Oregon Symphony: Christmas concert at Coffee Creek

Photos and story by BENJI VUONG

Editor’s note: Just before Christmas, musicians from the Oregon Symphony (violinists Shin-young Kwon and Emily Cole, percussionist Sergio Carreno, bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira, and violist Jennifer Arnold) gave a performance to inmates at Oregon’s Coffee Creek correctional facility for women. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and his wife Nancy were among those in the audience. Oregon ArtsWatch photographer Benji Vuong contributed this photo essay.

The event was held in a medium level security of the facility and only women were in attendance. Men are sent to Coffee Creek as well, but only for evaluation before being sent to their place of residence elsewhere. Photographers, reporters and musicians had to be escorted by security personnel through multiple check points — and of course — we went through heavy, rigorous screening to make sure everything that was brought in to the facility was cleared, and re-checked once we exited to make sure we did not leave anything behind, intentional or not. Visitors were told that our every move would be watched. I did feel uneasy at times moving around the tight corners to get a good shot while being watched over by the officers nearby, but I suppose this is because it was my first time inside a prison so it was a little intimidating.

The concert itself was truly inspiring. The musicians were extremely welcoming, even humorous at times, pulling jokes at their expense. The crowd was very receptive and respectful. Some were rather young and some could be my grandmother’s age. It took a little while for them to warm up initially, but after a few songs, they really got into the spirit and sang along exuberantly during the caroling section. There were times when I thought I saw Nancy Hales and some of the inmates teary eyed. I genuinely thought that the musicians’ warm and jubilant performance brought some comfort to these women.

During the Q&A, many of the inmates asked thoughtful questions. Some wondered about the differences between a viola and a violin, what sound a certain note made and why, the history of the bassoon, etc. Quite a technical and inquisitive bunch, they are. I saw a spinet piano in the chapel and was told that some women do come in and play on occasion. So I am sure there are at least some musicians amongst them, but I think the Oregon Symphony is really quite a highlight of their season, if not year.

Cascadia Composers’ “In Good Hands” concert: Bringing students the music of their time

Tomorrow's Oregon musicians play music by today's Oregon composers.



The young performers were warming up; some with Chopin Nocturnes, which they played with studied rubato (that technique where you hold a note longer than rhythmically intended or on-purpose rush a passage, all in the name of playing expressively) handed down from teachers. Or they held notes that meant nothing in the sentence surrounding them except self-indulgence or dry harmonic leading tone stresses—that is, staying on a penultimate note longer than usual and thereby, in theory, sustaining tension.

It wasn’t a promising sign.

The 29 young pianists, students of 13 Oregon Music Teachers Association teachers, were about to star in a public concert on a weekday summer afternoon at Portland Piano Company. . . to a packed house! I was not there to hear Chopin, or any other library or dead composer. That might be typical of a private teacher’s studio piano recital and I avoid those, as do my students who play whatever the hell they want in recitals — from improvised blues duets with their dads to pieces they write to chamber music or pop songs played and/or sung with their invited friends. They even bring me snippets from dead white guys like Beethoven they picked up, asking me to find the rest of that song for them to play, having no idea that song (“Für Elise” or “Moonlight” Sonata or whatever) was written over 200 years ago and not today.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

My belief that students can show us the future was why I was participating in the “In Good Hands” concert, leading a performance of a recent piece by the dean of Oregon composers. I was also here to witness what I thought was an urban legend—the marrying of young students of OMTA teachers with music by local  Cascadia Composers.

For me, this type of event—the introduction of young impressionable performers to up-to-the-minute local music—is more important than hearing yet another touring artist playing yet another cycle of Beethoven sonatas or Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and needling my students to go hear them . . . which I won’t!). The way too many of us teach music is killing the music we love, and events like “In Good Hands” show us how to change.

Originally a yearly event presented under the auspices of the Portland Piano International summer festival, last year PPI forwent the summer festival and In Good Hands fell through the crack. This year PPI had a summer festival but forwent IGH. Enter superman: Daniel Brugh. A Cascadia Composer and budding impresario, Brugh brokered this year’s IGH event, bringing OMTA students together with Cascadia Composers compositions at Portland Piano Company on a sunny Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks ago.

The warm-ups that had worried me gave no clue about what the students were about to deliver. The studied, handed-down rubato and other standard expressive devices I heard the students dutifully and tediously play on the 19th century standards made me smile and remember my own experience with my own Teutonic Portland piano teacher, Nellie Tholen, who hated my self-indulgent escapades with Chopin, placated only when I’d play along with recordings of Rubenstein (unbeknownst to her), bringing back to next week’s lesson a version she could stomach.

Rubato is a lot like learning to cook. You use every herb and spice in every dish you try out. It takes years to cull out the unoriginal seasonings and concoct a personal taste. I stay out of teaching rubato to my students, trusting they’ll find their own style, sincerely and ebulliently cheering them on even when inwardly my eyes pop at new examples of over-the-top. The same goes for choosing the music students should learn with.

By the time we got to Cascadia Composer Lisa Marsh’s Along the Road, played with intuitive understanding by a student, chosen by her teacher who just felt this piece was meant for her, I discovered a pattern. The difference between the Chopin and the Marsh: My own heady amazement at a young student negotiating a tortured Chopin museum piece, versus total emotional connection by the student playing Marsh. All these students could actually connect with this music of the present. They did not have to contrive a 19th century sentimental, romantic rubato or have handed down to them a template for where to slow up, hold a note or speed up. They totally got the pieces of their own time! It took me three-quarters through the program to figure out I was emotionally immersed along with them and not (as usual in recitals) critiquing with bland detachment.

Here and Now

Riddle: What’s cuter than a smiling pint-sized pianist performing in concert in a frilly dress playing the heck out of Mooshi & Sparky, a piano song recently written especially for her, titled after her dog and cat by a composer sitting in the audience?

Give up?


I have found in my own teaching studio that students gravitate toward the pieces of their own time: Today’s pop is tomorrow’s classical music. And please don’t offer the opinion that pop music by Rihanna or Lady Gaga is garbage because I’ll counter with Max Reger. Garbage exists, probably in that oft quoted ratio of 10:1. Universal classics exist too, regardless of when they were written. Moonlight SonataWild HorsemanAlla TurcaClocksAxel FWaterfall. . . any two of the universals are most likely being played simultaneously by different students in my studio who have discovered them on their own, not even knowing the titles!

Portland’s Shadi Talaee plays Jan Mittelstaedt’s “Mooshi and Sparky.” Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

What hasn’t existed for a very long time are enough pieces written to be played and enjoyed by non-professional players (and audience) vs. pieces written to be professionally played and passively heard. My own great-uncle Kosta wrote pieces for his students in Greece. Robert Schumann did the same. J.S. Bach ditto. Contrast the charm of the Musette in D in Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena or Schumann’s “The Wild Horseman” with the anthology of teaching pieces like the Amsco publication Pieces for Children that one of my students conveniently forgets to bring to her lesson (bought by her mom who in turn was influenced by another piano teacher’s opinion). Click on the link above which takes you to the table of contents in this anthology. Ask anyone, ANYONE, if they recognize anything contemporary on that list (written at least in their lifetime). This same student totally digs Randall and Nancy Faber’s newly composed contemporary teaching pieces, like  Sounds from the Gumdrop Factory from their Piano Adventure series, which this student’s mom also picked out. This student has a sense of timeliness and timelessness. She’s concurrently working on “The Wild Horseman.”

Not even I can comfortably predict which of today’s hooky contemporary compositions will endure the test of time and become classics. I’m sure at some point Stephen Heller or Johann Burgmuller, contemporary teaching composers of their time TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, exhibited hooks that grabbed their young clients. Actually, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping so. They don’t travel well across the generations and I’m sorry, but we need to let them R.I.P. My own students have never chosen to play anything by them no matter how much I whored up the performances in experiments trying to get them to fall for these guys. No wonder so many piano students drop out after a few years. They don’t care about the music they’re learning.

I believe that there is a reason we became a celebrity-fawning, passive audience versus a nation of music and art makers. I believe it has something to do with defaulting to pushing the musty old Stephen Hellers and Johann Burgmullers on our students who have the good sense to avoid practicing them, or handing down iron-clad interpretations, not allowing our students to begin cooking up their own rubato. Social culture marches on, and if we want to keep ourselves and our students connected and participating, we need Lisa Marsh and Jan Mittelstaedt and all the contemporary (and local) composers whose compositions were performed artlessly at the In Good Hands concert. We need teachers like Dianne Davies, who astutely realized that her teenaged student would emotionally connect with Marsh’s piece, and Myrna Elmore, who got Jan Mittelstaedt to compose Mooshi and Sparky for her young student’s doggy and kitty.

Play Ethic

Along with confirming how much young musicians want to play the music of their time and place, In Good Hands proved that they’re totally willing to devote the time and commitment to practice if they’re given music they care about. I conducted Tomas Svoboda’s Canon for Unlimited Voices(2011) at this concert. In two intense two-hour rehearsals plus the hour-long dress rehearsal, these 14 kids focused like bipolars on a manic jag. No letting up, no whining, always wanting one more take at passages we were practicing, mistake-free within three iterations. They understood the metal drive of the piece, the 21st century aggression, the foot-stomping dance, the in-your-face riffs.

At the performance, shredding Svoboda’s Canon like Jimi Hendrix shredded “Purple Haze,” they missed only one thing: a wholesale embracing of showbiz body involvement. I tried to get them to fling their arms defiantly off the keys with the last bombing accent but the preciousness of a classical music upbringing was too much to overcome in a five minute choreography lesson. It didn’t matter: The defiant “HELL YEAH!” look on all 14 faces as they stood to take their bows said it all. They were tight and wicked and even Tomas Svoboda, notorious for his perfectionism and sky high expectations and bad temper, was grinning like Jack Nicholson with a bad-ass ax and nowhere to grind it.

The entire concert had this feeling of owning pieces rather than playing diffident dress-up with Victorian garb. After finally seeing and participating in IGH, I totally understood that these kids aren’t so much bent on playing a genre (pop), but are wired to play the stuff created in their time and place. In fact, next time, Cascadia and OMTA should trust the students even more, and allow them (not just their teachers) to participate in selecting which available Cascadia Composers compositions they want to play.

I love that I live in Portland where we have one of the most vibrant living composer environments in the world. I love that Snopes does NOT declare the recently elusive In Good Hands another urban legend. I hope this yearly event ensures that not only do young musicians get to regularly meet real live composers and play their music, they also will expect this to be the norm everywhere they live. Maybe they will find it odd if classical music in other cities they might live is defined as a collection of musty pieces at least 200 years old coming from northern Europe. Maybe they will correct that misperception to the music denizens in their newly adopted cities. And, after the last tried to kill classical music by confining it to a museum, I hope that they and their friends and students will do the one thing that more than anything else will keep contemporary classical music thriving in this century: play it!

Portland pianist and piano teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

Piano! Push Play! campaign on Indiegogo!

Did you see those pianos on the streets of Portland this summer? 

Thanks to everyone who came out to play or listen. If you want to see more amazing photos from this summer or read some of the lovely stories and comments we received please visit our Facebook....Indiegogo receives so much support from word of mouth so please share our story with others or submit your own. 

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BeatsLyricsLeaders: Beating a new path to success

Oregon music leadership program teaches music and other skills to Native American and Alaskan Native youth.




“All my family has passed away because of drugs and alcohol, but with my music I am staying on a positive road,” says Henry Rondeau, a 17-year old member of the Klamath Tribes. “My goal is to use my drum and my voice to bring the tribes together. BeatsLyricsLeaders gives us Native youth the opportunity to get out, to try new things, and to bring these skills back to our community to show everyone else.”

Rondeau is a student in the 16-month music leadership program launched by BeatsLyricsLeaders (BLL) in March 2014. Each year, the Portland-based program presents a series of workshops, conferences, residencies, and projects which teach music and video production, graphic design, music entrepreneurship, lyric writing, and more to Native American and Alaskan Native youth. With a state arts grant in hand, a crowdsourced funding project underway, and even an impending major label record deal, BLL is poised to become a valuable part of Oregon’s arts education community, aiming to change its students’ lives for the better through music.


Henry Rondeau describes what BeatsLyricsLeaders is all about.

The Founders

Only in its second year of existence, BeatsLyricsLeaders is led by dedicated founders J Ross Parrelli, Chaz Mortimer, and Kevin “Yamio263” Winkle. Parrelli, an international hip hop artist from northern California who recently signed a contract with Universal Records, is driven to inspire and educate youth. She plans on taking her sophomore album Protostar on a tour of 50 high schools across the nation. While volunteering for five years with Music Mentor Academy educating young Northwestern Native Americans, she met Mortimer and Yamio.

BLL mentors Yamio263, Tre Hardson, Scott Kalama, Chaz Mortimer.

Mortimer owns record label Ibori Records and is working on a documentary about the Afro-Cuban tradition of batá drumming. He also spent three years running a recording studio at an alternative high school. In 2011 he worked with Yamio and funk musician Tony Ozier to align the audio production portion of high school curricula with state Career Technical Education standards.

Also an audio engineer and music producer, Yamio spent time as an engineer at Crossroads Productions in Vancouver, Washington, was chief engineer at Portland Recording Studio, and now owns Ascended Masters Production Dojo.

Knowing the ins-and-outs of the music industry as they do, the three launched BeatsLyricsLeaders in 2012 to empower Native American/Alaskan Native youth with skills in music production, engineering, and performance that they then bring back to their reservations and communities as cultural leaders.

“Our goal is to foster the youth in maintaining their heritage by giving them the tools they need to reach any goal they may have related to music and working in the arts fields,” says Mortimer. “Worldwide, hip-hop has become the language of the oppressed, a common ground where people can come together to voice their stories and their dreams. Underneath it all is the drum that each culture has used to hold their communities together. I think this is why the youth chose to call their first project Vision of the Drum.”

The organization quickly received crucial support. According to Reuben Tomás Roqueñi, program director of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, less than 5/100ths of 1 percent of philanthropy and foundation dollars go towards Native American artists. Beating these odds, BeatsLyricsLeaders, in partnership with PDX Pop Now!, was awarded a World of Work Grant from Oregon Arts Commission at the beginning of this year to conduct a sixteen-month music leadership program called Setting the Stage.

This is the first year that OAC has offered the grants designed to support underserved students in long-term mentorship programs in the arts and creative industry. “We couldn’t have asked for a better match for this program than BeatsLyricsLeaders,” says OAC Arts Education Coordinator Deborah Vaughn, “with their robust partnerships with Native service organizations and their focus on sustained skill building opportunities.”

Because BLL is the first of its kind in the nation, Oregon Arts Commission is providing BLL an evaluation team that will gather data throughout the program to assess its effectiveness. Other partners in helping BLL assess its impact on the overall well-being of Native youth include the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Native American Rehabilitation Association.

The Mentors

BeatsLyricsLeaders provides role models who demonstrate the hard work required to become a cultural leader and who help the students focus on the possibilities for their own growth. “BLL’s focus is on reaching out to the students,” Parrelli explains. “Students hit us up every other day, whether through Facebook, email, or texts, to talk about hard life problems like depression, or simply to say ‘my class sucks.’ We mentors just try to be there, to give them hope that life can be better and to provide access to resources that empower them.”

Mentors Tony Ozier, Tyrone Hendricks, Farnell Newton.

Parrelli, Mortimer, Yamio, Michael Martinez, Erica Brannon, Rocky Zapata, and Scott Kalama are the lead mentors of BLL students. Kalama, a Hawaiian/Native American whose work involves tobacco prevention in Oregon, met BLL founders at the annual THRIVE Youth Conference at Portland State University; through mentoring BLL students he, too, has ventured into recording his own music. “Music is a form of prevention,” Kalama says. “Hip-hop music is based off sampling our parents music, our grandparents music, and our great-grandparents music. This idea of taking the cultural expressions of those that came before us and putting our own new spin on it allows youth to stay connected to their roots while dealing with contemporary realities. Music keeps the students away from drugs and alcohol and provides a healthy choice for expression.”

Other mentors include guest artists like hip hop musician SlimKid3 (formerly of The Pharcyde), Tyrone Hendricks (drummer for Stevie Wonder and Prince), well-known Portland trumpeter Farnell Newton, who tours with Jill Scott and with the Legendary Rhinestone Rockstar bassist (and former James Brown sideman and Parliament/Funkadelic legend) Bootsy Collins, Tony Ozier of the Doo Doo Funk All-Stars, Solomon Trimble (actor in the Twilight series), Intisar Abioto (writer, dancer, and photographer), hip hop MC Dead Prez, and Mic Crenshaw, co-manager of Portland community radio station KBOO, hip hop artist, and social activist.

“I am of African descent, and I’ve seen first hand the way that oral and rhythmic traditions of indigenous African and indigenous American cultures as well as African American cultural traditions overlap and intersect,” Crenshaw says. “What surprised me [about BLL’s students] was how comfortable and trusting they are with themselves and each other. I hope that the youth incorporate the authenticity of who they are and trust their own voice and experience while crafting songs. Personal and cultural truth expressed through the lens of youth is the backbone of hip-hop’s authenticity.”

As mentors, Parrelli, Mortimer, Yamio, and Kalama conduct home visits throughout the year so as to include the students’ community in recording the students’ projects. “The home visits are designed specifically to reach students right where they are at, and to integrate their involvement with BLL into their daily lives,” explains Yamio. “Part of an artist’s journey and development is to explore who they within their environment. Helping them establish the practices of a successful artist in their home and setting up small music events in their communities pushes the students to find connection with the people living around them. When the community sees professional artists invested in these up-and-comers, they tend to rally behind the students as well. The community’s appreciation for the students’ artistic efforts helps connect the students’ families, too.”

BLL co-founder J Ross Parrelli with students.

The Program

Over the course of sixteen months, each of the twelve students in this year’s pilot program will choose an individual project to work on, such as producing a music CD or music video. The students will earn five BLL certificates: audio engineering, music production, lyrics and song writing, music business, and music history. While BLL is not a school, the curriculum written by Parrelli, Mortimer, and Yamio follows the state’s Career Technical Education Standards. For example, in the curriculum section Recording the Band, the students learn eight, CTE-standardized skills related to microphone placement and using a digital audio workstation.

“As a musician and educator, the educational value of music production has always been clear to me,” Mortimer says. “However, not everyone gets that, so outlining in detailed form how our projects and work align to state standards has been helpful in communicating the value of this type of programming. There’s math, physics, and language arts all wound up in the story of how a sound wave is transmitted.”

The students are required to attend six conferences throughout the year, including three hosted by BeatsLyricsLeaders and three more national conferences presented in partnership with BLL like the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board’s THRIVE conference and the I Strengthen My Nation conference hosted by the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe in Canyonville.

During the three-day March orientation at The Colony in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, students began dreaming up projects and BLL mentors began providing the steps and structure to accomplish these goals. “We talked about how to budget money and time for music projects,” Rondeau remembers. “It’s cool because the mentors are trying to help us see the long road. They present us with real life situations and ask us how we would solve these problems.”

In addition to their individual projects, the students and mentors are working together to produce an album that will be released next year in conjunction with PDX Pop Now!’s 2015 summer festival. Organizing twelve young artists to produce an album in a year is no small task, but last year BLL whipped out a high-energy album during a four and a half-day retreat. “It seemed almost impossible,” Mortimer recalls. “At the end of the week, although no one got much sleep, we had recorded 30 tracks of music, from hip-hop bangers, to traditional pieces, round dances, poetry, and instrumentals made from sampling sounds on the iPad. The dedication and range of talent coming from the youth is astounding.”

Achieving Goals

The students credit BLL for turning their dedication into leadership. “Through BLL’s workshops I’ve learned to step out of my comfort zone,” says Ceci Renee-LaPier Fuentes, member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe who’s been a BLL student from the beginning and is known by her peers for her energizing beats and dubsteps. “I feel like now I can reach out and talk to kids when I see them struggling because I have watched the mentors at BeatsLyricsLeaders do the same for me.”

Fuentes is now taking on leadership roles within BLL, including encouraging new students at the BLL orientation to stay away from drugs. “In my lyrics I like to talk about real life, about the things that people experience but are afraid to talk about,” she says Fuentes. “I’ve gone through a lot in life, and so I talk in my lyrics about my experiences with abuse, drug addiction, and treatment.”

Working through the BLL curriculum provides a pathway to explore not only the difficulties of reservation life, but also, as Mortimer describes it, “the wealth of cultural knowledge that is ancient and often hidden from contemporary culture.” Rondeau is a singer and drummer who is reviving the art of round dance. “I want Native people to hear a positive message that strengthens our culture and heritage. Through my music I want to show what Native people have to offer, and I hope non-Natives can be open to learning about us. I speak Klamath from my mom’s side and I’m learning a bit of Crow from my dad’s side so that I can use this in my round dance drumming and singing.”

Food, housing, classes, and materials are all provided through the World of Work Grant and matching funds by Northwest tribes. At the March orientation, as the students began creating budgets for their projects, they realized they needed additional funding and decided to create a fundraiser; in response, BLL mentors provided step-by-step challenges to help them launch anIndiegogo campaign. The funds raised on this site will go directly to the students’ music projects.

But despite all the early support, more is needed. OAC recommended that for BLL’s program to be most effective, the program needs an additional $80,000 of foundational support to adequately pay for student home visits, increased technological access, and more hands-on professional training with skills that translate directly into arts careers.

For the students, though, the professional skills are only part of what makes BLL so valuable.

“BeatsLyricsLeaders pushes us to our dreams,” Rondeau says. “Listening to the mentors’ stories and where they came from is crazy because you can relate to them. They tell us to go for our dreams and goals because we can make it.”

For more information on the students and their projects, check out BLL’s website and visit the students’ Indiegogo campaign site.

Bonus track: hear a story on BLL on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

Please Play: Museums & Random Acts of Public Music


By Mike Murawski. Photos by Benji Vuong.

As a museum educator, I enjoy the elements of random surprise and creative disruption that can creep into museum practice. Experiencing the unexpected, especially in the space of a museum, can be such a rewarding thing. Back in late July, I had such an experience here at my own museum as I walked up one morning for work and heard a piano playing … and it was coming from the Museum’s outdoor sculpture courtyard. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to see a piano sitting right there outside the Museum. The person playing the piano was truly fantastic, and a small group of people had gathered to listen — I assume that most were walking across downtown when they were drawn in by the sound of the piano.

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PianoPushPlay!: Taking music to the streets


By Brett Campbell. Photos by Benji Vuong.

“Do you ever let the pianos outside”? Megan McGeorge asked the employee at Sherman Clay/Moe’s Pianos in Portland’s Pearl District. The Portland State University piano student was envious. The previous summer, just one block away on 13th and Burnside, she had seen a cellist playing for passersby and she longed for a more portable instrument so she could do the same. The Sherman Clay staff agreed to mount one of its “starter” pianos on a dolly, and that’s how McGeorge and some friends wound up pushing a piano down 13th avenue last summer, performing several times while walkers, drivers, bicyclers, even office workers in nearby buildings looked on in surprise and delight. Eventually, it put pianos at four locations last summer. PianoPushPlay! was born.

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