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October 2, 2007

Skip Wilkins Teaches Jazz Abroad

Assistant professor of music teaches and performs in the Czech Republic

From Aug. 16-26, Skip Wilkins, assistant professor of music, experienced what it was like to teach and perform jazz in the Czech Republic. Taking part in the Karel Velebny Summer Jazz Workshop, Wilkins guided a class of singers to a deeper understanding of the expression of jazz and performed with some of the Czech Republic’s leading jazz musicians.

On Aug. 16, Wilkins arrived in Prague. He performed that night at the jazz club U Maleho Glena. Performers included Wilkins on piano, Americans Neil Wetzel on alto sax and Gary Rissmiller on drums, and Czechs Rost’a Fras on tenor sax and Josef Feco on bass. This group would reprise their performance on Aug. 25 at Agharta, the top jazz club in Prague. Dating to around the 12th or 13th century, the jazz club is located two levels down in the basement. The group performed to a full audience.

From Aug. 17-24, Wilkins taught at the 24th Annual Karel Velebny Jazz Workshop. It was his first time participating in the workshop. During the day, Wilkins met with students in different sessions. At night, the faculty would perform a concert and the students would participate in informal jam sessions.

In the morning session, Wilkins worked with singers who were studying jazz. The group consisted of two high school age students and students who were college age and above. Using the approach of a masterclass, each student performed one at a time in front of the class. The pieces they worked on were jazz standards from the American repertoire, many written in the early 20th century. With the exception of a few pieces being translated into Czech, the pieces were sung in English, a language that many of the students did not know much of.

The class was also taught by expatriate Lee Andrew Davidson who lives in Prague and teaches English. Davidson provided a connection to Czech culture, while Wilkins focused on the musical aspects of the class.

Wilkins described the class as having “a rich exchange musically.” He found the students to be enthusiastic and willing to learn, despite encountering problems with the language barrier.

Wilkins did not let the fact that he does not speak Czech stand in his way. “I tried to use Czech to communicate aesthetic concepts and the layers of meaning found in pieces.”

Since many of the English words used to express aesthetic concepts come from Latin roots, it was difficult to express these to students more familiar with the simpler German-rooted words in the English language. Wilkins would often bring a list of Czech words to class that would help reflect the meaning of their English counterparts. However, he struggled at times with words such as “bittersweet.” “I didn’t trust the word,” says Wilkins. “Did the Czech equivalent of ‘bittersweet’ refer to the taste or the musical aesthetic of emotion?”

Wilkins also had to change his style of communicating when dealing with the class. “I had never taught a group of non-native speakers before in that type of classroom setting. I had to learn to speak slowly and think about the words that I used.”

In the afternoons, Wilkins taught an ensemble of 16 members. The group consisted of 10 singers, a rhythm section of piano, guitar, drums, and bass, and two saxophones. The ensemble and others performed on Aug. 24 to conclude the workshop.

The Czech Republic also presented a colorful nightlife of music for Wilkins. During the middle of the week, Wilkins and others performed at Frydlant Castle. The courtyard in which they performed was 400-500 years old while other parts of the castle were even older. Wilkins described the castle and performing there as “a part of the cultural fabric of the area.”

Playing to an audience of over 600 people, Wilkins found that Czech audiences react differently than American audiences. He found that the cheering and approval shown by the audience to be “intoxicating as a performer.”

Wilkins spoke of the difference between Czech and American culture, saying, “Art music is not widely appreciated in our culture. The arts are considered elitist and our culture was founded on anti-elitist principles.” He explained that although programs such as American Idol might eventually produce talent, a majority of the show celebrates low expectations.

“As a college professor I try to make jazz a part of other people’s lives and try to have them enjoy it,” says Wilkins. “Our culture seeks a quick response to the music and entertainment around us because we are too busy to get to know things on a deeper level. Americans don’t always take the time to explore what they don’t know and seek explanations.”

Wilkins expressed that oftentimes students will simply say that they do not like a piece of music without discovering the reasons for their reaction. It is his job to push them toward this deeper understanding.

Wilkins enjoyed the teaching experience in the Czech Republic as well as learning about the culture. “Other than touring Frydlant with the American ambassador, we did not get to visit many sites. The people were my museum.”

During his time in the Czech Republic, Wilkins and other musicians also performed several of Wilkins’ original works from his new recordings, including “Stephanie’s Song” and “Bring the Sun.”

Wilkins looks forward to participating in the workshop again next year, especially now that he knows what to expect. He hopes to travel more and to play in more places with Czech musicians.

“Jazz is American music, but it is played all over the world. These musicians, while not Americans, communicated in that language in their own way and at a high level.”

Joining the Lafayette faculty full-time in 2000, Wilkins received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for excellence in jazz composition. His music has received positive reviews from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, Morning Call, Express-Times, Improvijazzation, and 52nd Street Jazz. He has performed at acclaimed venues such as the Deer Head Inn, Blue Orchid Inn, Allentown Symphony Hall, Wichita Jazz Festival, and Tavern on the Green.

Previously, Wilkins taught at University of Northern Colorado, spending many of his eight years there in the nationally acclaimed jazz studies program. He also taught locally at Muhlenberg College and Moravian College. Wilkins earned a bachelor’s degree from College of the Holy Cross and a master’s degree in music from University of Northern Colorado. He also studied jazz composition and arrangement with Herb Pomeroy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Wilkins also served as a faculty member.

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