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4 December 2020

Nadje Noordhuis: an unplanned career

Nadje Noordhuis Image: Nadje Noordhuis  
© Mireya Acierto

New York-based trumpeter, composer and educator Nadje Noordhuis talks about her music and her career, as well as her music education from primary school to University. This interview forms part of a new digital education resource aimed at high-school age students, now available from the AMC. [Updated 29 January 2021]

Q You've been very involved in music from an early age, in fact well before you started school. Can you tell us a little bit about how music education has shaped your school years in Sydney, and your life's choices?

A Music education has shaped my whole life. I was incredibly fortunate to have a series of world-class musical role models who encouraged and supported me ever since I began to show an interest in music. I started playing piano when I was really young, and enrolled in the local Yamaha Music School when I was three. I had a really wonderful and inspiring teacher, Aimee Scobie, who became my private teacher for four years until she unfortunately passed away in a car accident. She was an incredible teacher. I loved going to my lessons, and I would practice piano all day.

My primary school had a band program where every third-grader played a band instrument. We had a group lesson and several rehearsals a week. The band conductor, Stephen Abernethy, is an incredible pedagogue, and encouraged me to teach. I taught a student before school every weekday from the age of seven. Learning to teach seemed to be a natural extension of playing, and I had a number of students every year until I graduated high school.

I attended The Forest High School, which was well known for music, mainly because of the senior band conductor who became my trumpet teacher - Steve Williams. At one point, I was in three concert bands, two big bands and a vocal ensemble, so I was always busy rehearsing and performing. I was also involved in a local community concert band called the Forest Graduates, led by Daryl Mann. My poor Mum spent years driving me to and from rehearsals - some starting at 7am, and some at 7pm. On top of all that were music camps, tours, local gigs, fundraisers, and performances. It was a pretty intense schedule until Steve Williams left Forest High at the end of Year 9, at which point I decided to quit all of the band programs. I only played in one jazz band outside of school that Steve conducted until I left Sydney to study at university.

I really had no idea what an incredible musical foundation this was until I decided to pursue music as a career at the age of 21. Having these incredible teachers throughout my childhood was not only a foundation for my performing career, but also gave me a blueprint on how to teach. Now teaching has become such a large part of my life. It's like coming full circle.

Nadje Noordhuis with a regular duo partner, American vibraphonist/
percussionist James Shipp.
© Susan O'Brien

Q You took a little detour studying sound engineering and multimedia before you embarked on your jazz studies and career. How did you change your mind about your career direction and what happened then?

A. I tried very hard to get my foot in the door of the sound engineering world, but had a tough time. This was around 1998, and opportunities for women were limited. I didn't realise this until I graduated from my course, and tried to find work. I volunteered at a studio, but they stuck me in the office. The only gig I could get was distributing radio commercials, and I worked the night shift alone for eighteen months. I got fired from that job when the main producer left. Instead of promoting me, I was told that the members of the board didn't think a woman could run the studio, and they replaced me with a man. I was completely livid, of course! I went to my friend's house to commiserate with coffee and cake, and I asked her what I should do. She said 'why don't you move to Melbourne and study improvisation?' I told her it was a great idea and that I would move in a month. A month to the day, I packed up all my belongings, and drove from Sydney to Melbourne. I moved eight months before my audition for the Victorian College of the Arts, and hadn't played trumpet for almost two years. Luckily I was accepted into the course!

Q Can you tell us about how you ended up in New York, and how did you find your feet there?

A It was through a sequence of rather unusual events that I ended up living in New York. By the time I was enrolling in my Honours year at VCA, I had already been in university for six years, and I was itching to travel and see the world. I really wanted to go to New York, it being the mecca for jazz. I was complaining to my sister, who then called a travel agent to check flight prices. She booked me a flight to New York that departed three days later! It was a three-week trip in the middle of winter, and I went to a gig every night. That's when I bumped into the Aussie jazz pianist Monique Di Mattina. I ended up sitting in on her gig at the 55 Bar in The Village, and the drummer invited me to sit in on her gig the following night.

At the gig, I met a saxophone player who encouraged me to do my Master's degree at Manhattan School of Music. I thought it was a completely ridiculous idea, since it was so prohibitively expensive, but I went the next day to the school to speak to the Dean. Things then spiralled into an 18-month ordeal of grant applications, travelling to Amsterdam to do the summer course run by Manhattan School of Music, applying for financial aid, and miraculously, I moved to New York in 2003 to do my Master's degree in Jazz Trumpet.

It was an incredibly challenging two years, as the coursework was very difficult and I had very little money. Due to my visa restrictions, I could only work at the school for 20 hours a week. That had to cover all my expenses. I slept for four hours a night, survived mainly on porridge and free meals from friends, and lived in cheap apartments with cockroach infestations. Not exactly as glamorous as I thought it would be!

It took a really long time to break into the scene. The only gigs I could get were with all-women bands for the first four years. Then I got offered to play a rehearsal with the renowned big band composer, Darcy James Argue. After that, things slowly fell into place. I would say it took me ten years to find my feet.

Q Do you think of yourself equally first and foremost a composer, or a performer, or is it always a blend of the two? Is working on other people's material very different? And does your work with different ensembles inform your own music?

A I think of myself as a composer/performer/teacher, in no specific order. Each of those areas will come and go in waves. Some years, I'm on the road for months, and other years I am busy writing.

Composing for other people requires me to think in detail about their playing, and determine what they are trying to achieve with the piece. Often I'm thinking about their programming, and how it would slot into what they already have in their repertoire. Perhaps they need a new opener, or finale for their set. I tend to write very melodically, so I'm constantly thinking about how they would play whatever I'm writing. I'm always writing for specific musicians.

Additionally, my work as an ensemble player definitely informs the way I write music. Many times in rehearsals, I think. 'I wish I wrote that!' I then break down what exactly connected with me, and scribble down some ideas. I have notebooks of these little musical scraps, and when it comes time for me to write, I can play through them to see what is usable. I can then build on these older ideas to construct a new piece.

Q. Music is often talked about in terms of the 'fringe' benefits it can bring - for test results, for concentration, stress relief, therapeutic uses - you've talked in an earlier interview about the way music and music education actually taught you life skills and shaped your personality. Can you talk a little bit about this?

A I'm reminded daily, when I am teaching, about how powerful music is, and how teaching lessons is sometimes not really about music. Let me explain! We know music is something that can totally change our mood when we listen to it. It has the power to bring people together, or to keep people away, depending on what you want! Learning how to play music is about goal-setting, taking tiny steps forward, being patient, learning how to deal with disappointment, or things not progressing as fast as one wants.

I feel like all my years of music education have given me tools to deal with life in a way that is very logical and practical. If there's something challenging that I need to deal with, I know how to break it down into smaller parts, the same as I would when learning a piece, so I can navigate through it. It's about problem-solving, and goal-setting, and coming up with a list of small actions that will lead you to what you want.

Music is about sharing joy, and when I am teaching, I am trying to be positive, encouraging, and make the student feel better about life than when we began the lesson. That's what my trumpet teacher, Laurie Frink, taught me when I studied at Manhattan School of Music. I feel like that's often more important than making musical progress in a lesson.

Q You've been involved with several film projects - can you tell us something about how you approach a project where your music is meant to go with moving image?

Nadje Noordhuis: Water Crossing and other works
digital kit, released in January 2021.

A I really love writing where a visual element is involved. It's so satisfying to play something that fits with an image perfectly. I mainly write at the piano, and will improvise until I stumble across a motif that works. What key you are in really makes a huge impact. I'll try my ideas in a number of keys before I settle on what works best. Finding the right tempo is also crucial. When it all comes together, it feels like the images are enhanced by the music, and not distracted by it. I hope to write more for films in the future.

Q The music discussed in the forthcoming kit is not quite your latest work - what sorts of directions has your work taken since the completion of these three works? Do you think of your music in terms of style - as a mid-career jazz artist it's probably fair to say that you have developed a style that is 'yours'?

A Since writing the work in this kit, I have released duo recordings with Australian pianist Luke Howard, and American vibraphonist/percussionist James Shipp. These projects have allowed my music to develop further in melodic and lyrical directions. The incorporation of electronics has also opened up another world for me. It's like writing for a completely different instrument when I'm using guitar pedals to completely alter my trumpet sound. I can express many more moods.
I've also had the opportunity to write commissions for a number of groups, ranging from string quartet and baroque groups to duos. All these factors combine to open up the world of musical possibilities for me.

I don't consider myself a composer in a specific genre. I love all kinds of music, and the older that I get, the more varied in style my music seems to be. However, there are usually common threads of melodic emphasis with an aesthetic in harmony that can be identified as my own.

Q You've lived in the USA in 2020, during a pandemic and amidst a big political turmoil. How has this very unsettled time affected you, and the people you live with and work with? And what's happening next for you and your music?

A 2020 has definitely been the most emotionally taxing year to date. However, I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to still teach and write during a time where all my performances are cancelled. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was extremely concerned as to how I was going to make a living and pay my bills. I travelled to a friend's cabin in upstate New York for what I thought was a week or two out of the city. I was there for seven months!

I was able to set up a remote teaching and recording space, and continued to teach most of my private students. Usually we break for the summer vacation, but most kept their weekly lessons. I feel like these lessons were a time where they could experience joy, be social, and not think about what was currently happening around them. It was incredibly beneficial for their mental health, and mine also!

I wrote a commission for a classical sextet, recorded dozens of tracks for videos and singles, and continued working on my own current project. I'm writing for my quintet, of harp, synths, percussion, guitar and bass, in a completely new way, with more rock elements. I'm also writing a commission in the metal genre, so things are really getting interesting!

After watching the nightly news, I would have to turn to music to calm myself down. I would listen to a new album from start to finish most nights. Some of my friends have travelled to Europe, where they are performing and recording. Others are stuck in their apartments and surviving on unemployment benefit. It's a curious feeling for me to be able to hunker down and continue to write, teach, and record. I feel very grateful to be able to do all of these things during this time of upheaval.

> Nadje Noordhuis - Water Crossing and other works digital music education resource

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