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For VCU jazz students, playing gigs at local venues is its own type of education

Playing in front of strangers is an opportunity to build nerves, hone skill and learn the business side of the music industry.

Featured photo
Jake Adams performing at Strange Matter.
Photos by Conor Lobb

On a Friday night this past September, the Collin Hopkins Quartet had to improvise to perform a gig at Emilio’s, a Spanish restaurant on Broad Street in Richmond that features live music.

The group’s bassist, Alex Kehayas, discovered his upright bass and other crucial equipment had inadvertently been locked in a friend’s car … along with the keys.

The musicians called AAA, but had little choice other than to work with what they had available. AAA wouldn’t be there in time to let them retrieve their equipment.

“I had to run home and get my electric bass,” Kehayas said. “I got very lucky that I had a backup instrument.”

Jake Adams, the group’s guitarist, also needed a makeshift solution. His amp was locked in the car’s backseat. Adams spotted a keyboard amplifier inside the restaurant and played while reading his sheet music off his smartphone, propped up on his knee.

“We could have sounded so much better,” Adams lamented after the show.

Jazz drums

But the audience couldn’t have disagreed more. The quartet’s set lasted two hours, fueling an enthusiastic, supportive — and in some cases dancing — crowd. Hopkins, a percussionist, hit a five-minute drum solo about an hour in, drawing a lively response.

“I try to make my drums sing,” Hopkins said. “I feel like if I do that, [the crowd] knows what I’m saying.”

The four musicians — Adams, Hopkins, Kehayas and trumpet player Jack Beckner — are students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s nationally acclaimed Jazz Studies program. Aside from being the No. 1 public arts school in the country, VCUarts offers students a unique opportunity to leverage their education into a creative career. Richmond is one of the most artistic cities in the country. Events such as First Fridays and Riverrock provide a perennial opportunity for exposure and artistry. And countless venues welcome VCU jazz students to gig (play music) for a live audience.

There is more art-per-square-inch in Richmond than in any town its size.

“This is an arts-crazy city,” said Antonio Garcia, director of Jazz Studies at VCU. “Here, there’s all kinds of coffee shops, venues, museum spots and shopping areas, where students can get practical experience almost any day of the week. People want to hear young art. That’s not true in a lot of urban places that have places where students can play. There is more art-per-square-inch in Richmond than in any town its size.”

 

They don’t just read about it, they do it’

Music majors in vastly larger cities can potentially gig more often but face two large obstacles, Garcia said. First is the high cost of living, followed by the large number of established professional musicians who are not too interested in yielding turf to young students.

“Gigging is a tremendously important part of gaining an education in jazz, commercial and classical music,” said Garcia, who himself gigged constantly as a college student in his native New Orleans. “Making music exclusively in the safe womb of the university is a great opportunity but does not provide the same opportunities to build your nerves, your musical skills and your business savvy in front of strangers.

“In the pursuit of jazz and commercial knowledge, that street-savvy experience is priceless,” Garcia added. “It’s what turns VCU Music into a ‘school without walls.’ Our students get to go out, gig in the city, learn and grow, come back to our classes and ensembles the next day, learn and grow, and go right back out to gig. This is why our students have a better sense about the practical business of music than many — they don’t just read about it, they do it.”

Learning the business is invaluable to students who want to play for a living. On top of that, playing music allows jazz students to explore their emotions, and provides a release from the day-to-day stresses of college life.

“In jazz, if I’m feeling a certain way, I can express it on the drums,” Hopkins said. “I can give this certain feel to it — this is a more angry push to the tempo, than if I’m more relaxed. Or I’m playing a little behind, I’m a little sadder — or I’m playing more in front, I have more energy. It just always makes me feel good.”

 

A language fueled by emotion

Jaylin Brown, Collin Hopkins, Jack Beckner, Alex Kehayas and Jake Adams address the crowd during their set.
Click to view slideshow. Jaylin Brown, Collin Hopkins, Jack Beckner, Alex Kehayas and Jake Adams address the crowd during their set.

Music is more than a vocation for the members of the quartet and students like them. It’s a method of communication.

“Studying this language is like — there’s something about it that has an inherent emotional aspect to it, that verbal languages might not,” Beckner said. “It just feels really good to get it out there. It feels so much better to play than to yell and scream at the ocean.”

Gigging provides them the opportunity to take their musicianship into the public eye. Painstaking study and repetition are crucial for success, but true musicianship is found in front of a crowd.

“You can practice in the practice room and that sounds great, but no one’s gonna hear that,” Hopkins said. “On stage you have nerves, you have people watching you, you have everything going on. You [have to] know every part of the song. You’ve got to dig into the music.”

Learning a song from the inside out provides a unique opportunity to connect with the audience.

“It’s dialogue that nobody speaks but everyone is a part of,” Beckner said. “They appreciate it and get really wild, or you get [slow] clap — like, ‘That was amazing!’”

 

Understanding jazz

VCU jazz band

Creative expression is an integral part of happiness for a musician, something Adams realized and ran with once he arrived at VCU.

“I didn't know I was going to go to music school when I came here,” Adams said. “I was a psychology major. I never knew it was possible to make a living doing this. Once I moved to Richmond, I saw a lot of live music and realized I don’t have to do the stuff I don’t want to do. I can do this instead.”

Adams gigs around town to help pay the bills. In November, he played a show with local independent artist McKinley Dixon and other VCU alumni and musicians at Strange Matter, a venue on West Grace Street. The feeling of playing for an audience is never lost on him.

“It’s what you’re feeling at the moment,” Adams said. “It’s not really words. It’s more conveying an emotion. What that song’s emotion is, or your interpretation of what that song’s emotion is. That’s the great thing about it. You don’t know what it’s going to be. You don’t even know what it is when you're doing it sometimes.”

Balancing music, work, life and school can be challenging, but it’s something to which these musicians have become accustomed.

“I try to practice four to five hours every day,” Kehayas said. “It’s really, really difficult considering I have a 35-hour work schedule every week. I do a lot of my practice away from the bass. Mental practicing, all the time. Remembering what mistakes are being made, and what I can do to fix them. [But] there’s only so much work you can do as an individual. Learning a tune always involves playing with other people. If you’re not out there gigging, your understanding of jazz is going to be incomplete.”