The Con hosts Royal Academy of Music for 10-day jazz intensive

12 September 2023
Celebrating the life and work of jazz composer Kenny Wheeler
The Con has welcomed Professor Nick Smart from the Royal Academy of Music for a two-week program, giving jazz students an insight into the works of celebrated trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler.
Professor Nick Smart

Professor Nick Smart

This August, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and London’s Royal Academy of Music joined forces in a 10-day collaboration, providing Sydney jazz students with an opportunity to learn from renowned jazz musician, teacher and ‘Kenny Wheeler Scholar’, Professor Nick Smart.

Professor Smart led the ensemble through two weeks of rehearsals and lectures, which were anchored in the life and work of Canadian trumpeter, composer, and improviser, Kenny Wheeler. The program saw students engage deeply with Wheeler's music in preparation for two concerts featuring Australian debuts of two of his seminal works. 

We spoke to David Theak, Senior Lecturer in Jazz Studies, as well as vocal student Leah Berry, and saxophone student Damon Poppleton, about their experiences working with Professor Smart, what it was like to delve into Wheeler’s compositions, and how this experience will inform their music practice moving forward.

Bringing music history to life with archival scores

Con jazz students rehearsing

Jazz students had the chance to rehearse with renowned musician and educator, Professor Nick Smart

“An average day would include two to three rehearsals with different student ensembles, led by Professor Smart,” says Theak. “The students delved deeply into the methodology and reality of making music in a similar fashion to how Kenny Wheeler had done over his incredible career.”

Beyond rehearsals, the two weeks were filled with lectures and stories about Wheeler’s life and career, as well as deep, personal insights into his composition process.

Leah and Damon found that receiving a combination of technical and personal knowledge helped enrich their experience. In particular, they found joy in working off Wheeler’s original manuscripts from the 1990s, which were filled with annotations from the original performers. 

"As well as having the original scores, I got to see the markings that Norma Winstone, the original vocalist, made,” says Leah. "It made the experience feel even more unique and tangible. It was incredible to think that I could play the part of Norma Winstone, yet contribute my own voice to it.”

“To be playing the suite from the original manuscript, including all the original pencil markings from the 1990 recording session, was a real treat.”
Damon Poppleton
Con jazz students playing saxophone

Students prepared to perform two seminal works by the great Kenny Wheeler.

How passion, emotion and personality bring a piece to life

One of the highlights of the program, according to teachers and pupils alike, was witnessing the immense growth of the students over the two weeks. 

“It was amazing watching Professor Smart bring out the best in our students,” says David. “There was a strong simpatico between him and our students; he immediately identified each person's individual approach to music making. He would tap into that and tease excellence from them."

One of Professor Smart’s strengths, they all found, lay in his constant desire to see the student exceed their own expectations. 

“Working so closely with Professor Smart was a really special opportunity, as he was so deliberate and considerate throughout the intensive,” Leah remembers. “He was so passionate and emotionally involved with the music, which allowed us to take it to the next level rather than just playing dots on a page.”

“One of the main things lessons I remember from Professor Smart was the importance of thinking about the big picture," says Damon. “To be always thinking about how the band as a unit can get the most out of the music and its overall character, by injecting personality, spirit and verve." 

“Kenny Wheeler (and Professor Smart!) were both humble, yet incredibly knowledgeable and versatile musicians, who were interested in the strength of the collective but also in finding moments for each individual to shine as themselves.”
David Theak
Con jazz student drumming

Students demonstrated immense musical growth over the course of the intensive program.

Wheeler’s legacy inspires a new generation

“Kenny Wheeler’s music has already impacted the way I rehearse, perform, arrange, and compose,” says Leah. "I now understand the many roles I can take as a vocalist and the depths I can be pushed to, because I was singing repertoire that I didn’t know existed for my instrument.”

“On a technical level, it has certainly been very beneficial to my concept and approach on the soprano sax,” says Damon. "On a more conceptual level, it will continue to inform my understanding of the music – always listening, adjusting, and trying to introduce the right amount of personality and interpretation."

For David and the other staff, it was a fulfilling opportunity to watch their students grow and reflect on what they’ve accomplished. 

“It was a great opportunity to benchmark the standard of our students against the rest of the world. Thankfully, we are doing really well."
David Theak

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