FPF’s Jerome Ellis @ Lincoln Center Education: Meeting The Unknown With An Improvisor’s Mind

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At FPF we welcome piano technicians with a diverse set of skills and experiences. We’re scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, as well as musicians. This diversity makes our team stronger and better able to help our clients.

Above and beyond performing the basic functions of tuning and servicing pianos, we aim to provide infinite value in each interaction, bringing our personality, kindness and creativity—essentially our best selves—to every interaction.

It’s our way to show our appreciation for the unique value we gain in meeting each new client and their piano.

On that note, we’d like to dedicate this post to highlighting what fascinating endeavors one of our technicians participates in outside of piano work. Jerome Ellis is a musician and performer steeped in the tradition of improvisation and he’s been performing at Lincoln Center recently to broaden the horizons of NYC city high school students.

With out futher ado, let us introduce you to Jerome…

45Hi, I’m Jerome Ellis, Apprentice Piano Technician at Floating Piano Factory.

Here’s a little bit about what I do outside of tuning. As a composer, improviser, and theater artist, I’ve been encouraged to talk about my creative practice because I take a unique approach to musical and theatrical performance. But first a short tale:

Late one night two storytellers, the Poet and the Musician, are walking towards the gates of an old walled city. They’re leaving this city for good. But before they reach the gates, a boy runs up to them and commands them to follow him home, for an audience is waiting for them there. The boy takes off running back into the city and the storytellers, unable to resist the prospect of an audience, run after him. When they reach his home, they see in the middle of the main room an old woman on her deathbed, her head propped up on a pile of pillows. The bed is surrounded by a crowd of family members. She is the boy’s mother and has called the storytellers to tell her a few tales, “in the old style, with music”, before she passes. When the storytellers explain to her that they don’t have anything prepared and would hate to give a poor performance on such an important occasion, she tells them that it would be delightful to watch them exercise the freedom that comes from not having a plan. “For I myself am going to a place for which I cannot prepare.” It turns out that she knows their many tales well, and requests three of them. The storytellers agree, with the caveat that they may get lost in the telling of them, as they will be improvising. Leaning back onto her pile of pillows, she says, “Oh, how wonderful it would be to watch you two get lost and not be afraid.” At this, the Musician begins to tune his instrument while the Poet walks around the room. When they feel ready, they look at each other and proceed to tell the first of the three tales.

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That was the introduction to a live music and storytelling show I had the honor of performing at Lincoln Center this past November. My friend and collaborator James Harrison Monaco and I wrote the show, which is called PIANO TALES. It premiered at La Mama Experimental Theatre in November 2016. In the show the two of us are on stage—me (The Musician) at a piano and James (The Poet) at a microphone—and audience members choose the three tales we will tell that night from a larger pool of seven to twelve tales. We tell them in a different way than we ever have before. So the performance is highly improvisational, like a jazz show, but instead we riff on stories instead of jazz standards. After a representative from Lincoln Center Education saw the show at La Mama, they asked us to do ten performances for NYC middle and high school students—five in November 2017 and five in April 2018.

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Improvisation has been the bedrock of my musical practice and vision since I began studying saxophone at the age of thirteen. When I came to New York to attend Columbia University, I would often visit symposia hosted by their Center for Jazz Studies (they still host events; see their calendar here) These symposia were usually open to the public, and there was one whose theme was “Improvisation as a Way of Life.” This idea stuck with me and, years later, it found its way into PIANO TALES: the show suggests that improvisation is a useful skill in both performance and life. I think some of the students resonated with the idea, as several of them asked about improvisation in the short question-and-answer sessions we held after each show. They asked about the role it plays in the show and in our collaboration, and I was glad to see their curiosity about the topic. In my experience, it can equip us to remain unafraid when lost, a difficulty pertinent to any period of life, but with a specific relevance for middle and high schoolers. And I think the students responded to the old woman’s encouraging the storytellers to not worry about being unprepared in facing what’s ahead.

I was fortunate to grow up in a public school system that valued the arts, and I am a staunch believer in the value of arts education. If you want to help support the arts in New York City public schools, consider donating to the Center for Arts Education.

If you would like to schedule a tuning with me, just visit the FPF website.

And if you’d like to keep up with my performances, I list all my upcoming events on my website. PIANO TALES clips can also be found at the James and Jerome website.

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