By Gidon Kaminer ‘18
“Music operates on an emotional spectrum” Isaac Levein, Heschel’s newest music teacher, says. This isn’t some mantra that Isaac simply repeats; throughout his continuing career as a musician, performer, and educator, Isaac has truly lived his innovative approach to understanding and appreciating music, a philosophy he now intends to bring to bear in the Heschel music room.
Growing up in the Boston suburb of Lexington, Massachusetts, Isaac had been involved with music in one way or another from an early age, taking piano lessons and then cello lessons as a child but ultimately quitting them both. In due time he fell in love with the electric bass, though this choice of instrument was partly a product of that fact that his older brother had already claimed the electric guitar as his instrument of choice, placing it firmly off limits, and the drums “would have been too loud,” as Isaac put it. Listening to “lots of classic rock” at the time, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Isaac knew he wanted to be in a band. So he and his friends would get together, spending weekends jamming together in their basements. They took it “pretty seriously,” according to Isaac, though in the end it was just a shared hobby.
Isaac continued to be engaged with music as he went through middle school and high school. In seventh grade, during his Bar Mitzvah, Isaac experienced a significant event that would point him in a certain new direction in life and would eventually affect his entire future career and thinking. It was not the Bar Mitzvah itself, however; it was the experience of hearing the hired jazz band. Sitting with his friends at dinner during the evening party, Isaac ventured off to the adult seating area where the band was stationed. “I ended up sitting there listening to them for an hour,” he said.
From this first exposure to jazz, Isaac would have additional experiences that would develop the beauty and importance of the genre in his mind. When he was in eighth grade, Isaac attended his older brother’s high school concert, and saw his brother perform with a jazz band. He was particularly amazed by the extremely talented upright bass player. “I looked at him, and I said to my parents, ‘I want to do that,’” he recalled. With a rented upright bass, Isaac began lessons. During these lessons, Isaac learned the fundamentals that would follow him throughout his career of performance and teaching. The teacher, who Isaac noted was “really deep in the jazz world,” said he would not teach Isaac jazz unless he also studied classical music to hone his technique. “I’ve been grateful for that ever since,” Isaac reflected. By the end of high school, Isaac knew that he wanted to study jazz. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied jazz -based performance.
“Teaching has gone hand in hand with my music for a while.” Isaac said, reflecting on the role that the act of teaching has had on his own development as a musician. “At a really young age I’ve learned how much the process and the act of teaching improves your own skills – you don’t really know something until you can teach it to someone else.” Not content with only studying music, Isaac also taught music to others since high school. In tenth grade he started teaching at a music camp, and in eleventh grade he took on his first private student, the first of many private students he would continue to teach and mentor to this day.
Isaac places a great value on the tremendous positive effect that his mentors have had on him, and said that “this has made me want to do the same for others.” Isaac doesn’t see teaching music as separate from playing music in the same way that he doesn’t see his performative career and teaching career as separate. They are inextricably linked, each supporting the other, the two working together in harmony.
Perhaps the most formative “wake up call moment” that brought Isaac to this understanding of the importance of music education in music as a whole was when, as an undergrad, he went to the Panama Jazz Festival to perform with his group from the New England Conservatory. The climax of the weeklong festival was the final day, a huge show free to the public, in front of a crowd of thousands, in which Isaac and the band would be performing. Throughout the week before, as part of the festival, Isaac and his bandmates also had to teach masterclasses to locals in attendance. “And teaching these master classes turned out to be the highlight of the trip,” he said, explaining that the experience of teaching music to people of entirely different and diverse backgrounds was supremely valuable. “Seeing the thirst for knowledge just blew my mind. It’s a smaller community and they don’t have the same resources, and it made me realize how much of my education I was taking for granted, and made me want to share it with everyone I can,” he reflected. This experience was fundamental in leading Isaac onto the path of becoming a full-time music educator.
With a full scholarship, Isaac was accepted into the Berklee College of Music Global Jazz Institute graduate program, a masters program “for students who are as passionate about developing as bold, effective global citizens as they are about becoming creative and accomplished musicians,” with an emphasis on “service learning and developing a sense of global citizenship,” and teaching students “skills needed to become role models for a new generation of musicians and to inspire leadership in others,” according to the College’s official website.
The artistic director of the program, prominent Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, also happens to be the founder of the Panama Jazz Festival, which Isaac attributes as part of the reason he chose to pursue the program. In addition to being a Grammy award winning pianist, Pérez is also a “brilliant educator” according to Isaac, and Pérez’s father, also a musician and educator, operated a free school for disadvantaged kids where he taught them music, “as a tool to teach them other things” and “to keep them off the street,” as Isaac described. Isaac was heavily influenced by this teaching philosophy, and described how “[Pérez’s father’s] whole approach to music, the way he tied it in with social justice and education, and a kind of spirituality, really spoke to me and inspired me.”
After completing grad school in 2017 and earning his master’s degree, Isaac moved to New York City, where he’s been performing jazz and tutoring music privately. He found Heschel, his first New York school “by chance, toward the end of the hiring process,” and later found out incidentally that his cousin his and wife, also educators in New York, know Adena Korn. In his teaching, he continues to be informed by the values he’s learned as a student, an educator, and a performer, as well as from his previous experiences with innovative musical educators like Danilo Pérez who see musical education as a vital component of education and life in general. “You have to learn how to learn, how to practice, how to be hyper self-critical, how to record yourself, listen to it, and say ‘this sounded good but that sounded bad,’” he said. Thus the value of music education is not just in the music itself, but in the process, the skills that it requires, and the lessons that it imparts.
In addition to teaching, Isaac has also been hard at work on a personal project that brings together his appreciation of the power of music, his love of other art forms, and his passion about the environment. “I’m looking at our relationship as a species to our environment and the natural world around us,” he said. The project is titled “The Anthropocene,” referring to the emerging term being used by geologists and ecologists to describe the current epoch of the Earth, in which humans have had a significant effect on the environment on a massive scale, equaling the changes wrought by apocalyptic natural occurrences in the past. Isaac first created the musical component of the project, looking at four poems and setting them to music, creating “kind of a short story; a four-movement suite of music.” For the visual component, he has been working on a comic to accompany the music, and is looking to get the comic animated. The comic centers around “This little guy on some planet learning about humanity strictly through the lens of these four poems…It’s got a bit of a WALL-E vibe.” Currently working on the visual aspect after having completed the musical element, Isaac is looking forward to a hopeful release of the project in the coming months. “I think it’s jazz. I don’t know. It’s going to be a multimedia music experience.”
Though he is involved in a daunting amount of activities, between teaching, performing, and releasing music, the shared values at their core are too important to not be put into practice. “So I’m trying the best I can to continue to work on my art and music, and also share my art and music and educate people. Trying to do it all.” He said, with an inspired intonation. “And sleep in the process,” he added with a laugh.