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Ezra Donner

What is your earliest musical memory?

My earliest musical memory would probably be hearing The Rite of Spring, Night on Bare Mountain, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Disney's  Fantasia. I also remember hearing Ravel's Bolero, Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at a young age--my dad was always playing Classical music recordings in our house. Other early musical memories include the music from the Wizard of Oz and Broadway shows like Fiddler on the Roof, and 60's  pop music like the Beatles and the Supremes--this was my mom's influence.

Uncle’s wedding in California (age 5)

Where/who did you learn about music?
Have you been particularly inspired by any of your teachers?

Growing up there was always music playing in our house. I started singing in children's choirs from a very early age in my synagogue, and I played clarinet in the school band starting in fourth grade. But my serious study of music really began around age 13, when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah with Cantor David Goldstein. Cantor Goldstein is an accomplished opera singer who is also incredibly knowledgeable about music, and I was fortunate to be able to work closely with him at this moment in my life. He also recommended a wonderful piano teacher named Frieda Manes, who revamped my technique and helped me explore the wonderful repertoire for solo piano. It was thanks to Cantor Goldstein and Mrs. Manes that I was able to study at Interlochen Center for the Arts, where I was immersed in music and art for two years, and from there continued my musical study at the University of Michigan and Indiana University.

What is/was your experience of music education in the USA?

Until my third year of high school I was the product of excellent public schools in my hometown of North Tonawanda, New York. We were lucky to have a great music program in our school district, and our middle school band probably played at the level of many high school bands elsewhere in the country. But when I arrived at Interlochen and saw what my classmates from Europe and Asia were doing, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. It makes me happy to see homegrown Americans advance to the top levels in the music world, and I hope we will continue to make music and the arts a priority in our education system. In addition to being a part of our school's music program, I was lucky to be able to study music privately outside of school with great teachers. I think any blueprint for the future needs to involve support for private instruction with good teachers outside of the school day, in addition to continued support for vibrant music programs in our schools.

What do you feel you got out of studying to PhD level?

In a way, I feel like I learned just how much there is to learn about music! Which double-stops are awkward for the violin, what a flute sounds like in the very highest register, how to orchestrate chords that will "ring"--the more you learn, the less you know, it seems. A lot of my training in composition at the Doctoral level has revolved around orchestration and score preparation, and I'm eternally grateful for the training I have received in these areas. How to communicate your ideas clearly to musicians--it's one of the most important lessons for any composer.

Carnegie Hall (composer) debut with Chamber Orchestra of New York, 12 October 2013

Where do you live?

I moved to Louisville, Kentucky about a month and a half ago, and prior to this I lived in Bloomington, Indiana for five years, while I was working on my Master's and Doctoral degrees in music composition.

Composer • performer • educator; Which came first?

Performer was first. I started piano lessons at age 7, but before that I had been singing in children's choir and in musical theatre. Composer came next, and educator most recently. How do these roles relate to each other / how does each practice enhance/inform the others? I like to think all of these roles inform each other and make me a better musician. Someone who's composed a piece of music will bring a different kind of understanding to teaching; someone who performs will compose differently; someone who teaches will bring a different kind of understanding to performance. I draw a lot of inspiration from the great composers of the past, who were often accomplished performers as well, and vice versa. And I'd be a little skeptical about studying with a teacher who had never composed or performed him/herself. :)

“The American Piano” live at North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, IL October 19, 2014

Especially as a composer, but also as a performer, do you feel that where you live affects/informs what music you make?

It's hard to say to what extent where I live makes a difference in the music I make now, but I would for sure say that my history, and all the places I've lived and visited in the past, has made all the difference. I'm probably something of a musical nationalist, and I'm very much interested in the history of American music and what it has to offer to an American composer in our time. I love visiting state parks and other natural places. I think my music reflects my love of these places.

Premiere of “A Requiem” for large choir and piano, 2011

Could you explain about the education work you have done/do?

My formal teaching experience includes five years as Associate Instructor of Music Theory at Indiana University. In addition I also have some experience as private piano teacher and vocal coach. But just about everything I do in music involves teaching in some way. I enjoy giving lecture/recital performances featuring lesser-known works and composers and talking about the composers and their music during the events. I've also toyed with the idea of creating online courses in subjects like music appreciation and music theory. Both my parents were teachers, and my grandfather as well--for me teaching feels like the "family business."

What music do you compose - who for? Do you write for commissions? What was the first piece you composed? Who do you like writing for? Do you write for theatre, dance, film, opera... and/or the concert hall?

The question "who are we writing for" is not always the easiest to answer. Do I write for performers? The "public"? Other composers? Grant committees? The most honest answer is that I really do write for myself. But I like something that [American composer] Steve Reich [b1936] once said

"If the composer is excited about what they're doing and they love it, and if they're fairly normal human beings, then hopefully there will be some other people who feel the same way."

I enjoy writing commissions when I am fortunate enough to get them, and I love writing for voice, including opera. The first piece I composed that I still acknowledge was a short song cycle on poems by William Carlos Williams, in my senior year of high school.

Was that before or after hearing Reich's "Desert Music"?
( Boosey music pub. - Spotify - YouTube )

I was relatively unenlightened about contemporary music when I composed these songs. I had heard Steve Reich's "Come Out" [see below] and some music by Messiaen, Gorecki, and Arvo Part, but the writing in these songs was much more informed by mid-20th Century composers like Barber, and turn of the 20th Century composers like Debussy and Ravel. I've listened to a lot more contemporary music since then, but I think the lion's share of my inspiration still comes from the early Moderns and the composers of the past.

As an educator, to what extent has your approach been influenced by any of your own teachers?

I've had a lot of great teachers with a variety of approaches--some have been nice, and some have kind of acted like jerks. In the end it doesn't really matter much to me, as long as I learned something, but the more I've taught, the more I've tried to be nice.

As a composer, performer and conductor; how do you feel about about other people performing/conducting your music?

I'm not much of a conductor at this point, so I rely on my colleagues to help interpret my ensemble music. I've been fortunate to work with some very gifted conductor colleagues who have been dedicated to helping me realize my ideas in performance of works for orchestra, choir, and band, and I'm very grateful for their help. With pianists, I think I tend to be the most picky, for good or ill. Since this is my instrument I have very specific ideas about how the music should go--I try to indicate very precise pedal markings in my scores, for example, and make suggestions about things like fingering. With singers too, I tend to be specific about the kind of American English diction I want and how words should be pronounced. Luckily so far no one has completely chewed me out in a rehearsal!

Discussing “Ile” with Ryan and Bruno

I found you on twitter; what is your experience of social media?
Ezra also has a Facebook Page and a Google+ Profile

My feeling at this point is that social media is an incredible tool that we have at our disposal to make and strengthen connections, both as musicians and as members of our communities. But it's only one of the tools that we need to use.  Some people who use social media only talk about themselves all the time. If you met someone in real life who did that, what would you think?  I'm learning more and more how important it is to be a real human being, both online and in life. It's important to understand and work on who you really are and let your digital persona be a reflection of that.

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