by Mark Shilansky, Assistant Professor of Ear Training
So I applied. Not to a whole lot of schools, just to NEC, my alma mater, where some people still know me, and if that didn’t work then I’d weigh my options. I got some super recommendations. I sat in a room and took 8 hours of History and Theory entrance exams (after reading music history books and reviewing German 6th chords for a few months). When I went to audition it was for Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, who used to crash on my couch in J.P. when he was in town in the late 90’s, and he asked in his low, growly, soothing Finnish accent, “Mark, WHY do you wanna do this?” After I auditioned I left the room and the same 4-5 current NEC jazz kids who had their ears plastered to the door for the previous auditionee were still there with their ears to the door… and I thought, “I COULDN’T CARE LESS WHAT YOU ALL SOUND LIKE!” Is this a competition? If I can fight these other pianists to the death will I get in? Will I get a record deal? I guess I thought that way when I was in school before. Maybe if Fred Hersch hears me (I never studied with him…. he always ran screaming from NEC when he heard I was going to be studying there) he will send me all the gigs he can’t do… wait… what is a “record deal” anymore? What are “royalties?”
And I got in. It’s kind of a small Doctor of Musical Arts program, so I am lucky and happy I was admitted. And they gave me a bit of money to go, and I haggled with them a little and they gave me some more, and I took some loans and I think I can make it work. I filled in my hourly teaching preferences at Berklee so in case I got in I would have some gaps in my schedule and available days to take classes. So far it has worked out but it takes longer to get down the street than it did when I was 22. I have a DMA seminar in Musicology where we read practically a whole book of articles every week and respond to them and discuss them. Luckily there are many about jazz, but there are some about Mahler and Wagner and Schopenhauer and this thing called Sonata Form. And we have a huge paper due at the end of the semester and I am in way over my head and I still have to find some more sources because I am asserting lots of things that I have not proven yet. And I get to study with Bergonzi and I’m working on some Irish music (because I do that now, for some reason) with the fiddler from the group Solas, named Winifred Horan, who I didn’t even know was teaching there. She did some work for Matt Glaser in the Roots and Branches and Twigs Institute a little while ago. Solas is to Irish music what Alison Krauss is to Bluegrass; it’s kinda modern, revisionist, but they are deep in the tradition too. And I have an improv class with Bergonzi where we basically go through his Book #5, on intervallic improvisation. And I have Jazz Composition with Ken Schaphorst, and he is super-brilliant, great, great ears, can hear something the first time and understand what you were trying to do and give you a number of options to develop it, and he teaches the class in an interesting way, so you can attack each assignment from any genre you want, inside-jazz, outside, free, composed-with-free-sections, trio without chords, trio without bass, but with drums, so it never really sounds like a band until halfway through the set when you forget there’s no bassist, or maybe you want to be the sort of composer who can’t really write but comes up with all kinds of great concepts, and you talk to critics and orchestras about them so much that they write you great reviews before they’ve heard the pieces and commission stuff from you which you never deliver on time if at all, and then you get a MacArthur grant.