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An Interview with the h2 quartet

The h2 quartet, recent additions to the Vandoren Artist roster, have been very busy and active in the saxophone world as both performers and educators. Comprised of college music professors in Central Oklahoma and Southern Kansas, the group has established themselves as leaders in the American chamber music scene through their high standards of musical quality and commitment to the creation and performance of new repertoire. The summer of 2014 has seen the creation of the first annual Oklahoma Saxophone Workshop (which featured Vandoren Artist and Michigan State University Professor of Saxophone, Joe Lulloff) and a guest artist residency with the Cortona Sessions for New Music in Cortona Italy. Vandoren USA intern Matt Younglove recently interviewed the h2 quartet to investigate the wisdom this group has garnered from their recent experiences in addition to their overall experiences as the award-winning, critically-acclaimed chamber group that h2 has come to be.

The members of the h2 quartet, listed alphabetically, are Geoffrey Deibel, Kimberly Goddard Loeffert, Jeffrey Loeffert, and Jonathan Nichol.


MY: Can you offer some insight into the ways your chamber music experience has influenced your musicianship?

JL: My chamber music experience has been extremely important, perhaps the most vital component, to my music education and continued growth as a musician. I am so lucky to have had outstanding teachers starting with my beginning band director, but my most powerful influences have been my peers throughout the process. I have learned so much from the musicians with whom I have interacted, especially in the close proximity of chamber music. It is also my favorite artistic outlet. Individually, we can only be saxophonists, but together we can be a quartet that is better than the sum of its parts. It is truly an example of synergy, and I am grateful that the quartet makes me better than I actually am.

GD: I think chamber music makes one a profoundly more effective and sensitive musician. In the medium of chamber music, you are forced to act as a soloist and an ensemble player at the same time. This means you have to be of two minds, you have to be ready at any moment to assert yourself in the group, or to give way to someone else, but at no point are you unimportant. You must learn to navigate and be constantly assessing your place in the texture--being a good chamber musician is almost like learning to be a good person, I think. When you have four musicians (or other numbers) that have an equal dedication to these principles, it can create a musical effect like no other--the word "dynamic" definitely comes to mind here.

KL: Playing with the h2 quartet has made me a better musician, plain and simple. My colleagues push me every day to achieve more in my personal playing technically and musically. Technically, they challenge every aspect of my playing from articulation to altissimo with each new piece that we take on, but the musical challenges are my favorite moments. Every once in awhile there will be a performance (where we are playing something that we have played many times), and someone will shape something differently, and then the others will respond to that shaping a little differently, and we will have suddenly, on-the-spot developed a new interpretation of a piece, all without speaking about it. That is always a special thing.

JN: Playing in a chamber group such as h2 is an awesome experience. Sharing musical ideas in planning, rehearsal, and performance has the greatest musical influence on me. Working in a chamber setting challenges performance concept, promotes critical thinking, and strengthens the musical bonds among the players. It is truly wonderful to collaborate with such talented and dedicated musicians in the h2 quartet.


MY: Is it important for a young saxophonist to play in a quartet? How have you seen band programs successfully implement chamber music into their curricula?

JL: Chamber music experience is vital. It serves as a microcosm of large ensemble skills, and there is no camouflage. Everyone plays an equally vital role to the collective success of the ensemble. Chamber music helps to create a culture of accountability among students, and it allows students to take greater ownership of their education.

GD: It is absolutely critical. It's really easy for younger students to be either too much in their own world (the mindset of a soloist), or to be strong-armed into submission and not feel the freedom to "speak out" (as it were) as a player. The latter is particularly common in bands that have large numbers of saxophones, which is itself a common phenomenon. The sooner that saxophonists learn to play in a quartet (and also with mixed groups), the sooner they learn the discipline and maturity of the principles I described above.

KL: Chamber music can really push a young musician in a very positive way. While there is a sense of ownership and responsibility when playing in a band, it is nothing like the commitment that one feels to just a few other people. Each member of the ensemble wants to be better for the other members of the group. It is completely possible for students to produce a musical product that is greater than the sum of its parts. h2 is actually giving a presentation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in December called “Developing Large Ensemble Skills Through Chamber Music” where we will discuss the benefits of chamber music using our own experiences as the saxophone section for the Michigan State University Wind Ensemble as a basis for comparison.

JN: I would say that it is essential for young saxophonists to play in a saxophone quartet or participate in chamber programs at their high school. This allows the students to work on musical skills such as tone, intonation, rhythm, blend, interpretation, and ensemble playing while studying music that is interesting and challenging.

It seems that the most successful school programs provide vibrant chamber music opportunities for their students. Chamber music also presents a platform for teachers to provide tangible goals to their students, which can be amazing motivation! From my experiences as a teacher, students will go the extra mile for a high-quality meaningful experience--we all want to be part of something excellent. I firmly believe that regardless of where you are teaching, if you have energy and vision you can create a successful chamber music program. Chamber music experiences shouldn't be limited to a school music program. Private lesson instructors can also encourage students from their studios to form chamber groups that can become active performing ensembles.


MY: What is your favorite part about playing in a saxophone quartet?

JL: I really appreciate the interdependent nature of chamber music. My quartet members depend on me to prepare well, execute well, and be creative. I depend on them to do the same. If we are not all on the same page, so to speak, then it cannot work. There is something very special about trusting one another for our collective musical success.

GD: The saxophone quartet functions in much the same way a string quartet does. Because all of the players perform on instruments of the same family, they understand one another and are able to accommodate each other in a way that many other chamber groups could not otherwise do. The flexibility of the instrument also allows for an astonishing array of textures, colors, and volumes. It's truly a dynamic medium for chamber music.

KL: All musicians experience (I hope) some form of post-performance high – an indescribable feeling of happiness and goodness. I feel so fortunate and grateful to be able to share that moment with my best friends. That shared moment is what makes all of the rehearsal and work worthwhile. We have also been extremely lucky to travel to some wonderful places to perform (most recently Cortona, Tuscany), and it is a special opportunity to see the world and share our music with others.

JN: The Music, of course. Collaborating with composers and traveling are also quite meaningful experiences. I'm writing this from beautiful Cortona, Italy. Outside of the US, h2 has travelled to and premiered music in Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Thailand. We are looking forward to performing at the World Saxophone Congress that will be held next summer in Strasbourg, France.


MY: Out of your most recent projects, what has been the most rewarding experience that grew out of chamber music?

JL: I do not really have a single experience, but our most rewarding experiences correspond to our educational endeavors. This includes events like the Cortona Sessions, the Oklahoma Saxophone Workshop, the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and our outreach tours. Just recently at the Oklahoma Saxophone Workshop, one of the students indicated that it was one of the best experiences he had had since coming to the United States and that the event changed his life. Nothing we do is more rewarding or special than this.

GD: They are all rewarding. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you are not able to reach every person that you work with, but the experience of chamber music is something that demands growth from its participants. When people finally understand that and buy into it, it's always a positive experience. Recently, we conducted the first in a yearly series of saxophone workshops. Every single participant improved and showed a new level of playing maturity after just a few days, which was a truly incredible thing to witness. One of the students also said that the experience changed his life--you can't get much better than that!

KL: The h2 quartet recently hosted the first Oklahoma Saxophone Workshop. This was essentially four days of saxophone boot camp for high school and college saxophonists held at the University of Oklahoma. Joe Lulloff, John Nichol, and Bill Funke were on faculty as well. Students played in saxophone ensemble with faculty (John Nichol conducted). They played in saxophone quartets coached by all of the faculty, and they attended masterclasses, concerts, and lectures. This project was something that h2 had been talking about since we were students – something that was missing at the time. It was pretty incredible to see it all come to fruition and to work with our former teachers Joe Lulloff and John Nichol and our classmate Bill Funke. The culmination of the workshop was a recital with nine student quartet performances and the big saxophone ensemble. It was really wonderful because the students exceeded our expectations. We hope that next year we can have an even larger faculty and student group. I can’t help but think how much I would have enjoyed such a camp as a high school or college student.

JN: For me, the most rewarding recent experience was the Oklahoma Saxophone Workshop. h2 quartet, John Nichol (Central Michigan University), Joseph Lulloff (Michigan State University), and Bill Funke (Irving Middle School) taught 38 college and high school students from 8 states for four days in Norman. This was the first year that we hosted the workshop and we believe that it was a tremendous success. The final concert featured 7 quartets, 2 quintets, and a large saxophone ensemble--for many of the workshop participants, this was the first time that they played in both a saxophone ensemble and a saxophone quartet.


MY: You are about to embark on a trip to Italy, as faculty members and a featured ensemble for the Cortona Sessions, a festival of contemporary music in Cortona, Italy. Why is it important to study contemporary music?

JN: In the scope of musical history, our instrument is quite young, so really our best option to study engaging repertoire is to commission and perform new music. This allows us to generate new art and contribute to the global music community. Though playing new music we, artists, are able to find our own voice and play music that is meaningful to us. Saxophonists need to look forward and consider how we can continue to artistically further our instrument and repertoire. Plus, it is extremely rewarding to work with composers who are alive that we can communicate with to best perform their music. Who knows the direction that music will take over the next fifty years--it is my hope that h2 and all saxophonists will be at the vanguard.

KL: I think it’s funny that we even have to ask ourselves this question – is contemporary music important? It is vital to study the music of our own time. It is our responsibility to work with living composers, to share their stories and to bring life to their conceptions of their own music, before that opportunity is lost. Particularly as saxophonists, with a much shorter history than other instruments, it is our responsibility to expand the existing repertoire and to try to improve upon it. Brahms was alive and composing during the time of the saxophone and yet we do not have a piece from him – why not? Because we as saxophonists did not take the initiative to make that happen, and it is our duty as professionals in the field to make sure that we don’t let such an opportunity pass the saxophone up in our lifetime.

JL: I understand the question, but I do not really understand the question. Why is it important to read books that were written after 1900? The music of the twenty-first century is relevant to today. Why do we study music of the classical period? Is Mozart still relevant? Of course Mozart is still relevant, but in a different way than in 1791. The irony here is that during Mozart's time, the public thirst for new music was insatiable as evidenced by his compositional volume as well as Leopold's written statements about his very busy adult son. I think that there are negative connotations associated with new music today even though this obviously was not always the case. There are several reasons for this, one being that we condition our audiences to accept certain types of music, specifically common practice tonal music, as the norm and everything else as a deviation from this. Tonal music is undoubtedly very powerful, which may explain in part why music of the twentieth and twenty-first century often still reflect tonal properties. This does not, however, lessen the value of music that is not written in this language. We must challenge our listeners and our students, which is of course a primary objective of artists and pedagogues alike. This issue regarding how audiences and students receive new music is also the fault of performers. Contemporary music is too often performed poorly because performers did not diligently prepare in the same way they would for music of early periods. Audiences do not want to hear Mozart performed poorly, so why would audiences accept hearing Donatoni performed poorly? This is why it is so important to educate our younger generations of musicians to perform contemporary music at a high level. This is one reason why we are so excited to be in residence at the Cortona Sessions for New Music. We have an opportunity to both champion the music of the twenty-first century and help educate students how to approach this music. We are grateful for this opportunity and see it as a privilege and a tremendous responsibility.

GD: The study of contemporary music is vital to the health of our instrument and music in general. Most people don't realize that until very recently, there was no such thing as "standard repertoire" that was performed over and over again. So this practice that we have now, and the culture of the concert hall as museum is actually not the historical norm for music performance. All music used to be new music. I find it astounding that contemporary music is still shunned by a majority of musicians, but I think I understand why: we witnessed an unprecedented rate of change and development in almost every area of our lives over the past 150 years. It's extremely difficult to wrap ones head around these changes, but when you think about it, the music absolutely reflects the upheaval and changes of the times. No one would make the claim, for example, that technology ceased to improve our lives after the steam engine was invented. The problem is that many people have been culturally conditioned to reject what falls outside of a very narrow and specific definition of music. Music, like any art, is supposed to develop, innovate, and imagine new ways to express the complex thoughts and emotions of human beings. So I guess that's my answer: contemporary music helps us understand the world around us and ourselves, and challenges us to think in new ways about the same problems we've always had. And my call to those who still might think they "don't get it." There's nothing to "get" -- just listen!

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