Jens Bj Bjørn-Larsen: A Portrait of the person, artist, and teacher
by Joseph Skillen, Louisiana State University
Photos by Anna-Karin Skillen (www.annakarinsphotography.com)
This is a different type of article than we normally see in our journal. My intent with this article is to present to a larger audience a person for whom I have great respect. This is no different from articles that describe many of our artistic leaders and mentors. Where I begin to change the tone of this article is when I describe my friend Jens in personal terms. In many articles we frequently see chronological listings of accomplishments, a collection of a person’s life goals, and their pedagogical/artistic priorities. I will do these things, but I also would like to spend some time attempting to capture Jens Bjørn-Larsen as a person since it is his whole being that embodies his unique abilities to perform and teach.
Fortunately, I was able to spend a week with Jens in my home in Baton Rouge while he had a residency at LSU. Throughout our many conversations I told him that I wanted to interview him for the ITEA Journal. He was not opposed to the interview, but like so many other things, he had a vision, and he wanted it to be different. So, we agreed that I would take our conversations, combine them with my personal observations, and create an article that is more of a portrait than interview. I hope that I have been able to accomplish this. My desire is to represent Jens and to introduce him to a larger audience needing to hear more from him.
Upon our first meeting, I would have to admit that Jens is pretty unforgettable. His clean-shaven head, warm eyes behind his stylish glasses, and smile are the things that people remember most. After this first impression, audiences hear him speak and feel that he instantly relates to everyone in the room. These were my impressions when I first met Jens at Roger Bobo’s Verso Il Millenio ITEC (1997) in Riva del Garda, Italy. At that time he gave a class on performance preparation that I found to be particularly helpful. He didn’t play a note, but his descriptions were very clear and direct. He broke things down into simple concepts that were presented in a very forthright manner. This class made an impression on me. In fact, I described this masterclass in an article that Lois Alexander wrote about me in the Fall 1998 Tuba Journal. That article describes some of the pedagogy that Jens feels a performer must consider when preparing for any type of performance or competition.
I did not know his playing at that time, but I was certainly aware of his reputation as a formidable artist/teacher based out of Copenhagen, Denmark. Many of my friends from Scandinavia were beginning to study with him, and it seemed that most of the winners of orchestra jobs in Europe were coming from his studio. At that time I made a mental note to get together with him more seriously in the future.
Fortunately I was able to meet him again at last year’s ITEC in Denver. I managed to convince him to spend some time with me in Baton Rouge where we hung out, played tubas, talked a great deal, he taught my LSU students, and he performed a recital with pianist Jan Grimes. This article is an attempt to capture some of the more poignant moments during that mini-residence in the U.S. and to introduce many of you to a very impressive individual from whom we will be hearing much in the future.
JENS – THE PERSON
My one word description of Jens would be: honest. I find him to be very clear about who he is, what he is about, and his willingness to share his energy with those that are close to him. In all interactions, I found him to speak frankly with a desire to understand what I was saying.
Probably, the most striking characteristic interacting with Jens is his silence. He takes everything in very calmly and when it is time to speak he frequently punctuates his statements with a great deal of silence. This could be for impact, but I believe that it is Jens listening himself to what he just said in addition to giving his audience a chance to absorb what he just said.
Another aspect of Jens that I enjoy is his complete openness to doing whatever it takes to describe his point. This is where the silence and his absolute craziness can provide a stark and memorable contrast. Out of complete and calm silence can erupt the funniest and loud gestures in order to illustrate any point. This happens in personal conversations, his teaching, and as one would expect–his performing.
His teaching is remarkably engaging. He gives the student his direct attention and keeps his intent gaze on everything they are doing. Just like his performing, there is a great deal of contrast in his teaching style. He ranges between quiet honesty to cackling laughter and calmly sitting next to the student to dancing around the room. One element that does not change is his focus on the music and getting the student to reach their musical potential. Perhaps what might be the greatest amount of help to our readers will be the following breakdown of his various pedagogical strategies. Many of them are ones with which experienced teachers should be familiar, others may be rather new.
- Loud Playing: One should practice playing loudly in all registers. Jens feels that only the correct embouchure for a particular note will work at fortissimo, while an incorrect or less efficient embouchure will create sounds at softer dynamic levels. This concept permeated Jens’ teaching with this being his preferred method of creating and showing an efficient embouchure. This also involved a required embouchure shift for either the upper or lower register. He frequently accomplished this shift with a bit of a head tilt, but the focus was on the correct fortissimo sound–NOT the position of a person’s head. His demonstrations of this technique drove home the necessity and possibility of loud playing in EVERY register.
- Fundamentals: Very slow practice and learning will enable a person to learn what they need to know to execute anything on their instrument. It is critical to break things down into very basic steps that you repeat slowly in order to truly learn a fundamental task. Jens demonstrated this very effectively, and he would not allow a student to progress pass a very slow isolated concept until he felt comfortable with their mastery of the concept.
- Conducting: Many times we must place our focus on the musical situation, not the physical one. A way of achieving this is to conduct through a passage while the student is playing. His conducting frequently made a performer much more free to express their own ideas. One extrapolation that I considered was that students could also gain a great deal by conducting while their instructor is playing as well.
- Singing: Accurate singing and hearing is a critical part of great brass playing. Jens demonstrated this very effectively. One must be able to sing what they are playing in order to achieve the clarity expected from world-class performance.
- Experimentation: In many ways we must experiment with “tricks” that will allow us to achieve the desired musical result. A student might need to try shifting their embouchure around to every part of their lips in order to find the most effective vibration. A willingness to try things that might be considered “incorrect” and moving to the more efficient position was a tactic that Jens frequently employed. In fact, Jens described his teaching studio as a “musical playground.” I can see how this would be the case. In a short time my students felt the freedom to explore and experiment while celebrating the discovery of a more efficient playing position.
- Truth telling: We must always be truthful with ourselves and our students regarding progress. We should use praise when absolutely warranted, but otherwise honesty is much more important. Jens reiterated the fact that if we (or our students) are not reaching our potential we should hear that in the most honest of terms. I marveled at Jens’ ability to present this criticism to my students in a quiet, honest manner that was always focused on the music. Never did the student feel that his direct commentary was a personal attack. I believe this showed something that I’ve often believed: The teacher who cares enough to say something that may disappoint us is the one from whom we will learn the most.
- Vacuum cleaning: Jens stated frequently that the responsibility for learning notes accurately and cleanly always rests with the student. When the teacher spends time pointing out missed notes, it is obvious the student has not done their own musical cleaning (or as Jens states it, “vacuum cleaning”). Students were constantly admonished to take care of their own cleaning while they practice slowly. “When someone is coming to our house, they want to experience the house as it is. They don’t want to arrive early to watch you clean it for them. Equally bad, it is obvious to our guests when a person has not taken care of their vacuum cleaning before we arrive. Our audience does not want to experience a messy house or to witness our cleaning on stage.” Take care of your own cleaning before you publicly perform anything.
- Imitation: This is truly the best teacher that we can use. Jens compared learning an instrument to learning a foreign language or a child learning to speak. Only through imitation of a correct model does one have the opportunity to improve. I witnessed his approach to fortissimo playing positively impact my students, even the ones that I suspected would have problems doing it. The power of modeling makes the impossible, possible. It is absolutely critical that teachers constantly model correct playing (sound, articulation, dynamics, intonation) for our students.
- Free buzzing: Jens frequently used the buzz as a way to impact a students’ tone production. One particular exercise encouraged a student to play a normal scale without valves. They needed to create a glissando effect with their embouchure without the aid of valves. After they were able to accomplish this, they were asked to keep buzzing while taking their face off of the mouthpiece in between each note of the scale. The effect was to create a note/buzz/note/buzz/note type of alternation all the way up the scale. This exercise caused the student to keep a constant airflow while understanding that the buzz creates the sound in all ranges on the instrument. Another method of accomplishing the constant buzz was to play scales with very slow valves in order to buzz through the very slow valve changes. Both of these exercises elicited excellent results.
- Non-verbal teaching: His lessons contained a great deal of him playing an example with the student repeating that example. There was not a great deal of discussion in between the musical exercises. When asked about this, he wondered why verbal discussions were necessary. After watching him teach, I agree. Many times we give too much information to our students rather than simply giving them appropriate models to take into their practice. Again, the sound is the teacher. Our words frequently confuse the issue.
- Simple speaking style: Jens would frequently, after hearing a student perform, state, “I have three things to say to you,” and proceed to briefly state each of those things. Following his verbal assessment he began to offer physical examples of exercises that students could do to remedy the particular observation (slurring, attacks, tone, dynamics, range extension, flexibility). I also noticed that he used the power of silence very effectively. There would frequently be an almost uncomfortable silence that would follow a session of physical skill rehearsal during which he would be thinking about which direction he would go next. The student, however, thinks that he is still focusing on their progress or lack of progress. This period of self-analysis for the student was very powerful. If they would ask questions about a particular thing that they still needed to master, Jens would say “I think we have spoken enough about this subject, you now need to practice.” I really enjoyed this very direct and simple verbal approach. He always ended his lesson with, “Do you have any other questions for me?” Because he was so thorough, the answer was frequently, “no.”
- Artistic expression: Jens used a very successful tactic in getting students to make themselves much more expressive and clear while stressing the necessity of exaggeration. This rather simple tactic was to ask the performer to pretend they were standing in front of a classroom full of young children. They were supposed to find a way to say, “Children, I’m going to tell you a story,” such that they would have command over the room. While seeming like a simple task, most performers had a great deal of difficulty dealing with this scenario. There are endless possibilities (energy, anticipation, angry, scared, whispering, humor, etc.) but most students were uninventive in their attempts. After Jens displayed some possible solutions to his “room of children” scenario, some with really humorous results, he carried this over into how a person might choose to perform a phrase. He felt that every performer should rehearse five to six different versions of playing every phrase, just like you might say to a room full of children.
- Circular breathing: He used it frequently in his performing, but didn’t spend a great deal of time teaching it. This is a concept that is relatively simple to understand but requires a great deal of repetition for mastery. He did describe a relatively simple method of teaching the concept. Simply, free buzz while breathing through your nose. Do this in short bursts and then try to lengthen the sustained buzz time. He feels that a person should master circular breathing away from the instrument before attempting to add it to their playing. When asked about the “drinking water” analogy, he said, “forget about it.”
JENS – THE PERFORMER
A person hearing Jens Bjørn-Larsen for the first time will be very impressed on a number of levels. First, his musical expression is simply arresting. There is no doubt that he has complete control over his instrument such that he is able to accomplish just about any sound his fertile imagination can dream up. He pushes the limits of contrast in his playing using range extension, huge dynamic shifts, articulation clarity, and an incredible sense of phrasing.
Another way that Jens grabs the attention of his audience is that he does not perform with music. He insists that memorization is truly the best method of performing. When asked about this, he stated that when a person learns a piece of music from the ground up, there is no reason that they wouldn’t have it all memorized anyway. He insists on practicing as he instructs his students to do, so through very meticulous work he manages to memorize everything he plays. This frees him to communicate as he wishes with his audience and other involved performers. Jens insists that this is the way other respected solo instrumentalists perform. He feels that if we are to be taken seriously in the larger musical community, we need to perform as they do. This degree of musical mastery is truly memorable.
I need to mention the sound of his self-designed Meinl Weston instrument. The JBL Classic (the Jens Bjørn-Larsen Classic) by Meinl Weston is a glorious instrument. In the hands of a truly accomplished player it is capable of every dynamic extreme and the most singing tone. It has the color palate that we have come to expect from the excellent instruments constructed in Markneukirchen. One unique characteristic of this instrument is the 6-valve configuration. There is no thumb valve, but the “extra” fifth and sixth valves are in the left hand. The instrument plays well enough in-tune that it is possible for the performer to use the fifth and sixth valves in all registers for color, intonation, and resistance reasons. A person seeking a German-made F tuba would do well to try the JBL Classic. It should also be noted that Jens helped to design Meinl-Weston’s new CC tuba – “Thor” (appropriately named after the Nordic God of Thunder).
In asking Jens about his development as a player, I asked him when he started playing. He told me about growing up in Copenhagen. He lived in an apartment with his parents and loved practicing his tuba. As anyone living in an apartment with their instrument can attest, the neighbors do not always like it. He said that one day there was a knock on the door when an elected spokesperson came to speak to the family about the “tuba practice problem.” The neighbors said they certainly wanted him to practice, but they didn’t want to hear it. Shockingly all of the neighbors in the building agreed to pay for soundproofing a room in the Bjørn-Larsen apartment so that Jens could practice and not disrupt the rest of the building. His childhood experiments with his instrument then continued in this soundproof space.
This story is indicative of the level of musical support that Jens had during his formative years. While his upbringing was emotionally challenging, he managed to find music as a refuge. Some early musical experiences included his participation as a youngster in the Tivoli Marching Band (an amusement park in Copenhagen) and later entering the Danish Royal Conservatory at the age of 16. He also told me of the time he was awarded the Victor Børge prize for his performing ability. This is an award that is announced and not one for which a person auditions or applies. The award is simply bestowed upon one the most obvious music talents in that particular year. The award included a great deal of money and dinner with Victor Børge and the Danish prime minister. Other prizes which Jens has garnered include the Nordic Prize and winning the Premier Prize at the prestigious Geneva Competition for Brass.
He auditioned for and won the position in the Danish Radio Orchestra at the age of 20. After eighteen years with that orchestra he made the decision to take a position as a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Hannover in Germany. He now performs as a highly sought after orchestral and chamber player throughout Europe. He also continues to teach at the Danish Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen.
Anyone seeking to improve their musicianship, mastery of their instrument, or finding a sense of artistic peace would do well to spend some time listening to and learning from Jens Bjørn-Larsen.