Student Voices

Video: Jazz visionary John Stetch on going back to school

Six-time Juno nominee and graduate student John Stetch talks about his restless, path-breaking career, the excitement of re-envisioning classical music through a jazz lens, and his decision to return to school 

Text by Tze Liew
Video by Colleen O’Connor

Over the past three decades, John Stetch has made a name for himself as one of Canada’s most innovative jazz pianists and composers. He has performed with contemporary greats such as Mark Turner and Chris Cheek and has recorded sixteen albums, including his most recent release, Ballads. Yet in the middle of a successful career that has earned him critical acclaim and half a dozen Juno Award nominations, he made the extraordinary decision to come to UBC to pursue an M.Mus in Composition.

Part 1: John Stetch talks about his decision to go back to school and the importance of community.

“I wanted to get a Master’s because the nature of work and teaching [in music] has changed in many places, and often requires more than just a Bachelor’s degree. I knew I was going to be living in Vancouver, and I’d heard of UBC and its beautiful campus. There wasn’t really a jazz program around, so I thought a Composition Master’s would be a great fit, since I’ve been starting to write some classical chamber music, not just jazz,” he says.

Stetch is no stranger to change. Ambitious and experimental, he has always forged his own path, inventing new techniques and musical styles — for instance, fusing classical and jazz music in his compositions. Reinterpreting well-known classical works by Mozart, Bach and Chopin through the language of jazz, he is fearless in altering the chords and rhythms, adding new textures with techniques like plucking the inside of the piano to create exciting new renditions, while still keeping the originals recognizable.

Part 2: Stetch demonstrates his unique approach to piano, performing a reinterpretation of Mozart K 333, Third Movement.

“I have this instinct to want to play a little differently every day,” he says. “There are so many interesting possibilities. What if you double up the octaves? What if you play the scale down instead of up? Or change the ending completely?”

Stetch was inspired to play classical music, especially after listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. Gould’s daring, percussive style pointed to interesting possibilities within the classical canon. But Stetch, a jazz musician, wasn’t sure how to approach the material at first.  

“It was too strange to play Chopin in a jazz club,” he says. “So I ended up rearranging the classical pieces, making them my own style, and treating them as homages to the original composers. Now I can perform them in both jazz and classical contexts.”

Stetch has reworked pieces such as Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat, Chopin’s A-Flat Major Polonaise and Bach’s Italian Concerto, which he recently performed in a Wednesday Noon Hours concert. The Mozart Sonata is a bluegrass arrangement, inspired by a banjo concert he attended. The Chopin and Bach arrangements are jazz-influenced – in Chopin, he plays with odd rhythms to vary and contrast with the original; in Bach, he mixes time signatures to elongate or shorten the theme.

“Mozart and bluegrass were a perfect match. Bluegrass usually has a lot of fast notes, an obvious pulse, and the kind of tonic-dominant-subdominant chord progression that Mozart’s pieces [also] have,” he says.

For Stetch, the interaction between jazz and classical is a two-way street. While bringing jazz improvisation techniques to classical pieces, he also admires classical music for its emphasis on organisation, and tries to bring that into his jazz playing. “I’ve often heard complaints that jazz rambles on too much, that it’s too complicated and random. I don’t like that myself, so I try to keep my playing organized like classical pieces.”

Part 3: Stetch talks about the appeal of experimentation and how he combines classical and jazz music in his compositions.

For such an accomplished pianist, Stetch started piano relatively late, at age 18. He grew up learning clarinet and saxophone, and originally pursued studies in saxophone at the University of Alberta. There he was introduced to figures such as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jared and Wynton Marsalis, and was struck by the beauty and the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of the piano.

“I stopped saxophone and switched to piano. I was addicted to it, obsessed with the harmonies and sounds that can be gotten from chords.”

He went on to study piano at McGill University, and later moved to New York, where, with the help of a grant, he sustained himself as a musician for two years and became a pianist for Rufus Reid’s band.

“I worked really hard and even felt behind when I first arrived at NYC, playing with people my age who had been playing all their lives. But at age 26 I found a classical teacher who changed my life. Burton Hatheway, who is now 86, had to get me to forget everything I knew and start from the beginning. It was one of the hardest things I've ever been through — it took about five years to make progress and 10 for it to really sink in.” 

While in New York, Stetch threw himself into the scene. He did so many gigs that he learned to be quick-minded and versatile – playing through unfamiliar standards, figuring out keys, working with singers and making sure the phrases flowed beautifully, all on the go. His improvisations didn’t always work out the way he wanted, though – there were always ups and downs.

Part 4: Stetch demonstrates his reinterpretation of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat.

“Sometimes they were magical performances, and sometimes I really disliked my own music. You’re your own worst critic, after all. But through the repeated formative experience of trying to improvise and having it fail so many times, the desire to make it better pushes you to find ways to improve.”

It was these heady experiences of failure and growth that made John the improvisational, forward-looking musician he is today — always changing, always evolving. Counterintuitive though it may seem, his decision to uproot and move across the country to study at UBC made perfect sense.

“It’s been a long time since I got feedback on my compositions, so I thought it’d be really neat to get honest feedback and criticism from people like Stephen Chatman, Dorothy Chang, and Keith Hamel, who’ve been listening critically to new music for decades,” he says. “It’s a special introduction to Vancouver, having this instant community of composers to work with.”

At the School of Music, Stetch is challenging himself to compose for instruments he has never worked with before, such as strings and brass.

Says Prof. Hamel of his student: “John Stetch is one of the most naturally and innately talented musicians I have worked with,” says Keith Hamel. “He seems to have the ability to quickly absorb diverse musical styles, to understand the musical materials that comprise each style and to construct new works, which contain elements of the model but are uniquely personal. He understands composition as an act of communication between musicians and an audience, and he always writes with this foremost in his mind.”

Learn more about the School of Music’s Composition Program.

Banner image by Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music

Maestro in the Making (Part One)

Note: Jaelem Bhate is a student in the School of Music’s graduate conducting program. This is the first in a series of posts about his experiences as a ‘maestro in the making’ under the tutelage of UBC’s Director of Orchestras, Dr. Jonathan Girard.

 By Jaelem Bhate

And just like that, I’m 25% done a masters degree. So at the quarter mark, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on a great three months. As stressful and anxious as they were, they were also supremely rewarding, full of new insights, and packed with more growth than I thought possible. Gladly, none of that growth was directed to my waistband.  The craziest part of this first term though was not what I learned, but how I learned. Sometimes, you have to quit the stress, take stock, and believe in the process of your hard work. For me, it was only when I became so tired of conducting in a constant state of stress that I loosened up, that real progress happened, culminating in my UBCSO debut last Saturday with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies I &III, orch. Claude Debussy.

WATCH: Graduate assistant conductor Jaelem Bhate conducts Erik Satie's Gymnopédie I & III.

The whole idea with the Satie was to forget about technique, and focus on the intangibles of conducting. How to elicit sound with your facial expressions, how to make every movement mean something beyond beat placement and patterns. That is to say, whether you move left or right on beat two is not the point, it’s how you arrive to the beat, and the way in which you move to the next beat placement. Needless to say, with a degree in percussion and my strengths lying in technical, complex music, this was not my strong suit. When I’m learning something new, I dive straight into the details. I spend hours working on fundamental skills, gathering as much info as I can from as many sources as I can find, and progress as quickly as I can through constant self-reflection and criticism.

The challenge with conducting, though, is that there really is no codified technique to show the above musical elements. The finer points of conducting—the concepts that I was weakest with coming into this degree—cannot be studied or distilled or written down in a textbook, and cannot be learned in the same manner that I have worked my whole life. They cannot be rushed, and not even practiced without an orchestra. Sure, you can stand in front of a mirror for hours on end as I was a few weeks ago, and critique your every movement, right down to how your blinking might affect the sound. But there is no substitute for standing in front of an orchestra made up of dynamic and versatile musicians who have their own feelings, thoughts, and ideas, and finding a way to bring everyone on board with your own artistic vision. This is what makes training as a conductor so difficult — you have to figure out how to improve, how to demonstrate your vision, without wasting precious podium time.

On this same program was another favourite work of mine, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. From the start of this cycle, I felt more comfortable with Firebird, despite its being a much more complicated and complex piece of music. I felt that I could rely on my beats and all of the technique I had accumulated, and that I could translate what I wanted much more efficiently by simply being accurate in my patterns. Two weeks ago, Dr. Girard was guest conducting in Hawaii (as one does), and I was left alone with the orchestra. “SWEET!” I thought to myself. “I get a whole 90 minutes on Firebird. I’m going to be so intense and I’m going to use so much space in the finale I’ll look like a soaring eagle and it’ll be great!” 

The rehearsal came and went, and it was a deeply depressing to realize, upon reviewing the video afterwards, that it was probably my worst conducting of the term. I was out of position, my baton unfocused and my lower body all over the podium. I looked like a flailing seal. All of the expression and technical prowess I had wanted to show had been diluted by my lack of trust in myself and my musicianship, hindered by my inability and fear to go beyond technique alone.

Through the entire term, I’d been fighting with myself to get my baton under control and to push as hard as I could to get better as quickly as I could. But through all of that work, I had never stopped to consider the bigger questions. How does this make me feel? What am I trying to say through my movements here? Most importantly, am I actually showing music, or am I just showing patterns?

In the week after that rehearsal, I learned more about myself as a conductor, as a musician, and honestly as a person, than I did in the first three months of my degree. I learned how to learn. I learned that I need to relax, look at the big picture, not get too caught up with the details, and not freak out when things don’t go exactly as planned. To still do all the hard work, but to also go with the flow in the moment. The Satie performance ended up going quite well, and the requisite accoutrements that accompanied the whole experience did make the evening special, I have to admit. The long black tails, my black bow tie replaced with a white one, and the orchestra that I’ve spent four years playing with standing upon my entrance did leave a lasting impression that is hard to forget, as with any debut with a high-level orchestra.

However, the concert isn’t the main thing that will stick with me from this semester. It’s how this piece taught me to trust myself, and trust in the music. What a crazy idea then, to consider applying this to my life and career. Work hard, but do not lose sight of the bigger picture. Worry about the details, but don’t forget what the details make when put together. Relax, have fun, and let your preparation and passion carry you through to success.