On March 11 and 12, MacEwan University’s music students will be putting on a contemporary combos concert, featuring ensembles performing everything from R&B and soul to contemporary pop and jazz.
“It’s a unique group of ensembles,” says Jim Head, the coordinator of the contemporary combos. “They’re very eclectic.”
As part of their degree, students in all majors of the music program (composition, recording and production, performance, and general) must perform in an ensemble during their second, third, and fourth years.
During their first year, music students take a basic contemporary ensemble course to give them a good background in a variety of musical genres. Head explains that some units taught during that course are Motown, soul, and even a unit devoted entirely to The Beatles. As students enter the second half of their degree and join the contemporary combos, the emphasis moves to self-direction, rather than a prescribed curriculum.
“We’re really trying to guide (students) along to the point where when they leave the program… they have experience directing ensembles and working with others,” says Head.
This year, there are about 70 students split into nine combos. Students audition and are sorted into a group of other like-minded students with an instructor at the helm, based on their genre preferences and experience level. This semester, Head says that many of the ensembles are focusing on alternative rock.
“This is real experiential learning,” Head says. “You’re putting essentially everything you’ve been learning in all of your music courses into practice, and so we’re really hoping that what students will take away is the experience of having performed in several concerts and they’ve worked with other people, which is so important in music. It’s so collaborative.”
Gillian Spencer is a third-year composition major in the program, who is a vocalist and an alto saxophone player. This year, she is playing in the progressive rock/metal combo — a new genre option this year — with six other students.
Featuring an alto saxophone in a progressive rock group is a bit unconventional, but Head says that the combos are a space where students can experiment with these unconventional instrument and genre pairings and have fun with it.
“It’s really interesting to see how creative they are with making this happen,” says Head.
The combos also give students a chance to arrange music, put a set together, and work with people that they haven’t explicitly chosen to work with.
“It’s quite exceptional,” says Head. “I’ve had ensembles (where) these people could go to the studio and record. It’s that good.”
Spencer’s favourite part about playing in the combo is the overall mood. “Everyone’s very supportive,” she says. “It’s fun to try challenging pieces. That’s something that I didn’t get in previous ensembles, but I’m getting in this one.”
Through the combo, they have learned how to navigate rehearsals and collaborate with others. “I also learned that having rehearsals at 9:30 a.m. is very questionable,” they add cheekily.
At the upcoming concert, Head says audiences can expect to see a rich mix of music. “It’s going to be a… lot of music that you wouldn’t hear from any of our other ensembles — everything ranging from really contemporary pop music and some lesser-known contemporary alter- native and rock music and definitely classic soul and jazz.”
“There’s always going to be one band you love and one band you don’t,” adds Spencer. “For us specifically, you can expect some really complicated riffs and just some hard music and possibly a video game tune.”
The Contemporary Combos concerts will take place in the Betty Andrews Recital Hall on campus on March 11 and 12 from 2 to 4 p.m.