is usually longer, as this reflects the way in which a musician makes his living and cuts his teeth.  In my case, my musical life outside of technology research consists of little-to-no freelancing and two ensembles which of which I am an equal member or a leader.  So, my sideman list is nonexistent.  It’s more a tongue-in-cheek sort of game: I’m certainly not evaluating my career-to-date based on a certain amount of music commodities.  But you know how your LinkedIn profile “is 83% complete and will be 86% complete if only you would add some Interests and Hobbies?”  Well, now my musician profile gets another 2% because I am finally a sideman!

Two projects, two Durham-based artists whom I deeply admire and respect.

First up, Greg Humphreys explored some new territory on his latest album People You May Know by writing some songs in jazz-influenced, Tin Pan Alley style.  Greg called on me, Pete, and Steve to come to his basement on a frigid winter afternoon to track entirely live into some old ribbon microphones, myself on a beat-up Great Lakes upright with sticky keys.  Talk about an authentic production process!  Of the two tracks we did with Greg, my favorite is the ballad, “Must Be The Moon.”  I just wish we could have had Lester Young noodling in the background.


Around the time I was tracking for Greg’s album, another Durham bright light was releasing hers.  Shana Tucker, singer/songwriter/guitarist/cellist asked me to play on the title track of her debut album, SHiNE.  Ever since she moved to the area from New York, we had been itching to work together.  Shana and I teamed up recently to co-arrange and co-teach some songs to a new all-star youth choir in Chapel Hill.  More on that soon.  In the meantime, here is the hauntingly simple “Shine.”


Please support Greg and Shana by visiting their websites and purchasing their great music!

Return of the Blog

July 20, 2010 by Eric | 0 comments


After a spring hiatus to focus on songwriting with my bands and research with Zenph, I am happy to return to the blogosphere.  The rest of the year will feature countowns to some projects I am very excited to share with you, including:

1. a mixtape from The Beast called Freedom Suite, hosted by 9th Wonder with a roster of guest vocalists, MCs, jazz musicians, and DJs so thick that I can’t tell you who they are (…yet :-) )

2. Orquesta GarDel’s debut EP with two original songs, and a big dance party to celebrate its release

3. The free re-release of a past album, very near and dear to me (no hints yet!)

4. more new videos, essays, surprise collaborations

5. I am in the pre-pre-pre-pre planning stages for my debut jazz album as a bandleader.  Not a very musical process so far: applying for grants, thinking about material selection and recording logistics. I’ll be writing about the project as it unfolds; I’ve been waiting all my life to do this!

This week The Beast heads out on the road to Washington DC, New York, and Providence.  Please come support us if you live in the area!

Eric receives the 2010 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composers Award

February 25, 2010 by Eric | 2 Comments

I am extremely honored and proud to be a winner in the 2010 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composers Awards.  This marks the second time I have won the award (as well as having twice twice received Honorable Mention).  I submitted my latest jazz composition, “somehow it seems to help” which was premiered by a wonderful group of musician peers, and now good friends, at the 2009 Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead concert at the Kennedy Center.  You can watch a video of that performance in a previous post, and I’m happy to make this song available for download right here in this post.  I hope you enjoy it!

From the press release:

This program, established in 2002, was created to encourage gifted jazz composers from throughout the United States. The recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 15 to 29, and are selected through a juried national competition. The ASCAP composer/judges for the 2010 competition were: Wycliffe Gordon, Rufus Reid and Henry Threadgill.

Top Five Artists Whose Work I WishTo Explore Deeply in 2010

December 27, 2009 by Eric | 0 comments

Over a year ago I wrote a post about my top 10 favorite albums, mostly with a metric of personal fondness more than any sort of aesthetic consideration. As I look ahead to 2010, I see a very busy technologist (researching instruments for Zenph Sound Innovations) and bandleader (with The Beast and Orquesta GarDel) and new-husband (hi, Lauren!).  I want to make sure I am never too far from my deep passion for the arts, that need to appreciate and explore music, soaking it all up and seeing what sticks in the end.  There are a few artists in particular whose work and whose real-life struggles and philosophies have struck a chord with me, yet I’ve not yet had the time to get to know their music.  So in the spirit of end-of-year listmaking, here are my top five artists to get to know better in 2010.

5. King Tubby

Who knew that a sound engineer from Jamaica would have such a significant influence on electronic and hip hop musics?  Mixing (and re-mixing) as an art form, I love the delay-drenched sound of dub music, and it’s high time I take an in depth survey of one of the great pioneers.

4. John Hollenbeck

He is being called a modern jazz master.  With a prodigious output ranging from big band to chamber music to experimental improvisation, I identify with a lot of Hollenbeck’s contrapuntal/ostinato/polyrhythmic concepts and look forward to studying them.

3. Darius Milhaud

I love this guy, there is something fun about a French composer ahead of his own time falling in love with jazz and the music of Brazil.  What’s his take on it?  Let’s listen to La creation du monde and find out!

2. Astor Piazolla

I suspect one could spend a lifetime studying the music of this tango innovator.  He tried to write “proper” classical music, was ashamed of his jazzy tangos until Nadia Boulanger chided him for not being true to himself.  The rest was history, I suppose.  Such a fantastic combination of heart-string romanticism with improvisation with exacting composition, and I can still appreciate that it is based on music of the people, music for dancing.

1. Charles Ives

I’ve been told on occasion that my career path and my music remind people of Charles Ives.  How is it that an insurance salesman could conjure such poignant images of American life in such quirky compositions?  Again, a man ahead of his time.  I cried a bit when I heard “The Things Our Fathers Loved” from 114 Songs as well as “The Unanswered Question.”  I also look forward to reading a collection of his essays and other writings.


Wayne Shorter, Fela Kuti, Bob Dylan, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Nas