Learning from a legend
When Justin Hiltner ’14 went to a Saturday afternoon workshop with Béla Fleck in The Roost, he had a question to ask. Hiltner had been learning Bach’s “Suite for Unaccompanied Cello.” He wanted advice on hand positioning, and Fleck had covered the piece on his album Perpetual Motion.
Not only did Fleck answer the question, but the banjo legend then went a step further: he invited Hiltner to a private lesson at Swasey Chapel before that evening’s Vail Series performance. So for 30 minutes last Saturday, Hiltner studied one-on-one with Fleck, and he walked away with a simple plan to master the fret board.
“He gave me an exercise involving scales and their respective modes,” Hiltner said. “He laid out how to do it then said, ‘After you master this one in G major, do it in every key—major and minor. That should give you about a year’s worth of work.’ ”
“Just slightly mind-boggling,” Hiltner added.
So it was going to be that kind of day—the kind you don’t forget.
Fleck was on campus for his third Vail performance, this time with classy bassist Edgar Meyer and with the animated tabla drum guru, Zakir Hussain. But first, there was the afternoon workshop in The Roost.
Some students asked technical questions; others asked about performance or music history. All of them found the trio to be sincere in their answers and laid-back in their attitudes, even lobbing good-natured insults at one another.
Rob Flax ’10, who came into town just for the concert, asked about the formation of the group. “It makes sense that Indian and bluegrass, etc., could work together. But how do you go about pulling that off?”
“If you make your own rules, there’s no way to lose,” Fleck told him. “It’s all about expression. We make music we like.” He added, half-jokingly, that he and Meyer had worked together in the past, but they wanted to get Hussain on board in order to steal some of his material.
While playing together, Fleck and Hussain visually check in with one another. Meyer said that the biggest chunk of his brain is always with his fellow musicians, not with his double bass, and Hussain said he had never put so much effort into learning to listen to others in a group until he began working with Meyer and Fleck.
Fleck called this continuous adjustment to others in the group a “flexible metronome.”
“The best music is not metronomic,” he said. “There’s a lot of beauty in that motion.”
Later that night, after the workshop was over and Hiltner’s private session was done, Fleck, Meyer, and Hussain walked onto Swasey Chapel’s stage for the final performance of Vail’s 31st season and found themselves faced with a standing ovation from the audience—before they ever played a note.
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” Fleck quipped.
Each man was dressed as if trying to jibe with the personality of his instrument, from blue jeans to tux, but this unlikely combination of personalities and instruments fused beautifully as they played song after song, many of which were derived from The Melody of Rhythm, a concerto written by the three musicians.
And from the level of concentration in their facial expressions during the performance, it was easy to see that playing in this group requires skills that most of us can’t imagine.
After a while, listeners seemed to lean back and give up trying to categorize the tunes as bluegrass, jazz, world music, or classical, because the genres jumped and melded. Like beauty in motion, they defied being pinned down for long.
There was an encore, and two more standing ovations. Then the group left the stage, toweling the sweat from their faces, leaving their music to echo in our heads.