Every summer, marimba virtuoso and PAS Hall of Fame inductee Leigh Howard Stevens hosts the LHS Summer Marimba Seminar, a two-week intensive course at the Jersey Shore for college students and professionals to study Stevens Technique and Method of Movement. The LHS Seminar is a great opportunity for students to hone in on the details of their technique, as well as experience masterclasses and concerts from such guest artists as Michael Burritt, Bob Becker, Stefon Harris, and John Parks IV.
This year, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the 41st edition of the LHS Seminar was held virtually through the use of videoconferencing software. Japanese marimba artist and PAS-Japan Chapter President Yurika Kimura recently interviewed Stevens about the virtual teaching experience.
Yurika Kimura: What was your motivation to start the LHS Summer Marimba Seminar 41 years ago?
Leigh Howard Stevens: Teaching in the summer months in the format of a “seminar” and “masterclass,” rather than as private lessons, wasn’t really my idea. More students would come to New York City for lessons in summer because of school vacation. Many stayed a mile or so away at the International House, which provided housing for graduate students and others coming to New York City for special studies. I had a one-bedroom apartment, and it often happened that a lesson would go long, so the next student would sit in full view of the marimba in the kitchen and listen and watch. One day, one of the students said, “Wow! I learned almost as much listening to the lesson before mine as I did in mine!”
Everybody wanted to meet the other players and hear what they were working on, so we started meeting as a group every couple of weeks, rather than exclusively in private lessons. I gradually began to realize that I could teach three or 12 students the same material—whether it was about technique or musicianship—in just about the same time as one. It just didn’t make economic sense for me, or for the students, to continue the “old fashioned” way. I still teach some one-on-one lessons, but it is now the exception, rather than the norm.
YK: What differences do you see in comparing students of the early seminars and very recent ones?
LHS: In the early days, most students didn’t have a teacher back home to show them the basics of Stevens technique. Rarely did any of the students have a functioning one-handed roll. They had “heard about this guy who had a new way to play the marimba and could roll with one hand,” but they hadn’t experienced it with their own eyes or ears. It’s important to understand that my first five years of teaching were before the publication of Method of Movement! Now the book is available in Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian, and German.
I am going to probably insult more than one person by including or excluding them, but Paul Smadbeck, Chris Lamb, Robert van Sice, and Mark Ford were among that early group who studied with me. Of course, those guys had talented hands and could probably do a lot of things before they took their first lesson with me. Students who come to me now usually have a much more advanced technical command of the instrument, but the great musicians are just as rare today as in the “old days.”
YK: How was the experience of teaching online this year?
LHS: This year, because of the coronavirus, I was forced to teach via Zoom videoconferencing software online. There were some obvious negatives to this format. Students didn’t get to hang out together, make new friends, or go to the beach. There were no concerts, which was probably the single most negative part of a virtual seminar. Giving the students an opportunity to hear world-class musicians in a good acoustic space—like you and Bob Becker have done several times at the seminar!—is a life-changing experience for some.
However, I was really surprised at some of the positive aspects of teaching this new way. First of all, it was much less expensive for the students, since there wasn’t any airfare or hotel expense. Plus, because I wasn’t sure how effective it was going to be, my tuition was lower. In my opinion there were aspects that were actually better than an in-person seminar. When I am teaching “live” I have to walk around the room to show a close-up of a hand position or other detail to every student individually. I can’t be sure what the student is looking at or what they are seeing. If there are 20 students, that process can take several minutes. In this new virtual format, I can see what the students are seeing in my 27-inch monitor, so I can position my hand in front of the camera exactly the way I want, so I am sure they see what I see. Ten seconds is all you need.
Students pre-recorded pieces for the masterclasses, since I was advised that having the students play in real time over the internet was asking for technical trouble and bandwidth dropout. I liked this aspect of virtual teaching very much. First of all, I could review the performance before the online meeting so I could plan what I wanted to talk about. During the class, I could back up the performance over and over with my mouse saying, “listen here” or “watch here.” “Do you see how the mallets did that? Do you hear that?” Repetition of small sections of the video was a powerful teaching tool that I didn’t appreciate before I actually experienced it. On balance, the virtual 41st season of the LHS Marimba Seminar was much more effective than I would have predicted.
The LHS Summer Marimba Seminar is hosted and sponsored by Marimba Productions, Inc. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.