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Three Ottawa vocalists await their critiques in the final NAC Manhattan on the Rideau masterclass

Floyd Hutchinson  ©Brett Delmage, 2008

UPDATE: Renée Yoxon talks about how she will apply what she learned in the masterclass to her upcoming concert.

Three professional Ottawa jazz vocalists are eager and just a bit nervous about being taught by renowned jazz vocalist Peter Eldridge in the final 2011-12 NAC Manhattan on the Rideau jazz masterclass on Tuesday.

The masterclass, which is free, runs from noon until 2 p.m. in the National Arts Centre (NAC) Fourth Stage. Open to the Ottawa public in person, vocal jazz fans worldwide will also be observing and learning from it via webcast. Eldridge will be observing and speaking from the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in New York City, the program's co-sponsor.

“It's a really remarkable opportunity for me as a singer. How often does a guy like myself, an average guy, have access to people like Peter Eldridge?” said Floyd Hutchinson, who works during the day with the Ottawa Police Service.

“It's going to be a fantastic learning experience,” said Peter Liu. “To be able to do a masterclass with him is a great, great honour.”

For both the male vocalists. it will be their first opportunity to participate as students in the masterclass, although they have attended other masterclasses to learn as audience members. Ottawa jazz vocalist Renée Yoxon, a veteran of the NAC masterclasses who has learned from vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Peter Eldridge in past sessions, will join them.

“I was flattered. I didn't expect to be asked again,“ Yoxon said.

“Follow-up is perhaps the most important thing,” said the NAC's Manager of Artist Training, Douglas “Pace” Sturdevant, speaking about Yoxon's return and similar opportunities for other musicians. Sturdevant was clearly happy to be able to provide an opportunity for her to continue to learn from Eldridge and to build on the previous session.

“When you can bring somebody back to reconnect... that's great.”

All three of Tuesday's students have been connecting with Ottawa listeners for several or more years, with significant public performance experience. That, perhaps, has made it easier for them to share their lessons openly with a public, worldwide audience, with the risk that entails.

Liu observed that “it really adds that extra level of learning because you're really on the spot. A lot of eyes on you add a bit of stress. It's going to be a fantastic learning experience.”

Working with the Ottawa Police Service for twenty years, Hutchinson originally took up jazz singing to ease work stress (although it remains to be seen how relaxing his Tuesday masterclass experience will be.) He has performed at Café Paradiso and other venues, including the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

“I'm not technically trained. I started singing because I liked it. I always loved music and I always loved jazz. When you have the opportunity to sing something you love, it's really kind of cool. You've got to do it because you love it, and if you don't, then you shouldn't. And once I started figuring that out it changed my whole perspective of music,” he said.

Yoxon moved whole-heartedly into a full-time career as a jazz vocalist after graduating with a physics degree (and a minor in music) from Carleton University almost three years ago.

Since graduating, she has released one album with guitarist Rene Gely called Let's Call It a Day, performed twice at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, established weekly ongoing jazz evenings at a Market bar, and had a steady round of performing and teaching gigs.

Liu is a clinical psychogist by day, but with a life-long love for singing. He trained intensively in the past five years as a jazz vocalist, studying both jazz and classical voice, and has attended the yearly JazzWorks jazz camp since 2008. He now leads Bamboo Groove, The Jazz Mutants, and the Peter Liu Trio/Quartet. He is a tenor member of the Ewashko Singers and and Opera Lyra Ottawa. Peter is also in his second year as the Jazzworks jam session coordinator, booking host bands and serving as MC for the jam session itself.

All three spoke highly of Eldridge as their upcoming masterclass instructor. In fact, Yoxon studied with Eldridge in person while in New York in August 2011.

“This guy is a world class singer, one of the premier male singers,” said Hutchinson.

“He's a real giant in the vocal jazz field, and such a beautiful voice and a real wonderful history, both with New York Voices and his own solo career,”  Liu observed.

MSM instructor Peter Eldridge has been head of the MSM jazz voice faculty since 1993. He is a composer, arranger, teacher, and vocalist. He has released four solo recordings, and is also a member of the double-Grammy-award-winning vocal quartet New York Voices.

Participants audition for the masterclasses. Once chosen, they face weeks of preparation, including sending in song sheets and lead sheets ahead of time. With all their preparation, what are Tuesday's participants hoping to get out of the masterclass?

“I am really open to any feedback from him about what he sees and what he hears, and the opportunity to try to implement that in a masterclass with his feedback in real-time is a really amazing opportunity,” Liu said.

“These guys are the experts. Any type of advice that he can offer me I'll be be really glad to take,” Hutchinson said.

As a returning student who is possibly more familiar with Eldridge, Yoxon had something more specific in mind. In the past, he had “introduced me to new ideas” and given “me something new to think about performance-wise.” Now her music selections were more directed.

“I'm doing three tunes [for an upcoming show that she she will perform to Ottawa audiences later in April] that I've never performed before. Am I doing it right? Am I approaching this correctly?” she hoped to discover. For those who watch the April 3 masterclass, it will be an interesting sneak preview of part of an upcoming concert.

Several years ago when Liu first read about the broadband distance learning masterclasses that the NAC was offering, he wondered it it would be an effective learning experience.“It really is,” he has now concluded, after watching several of them as an audience member.

Sturdevant said that one of the great advantages of this broadband distance learning program is that it erased the need for geographical closeness between student and teacher. He also noted that the window goes both ways: while the students in Ottawa meet the MSM instructors, the instructors also get introduced to the students - and sometimes have been very impressed by the level of young Canadian jazz musicians.

“What's really interesting with these sessions, is that the technology has reached a level where it disappears, which is our goal,” the NAC's New Media Producer Maurizio Ortolani told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “The technology makes possible connections that wouldn't otherwise be possible and yet it's at a level where it becomes invisible.”

“I would like to do as many of these as possible. It's a big part of the way music education will unfold in the next decade and I hope the NAC can continue to be a leader in this area in helping institutions, helping teachers and students along and making these connections possible with technology. We take this part of our mandate to heart.”

Tuesday's masterclass will wrap up what many have considered to be a highly successful year of training in the Manhattan on the Rideau masterclass series. Since September 2011 instructors from the Manhattan School of Music have also included Donny McCaslin, Dave Liebman, Vijay Iyer, and John Riley. The NAC program is funded from the Youth and Education Trust Fund, with funds raised by the NAC Foundation.

Five sessions for the 2012-13 season are currently being planned. With the growing interest in this successful educational program, the NAC expects to announce the instructors to a growing and eager group of potential students and listeners before the summer.

    – Brett Delmage

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