Former MIE Student Returns from U.S. State Department Tour as American Musical Envoy

Drummer and percussionist Richie Barshay graduated from NEC in 2005. Originally from West Hartford, Connecticut, Barshay has spent the last few years touring and performing with jazz icon Herbie Hancock’s project, “Gershwin’s World,” and as the newest member of Hancock’s quartet. Barshay just returned from a U.S. State Department tour of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

What was your impetus for getting involved with MIE?

I taught private lessons [while] in high school, but I basically had aspirations like a lot of musicians to do some teaching at some point. My freshman year [at NEC], I was just interested in learning more than I already knew and getting some ideas. I took one MIE class each semester, with Larry Scripp and Warren Senders. Those classes were really mind-opening, and I’m still in good touch with Warren.

Tell us about what the outreach portion of the trip looked like, and how your MIE studies contributed to your experiences abroad.

The toughest part was that there was a big variation of the kids we were performing for. At the American School (Dhaka, Bangladesh), we worked with students from 3rd grade up through 9th grade. The students had only a little exposure to the type of music we were playing, but they had pretty much no knowledge of clave rhythms of Afro-Cuban/Afro-Caribbean music. We’ve been playing together for close to 10 years, and we’ve done a fair number of workshops at schools, so we know from experience how important it is to stay open to playing things by ear. I’d say that we improvise as much while playing as we do when teaching different concepts.

My [MIE] classes with Warren (Senders) are what have influenced me the most as a teacher, especially as far as the mental aspects of my teaching are concerned. Warren teaches that being open-ended with lesson plans can help to deal with expectations within a classroom; for example, thinking of (and treating) an hour-long lesson as if it were a free improvisation.

We did a workshop at Brac University in Bangladesh in which we asked students to come up and play some of the rhythm instruments we were talking about. But instead a university student came up with his rock guitar and said he wanted to play “Hotel California,” so we ended up using some of our Afro-Caribbean rhythms in an improvised version of that song.

What specific aspect(s) of the MIE program have most informed who you are as an Artist-Teacher-Scholar?

Again, my work with Warren Senders and Jerry Leake have proven the most influential. In Warren’s “Cross Cultural” [MIE 351] class, I learned about the difference in the vibe between attending an Indian classical concert vs. hearing someone play at the Regattabar. [In an Indian setting], musicians take 15 minutes to tune their instruments, all the while sitting on the floor with no shoes. Warren showed us how different but how still valid other cultures and their musical techniques are. In other words, you and your students can use these different techniques to do something, but aim towards the same kind of expression. I learned from Warren and Jerry that, through aural training and oral tradition, there is no ‘right vs. wrong’ way of doing things. And naturally, when we were in India we would compare roles of instruments in the Latin jazz context to those in an Indian classical context.

What place do you think the MIE program has in the culture of NEC, and in the larger community of training future professional musicians?

I did both the MIE program and Tonja Maggi’s Performance Outreach program at NEC. Tonja Maggi was incredibly helpful as well, and doing her program helped to build on what I had already learned in my MIE classes.

MIE is really about knowing how and when to be asking questions. It really helps performers to develop a personality–ways of speaking and communicating [to audiences] that are really accessible. The program helps you get to a point where you don’t have to think about talking to a specific audience, you just speak and act like who you are..

Interview by Randy Wong.

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