Take a Solo: MRU Conservatory’s New Jazz Improv Course


Andre Wickenheiser


“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” 

– George Gershwin

Like many jazz artists, Andre Wickenheiser is multifaceted. Whether he’s swinging with the Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble, soloing with the Prime Time Big Band or teaching emerging trumpet players what he’s mastered of the craft, this cat knows jazz.

The great news for up-and-comers is that he’s teaching Jazz Improvisation at MRU Conservatory.

“It’s a very basic jazz improvisation course,” he assures, “We’re starting from the very beginning. It’s a very warm and friendly environment so people can feel free to experiment and create music without judgement.”

He acknowledges that the course is geared towards people 16 and older. He explains the reason is that, “you have to have a certain level of proficiency to get the most out of it.”

Wickenheiser creates a collaborative environment in all ensembles he works with, “It has nothing to do with theory or chords or scales,” he notes, “it’s about sound and time and feel.”

Jazz improvisation is something that has to be learned and nurtured. It’s not just notes. The notes strung together become ideas.  Wickenheiser compares, “Creating coherent musical phrases is the equivalent of building a sentence using words. Using the musical ideas you already know, you can form new ‘sentences’ out of that.”

But Wickenheiser imparts that you’re never just speaking to yourself. Under the right tutelage, these sentences can grow into musical conversations between soloists, “There is trading (solos), call-and-response… interacting is a huge part of it.”

His biggest focus in the course is the sound. “No matter what you play, the sound is the first thing people hear.” Not to be singularly focused, he adds, “Then, having a really good time feel so you’re always in the groove.”

The course will start on March 26th and run 7 Sundays (excluding Easter Sunday) from 1-2:30 p.m. at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts.

“As jazz has progressed, it’s become more technical.” He explains. But in this Jazz Improv course, he wants to keep it simple.

He cites some heroes, “Guys like Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet) and Lester Young (tenor sax) all played in the Duke Ellington Band and Count Basie Orchestra before bebop. So, before things got really busy and ‘note-y’ they were just playing melodies all the time.”

The secret of their success is, “A lot of the time, they’re playing something simple, but what they’re playing has a very profound statement. It’s not about flash, it’s about being musical. Their sound and their stylistic inflections on things make it very interesting. It’s a good place to start.”

A note of caution from Wickenheiser, “A lot of people listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they’re starting. They’re very technical.” He adds that some get turned away from the complexity, “they think – woah, I can’t do that.”

In this course, he empowers the budding jazz soloist, “What you end up creating is based on what you’ve heard before. It’ll get your brain thinking in a different way.”

Along with his instructional duties, you’ll hear Andre Wickenheiser featured in this month’s Salon Series with The Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble in the TransAlta Pavilion at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, February 25th at 8pm.

– by JLove

Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble

The Horn Capital of Canada


Hornfest returns


For the 8th time, Hornfest returns to MRU Conservatory.

Laurie Matiation, instructor with MRU and Horn player with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, is ready. She announces, “Our guest artist is Dr. Ashley Cumming who’s originally from this area (Alberta). She studied with Jeff Nelson.”

Nelsen, who’s also hails from Alberta, is the horn player in the Canadian Brass.

At the risk of seeming like we’re blowing our own horn, it seems like Alberta’s got talent when it comes to this instrument.

Cumming, who studied at Indiana State and now works at Murray State University, contacted Matiation to see if there was an opportunity to work with the students of the MRU Conservatory Academy for Gifted Youth. Matiation saw an opportunity, “I had hired her for the Academy Program, and it was right around Hornfest, so we put it together.”

Hornfest, which runs the weekend of March 4-5, 2017, is a celebration of horn playing with a particular emphasis on playing together.

“We’re going to be working on a lot of ensemble stuff,” Matiation explains, “Every person who comes is going to be put in a small ensemble… a duo, trio, quartet or sextet.”

Clinicians and coaches are established horn players like Matiation, Heather Wootton, Douglas Umana and Jennifer Frank-Umana all of whom occupy seats in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

For those contemplating joining, you’re more than welcome.

“It’s open to anyone from beginners to adult horn players in the community.” Matiation explains, “It’ll be a nice community weekend of horn playing.”

Along with repertoire that includes some movie music, “like some John Williams or (the theme to) Rocky,” Matiation alludes to a special commission that a lucky octet could play, “We have a new piece we might feature this year. It was used at Joan Watson’s memorial service.” Watson was the Principal horn player of the Canadian Opera Company who passed a couple years ago.

Matiation is hoping this new work will pay tribute to an inspiring player and teacher who had worked as a clinician at MRU Conservatory.

Hornfest continues to enrich the education of local brass players by bringing them together with great instructors and guest artists. Matiation notes the support of the Margaret Stephens Memorial Fund, a fund established after a passionate adult horn player who played in the Westwinds Society Band in Calgary, which allows Hornfest to invite guest artists to come to MRU.

As highlights go, whether it’s the master classes, guest artists or mass horn choir finale, Matiation says, “It’s hard to pinpoint one particular thing.” But she knows her favourite part of the gig, “It’s watching the students have that ‘lightbulb’ experience. You know, I can do this! I’m a part of that sound.”

It’s this excitement and inspiration that ensures Hornfest will continue to produce and support the upper brass of Canadian horn playing for decades to come.

– JLove

Beats Learning

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Paula Midori Nieckar is rhythmically inclined. As the MRU Conservatory’s new Taiko drumming instructor, she’s certainly marching to her own beat.

She recalls when her passion for performance was ignited, “I first saw taiko performed at the Heritage Day Festival in Edmonton in the late 80’s. I was immediately drawn to the natural rhythms, the thunderous booming sound, and the choreography that was incorporated into the music.”

Having studied ballet since age five and music since age 9 (she is also an oboist), she liked the synergy of the art form, claiming, “Taiko seemed to draw elements of both of those worlds.” Referring primarily to the Japanese group KODO, Nieckar admires the well-rounded commitment involved, “Professional taiko players are amazing athletes with training regimens that include long distance running, workouts, communal living, and strength training, in addition to intense drumming.” Though Nieckar will be offering a Youth Class (ages 10-15) and an Adult Class (age 16+) in the fall, it likely won’t be as intense. “Students should be prepared for a lot of fun,” she quips. “There’s some physical movement within their own physical capabilities, but there is no experience necessary.”

For those starting musicians of all ages who may be intimidated by notes on a page, Nieckar dispels that fear, “Taiko pieces are taught orally using a method of kuchi-shoga (a verbal cueing of the rhythm using syllables like ‘don’, “doko” or “ka”), and pieces are memorized rather than reading sheet music.”

She describes three sizes of drums that will be explored in class. “Large Odaiko drums have a very deep thunderous reverberating quality. The small shimedaiko have a more piercing high-pitched sound.” Finally, she identifies the popular chudaiko drum, “a medium-sized taiko that is often constructed from recycled wine barrels.”

Those who have experienced taiko performances, perhaps from Nieckar’s ensemble Midnight Taiko Kai in Calgary, will perhaps recognize two differing drum positions. Beta-dai is the upright flat-on-the-floor drumming that students will begin with and Naname is where the drum is raised and angled to enable a different percussive style and choreography. In all age groups, Nieckar will rehearse, “a variety of traditional and “open-source” repertoire, as well as introducing some basic improvisation.” Then she hopes to have a public recital on the final day of classes for family and friends to experience taiko performance.

According to Nieckar, this is a great time for the MRU Conservatory to start incorporating the art of taiko drumming in its musical programming. She says, “Some of my taiko peers are collaborating with rock bands, electronic music, ballet companies, classical music, television commercials, sports half-time shows and with choral music.” In fact, she addresses its growing presence in popular culture. “Photos of an interview with composer John Williams leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens revealed an odaiko in the percussion section at the back of the orchestra.”

For fans of the Force, “these are the drums you’re looking for.”

  • by JLove


Passed with Honours

Some of the CBEREA visiting the Bella

This past week, the Bella Concert Hall was examined by some lifelong masters of assessment… retired teachers.

Forty-five former teachers met with MRU Conservatory Director Elaine Danelesko for a private tour of the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts, with a special focus on the Bella herself. By all accounts, she passed with flying colours.

Teachers are always ‘classy’

The Calgary Board of Education Retired Employees Association (CBEREA) provides members with various experiences and activities. Regular bowling and golf tournaments, bridge groups and luncheons are among the featured offerings. There is also a walkers and hikers division of the group who chose to end their trek in the lobby of the Bella.

Elaine Danelesko, who radiates with pride as she introduces all guests to the MRU Conservatory facilities, effortlessly spoke about the programs offered, the private studios’ acoustic treatment and the merits of the state-of-the-art practice rooms capable of accommodating worldwide private lessons through Skype to a responsive audience.

The reactions to the facilities, the programming and the design all made the grade.

These teachers gave the Bella an exemplary grade

Having just opened in the fall, it was a new experience for most, “Today I realized that there is a wonderful opportunity not far from home that has not been on my radar.”says Sharon Terray, retired Social Studies teacher who last taught at Lord Beaverbrook High School. Terray, who helped arrange the tour for the group, continues, “Because of what I saw today, I hope to be aware of programming and upcoming events, and thanks to free Sunday parking, take advantage of what the Conservatory has to offer the public.”

Seeing how it might directly affect the group’s demographic, Terray’s friend and co-walker Barbara Hongisto chimes in, “The facilities provide super opportunities for parents and grandparents to offer musical programs to young ones!”

Terray assess the Bella. “All the attention to detail both from an aesthetic and an acoustic point of view means that there is always more to take in; you have to sit there for a while to really appreciate it all.”CONS_blog_insiders_button_250x125-rev2

Sharon’s husband Dr. John Terray, who is the retired chairman of Mathematics, Physics, and Engineering, MRU, has an eye for quality, “I was very impressed with the architecture and design of the building. “ Of the Bella herself, he claims, “The concert hall conveyed a sense of quality with warmth.”

The offering that seemed to achieve bonus marks from this gathering is the outreach that MRU Conservatory is building within the education community in our Calgary school boards.

In discussion at the back of the class while the group hiked through the Music with Your Baby area and the Atelier Room, Dr. Terray sums up, “The tour informed me of the many opportunities the MRU Conservatory provides to the citizens of Calgary.”

Congrats to the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts on an inspiring spring report card.

  • by JLove


Popular music classes coming to Conservatory

Popular music classes are coming to the Conservatory this fall: instructor James Desautels is teaching from experience. The award-winner is leading classes in songwriting, music industry business, rock bands and orchestra and more.

Even if you haven’t met James Desautels yet, chances are you may have already heard him.

The newest Conservatory strings faculty member (and Academy alumnus) is enjoying more than two decades working full-time in the music entertainment industry.

If you watched the final episode of NBC’s The Office, you were hearing Desautels as first violinist during Dwight and Angela’s wedding scene. Here he is performing what we heard:

From Itzhak Perlman to Pearl Jam, Desautels has toured the world sharing the stage with stars of the classical world, famous rockers and everyone in between.

Now, the award-winning Calgarian is sharing his experience as an accomplished songwriter, composer, producer, conductor and Grammy voting member by offering a host of new classes in popular music at the Conservatory.

This fall, the Conservatory is offering new classes in songwriting, rock bands and rock orchestra, country, rhythm and blues, music industry business, history of popular music and more.

“Popular music is timeless. Great songs live forever,” said Desautels. “Popular music is for everyone. This opportunity for musical expression and performance is unparalleled.”

New group classes for rock band offers an opportunity for people who are looking to play with other musicians and strut their stuff on stage.

“The thrill of live music is universal,” he says. “Great things happen when we come together to share music.”

Performance opportunities lead to confidence and practical training in popular music, says Desautels.

“Many people are  interested in taking their playing to a higher level. The Conservatory offers Rock band courses for all combinations of instruments Faculty and students can dream up. This offers a unique opportunity for students to collaborate while studying and performing together.

Rock orchestra is “a one of a kind opportunity and life changing experience for students to be a part of a massive sonic landscape,” said Desautels.

The classically-trained violinist (who also plays piano, viola, mandolin and guitar, says expanding performing opportunities and introducing songwriting for Conservatory students offers them a unique experience.

“It’s freeing to write what I’m feeling. I find that collaboration is key — co-writing is magical. The flow that comes with another person cannot be matched alone. And it is thrilling to create something that wasn’t there before. Performing this music the energy exchange between the stage and the crowd is immediate.”

Desautels got his start studying classical violin at age five. Two years later he began studying fiddle, country and bluegrass music. As a teenager he toured internationally, performing classical and fiddle music, and earned a Bachelor of Music degree with distinction at age 21. Desautels received a Master of Music degree from the University of Arizona and moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree.

Desautels says popular music classes offer students of all backgrounds and abilities opportunities to enrich themselves.

“We are completing Mount Royal Conservatory’s music with all the branches of the musical tree.”

Watch for more announcements about popular music at the Conservatory. Sign up for our enewsletters to receive the latest news.

Sherri Zickefoose, Jan. 20, 2015

Adult band taking a cue from life

Mount Royal Conservatory's Adult Beginning Band is a great way to pick up an instrument from your youth or your dreams.
Mount Royal Conservatory’s Adult Beginning Band is a great way to pick up an instrument from youth or from your dreams.

Mount Royal Conservatory is well-known for its important role as a training ground for child prodigies, the Calgary Youth Orchestra, choirs, and offering excellence in music lessons and speech arts.

But few realize the Conservatory offers musical training for adults who have never played an instrument.

That includes a class that has really taken off: Adult Beginning Band.

It’s a fun, positive experience for adults. No previous playing experience required, and it’s okay if you don’t read music — we will be starting with one note at a time.

The class is for people who have never picked up a musical instrument before, or played in childhood and want to start again. The instruments include flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, French horn, trombone, baritone, tuba, drums and percussion.

The group has attracted players from all walks of life: there is an 80-year-old doctor turned trumpet player, a brass player who is keen to turn his attention to the tuba, and a husband and wife team on trumpet and flute. Mount Royal University faculty are also joining: there’s a nursing faculty member and even the Conservatory’s own theory instructor.

Says band instructor Gina Allen: “They are all amazing, courageous individuals who I admire and who inspire me to be a better leader every week.”

The group is gearing up to perform a concert in June. Stayed tuned!

Sherri Zickefoose, Dec. 15, 2014




Exciting times this fall at Mount Royal Conservatory

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September signals back to school at Mount Royal Conservatory for students, music educators, and new events for concert goers. Our Academy for Gifted Youth is gearing up with fresh faces, auditions are underway for our family of youth and adult choirs, and our ensembles, Calgary Youth Orchestra, early childhood programs and speech arts will soon be in full swing.

But fall classes and activities aren’t just for children.

Research shows that group classes and private lessons for adults enrich lives. Life-long learning benefits everyone, whether learning to play an instrument or singing as a hobby, or private speech arts lessons for boosting your career in the boardroom.

Curious? See what the Conservatory is offering and join us.


Calgary Boys’ Choir6978_lg
“Approachable” Fall Family Concert
Oct. 19, 2014
3 p.m. Leacock Theatre
A free early season family concert aimed at recruitment, featuring the Senior Choir and a variety of child-friendly post-concert activities.

Calgary Organ Festival and SymposiumMRU carthy closeup
Oct. 26-Nov. 2
Internationally-acclaimed performers and a Halloween silent film screening  set to live music are in store for audiences of the fifth annual Calgary Organ Festival. This year’s 10-day festival lineup of recitals and concerts includes performances by Luc Beauséjour (Montreal), and David Baskeyfield (UK/USA). The Great Halloween Organ SpookTacular is featuring a screening of the 1925 silent movie Phantom of the Opera with live pipe organ accompaniment at Knox United Church.  Free recitals at MRU include a live carillon concert outdoors. See complete listings at

Wyatt Artist in Residence Concert Series
Assad Brothers Guitar DuoAssad Bros Mount Royal Conservatory
Nov. 9, 2014
7:30 p.m., Leacock Theatre
Brazilian-born brothers Sergio and Odair Assad have set the benchmark for all other guitarists by creating a new standard of guitar innovation, ingenuity and expression. “Call it one of the most engaging musical presentations of the season. Better yet, call it a stunning display of the music of the Western Hemisphere:” The Los Angeles Times

Christmas in Songcons_img_header_cis
Nov. 29, 2014
7 p.m. Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
A family holiday tradition and a celebration the season with the joyful sounds of Mount Royal Conservatory. Christmas in Song has been a treasured part of Calgary’s holiday festivities for nearly three decades. This, our 26th annual concert, will feature Mount Royal’s Arietta, Arioso, Artio and Kantorei choirs, the outstanding Calgary Youth Orchestra, and a surprise line-up of special guest artists.

“Winter Wonderland” Concert by Calgary Boys’ Choir
Dec. 7, 2014
Leacock Theatre  7 p.m.
This will be a full-length, ticketed concert event featuring both levels of the Calgary Boys’ Choir in music celebrating the glories of winter, wildlife and scenery.

Sherri Zickefoose, Sept. 2, 2014

Beatles professor embarking on pilgrimage


Guess who’s going to see Paul McCartney perform at Candlestick Park’s last concert?

Our Beatles professor James Istvanffy, that’s who.

Before the San Francisco, California stadium meets the wrecking ball, McCartney has the honour of being its final performing artist this Thursday.

And James points out to us that it’s rather fitting: the Beatles played their history-making final concert in Candlestick Park on Aug. 29, 1966.

“This is like a pilgrimage. It’s a historic event, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said James, who scored tickets for Thursday’s California concert.

“To see Paul McCartney perform live at the last place the Beatles performed live in 1966 will be a thing I’ll remember forever. It’s kind of like ‘where were you when the Ed Sullivan show was on.'”

James will be sharing his experience in a few short weeks when the Beatles course at Mount Royal Conservatory begins again. Register for the credit-free music appreciation fall course now!

And you can follow James on twitter @BeatlesUofC as he shares tweets and photos of his Bay area experience.

James began his love affair with the Beatles as a youngster and continues now teaching multi-media courses on his favourite band.

According to Calgary’s own Beatles professor, the Fab Four’s British Invasion and the effects of Beatlemania are as worthy of study as Shakespeare.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appearing on the Ed Sullivan TV show to an estimated 73 million Americans in 1964.

“The Beatles are the most important, most influential musical performers of the 20th century and possibly all of history,” says James.

Istvanffy, who holds degrees in History and Political Science with a philosophy minor, says the Beatles continue to captivate generations of music lovers.

Sherri Zickefoose, Aug. 12. 2014

The Conservatory is going digital!

MRCons_TransMediaWe’re making history today: Registration is officially open for Mount Royal Conservatory’s first-ever Music and Transmedia program.

The online classes — another first for the Conservatory — will introduce the world of digital music making for movies, video, gaming, and the web to high school music grads and professional musicians.

The new digital music program is an exciting step forward for the Conservatory, which is recognized internationally as a leader in performing arts education.

Here’s what Conservatory Director Paul Dornian has to say:

“The music world has gone digital and the best creative minds now work anywhere at any time on their laptops to create the music we live by,” said Dornian.

“When training musicians to become part of today’s reality it just seemed right to do it online rather than the old model of sitting in a classroom. Creativity is never out of date, but changing digital formats do go out of date. This certificate plugs creative people into the channels that talk to today’s audiences. We don’t tell you what your music should sound like but we will show you how to create it so that the world can listen.”

Through social media and web conferencing with instructors and fellow students, the Music and Transmedia program prepares participants to enter a career path in gaming and animation, video production, web and app development, and other forms of transmedia practice. Students will investigate the digital materials and techniques of music and sound environments in today’s transmedia world.

Our second century is focused on the future — especially with the new Conservatory and Bella Concert Hall opening in fall 2015.

By Sherri Zickefoose, June 9 2014

Conservatory classes for seniors

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It’s Alberta Seniors Week!

At the Conservatory, it’s never too late to learn.

“Many adults and seniors have always wanted to get involved in some aspect of music

Sheldon Nadler, Conservatory manager of general programs
Sheldon Nadler, Conservatory manager of general programs

performance but have never had the time or opportunity,” says Conservatory manager of general programs Sheldon Nadler.

The Conservatory offers group classes — Adult Beginning Band, Beginner Guitar, Sing!, Campfire Guitar, Introductory Keyboard for Adults — specifically for these lifelong learners, he says.

“Mastering an instrument (or voice) and expressing yourself through music is one of life’s great joys, and learning in a group setting adds to the enjoyment,” he said.

This August, the Conservatory is offering a summer camp for adults who want to learn to sing.

Calgary senior Everett Marwood, 68, says he’s coming back for popular instructor Louise Campbell’s Sing! Adult Summer Class Aug. 5-9, 2014.

“I find that with choirs, the director is hesitant to provide individual feedback as they don’t want to embarrass anyone,” he said. “So any feedback is general, and one is unsure if it applies to them. That diminishes the individual learning experience. So I was looking for more voice instruction that was specific to me.”

See what Louise Campbell has in store for summer singers:


By Sherri Zickefoose, June 2, 2014