Jamming out with the Jazz Ensemble

Student Spotlight
Justin Levine, third-year game design and development major

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RIT’s Jazz Ensemble provides a fun and encouraging environment for students to explore music.

Justine Levine is a third-year student from Westchester, N.Y., who plays the vibraphone in RIT’s Jazz Ensemble. Levine is a self-taught musician who learned how to play music by listening to video game scores and playing them by ear. Through this experience of learning music through video games, Levine was able to identify two of his passions and see how they work together. As a game design and development major, Levine hopes to work with programing and video game level design so he can tell stories and create interactive and emotional experiences for players. A big part of that emotional experience, Levine said, is the musical ambiance.

In addition to his involvement with RIT’s Jazz Ensemble, Levine is also a part of the RIT Concert Band and the RIT Orchestra. He is also the founder of a new music group on campus called the RIT Game Symphony Orchestra. Levine’s orchestra is a Student Government-recognized club that started last semester. Already, the group has more than 35 members and they are looking to recruit more video game and music lovers so they can continue to grow. There are recordings of different songs they performed in concert on their YouTube page.

RIT’s Jazz Ensemble is having a Winter Concert at 5 p.m. on Feb. 25 in the Ingle Auditorium. This is their first concert of the semester and admission is free and open to the public. For more information about the concert and the Jazz Ensemble, go to http://bit.ly/2HySoQ7.

Question: Why do you enjoy playing music?
Answer: I find it’s a good way to express myself, even though that might sound kind of cliché. I’ve always been really interested in the types of emotions you can evoke with just sound. I’ve always thought that it was so cool how different sounds can make people feel a certain way.

Q: What do you like about jazz?
A: The thing I like about jazz is that it’s not very strict. Sometimes it’s nice to just kind of let loose a little bit. If I’m playing in orchestra, everything is very articulate, but in jazz you’re just meshing with other people to become one mind and make whatever you’re playing sound as good as possible. You’re constantly adapting to everything that is going on around you. Back in high school, I was in an all-national jazz band and for an event we were given six or seven songs to prepare. When we got there, we had two days to practice, and during those two days we worked more than 20 hours. At one point my conductor just started singing and told people to repeat after him, so we just had this back and forth throughout the band. A lot of jazz songs are just a simple melody, and you can take that melody and manipulate it. We were able to just make the song our own as a group by adding our own ideas to the piece. We didn’t even have music for that song and we played it on a huge stage for everyone. In other genres, the audience gets emotion purely from the composer, but with jazz the audience is getting emotions from both the composer and the musicians as they play it and bring the piece to life.

Q: Why did you choose to learn play the vibraphone?
A: It was actually something I kind of found by accident. I joined concert band in seventh grade and at the time I played piano and drums, so I joined as a percussionist. At that point, pretty much everyone in the percussion section was a drummer, and that left no one to play the mallet instruments, like the xylophone, marimba and vibraphone. Everyone wanted to play the heavy drum parts, but I just found that I liked the mallet instruments more. They have a really nice tone. Thankfully, I picked it up kind of quickly and I always had parts that I wanted to play. After that decision, I just grew with it.

Q: As a student and a musician, what are some of the best parts of being involved with RIT’s Jazz Ensemble?
A: One of the important things I was looking for when I was looking at schools was I wanted to make sure there were sufficient opportunities to get everything I wanted out of music and continue to explore it even if I decided I didn’t want to play or study music at some point. I felt that RIT was able to provide that for me. I really like the groups and how they are organized here. We have a lot of talented musicians and we play a lot of really good music. There’s also a lot of encouragement to keep playing and to be as involved as much as you can. I also really like our conductor, Herb Smith. This is his second semester leading this ensemble and he does a great job of helping us pick out the little details to make us sound good. He also helps make the ensemble a fun environment to be a part of. There is a lot of comradery in the group and having that good environment and community is what makes us great and helps us get to the next level of performing.

Q: What is your favorite part of performing for an audience?
A: My favorite part of performing is the evolution of my and the group’s ability to play the songs. It’s really cool being able to work on songs and hear it go from something that you sight read once and barely got through to something that you could play with your eyes closed. Over time you pick out all these little details that make it better and better. When you get to the point where you’re ready to share it with everyone and show all of the art you were able to make with that piece is a great feeling.

Q: Tell me about your favorite song that will be featured at the upcoming concert.
A: My favorite song we play is definitely “Spain” by Chick Corea. I like it because it’s fast and I always like playing Latin music. I find it’s the most fun to play, especially for vibraphone. “Spain” is based off a classical piece, so the beginning is very bold, slow and dramatic to open, and then it drops a little and the saxophones come in with a really fast beat. From there, it’s just a high energy and high intensity song throughout the whole performance. I’m also a little bit of a music theory nerd, and this song uses a lot of cool modes, or scales. It has a lot of Phrygian modes in it, which is common in Latin and Spanish music, and it has a very dramatic feel to it.

Q: Do you think you’ll be able to keep up your work as a musician after you graduate?
A: It’s definitely something I’m interested in, especially in the design aspect of video games. One of the things I really like about video game music in particular is that it’s grounded in emotion. Whether it’s a cinematic thing or a linear progression, it can really get some emotion out of you. It adds an ambiance to the game and makes an area more exciting. I’m definitely going to be planning music for games and trying to compose what I can on the side. Everything I think about and everything I talk about, one way or another, comes back to music.