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Improvisation is a game: how Victor Haskins writes, plays and teaches jazz


Music alumnus Victor Haskins (BM ’13) is a composer, performer and teacher. He is currently a professor of jazz trumpet and the director of the jazz ensemble at the College of William and Mary, as well as the director of jazz outreach for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His recent work incorporates jazz with a variety of art forms—from dance and stage design to poetry—to create dynamic music experiences. His ongoing event series ImproviStory uses improvised performances to capture historical narratives and personal experiences.

VCUarts spoke with Haskins to learn more about how he works and what he values in teaching. 

VCUarts: When you work on projects with people from other disciplines, and you participate in different mediums and practices, do you find those experiences change the way you write or perform music?

Haskins: Actually, it probably went the other way. I feel like I’m always looking at things that I do as the operator—the person who’s creating it, who knows what’s going on and what things are supposed to be, so to speak—and also from the layperson standpoint, the audience standpoint, who’s experiencing it. If I’m someone who doesn’t know what’s going on inside the creator’s mind, then what am I taking away from this? And that helps me think about what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. Of course, all of that really is influenced by different life experiences, and different ways of perceiving how things are in life. As humans, we are all storytellers. And we create a story to connect events in our lives that seem logical for the way we are experiencing the world and what our universe is. And as soon as we have new experiences and new perspectives, then now we can see and create a new story that happens to fit the narrative that we’d like to believe in our lives.

What is your songwriting process? How does an idea come about for you, and how does it take shape?

Take the most recent group of songs I wrote—17 original tunes based off of 17 different rhythms that are used in Candomblé ceremonies. Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion based out of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. I was there a couple summers ago studying these rhythms. … I took all these rhythms, internalized them, and wrote music based on it. They use the same rhythms, but I repurposed the way we’re using them. I’m always playing a game, and that’s improvisation at its core—play. I want to create different kinds of situations to which we can all play, whether it’s myself and other sound creators and musicians, or it’s myself and other artists.

What has the teaching experience been like for you these days?

I’ve been teaching at the College of William & Mary music center for the last few years—teaching improvisation lessons, trumpet players, and running the jazz ensemble. I’m still teaching lessons via Skype or FaceTime. But, you know, jazz ensemble is not really something you can do remotely. If there was a situation where there’s no latency between instruments or connections, that might be possible. But you have to be in the room to play that music.

Besides having to do remote instruction, what do you find to be the biggest challenge of teaching music?

The biggest challenge is just understanding, and figuring out a variety of different ways of being able to assume different perspectives. I’m always practicing, always improving, always looking for ways to become better at communicating. So as I’m teaching to people who maybe have no experience with improvisation, I’m thinking like, “Oh man, how do I get them to understand this idea in a way that is not academic?” It’s just a matter of explaining these various “rules” to people so they can understand them and can then be creative with it in their own way. Because once they internalize it, and have a way to really grasp onto it, then they can put their own personality into it.

Learn more about Haskins at his website