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the chat

In Conversation with 

Ethan Hartshorn

Ethan Hartshorn was born and raised in Pittsburgh. 

A talented percussionist, he studied with Kenny Aronoff while attending Indiana University. He’s performed with David Baker, Rufus Reid, and The Al Cobine Big Band.

After his move to New York in 1996, Ethan freelanced in a variety of musical styles, recording with pop/rock artists like Theresa Sarea and Gregg Swan, the folk band Stickman Jones, and the blues group Blues Jones. 

He’s performed in Japan, England, Ireland, Monaco, and the Caribbean.

Married to Christina, a therapist, and father to two girls, Ethan is now in his fifteenth year as a music teacher in the New York City public school system.

Recently, we sat down for a virtual chat with him.

"Using an enormous tone, a breathy, enveloping vibrato, and terrific glissandos, he constructed castles of sound that were romantic but never sentimental, luxuriant but tasteful, yearning but free of self-pity.”
Whitney Balliet
on Ben Webster, 1973

First Sounds

Ethan Hartshorn

What’s your favorite: The Allegheny, Monongahela or Ohio rivers?

Oh Allegheny. Because my family is from the north side, so that’s along the Allegheny.

Did you ever go fishing?

Not in those rivers. My father took us camping in the summer. I used to go fishing occasionally up in a lake there. But it horrified me, watching the fish flop around and die. I’ve been vegetarian now for thirty years. I don’t eat fish. anyway, I thought that was mortifying when my father tried to take me fishing. I know it was a bonding experience for him, but it was formative for me in a different way. In any case, never in those rivers. That was a great town to grow up in, though.

Do you have a recollection of the first sound, or consciousness of rhythm, in your life?

Sound or rhythm…I guess there’s a vague tinkling of some toy xylophone. That’s probably my first sound memory. Because I would have been making the sound myself.

Yeah.

There were different senses. There was the kinesthetic feeling of striking it, and then that sound coming back. So, I think it’s probably etched in my consciousness because of the way I—the ways in which I experienced that first sound.

But my earliest memory is actually a textural and color one. There’s a…a red carpet, there’s a fuzzy red carpet in my grandmother’s house, I remember, I would’ve been of crawling age, and I would have been looking up close at the pattern and the fuzz and feeling it and looking at that color.

You talk about the kinesthetic aspect. Actually making the sound yourself seems like it could be more impressionable than receiving the sound.

It is, definitely, because especially as a young kid you’re developing your motor skills, too. So, your brain is wiring up for those connections of the-the physical and of the aural and of the visual. Your brain is mapping all of that. So, when you have an experience that connects all those modalities, I think it’s going to be more impressionable. The brain is going to latch on and say, “Here’s a way to wire up.”

Right.

I’ve started talking about synesthesia a lot with my middle school classes. My wife and I talk about that because she has studied that a bit with some of her clients. And most of the kids in an eighth-grade class, when I start describing synesthetic experiences, most of them look at me like I’m crazy, or just raise their hands and say, “You’re crazy.” But every class has a couple kids who come up after the class and say, “I have some of that. I hear color and I see sound, and I’m glad to know I’m not nuts, that it’s normal for some people to have that overlap.”

I know with, like, The Soda Bridge, you’ve got visual artists and you’ve got musicians and you’ve got words and you’ve got so many different ways of expression. I just thought I’d be worth bringing up the idea of synesthesia and the senses.

One of my favorite moments in a really sweet movie, “Proof,” an Australian film: A young Russell Crowe is buddies with a blind man, played by Hugo Weaving, who takes pictures of places he’s been. And Russell Crowe says, “It doesn’t make sense. You’re blind, why are you taking pictures?” And his answer is, “Proof that what I sensed is what you saw.”

The blind man has a love-hate relationship with his housekeeper. They’re not-so-secretly in love with each other, and too proud to admit it. She’s always messing with him, like rearranging his furniture, or putting the umbrella rack right in front of his path to doorway. One night, she takes him to an auditorium. Doesn’t tell him where they are or what they’re doing. Everything quiets down. An orchestra plays the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He whispers, “Dear God!” It’s such a powerful moment: to see that happen to him listening.

Yeah. And when you ask about first experiences, in a way, that first visual experience is not necessarily in an entirely different category as the first musical experience. Because it’s input, you know. It’s information.

Why music?

Play Video

Why music? Why did you choose music and education and performance?

I don’t know. I don’t think I ever had a choice. I never thought, “Should I do this or not?” I think I just thought in musical terms in general. So, it was just a way I thought anyway.

Expand on that. What does it mean to think in musical terms?

Well, whatever the…the way in which things in life…resolve, or the way things in life require formal balances and structures, is parallel to those things in music. So, if I’m looking at something that we would think is non-musical in life, I approach it the way I would have understood it in musical terms.

Yeah yeah. Tension and release.

Yeah. Principles like that are just universal. And I just think my brain actually kind of saw that in music and then just applied it everywhere. For instance, as a teacher I think I teach like a drummer, like my drumming and my teaching are not actually any different. You’re setting up something for the rest of the people involved. There’s this knowledge that, as a drummer, if you’re too fast, the singer’s words don’t get understood; if you’re too slow, the singer runs out of breath; if you’re too loud, you can’t hear the piano. Or whatever it is. And you’re back there, holding these elements together, and there’s pacing involved.

When I’m in front of a class, I’m thinking in those same terms: about letting the lesson unfold, to a certain rhythm and in a certain progression. If I look back at the lesson and why it went so terribly, I’ll re-sequence it. And it’s just not that different from the logic of re-sequencing a musical thought. Afterwards, I kind of have the same…feeling, that I did the same thing, like I look at a good lesson or a bad lesson and feel it in the exact same way as a good or bad performance. Not that I’m performing in the classroom; it’s just my way of thinking of the act is the same. It has a structure. It has a balance. It has the same sort of logic.

The lesson you take from some section not going well, that informs your subsequent lessons?

Yeah, because then you look inside the experience of the other person. Now, this is the same as looking at an audience member and asking why they didn’t respond to this music. Something wasn’t presented in a way that led them through a set of experiences to where you wanted them to go. And a lot of times in a lesson, I’ll just re-sequence something: I taught them this on the guitar first, and I should have let them do this other activity first and then do that.

A lot of times if you re-sequence tasks in the classroom, you’ll find that it just works much better because it’s leading them through a set of experiences. So, you’re looking psychologically at how people build that learning inside their own heads. And that’s fascinating to me.

My mother was a teacher. She was an educator her whole life, and I think there’s just something about my brain that really enjoys the puzzle, trying to figure out why this person gets it better when I re-sequence it.

Down the rabbit hole

Play Video

There is a difference in that not everybody has the same response to a performance, whether it’s in the classroom or at a club. So, it’s difficult to know if you’ve universally pleased the entire crowd and everybody’s enthusiastic and everybody groks the information. That’s one thing. But if you have a hunch that not everybody is getting it, how do you parse that out?

Well, it’s pretty much guaranteed that not everyone’s gonna get it, whether it’s a lesson or a performance. That’s not going to happen.

I’ve been practicing vibes a lot because I’m home, and I got a set of vibes a couple months ago. I was going down the YouTube rabbit hole and looking at Gary Burton. It was incredible. It was Gary Burton with Stan Getz and Roy Haines, and they were playing a Charlie Parker tune, and it was unbelievable. I’d never seen it before. 

And then I went through the mistake of looking through all the comment threads on YouTube. It’s just never a good idea. And most of it was, “This is great, this is fantastic, how amazing, I remember that group.” But of course there was somebody at the bottom who said, “This is boring.” It just didn’t do anything for the person.

So, you’re not going to get that hundred percent. But you know when it either mostly goes well or mostly bombs. And that’s anything—if you write a book or give a speech or do a juggling act, whatever you do.

A different appreciation

You’re teaching in Brooklyn, in the largest public school system in the United States, yes?

Yes. It’s middle school music. I teach concert band and guitars and a drum line.

How many students, pre-pandemic, are in your classes?

I had about 300 kids, roughly, 25 in the drum line, about 75 in concert band, and the guitar class is a lot, probably a couple hundred. The bands meet three times a week, the guitars once or twice, and the drum line is a couple times a week.

When I was in public school in Kansas, band was my favorite class by far. It was the community. Mr. Leacox literally had rose-tinted glasses, and he used to comb his mustache with his baton, and his brother was the drummer for America. We had this device that measured wavelengths Looked like something from The Jetsons. He would put a tuba with a flute, a trombone with a piccolo, and see if we could get the vibrato to match up. I loved the notion of not only taking the disparate instruments but also the people. It was the best sense of community I had growing up in public education.

I tell you that to ask you this: do you sense some qualitative difference—I don’t want to compare you with the science teacher, but do you sense the kids having a different appreciation for the arts than for the other classes?

Yeah, absolutely, there’s a different appreciation. So, this is my fifteenth year at the department of education. At the school I’m at now, they value the developmental side of education, as opposed to the academic side, a lot more than where I have been previously. As a music teacher, what I do really lends itself to that, to that sense of community—all the things you described about why you like your band class. That’s really valued where I am now. Because I can leverage that.

Before that, I was in a district where they really valued only the academics, not the developmental, and wanted me to teach it like an academic subject and not build the sense of community, the socio-emotional side. Where I am now, I feel like I can feel free to really dive into that, building some kind of experience that is going to give the kids what band gave you. And they respond because kids need that. People need that.

A little more autonomy

It seems to me that when talk of shutting down the public school system came up, there was a reluctance, from the mayor on down, and whether the head of education was parroting that nobody knew. It was extremely tense. And when they finally shut it down, it seemed like not a trickle down scenario but a trickle up scenario: “We need to do online learning. Mark, set, go.” Each school became a nation-state and had to come up with a system. And that could vary from district to district and neighborhood to neighborhood. Did you have to develop, in a vacuum, a strategy for continuing music after the school shut down?

No. The other orchestra teacher and I had been developing online resources for two years. We had been using those tools, and we continue to work together to use those. We’ve also got a lot of colleagues, other band teachers from around the city that we are connected to, that we were able to share ideas with. There’s a pretty good network among those music teachers. We all shared resources and shared what’s working in our online classrooms. It really wasn’t, from my experience, the experience that we all kind of read about in some articles online, where the teachers were just left to fend for themselves and come up with something out of nothing. I’ve got a pretty good community of music teachers I can talk to. I think what I’m doing is working okay for what it is. Obviously, it’s about personal interaction, and you don’t have that now. But I’m getting to teach some things that I just couldn’t in the classroom anyway. So, it’s not a total loss. And I wasn’t left on my own at all. It really wasn’t that bad.

What do you like most about this situation right now, as far as teaching from a distance?

I think that a lot of kids who are probably similar types of learners to my older daughter, who like to complete work and experiences in their own way and on their own pace, benefit from this. These might be introverted kids who are shy or don’t want to do something without being able to figure out how they’re going to do it themselves.

That’s hard to implement in a classroom: you have 40 minutes, you throw the task at them. I think a lot of kids who like this work better in some ways. My daughter is the same way. At school, when she’s under the gun to complete this task in, say, ten minutes, it’s harder for her because she has to do things her own way. And at home, she’s doing some great work, but she does it on her own timetable.

So, I think there are some kids who benefit from this. What I like is that it brings some of those kids in and gives them a little more autonomy to do things their own way. What I also like is that when the kids are physically in my room, I want the instruments out and I want to be making music, I want to be making noise, and playing and playing and playing, and getting them physically going, making as much noise as possible.

What suffers is: we don’t spend time in class—because their time is so precious—playing their music. And saying, “Have you ever heard James Brown? Have you ever heard Miles Davis? Have you ever heard this one, that one?” Most of my online assignments, since we don’t have music…instruments, is introducing them to all kinds of music they wouldn’t hear.

When I grew up: pop radio. I played pop radio in 1978. You hear The Eagles and then the next song would be Stevie Wonder and then the next song would be Steely Dan. You hear everything. So, you didn’t have to seek out. Everybody knew what Motown was about, to some degree. Everybody knew what Country sounded like, to some extent. Everybody knew what Soul was, to some extent. Because radio played it all.

These kids are in really, really narrow niches now, where their iTunes and streaming services know their age and demographics and funnel to them only a very narrow band of music. This week’s lesson, for tomorrow, is on James Brown. And I know the kids are gonna love it because they’ve heard James Brown sampled on every hip hop record for the last thirty years. And my band kids will hear those horns. It’ll be great. I hope. But I can bet that one out of every class will have heard a James Brown song, which is…crazy to think about for us.

Anyway, I don’t do that in class. I’m not putting on James Brown because you just don’t have the time, and I want to get instruments in their hands.

Is that the biggest challenge you have now, that physical disconnect and trying to, as you said before, find what’s not working and how you can make it better the next round?

Right. Absolutely. Because you can’t see them in real time, responding, and then react. Because in real time you see them and: “Okay, this is working; okay that’s not working.” And you can see the kids when they walk in your door and you can see what kind of day they’re having and you can adjust. I’m not going to call on this kid. I’m going to give her time to react to whatever happened last period. Or whatever it is. You can modify as you go in real time. You just don’t have that now. I don’t have any of that.

You see the kids, especially the band kids: I’m the only teacher they have three years straight—sixth, seventh, and eight grade. New math teacher, science teacher, ELA teacher, even gym teacher every year. But I’ve known them for three years by the time they’re in eighth grade. When they walk in the door, I can see…this is what that kid kind of will need today. You have none of that with the online teaching. And a lot of these kids gravitated to music classes for the reasons you did, the sense of community, so you don’t have that right now.

Some of the teachers at my school do the live Zoom calls, and I haven’t done that yet. I put up a lot of videos every week of me showing them things or doing a lesson, so there’s some visual and there’s some feeling of interaction. But I can’t really go live with a Zoom call if I’ve got my daughter doing her schoolwork there, and the three-year-old’s running around naked. [Laughs] It’s crazy. The wild cards are too much.

Do you have one-on-ones?

Not video. I’m really careful about that. On Google Classroom, they’re up there working on a document—say, some music I put up there for them to analyze—and I can log onto the same document and I can comment back and forth with them in real time. I can see their cursor typing. I can see them interacting with whatever the lesson is. That’s one-one-one. We’re just not in the same space. We can’t see each other. But it’s one-on-one work. Some kids respond more to email, so I’ll email them about an issue or an idea. Every kid has a different modality, which, in this, too, some will only message you on the group class thread. Some will only email you. Some will only use TalkingPoints, another platform we use to communicate. It depends on the kid.

The sound of giving birth

It’s poignant that the essence of what you and the kids do has been taken away through your interaction. There’s no sound in music education now between teacher and student.

Yeah. When you sent me that link with all the cityscapes they made, the sound of the city: I loved that. And I thought to myself, one of the greatest sounds is the kids playing instruments. Even if they’re playing terribly. Just the sound of children making that noise is beautiful. And it’s the sound of the city: all around the city, you’ve got all these musicians who are trying to get their sound and working it out. And that struggle is like…it’s really a part of the city.

There’s a moment with the sixth graders, when they start band. I taught them how to put their instrument together. I taught them how to hold it. I taught them where to put their fingers. I taught them how to shape their embouchure. But there’s a moment when they play that first note, together…and it always sounds god-awful. I always tell them—because they always look at me horrified [Laughs], and I always look back at them with a big smile, and then I tell them, “This is the sound of a band giving birth to their sounds.” Sometimes I think maybe this is too much information for the kids, but I say, “Birth is beautiful in a kind of ugly way: baby comes out slimy and bloody and crying, screaming, and it’s beautiful. The beginning of life. You just gave birth to your sound. Yeah, it sounded god-awful, but that’s beautiful. It’s the beginning.” And usually they think I’m nuts. But it’s a sound that I just love.

Mr. Leacox, again: for a time, we would spend sessions—the entire fifty minutes—starting and stopping a note. Around the same time, he brought a dart board in. We would start lessons watching him throw darts. When he got a bull’s eye we applauded, when he didn’t we’d go, “Ahh.” He wouldn’t say a word about it. He just got on with the lesson. This went on for a couple of weeks. Finally, the dart board wasn’t there anymore. And he said to us, “You know, I figured out the secret to darts. It’s all about the moment of release.” Then he stopped, he paused, and he said, “Okay, let’s continue.” We started a note, and we stopped a note. It was crystal clear.

That’s a great lesson, the releasing of the dart. And that’s what we talked about earlier: there’s these universal principles, of when you release…whatever it is. And these kids are learning that experientially. You learned it experientially by playing. Watching him, but then by playing. And where is that principle in what you do? You know, it’s in there somewhere in terms of your writing, your thinking, your whatever. There’s a time when you release whatever it is you’re holding onto. It probably links back to that experience.

A thousand times better

In your experience, what’s the difference between listening to recorded music with your headphones on and listening to live music in a club?

It’s only been in the last couple of years I’ve realized that it’s absolutely nowhere close to being the same. I had thought they were roughly similar, and now I realize that live music, being in a room, is a thousand times better in every way.

In which ways?

The headphones are funneling the music straight into your ears. I think that, in ways we aren’t conscious of, when you’re in the room with the music, I think the vibrations in the air—that is, the music—is washing over you like a wave. I think that full immersive experience is sublime. And I think that listening to recorded music, even on good speakers, is just flat and two-dimensional in relation to that.

Evelyn Glennie is a great percussionist. She’s deaf but she plays in her bare feet on the wooden stage and she can feel the vibrations through her feet and she can play with all the top orchestras because she has tapped into that by the way of experiencing vibration. I think that we don’t tap into that but we do experience it differently.

So, being in that room with those kids. Back to teaching. If I were to record the kids and play it back. I have a lot of colleagues who do that a lot more. I do record them and have them listen back, once they’re more experienced. They don’t understand why, while they were playing, they sounded so good and when they listened back they didn’t. It really actually was a better sound when they played than when you played it back.

Yeah. All those Grateful Dead shows I went to in the 90s when I lived in California: I was convinced, until just now, that they purposefully had the sound not so good at the beginning and as the show went along the acoustics became more focused, became sharper.

Well, the sound person probably did do some adjustment as it went.

But now, from what you’ve just said, it’s my being part of that community, adjusting to all those people there, settling down my ears in order to focus eventually on the music and the complete experience. So, now you’ve put my whole life’s theory into doubt.

[Laughter]

That’s the thing, too, is being with somebody else, even listening to a recording. Let’s say, because it’s the reality now, that live music is not really an option. I’ve listened to songs, the same song, dozens of times. You can listen to it, sitting on the couch next to somebody else, and it suddenly sounds different to you.

My friend Evan and I used to occasionally get together, and each of us would pick one album that other hadn’t heard, that we thought the other person needed to hear. And we’d just listen straight through.

One time I brought over to his apartment A Love Supreme. Put it on. You can’t talk. We listened all the way through. Then he put on Animals by Pink Floyd, which I hadn’t heard at that time. Not only did the one of us, who hadn’t heard the album before, have a great experience, but even the person who brought the album heard it in a different way. A Love Supreme sounded different to me sitting next to him because of the experience he was having.

It’s community. It’s two people, but it’s a community. You just sit next to someone and you don’t even comment. You just sit next to him. Don’t say a word the whole time. There’s a shared thing. I’d heard that record dozens and dozens of times, which is why I picked it. But it’s not just me looking at him for his reaction; I’m hearing it differently now.

Right. Neal playing Dire Straits, Love Over Gold, “Telegraph Road.” First time I’d heard it. A hundred years ago in Des Moines. I hear that entirely. It’s the experience. It’s the more pleasant version of where you were when JFK was shot.

Yeah.

Into the community aspect

Project ahead. How do things change? Let’s assume and hope that we’ll get back to some sort of social ability and community. As far as music education goes, what changes? What needs to change? What do you suspect is going to change?

What will be different from the way it was before this? Or what should be…I don’t know yet. I think everything is going to be different when we get back, and everything gets to be rethought. Things we just assumed, “That’s the way it is,” can be different.

These kids, like all of us, but these kids are definitely traumatized and will carry this experience through their lifetimes. So, I would hope that we would be able to lean into the community aspect, realizing how important that is. I would definitely hope we would put more of an awareness on that, now that we see what happens to people without it.

When you say “traumatized,” I’m thinking a slow-moving lava flow of trauma that’s not a sudden impact here because it’s insidious and it’s invisible. Is that what you mean by traumatized?

Yeah. It’s not like a blunt trauma, but they’ve had everything changed and taken, and they’re terrified. A lot of these kids I teach, I know they come from households where they don’t have a lot of resources, or maybe it’s not as supportive or as healthy as you had hoped it would be.

A lot them depended on the school as a safe place to come and a place where they could get two meals of their day. So, being home is not, for them, what it is for me. Just being stuck at home is, unfortunately, traumatic for a lot of these young people. They depended on the school as a safe place. I’m very fortunate that I didn’t grow up in the kind of poverty a lot of the kids that I teach…have.

This beautiful, spinning, contrapuntal fugue

Some communities in Africa love country music without knowing the language, but the sound of country music speaks to pining for the one who got away, for being on the road, nostalgic for something that’s not there anymore. 

There’s some sort of universality that comes through for them, for those communities. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: how did they communicate? With music. That’s how they began.

Right. Or the beginning of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s creation myth. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Tolkien’s creation myth starts with music:

The one god begins a melody, and he starts spinning counter-melodies, and the counter-melodies spin off into other deities, who present their musical theme. 

And it’s this beautiful, spinning, contrapuntal fugue, and that is what sets in motion the creation of the universe.

Feelin' the spirit

What are you listening to today?

I listened to Grant Green. He put out a gospel jazz album called Feelin’ the Spirit. I put that on while we were having breakfast. He does a bunch of spirituals but in a really swinging kind of bebop way. It’s a beautiful record.

Your music inspirations. I found a Modern Drummer profile of you from February 2000. Ringo, Keith Moon, Art Blakey, Al Jackson, Jimmy Cobb, Roger Humphries, Roger Ryan. Evolved in 20 years? Would you add to that?

I think that’s changed. I went off into more the direction of the teacher than as a performer. So, I really haven’t added too much to the drumming influences, except for some younger drummers. There’s a guy named Dan Weiss. I love his drumming. I can’t play anything like that. He is a different type of drummer than I could be. Like, it just wouldn’t work for who I am, but I’m really amazed by what he does on the instrument. He actually approaches the instrument in a unique way, which is something I haven’t seen anyone do for a long time.

Outside of my instrument, I think about things a little more generally since teaching all these instruments. I’ve been listening to a lot of Lester Young.

I’ve been listening to a lot more jazz lately.

Jazz

I think that jazz has kept me sane through this self-quarantine. Jazz is the perfect elixir, as perfect as perfect can be, through this time because it’s approachable chaos.

And it’s in the moment. Everything is so up in the air right now that you can only really try to keep yourself in the present as much as you can. The past is horrifying people, and then the future is completely up for grabs.

Jazz does put you in the moment because of the spontaneity. I’ve just not been able to listen to some of the people I love. Like Neil Young. I just can’t put on a Neil Young record right now. The other day I did play “Ohio” because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I listened to the recording of him solo at Massey Hall, that great solo concert he did. And he’d only written that, I think, less than a year before that concert. That’s a great performance.

How important is music? Softball question, but let’s see where we go with it.

[Laughs] Are you deliberately leaving it that open-ended?

I am because otherwise the question’s going to box me in. I don’t wanna qualify it. How central is music to your life?

Oh, to my life. I didn’t know if you meant to humanity in general, or to—

Oh, yeah. I was building up to that.

[Laughter]

Well to me, like I said, it’s just kind of the way I think and the way I relate to things. So, it’s central in that it’s my currency. I know it’s not like that for everybody. But I think as you expand the circles—you talk about my students, my family—I think it’s important in different ways to different people. There’s a reason why humanity’s always had it. It’s part of what we are.

We have language. We have language that-that has developed in ways that other creatures don’t have. But even our language has limitations, and that’s what music sort of picks up. It’s really another sub-category of language. So, it’s as important as language because it’s a way of…we use language to understand things.

You know, it’s not until you have words. You think in a certain language. People who only speak French think in French. We think in whatever our primary language is. I think that’s why language is so important. It’s how you think. It’s how you understand what’s around you. And music is a way of understanding that.


May 10, 2020
Interviewer: Hal Klopper