I recently interviewed adult music student Ed Morand. From his previous career in musical theater to finding Latin music years later, Ed had some fascinating insight on music, and how it has affected his life.
(D: Daniel, E: Ed)
D: Ed, according to your background you had a brief career in musical theater and dance. Care to elaborate on this?
E: Well what’s funny is I had access to music growing up. My father was a city music teacher, a choral director, a church organist, and even now he works as a cantor. So I had music in the house, but I did not get along with my father at the piano. I grew up singing in church and doing shows in school and such, but the music studies as a discipline–in terms of playing an instrument–didn’t really stick. I ended up doing shows in school and then going to college for theater. I then took classes and then getting my first paying job with the Dance Theater of Harlem. That led me into a career in performing and began a wonderful time of my life where my horizons just opened up. I ended up going into more musical theater eventually because of the opportunities to work, but I have to be honest. My career wasn’t the most outstanding, but I did get the chance to tour through the states and a little bit in Europe. It was really a great experience and opened up my mind, seeing the way the different people lived in different areas of the country and abroad as well. But you know that was a really brief time period, really only a few years. I soon found that it wasn’t necessarily where I wanted to be, but I always found myself gravitating towards the piano in the orchestra pit when I was on tour doing shows.
So what’s funny is that I ended up stopping the dance and performance career, and starting a new career in fitness. At the time I was just trying to make a living between gigs. Then it swallowed up my time. It got to the point where I had no time for anything else in my life. Now I run a Pilates studio, my own business, full-time—the fact is I could squeeze two full-time jobs into the hours I work. But right after I stopped performing I really needed to find another outlet of expression for my artistic side. So I started to dabble with this developing interest I had in salsa and mambo. I had no idea what it was about at the time. I really didn’t get it. But I had these illusions based largely on TV series’ I saw as a kid, Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze, some Latin cliché characters in movies. And I wanted to be part of it; there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, but I found it infectious and contagious.
So I started to take salsa and mambo classes with Eddie Torres, who is considered the salsa king, or the mambo king. And he had toured with Tito Puente for three years, so the music was really held up in high regard in those classes and in the dance scene. It was only a matter of years before I wanted to go and study this music, because I knew I had some music background from childhood and never really made it work for myself. I really felt like all the steps from that journey were amazing, and I made some revelations at each stage. When I found out about this place, it was an incredible realization that I could study at a relatively low cost, because these lessons would be much more expensive downtown, at some places easily double the cost of what they are here. I came in here not knowing what kinds of opportunities existed, and what I found was a series of opportunities. And these were not available to me in the place I grew up at the time I was growing up. There was the opportunity to really begin to understand rhythm because I started to take conga/music reading classes. Soon after I started to study piano trying to free myself from my previous hang-ups about what it all meant. I think I stuck with two classes for a while and the idea was that I wanted to play piano the way you play in a salsa group or a Latin ensemble, and to do that I had to learn my jazz basics. So I had this great class with Gustavo Casenave, where he started to build this Jazz vocabulary which really called up a lot of my music fundamentals. At the same time I studied the basics of playing the Conga with Steve Lopez, but more so emphasizing the reading of music rhythms. So I got to sort of fill in all these things that had kind of been left by the wayside as a kid. And I’d have to say that as a kid nothing really caught on. I was at the church in this intimidating, conservative music environment. I knew I liked music and I got a great start having a musical parent in my Dad. But at the Harbor I got to free up and explore what I think is much more advanced harmony in jazz and then I started to learn rhythm without thinking about it too hard, which is what I thought I was doing all along.
And there were deep issues connected to this; this was a father and son relationship where it was a lot of pressure to be the student of my father. For some reason…sometimes…we hear stories where this doesn’t always so smoothly as expected, and mine was a perfect example of that. I’m glad to say now, it’s a little therapeutic because I get to sort of bridge that relationship back and show an appreciation for what my dad was trying to do with me and resume what didn’t quite take at that time. What’s funny is that as a performing artist in our current culture, in comparison to Europe and other countries where performing arts and artists are subsidized through unemployment and are paid fairly well when they you perform, here in this country you’re sort of an out of work actor, an out of work dancer. And knowing I’ve sung, acted and danced my entire life it was kind of put away all the years I was actively working as a performer. During that time I found that I couldn’t afford to be a performer, and there weren’t opportunities coming up for me. I mean this is a field where you have to actively make your own opportunities. So being able to sort of very carefully and very gingerly walk back into the arts in this way, and to feel protected and very sheltered in this environment was amazing. And what happened was that I said, you know, I love to sing this music, and I’ve dabbled on my own with singing a little bit of Latin music, and I thought since I had a little bit of vocal training in some different languages I would try to sing this stuff. So I picked up a lesson with David Oquendo, who is a Maestro here, and that was meant to be a Latin vocal class. But when you study with David you realize he is bringing in this culture of Cuban Son, boleros and baladas and kind of light popular music with the rumba tradition, the soul tradition, the roots of today’s salsa and much older Cuban “country” music. That class is like a percussion class, where you’re tapping this and banging that before you get a chance to do any bit of singing because he wants to know that you’ve got the rhythms down, internalized; so you’re getting the roots, the roots and the fundamentals of these Cuban rhythms. So when you layer all these lessons together it’s amazing.
And what finally happened was it was mentioned to me that there existed a space in the ensemble where I started as a vocalist, and then a piano spot seemed to open up, and in this workshop on Tuesday nights here I get a chance to play the piano. It’s basically a class in being a completely new start up salsa band, only under the guidance and supervision of two great musical directors like Ramon Rodriguez and David Oquendo. These guys are both really good at developing students in there own ways because they both have expert eyes and ears for this work. They see exactly what you need and work to mold you. They only push you to the degree that you can be pushed, then step back, observe you and then come around from a different angle. So I’m enormously grateful to them for this opportunity. Once my lessons turned into playing with this group of people I just felt like it all took off to a new level. My practice, the discipline I put into the practice, looking to show up prepared for the next class, the next rehearsal with improved material and being able to handle those tricky parts that might have posed a problem on first viewing. And you know…the group becomes a little family: some of my friends play conga, one of my other friends plays bongo, this other guy plays timbales. It’s a group and you want to look good in front of your friends and make them look good too. So we are slowly improving, and we’ve got a hot little group vibe going on and we’re hoping to continue moving forward. I have to say as a kid I had three years of piano lessons; I was a singer; I could practice for a while; I could put it down; I knew I could always go back to singing. As a kid I practiced…once a month I think. And now, you know before beginning this workshop, I was probably practicing at least four days a week for an hour to two hours. Now that this workshop is happening, there’s so much more motivation to pile on the practice hours, there’s really no limit to what you can strengthen in terms of your rhythmic chops or finger dexterity, or rhythm where I’ll play clave or the drum in practice and sing and work on some of the rhythms. Although it’s a lot of work and it’s constantly trying to keep all the irons in the fire, it’s endlessly rewarding. It’s an amazing adventure. I really feel so indebted to this program, the existence of it, and all the work Ramon has done to keep it together and keep it going.
D: How did you hear about the Harbor Conservatory before you got started here?
E: You know that’s a funny question. It doesn’t come immediately to mind how I heard about it… I remember wondering whether it was open to everybody, whether you had to be Latino or very young, at least school age, to take lessons. I remember somebody telling me there were Salsa and dance classes being held here a number of years ago, five or six years ago. And I knew about the existence of it but I thought it was more of a kids after school community project, I didn’t realize the extensiveness of the program. Ah you know what! I just realized those things were all true, but they never really made the connection for me. What happened was I got very interested in playing and I said “I’ve got to learn to play this music on the piano. I want to play Latin music on the piano and I want to be able to sing and accompany myself.” And in that instant I basically contacted this woman who wrote the “Salsa Guide Book for Piano and Ensemble” Rebeca Mauleon. She’s an internationally-renowned pianist and Latin music educator. I’ve read her books and they’re recommended by many teachers here. I had found these books on my own and her contact information was there, so I wrote her an email and asked “Who do I study with in New York?”, and she recommended Oscar Hernandez. Now this took some nerve because I knew about Oscar Hernandez. He’d worked on The Capeman with Paul Simon, he’d been Ray Barretto’s pianist and arranger for years. And he’d recently started his own big band, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
So I took a deep breath and found Oscar Hernandez’s contact information online. I had seen him in shows with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, so I stopped him during a show and found out how to get in touch with him. So when I did he said, “Go to the Harbor Conservatory, Sonny Bravo teaches there”. Then once I called the school they told me Sonny Bravo only takes advanced students so Ramon suggested I take lessons with Gustavo Casenave to work on Jazz fundamentals. So that’s how it all started. It was literally like finding some famous pianists who were hot players and asking from the source where should I go? It was very gratifying that it happened; that I had access, I could pick up the phone and talk to somebody who could tell me “yes he teaches here, but his schedules full” and that was really gratifying. What’s great about this school is you’re linked in with the people that do play this music. I’ll literally go out salsa dancing and I’ll see my piano teacher on the stage, and that’s amazing. Or I’ll go to a gig that David is playing in, he’ll be playing guitar and singing, Gustavo is always playing out doing his jazz thing. You’re studying with working musicians who are at the top of their craft.
D: Must be an awesome experience.
E: You know what I think is even more awesome is being an adult student and having access to this. To get pulled in to this extent as an adult, you feel like your brain works better. You feel like you’re sleeping deeper, you’re living life more fully, you feel like you’re percolating and using all your synapses and your whole brain better because we always hear about how little of it we humans use. And it really feels like, when they say older folks benefit from taking dance lessons or keeping limber and trying new things, playing sudoku and brain twisters and puzzles; in a sense it feels like when you’re doing this you’re in that mode constantly. It makes you feel like a little kid. It is truly a joy.
D: That’s great. So how has taking lessons here affected your relationship with music?
E: I would say I listen to music a lot more intently. I can hear things I’ve never heard before. I would say I bring that enthusiasm to other people in my life, when I recommend music lessons to friends, their kids, or young people I know. I feel like in the Latin music and dance scene which is a BIG trend right now, that twenty or thirty percent of the people I meet would love to study this music. In a sense I feel a certain compulsion, a certain desire, to keep this music alive because it is roots music. I’ve thought for a long time, long before going this direction that Latin music and Latin jazz is the best music in the world. I had no Latin music growing up. I was in that strict kind of church and classical music environment. All very square harmonies, with no bounce. It wasn’t like a soul or a gospel chorus or choir, it was a traditional church choir. When I say I think Latin music is the best music in the world, it’s the sophistication of the harmonies, combining these U.S. based jazz harmonies with the complexities of these Afro-Cuban rhythms, you’re basically layering all the tradition, all the richness that African and Arabic music has brought us, and when you look at the history you realize all the Eastern stuff including Asian, Persian, and Indian music found their way into this mix through early trade routes like the silk road. And similar traders carried stringed instruments into North Africa where they inevitably ran into forest African drumming traditions. Then you have the harmonic stuff that came from some of the same hybrid roots but became what we think of as European music. Some of which came to be called romantic music and then more contemporary music. You have all this breadth of rhythmic and choral and melodic and chordal music that is really the best elements of each of those kinds of music brought together. Harmonic perfection.
D: Great way of putting that. You mentioned that you play with the ensemble here. Do you play with anybody else, and do you hope to potentially play gigs with the Harbor Ensemble in the future?
E: Those guys get excited, they talk about it. The other day one of them told us of a place who wanted to use us as a band. They asked Ramon about it afterwards and he said that we weren’t quite ready yet, that he wouldn’t want to throw us to the wolves right away. The guys all have their delusions of grandeur, you have this one guy who’s ready to start this group with one singer, this other singer also suggesting a group of others become another separate group. Then some of us want to keep this workshop and keep the same personnel and start a group. Even David said the same thing a few months ago, that we should be a group and start something. I dunno if we have the glue to make it stick, there’s something to be said for the sense of authority and the sense of trust that David and Ramon instill when they’re there administering that workshop and leading it. Without our leaders, I don’t know if we’re strong enough. I write my own songs and would love to start my own group playing original popular music, but they have these new jazz workshops here, a sort of renaissance of the jazz program here where they’re starting new things and having new ensembles, and I hope to get into one of those. So it’s possible that much like the teachers here, maybe if I’m able to do this Latin workshop, then a Jazz workshop, then I can do my own music once I get my skills up in all those musical disciplines. That would be the best outcome I can imagine. It’s most gratifying when you’ve written something yourself and you also perform it. That puts together my singing, my writing, and my playing. So that’s most definitely on my mind.
D: Cool. Lastly do you have any advice you’d like to impart to somebody who wants to learn more about the conservatory, and possibly take lessons here?
E: I most certainly do. I think that sometimes people think it’s a good idea to take lessons with a friend of a friend or a neighborhood person because it’s the economical choice, or it’s nearby. The classes here are extremely affordable, especially with the high quality of working professionals they have teaching here. I think it’s fair to say the teachers here go out of their way to serve this community, this institution, this conservatory. If it was only about money you wouldn’t see the kind of character in the teachers here. And I am extremely grateful for that. I do know that in downtown Manhattan you might find these classes going for 3 to five times as much with the same teachers, so it is a big deal that they’re choosing to serve the school, and this community. I think it is a good idea NOT to take lessons from a friend of a friend, or a person down the block. I think it’s a good idea to come here because there is a structure and as I just said the way that things worked for me is I had two classes first, then realized I needed more and different skills, so I took a workshop. Then once I took a workshop I felt part of a community here, and you start to know this player, and this singer. And that’s the way to get a true artist to flower. It’s not just one trait, one discipline; it’s really kind of that music has these different arms, these different wings. Your skills really hang on your ability to both network socially and as a musician. So there’s a network of teachers, there’s a network of peers, and there’s a family feel here, which is really, really awesome. That’s why I recommend this kind of a place, this place specifically, over studying with a friend or neighbor. So you asked “Do you have any advice?” This is the advice I’m constantly giving people. You know, my friend’s son might want to study guitar, another friend’s son might want to study percussion, another friend’s daughter might want to study piano. I have spoken highly of this place because I believe in it. I will recommend it time and again, and deep down, I just want everyone to experience for themselves just how special it is.