Alison Weiner at Piano

Sound Bites: A Q&A with MfP Board Member Alison Weiner

In Making Music, MfP Stories by jan_mfp

Alison Weiner at PianoLeave it to Alison Weiner, a self-described “improvising musician,” to debunk any misconceptions about “free improvisation.” In fact, the North Carolina-based pianist avoids using the term altogether, claiming it to be misleading.

“‘Free improvisation’ suggests that one is playing with no conditions, is in a vacuum of inspiration and material. That’s impossible,” says Weiner, a Music for People (MfP) board member and Musicianship and Leadership Program (MLP) graduate. “We cannot help but bring our own unique vocabulary to music-making because we draw on life’s experiences.”

In contrast to MfP’s self-taught or classically trained members, Weiner is a jazz aficionado. Much of her playing is imbued with rich harmonic color—not to mention space and silence, something she learned at her first “Adventures in Improvisation” (AOI) workshop a decade ago. Since then, Weiner has been a fixture at AOI as a participant and facilitator.

We recently caught up with Weiner, who runs a small business in the riverside town of Saxapahaw (between Greensboro and Durham-Chapel Hill), to discuss MfP’s impact on her life and creativity.

How do you define “improvisation”?
Improvisation is responding to something in an unplanned manner, using material available to you in the moment. It often includes seeds of specific inspiration, such as a melodic theme, a rhythmic groove, a word or a painting.

Can anybody improvise?
Absolutely. Give me five minutes, and you’ll be doing it.Alison Weiner
How did improvisation lead you to Music for People?
In January 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Terry Beck [a dancer, choreographer and Qigong master who teaches at AOI], who was doing a theater production in North Carolina. When I shared with him my desire to improvise conversationally, in the moment, with other musicians, he told me about AOI, where his friend David Rudge was on staff. [Rudge, an associate professor of music at SUNY Fredonia, also is an MfP facilitator and MLP regional trainer.] They invited me to attend AOI at Fredonia, where some 60 other people were making the kind of music I had longed for.

Can anybody improvise?
Absolutely. Give me five minutes, and you’ll be doing it.

Have you always played professionally?
After earning a bachelor’s degree in architectural technology from the New York Institute of Technology, I briefly worked in Manhattan and then relocated to Chapel Hill, where I was a residential designer for an owner-builder company. I spent the next 20 years working for other small companies while getting involved with local affordable housing initiatives. But I always played on the side.

Did you study music in college?
I was 47 when I returned to school and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The first thing I told my piano teacher there was that I was under no illusion about being a virtuoso—that it would be great if he just showed me the “good notes.” I eventually learned that all notes are worthy.

What three jazz albums should everyone own?
“Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961), by the Bill Evans Trio; “Kind of Blue” (1959), by trumpeter Miles Davis; and “The Melody at Night, with You” (1998), by pianist Keith Jarrett.

You’re the founder of mahaloArts, a business that promotes creativity and sustainable living. Does MfP inform this work?
It’s a construct for my livelihood and life’s purpose—a place where the creative arts are passionately pursued and celebrated, as a means of fostering imagination and discovery in our lives.

What gets you up in the morning?
Since the pandemic began, I have earned my keep as musician through private teaching on Zoom. I am taking a break from The Eddy Pub, where I’ve been in residence since 2012, and have been streaming solo performances every Tuesday night. I also have a morning practice in which I stream an improvised song. A small, devoted group of people log onto mahaloArts’ Facebook page to hear, appreciate and affirm the power of music-making as celebration of our humanity. These activities, along with my MfP work, deepen my commitment to music and creativity.

Author: Robert Enslin