A master class in percussion becomes an international collaboration

When Keith Aleo got a phone call from his friend Jean-Baptiste Leclere, he never dreamed what started as a casual invitation would become a rare international collaboration. Soon after hanging up, two of the orchestra world’s biggest names would be joining his percussion students for a master class at Interlochen Arts Academy’s Percussion school.

Aleo happens to know Leclere well. So familiar is their relationship that you’d think they were related, playful banter and teasing peppering their conversations, and Aleo referring to the soft-spoken Frenchman as “JB.” Professionally, though, Aleo reveres the younger man’s talent. At age 30, Leclere holds the title of first percussion in the Paris Opera. Which means he’s good. Very good. He has known Aleo, who is director of percussion at Interlochen, for nearly eight years. The two have a strong friendship, one that brings Leclere back to Interlochen each year to teach during the summer Institute. But this recent phone call was unexpected.

“When JB first called me,” Aleo said, “he was like, ‘I’d love to come by and see the family and visit the school’ and whatever, but I was like, jeez, I don’t know if we have the budget for that (as Leclere was then in Paris). But he said, ‘No problem’ and decided he’d fly in. So he flew himself over. Just for us. That’s just the kind of guy JB is.”

It wasn’t until a few days later that Aleo realized that the dates Leclere would be visiting coincided with a visit from a dynamic duo in the percussion world: NanaFormosa. Founded in 2009, NanaFormosa is a pair of Taiwanese percussionists: Yu-Ying Chang and Ya-Hsin Cheng. Amazing and intense, these two perpetually smiling women are percussion powerhouses, dropping their disarming demeanor when playing; concentrating on their movements with laser-like precision. They attended the International Percussion Competition of Luxembourg and have won several awards as soloists in other international competitions, including the International Competition of Vibraphone in Clermont-Ferrand and the Geneva International Music Competition. They hold concerts regularly in Luxembourg, China, France and Taiwan, but this was their first trip to America.

They were in the United States to present a concert at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in San Antonio, Texas, and had agreed to come visit Aleo’s percussion class while in the states. They would visit the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and would then drive to Interlochen afterward. The same day as Leclere’s visit.

“So I double booked,” said Aleo with a shrug.

And so this rare and impressive master class, a collaboration of cultures, techniques and skills, was set in motion.

On the day of the master class, Leclere was running late as Aleo waited for him in the hallway outside his practice room on the second floor of Interlochen’s Frohlich Piano and Percussion Building. Aleo remarked jokingly that this was not necessarily unexpected for JB. NanaFormosa had already begun performing with several students by the time Leclere arrived.

Aleo greeted him with a smile and hug, and teased him about the time like a big brother. Leclere admitted to running late, and remarked that he had not had a chance to grab a bite to eat. Aleo mentioned that they’d go eat after the class as Leclere rubbed his stomach for emphasis.

Aleo ushered Leclere into the practice room quietly as NanaFormosa continued to play. Accompanying them, off to the side of the small room crowded with vibraphones and marimbas, were two of Aleo’s students, Margot Takeda, a high school sophomore, and Miyu Morita, a postgraduate student. They were feverishly flying through an abstract, jazzy piece of music. They worked together seamlessly, each with a look of intense excitement and concentration. The music itself was mesmerizing and hypnotic, like a clockwork dream of a Japanese garden. It was called “Chasing of the Butterfly,” a brand-new piece by Taiwanese composer Yi-Chen Chang. It was played for the first time at PASIC, making this the second time it had ever been performed for an audience.

The music ebbed and flowed like a visual language they all heard, spoke and understood. The group would pause to discuss what went wrong, what went right and how students could improve, honing in on particulars like the force of Morita’s strikes, Aleo’s suggestions on how certain beats needed to be met and when certain notes needed to be played, and more.

There were roughly seven students in the classroom, one of the advantages of Interlochen’s smaller class sizes, which allows for much more one-on-one time with instructors and guests. Leclere watched the performance, studying the music on the sheet, the faces of students, the techniques, hand positions, conducting style. Then Aleo called for a break; something didn’t sound right, and Leclere offered some insights to the students with NanaFormosa’s input added to the mix.

The students seemed amazingly unfazed by the level of talent in the room; of not only how close they were to these musical phenoms, but also to how they were actually talking and playing and working with them. But looks can be deceiving.

“That was really not expected,” said Takeda after the class. “It was just very casual the way he came in and joined in. I used to be a piano major and we had other guest lecturers come in, but those were very formal and we had a lot of advanced notice. It was very structured, you know? We’d set up chairs and they’d have a PowerPoint.”

“Yeah,” agreed Morita, “but this experience was so casual. He was just suddenly here and playing with us and giving me advice. It was kind of crazy. I mean, I was playing and just kind of looked over and there he was! And I was like, ‘Guess who’s next to me? It’s that guy from the Paris Opera!’ ”

At this point Aleo invited Leclere to join in on the next run-through. The marimba he stood by was untended, and without much hesitation he asked Takeda if he could borrow some mallets and set himself to join in.  

As the music began, NanaFormosa once again showcased the precision and meticulous skill that has made them a force in the world of percussion. For not knowing this piece and never having heard it, Leclere played on point, although with slight, understandable hesitation. At a point where Aleo was expecting a longer pause, Leclere continued too soon, and the room laughed. They finished out the piece without any more gaffes, and everyone joined in rounds of applause and laughter.

Aleo ended the class and the students began tearing down and moving the equipment so that Leclere could set up for his workshop on both tambourine and cymbals. Vibraphones and drums were slid aside and chairs were unstacked as students, and NanaFormosa, sat down to hear what Leclere had to say.

He stood at first behind a marimba and recanted the recent events in Paris, and how many of  his students in Paris are being directly affected by the turmoil there, and so he dedicated a solo piece by Bach to them. He played with slow precision and effortlessness, caressing the music out of the keys. The students were transfixed; NanaFormosa taking video on their smartphones. Aleo smiled with unabashed admiration.

After a brief moment of applause, Leclere began directing the students in proper form for  the tambourine. He showed ways in which to hold and manipulate the instrument to produce various tones and accents. He got the class on their feet and led them in a tambourine-heavy version of Michael Jackson’s Beat It to show not only how the instrument works and how it can be manipulated, but also how it can be used in any type of musical genre; contemporary, pop, classical or opera.

Students took notes as he pointed out the importance of knowing the instrument; its minimum and maximum output; the combinations that affect change in tonality. He discussed the importance of culture on how a performer should play, emphasizing how important it is to know your composer and what time frame he lived in and what it was like there at that time.

“Winter in France is much different than winter in Russia,” he said. “You need to really know about the geography and history of it all if you are going to know the music.”

He then turned to  cymbals, showing how gravity and manipulation and composition of the brass discs could vary the sound, emphasis and tonality. Understanding these things, he said, is the job of the percussionist.

Takeda copied down much of what he said in her notebook, noting that even the way in which Leclere held the instruments was a takeaway. “He has a very European style to what he’s doing—his technique,” she said. “A lot of the things he was doing are things I’ll definitely do now. It was very different from what I normally do.”

Soon 90 minutes had flown by, and Leclere ended his session with a Q&A with the students. A student asked what he had done before joining the Paris Opera. To this Leclere looked directly at the student and said immediately, “Practiced. Practice, practice, practice, practice. I did not start (in music) until I was 16. Quite late. But after I finished high school it was when I realized a life in percussion was possible. I was like, ‘This is a thing? Hmmm!’ And so I practiced. Nine, ten hours a day, every day. I had no other thing. I was just determined, you know? Sometimes I would eat a sandwich with one hand and keep playing with the other so to just keep practicing! But it was worth it. It was worth it because now I am here and I am with the Paris Opera and I get to come here and see all of you.”

The final question asked the international percussion star what he received back from working with students.

“I am still a student,” he said, smiling. “I am still learning. Every time when they play for me I see a different way. A different way to hold the instrument or play the tune. This helps me in my teaching. It helps me to compare the ways people play so that I can learn more about how they play and why they do it that way. I get to meet people and talk to them about music. And how they like music like I do. Music is so important. It’s like food in my life. I need it to live. So I’m happy I need that.”

And with that, the master class ended, with appreciative applause to both Leclere and NanaFormosa and a huddle of students around Aleo as he gave out last-minute advice and perhaps homework. Leclere walked off to the back of the room and stretched, smiling as he looked at the students, perhaps thinking about music, or his own beginnings at their age, or maybe just wondering what he’d have for dinner. It was hard to tell.

—Scott R. Miller, Interlochen Center for the Arts editor/copywriter