Sound Bites: A Q&A with Violist, Composer Leanne Darling

In Blog, Creativity, MfP Stories by jan_mfp

Musician Leanne Darling will sacrifice almost anything for her craft. In 2001, she walked away from a relatively cushy job as assistant principal viola of the Sarasota Orchestra (formerly the Florida West Coast Symphony) to study music improvisation in New York City. Today, Darling is an award-winning performer, composer and recording artist, working at the boundaries of classical, jazz, blues, ambient and world music.

Credit Music for People Co-Founder David Darling (no relation) for opening her eyes—and ears—to the possibilities of the viola, the violin’s bigger, darker-sounding cousin. “My first workshop with David was in 1996 at Keene State College in New Hampshire,” recalls Darling, who has earned degrees from the Eastman School of Music and Cleveland Institute of Music. “He helped me realize that the sound of the viola is uniquely suited to different styles from around the world.” 

The workshop also sparked her interest in Arabic music and electronic sounds. Her playing would never be the same. “I felt like a part of me had been missing until I began improvising,” says Darling, who performs with the Buffalo-based Arabic jazz ensemble, Masti, and is working on her second solo album. “I’m making up for lost time, spreading the gospel of the viola.”

We recently caught up with Darling, who teaches music at the University at Buffalo (UB) and participates in MfP’s Musicianship and Leadership Program, to discuss the power of creativity. On June 12, she will lead a songwriting workshop at MfP’s SummerBreeze MusicFest

Why did you wait until your late twenties to start improvising? 
I didn’t think I had it in me. I always felt like something was missing [with my playing]. Music for People has helped me fill that void. 

After my first MfP workshop, I began working with a looper. [With a looper, you plug in your instrument, record a musical pattern on the spot and then play along with it.] A looper is great because it gives you instantaneous feedback, enabling you to write parts quickly. I’ve written for other instruments, but my main focus is music for viola and loops.

How has improvisation affected your teaching?
Imagination is a powerful tool—it unites the body, mind and spirit in fascinating ways. It’s especially good for students who struggle with musical technique. I incorporate metaphor, color, emotion and visualization when teaching new music, looking beyond the notes and rhythms. 

Your improvisational approach is evident in the Buffalo-based Expression and Creativity Experimental Learning Laboratory, or Ex.C.E.L.L. What is it?
Ex.C.E.L.L. is an artist collaborative founded by soprano Tiffany Du Mouchelle, a UB voice professor who works with different styles and languages. We’ve recently teamed up to help people from all walks of life increase their creativity in music, movement, writing and the visual arts. Last summer, Ex.C.E.L.L. got a grant to offer a creative songwriting workshop. It was so successful that we’re doing it again in July.

What advice do you have for musicians, especially classically trained ones, who want to improvise or branch out into other styles?
You start by changing the way you think about classical music, or Western European traditional music, as it is currently known. Because there is a valuation system of the craft of classical music, many of us have gotten stuck or pulled away from the heart of what we do. Sure, there’s value in mastering the art form—who doesn’t want to play in an orchestra or a chamber group and wow everyone with their skill—but music is much more than that. 

Letting go of perfection, even just a little, helps me appreciate the imperfection of beauty. I better understand what music means to me.

How do I begin composing or improvising?
Just do it. Sing what you play, play what you sing. 

Also go for walks and see what comes to mind. I always carry a small digital recorder so that I can capture and experiment with my ideas on a looper. Some of my best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

Author: Robert Enslin