Hi, I'm Matthew Shifrin and I’m a junior at NEC in the Contemporary Improvisation department studying accordion and singing.
The CI department brought me to NEC. I'd heard very good things about it. It was an environment in which I knew that I would get the opportunity to explore whatever I wanted to. I'd done some performing with Hankus Netsky before I came to NEC, and I realized that he's really a powerhouse of genres and styles and techniques. I was very interested in Jewish music … the Yiddish theater of the '30s, for example. It's an area in which Hankus is an expert in.
I would much rather be in a really eclectic program than just be lumped in with other people doing the exact same thing. CI was like one of those small bookstores in a New England town. You go in and you have absolutely no idea what you're going to find. And then, you look around and you're like, whoa, there's so much here! There's a comfort in the eclectic nature of the department. Because you know that there's always someone who you can vibe off of who's doing something completely different.
Let's say I'm having writer's block, if I ask a harpsichordist, they'll give me different feedback than the acoustic heavy metal guitarist. And that diversity of feedback I think is really valuable for a musician. And the group is so small that there's really a lot of teaching one another … everyone is so engaged with each other that it's really a team effort, which I really like.
It’s such a tight knit group–I don't know, 15 of us at the most. A lot of people have been doing this class for as long as they've been at NEC. And so you're like a small Jewish music family. The thing about that ensemble is it's never just a list of music that we're playing. Hankus does a really great job of contextualizing this music. And if something is based on something, he'll just go into story mode and he'll tell us, “Oh, yeah, this poem that,” or, “The song was written in the early 20th century because of X, Y, Z.” And that context really helps you engage with the music more than you would if you'd just heard it on a record or live.
James Klein is the kind of professor who could lecture you about the history of elevator mechanisms and it would still be absolutely fascinating, because he really crafts these lectures. It's more storytelling than it is a lecture. And it's really a joy to go to that class, because there's so much energy in the way he lectures and there's so much knowledge there. I’m really glad that he teaches at NEC.
People talk a lot about, "The well-rounded musician." What is a well-rounded musician? And there have been a lot of debates in the music community as to what that is. And I think a well-rounded musician is not only someone who knows a lot about the history of music and can play music, but it's also important for the musician to look beyond music. Especially for composers or improvisers.
We should look to literature. We should look to history. We should look to science or math. I mean, the inspirations for our next piece could come from online articles or ancient Egyptian poems.
Ran Blake has a really eclectic taste in music. And it's really cool, he gives you all these different pieces to memorize. And, the methodology that he teaches us is really, really useful for us as composers. But then also gives us insight into how improvisers of his caliber, are able to move so freely around different musical locations and styles.
He does a lot of ‘perform and critique’ stuff. The critique that he gives from a songwriting and emotional standpoint is very different from the critique that you'd get in something like Michael Meraw's class, which is a classical singing studio. And Ran's critique is much more story-driven and much more impact-based. Why are you singing this stuff? What are you trying to convey? What's your goal in this composition? And Ran is always asking us, "How are you going to keep us engaged? What's your strategy?" Those are very important questions to keep in mind as musicians.
Michael gives us very, very solid vocal technique. You come to him with your repertoire, and you say, "Hey, I'm preparing this for a competition. Well, how do I approach this from a technical standpoint as a singer?" And he's really able to open you up. I think singing is like a sport. It's half muscle memory but half artistry. And he's able to blend the muscle memory with the artistry very well and really helps his students craft their pieces. Like what Ran does, but in a much more specific way. I think that it's really important to have these two different kinds of musical understanding, the goal-oriented big-picture analysis and the finer muscle-and-technique thinking, and being able to simultaneously use them.
A lot of vocalists who go into musical theater or rock or jazz get classical training because it's a very solid musical foundation. And I love classical music, I think it's a really pure way of expression for me. But I can also use it to sing Yiddish musical theater from the '30s. Nothing in the technique precludes my singing this other rep. And I did a lot of competitions last year. They have the National Association of Teachers Singing, who are the main body, and I won their Boston competition, their New England Competition, and was a national semifinalist, competing at the national level. And really, without Michael's commitment to me and to my technique, and to my artistry, none of that would have happened. I mean, a singer can only take himself so far. I think it's the professor. The professor's the one who really guides and advises and mentors the singer, and I think he does that very well.
Singers are notorious for their jaw tension. He has a very osmosis-based method with me, and it's very useful, because he wants you to feel how it feels. He gives a physicality to theoretical concepts in singing.
As a Freshman at NEC, I started a project called Project Daredevil, focused on helping blind people engage with inaccessible forms of media, like movies and video-games, using 3D sound and a motion-simulating helmet that effects the vestibular system.
Without the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department, their mentorship and grant program, I wouldn't be able to pursue this project as passionately and fully as I am now.
I won an EM Grant and then the EM faculty sent me an email about the MIT Creative Arts Competition that Sam Hunter Magee organized and that Dan Levine, Project Daredevil's engineer, and I won. I'd been trying to get this project off the ground for a couple of years but I couldn't figure out how to go about it. It seemed like a Herculean task. But Drew and Annie at the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department, were incredibly supportive and knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and they were with me every step of the way.
As a blind person, I don't gesture, just because it's not a language that I'm familiar with, and I'd never been taught it. So, when the opportunity to give a TED Talk came up, it was really wonderful to work with Rachel because she went through the talk and created this whole subset of gestures for different key points. And then it was just a matter of practice. I would be in my dorm room running the talk incessantly with the accompanying slides to make sure that the timing was right and that I gestured at the right times. It was lots of muscle memory.
It was really interesting because Rachel comes from a ballet background, dancing with the Boston Ballet for a decade she has a wonderful sense of what is too much motion and what's too little. I just think it's really, really valuable for me, as someone who has no motion-based boundaries, who doesn't know what speaking hand is like. I did a lot of musical theater growing up and I since I couldn't gesture, people just gave me a bunch of props. And I was fine because I had props. But now that I'm prop-less, it's very reassuring and inspiring to know that I can gesture and it can still make sense and make an impact.
When I asked Drew and Annie whether they knew people who'd given TED talks, they gave me a bunch of cool people, from a guy who makes Talkboxes for rappers, to cellists and iPhone designers. These people gave me perspective and advice on how they crafted their talks, which in turn helped me better understand how I could make my talk more effective.
Starting a startup is very daunting. Especially if you're young, you don't particularly know how to go about it. But Drew and Annie, they have the insight, the energy, and the resources to really help you along and keep you energized. I'm so glad that I have the opportunity to collaborate with EM and that these people care.
A friend of mine in CI said, “Hey, I'm arranging a madrigal that's in three different keys at once. Do you want to be a part of it?” And I was like, “Of course. It's in three different keys why not? That seems cool.” And it was really fun. We were a very tight knit group. We knew each other pretty well beforehand so it was a "let's hang out and rehearse" type of thing. Having arranger Lysander Jaffe, as this lighthouse for us, telling us what we should be doing and how we should be doing it—yet giving us the freedom to embellish the piece and lead it in other directions--really made it a memorable piece for the audience, because they knew that we were all on the same wavelength, they could hear it.
NEC has been a really energizing place so far, and I hope it stays that way.
Matthew Shifrin '21