Jubilation Foundation Teaching Artist Fellow Gwen Laster

Gwen Laster

Beacon NY
Fellowship: 2018

“I believe in empowering young musicians through individual expression, the collective practice of music, and music-making as models for life-skills development, social discipline, and team building.”

Inspired by her parents’ love of jazz, blues, soul, and classical, as well as her public school music teachers, Gwen began improvising and composing at a young age. She soon started collaborating, performing, and recording with other artists, playing local jazz clubs, and subbing Broadway shows.

She’s the founder of Creative Strings Improvisers Ensemble (CSIE), an education program rooted in teaching young musicians improvisation, composition, and global ensemble music. She also leads New MUSE4tet, an improvising string quartet offering original compositions as a vehicle for social activism.

How long have you been a teaching artist?
More than 25 years, beginning in Detroit public schools. After relocating to New York, I worked with Harlem School of the Arts, St. Ann’s School, Poughkeepsie Day School, and the Youth Orchestra of St. Luke. CSIE has been at the core of my work as a music educator. I established CSIE to help fill a gap in affordable music education.

What led you to be a teaching artist?
The innovative, groundbreaking, high energy of my high school teacher. He was a violist, an African American. He inspired us to diversify. Once he brought in electric violins in all different colors, really surprised us. He got me to go to sleepaway music camp.

Introducing me to Jazz orchestral music, and requiring me to improvise solos developed my uniqueness, uplifted my self-esteem and -image while giving me excitement and challenge for developing violin technique. I enjoy teaching young musicians the joy of learning music through the joy of my experiences.

Teaching philosophy:
Teaching young musicians traditional, contemporary, and global music from cultures other than their own while providing a safe haven of fun, joy, and friendship.

We start with collective improvisation, everybody together, so they’re not exposed or alone. We’ll work on a specific pattern or scale, do a collective call and response.

With little kids, I’ll stick with just one string and play riffs they can copy and then create their own rhythm. When they start to feel comfortable, I’ll say, you have four counts to make a melody or rhythm.

When I teach contrapuntal or polyphony, and they understand that it’s a musical conversation, people are saying the same thing in different ways, and they begin to see how they fit into the whole, then I know they’re developing self-expression, they’re confident about their parts.

I bring it all even to the youngest players, that’s when they are open, they can take it in.

CSIE flash mobs?
A group in the same building was doing one on Memorial Day and invited us to join in. The kids picked a Justin Bieber song, so I taught the violin lines to the students, and we did it in the park – they loved it!

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