As a saxophonist and bandleader in the State College area who specializes in jazz, Rick Hirsch works mainly with instrumental music.
However, as he led a recent rehearsal of the State College Area High School Jazz Ensemble II, he wasnt sure that the group of 18 musicians including saxophonists, percussionists and trumpet and trombone players had mastered the essence of Cotton Tail by Duke Ellington, which the group would perform at State Highs annual Jazz Night a week later.
Instead of merely asking them to play the song again, he employed a rather unusual technique. He asked them to put their instruments down, stand up, move their feet in time and clap on the backbeat singing the melody at the same time.
If we could all get this time together, where were all kind of in sync together, its going to make everything pop, he told the band.
Hirsch, who started directing the jazz ensemble this past year, said that having the students mark time and sing their parts helps them develop a unified sense of pulse.
The primary reason I have them sing in rehearsal is that it allows them to get to the heart of the matter on the music, he said. As developing instrumentalists, theyre not always able to get the sounds coming out of their instruments to match the sounds they imagine.
That type of out-of-the-box thinking has defined Hirschs career as a jazz musician and has helped him forge a multifaceted niche as a band director, performer, composer and teacher. While conventional wisdom holds that jazz musicians need to live in a major city such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago in order to establish their careers, Hirsch says he is content with his status as a small-town jazz guy.
Paul Leskowicz, director of bands at State College Area High School, who performs with Hirsch, said that Hirsch often finds ways to make the process of making music relevant to the individual musician through everyday practices. For example, Leskowicz said, when teaching improvisation, Hirsch might relate that concept to the students by asking them to open their refrigerators when they get home, and figure out how to create a meal from the items that are available.
Ricks approach to music and jazz education is rooted in making music fresh and interesting, understanding music historically, making it personal, and finding ones own voice through the study of the masters, Leskowicz said. Hirsch, 41, was born and raised in Newark, Del., and moved to State College with his family in 1999. Since then, he has made his mark on the local music scene through a variety of methods. He is the musical director and cofounder of Zeropoint, a 16-piece big band that plays a monthly gig at American Ale House & Grill in Patton Township, in addition to other venues. He also directs the Hirsch Jazz Quartet and Quintessance, a wedding band.
Earlier this year, along with drummer Kevin Lowe, he launched Hexagon, a sixpiece jazz ensemble.
He also teaches about a dozen private students, composes and arranges music, and has performed on a number of recordings.
In addition to juggling all of those activities, Hirsch teams with his wife, Rebecca, to home-school their three daughters, Anna, 14; Eva, 12; and Ellie, 8.
Rebecca and I think and talk a lot about day-to-day quality-of-life issues, Hirsch said. And, as much as I might enjoy the benefits of having a higher profile in the national jazz community, Im not interested in sacrificing family and personal life to achieve that.
Although Hirsch has been playing the saxophone since age 9, he said, his chosen career was not a destiny situation by any stretch of the imagination.
It was not until 16 that I was more interested in saxophone than basketball, he said.
Once he got hooked on music, though, it became a lifelong dedication. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music with a specialization in saxophone.
At UMass, Hirsch studied with Yuself Lateef, a luminary and a contemporary of jazz legends Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. After graduation, he and Rebecca moved to Madison, Wis., where she earned a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin.
While Rebecca Hirsch was in graduate school, Rick earned a masters degree in music and jazz studies at Northern Illinois University, solidifying his teaching credentials. He was in a jazz ensemble that played 40 concerts a year, many of them at high schools throughout the Midwest, where he and the other musicians conducted clinics with the students.
After the Hirsches earned their graduate degrees, they decided to settle in State College because it was a nice midpoint between Clarion, where Rebecca Hirsch has family, and Rick Hirschs roots in Delaware. After the birth of their eldest daughter, Hirsch said, Rebecca decided not to go back to work, which meant that he had the responsibility of providing for the family.
As a jazz musician living in central Pennsylvania, he said, that was no easy task.
I had to reinvent myself in this small market, he said.
Hirschs aspirations were complicated by the fact that in the late 1990s, there were two saxophone players Dan Yoder, director of jazz studies at Penn State, and Steve Bowman, who plays with several ensembles who were established in the local jazz scene.
And thats one more (saxophone player) than a town this size could support, Hirsch said.
Faced with a limited number of performance opportunities, Hirsch said, he started looking into teaching avenues. In fall 2000, Yoder helped him land a teaching job at Penn States School of Music, where he worked for five years as an adjunct instructor. Still, Hirsch said, he was frustrated at not being able to play more gigs, and concluded that it was necessary to switch gears.
I had to teach myself how to be a bandleader and learn how to start a band, he said.
Hirsch said an increasing number of musicians are adopting a do-it-yourself model for managing their careers. He has had to become adept at managerial skills such as marketing, booking tours and filing contracts with clients. While dealing with logistics isnt the most enjoyable aspect of his career, he said, it is essential in order to be able to pursue his creative projects.
In fall 2000, Hirsch and Yoder, along with trumpeter Eddie Severn, formed Valley Jazz Orchestra, a big band composed of local musicians, that played a monthly gig at American Ale House & Grill for eight years.
That same year, he started his wedding band, Quintessance, which plays a wide variety of genres, including rock, polka and country, at weddings throughout central Pennsylvania. The Hirsch Jazz Quartet, which currently plays mainly at private parties, plays original music composed by the band members as well as interpretations of material by artists such as The Beatles, Radiohead and Billy Joel.
In 2009, two years after Valley Jazz Orchestra disbanded, Hirsch, Yoder and Severn decided the time was right to start another big band, and they recruited musicians from all across the region, including Williamsport and Lewisburg, in addition to Centre County.
On the first Tuesday of each month, Zeropoint entertains audiences at American Ale House & Grill with jazz music from the 1950s through the present.
As with all of his ensembles , Hirsch said, Zeropoint plays a mixture of original songs by band members and covers of classics, and the groups rendition of Queens hit Bohemian Rhapsody kills people every time, he said.
Marty Gillespie, of Pennsylvania Furnace, who played saxophone in Valley Jazz Orchestra for its duration and now plays with Zeropoint, described Hirsch as a decisive leader and an improviser who is constantly coming up with new stuff.
Rick is really, I have to say, one of the most talented jazz musicians I have ever had the pleasure of playing with, Gillespie said.
In addition to performing across the region with his various ensembles, Hirsch and his fellow musicians have been sought out to play on recordings. In March, Zeropoint teamed with James Witherite, a jazz musician based in Delaware, to record witherite+17, his first studio effort specifically written for jazz orchestra. The album is set for release in July, Hirsch said.
Last spring, Hirsch and Lowe joined forces with Delmar Brown, a world fusion musician based in New York, on a jazz album, Martians and Beyond, which was released in October 2011 by Apache Records, a local independent record label, and is available on iTunes.
While Hirsch spends a substantial amount of time performing and teaching, the biggest slice of his pie is his role as a composer, arranger and publisher. He used to sell his music through a publisher in Colorado, he said, but in 2010, I decided I could make more (money) if I published it myself.
His compositions have been commissioned and performed by musicians and groups across the country, including the University of Northern Iowa Jazz Band One, University of Kentucky Wind Ensemble, Penn State Blue Band, and numerous high school and middle school jazz ensembles throughout Pennsylvania. Recently, one of Hirschs pieces was performed by The Sax Pistols, a swing bopping jazz group, in Royal Albert Hall in London.
Ricks diverse performance and composition background allows for his work to be very marketable in may different respects, Leskowicz said. His passion and love for music is contagious, his thoughtfulness and care to his music is genuine, and his music is firstrate quality and extremely professional.
Since arriving in State College, Hirsch has been bestowed with a number of awards, including two Fellowships in Jazz Composition and several composition grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He has presented workshops to student musicians at Ithaca College, UMass-Amherst, Penn State, University of Kentucky, Bucknell University, University of Wisconsin, among others, and at more than 100 middle schools and high schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana.
Hirsch said he has gotten past the point of wondering how I would stack up in a bigger market. A major metropolitan area holds a number of advantages for a jazz musician, he said, including a critical mass of other like-minded musicians, more venues, larger audiences and more highlevel professionals, which raises everyones game.
To retain your edge, you have to work to maintain that, he said.
However, Hirsch said, a small market offers more latitude and room for creativity. In large cities, the jazz market is segmented into different sub-genres, such as Dixieland and hard bop.
Here, because (the market) is so small, we play it all, he said.
The State College music scene may not frequently be mentioned in the same breath as those in Seattle or Austin, Texas, but according to Hirsch, there are a number of local artists who have the talent to succeed in larger markets, including bluegrass musician Andy Tolins, blues pianist J.J. Thompson, rocker Ted McCloskey, harpist Anne Sullivan and jazz pianist Arthur Goldstein.
I think there are people like me all over the place who are just showing that theres another way, Hirsch said.