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Jazz experience life-changing for Bemidji State professor

A smiling Del Lyren is shown holding his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) that he will take along when he joins the tour of the Dave Matthews Band this summer. MONTE DRAPER | PIONEER PHOTO

BEMIDJI - Next month, Del Lyren, professor of music at Bemidji State University, will fly to Indianapolis to join the Dave Matthews Band, stay in the same hotel as the group and learn first-hand what it is like to be a professional musician in a world-class ensemble.

Lyren will travel on a bus with trumpet player Rashawn Ross and shadow him during rehearsals and performances.

As Lyren recently explained, each of the seven band members has his own bus because it serves as living quarters while on the road. At this point, Lyren does not count on being able to play with the group. But one never knows, so he will pack his instrument, a Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), in his duffle.

"I am going to record everything they do from getting up in the morning, going to rehearsals and getting mobbed by fans," Lyren said. "Going for drinks after the concert and signing autographs, and I will be taking my tape recorder along everywhere.

"At this point, I am going to be churning out an article about being a trumpet player in a major band for the Journal of the International Trumpet Guild. These rock bands play for 40,000 people every night and I'm going to get to see it from backstage, which is going to be extremely interesting to me as a musician."

A classically trained musician, Lyren is nationally recognized as a leader in trumpet studies. Last summer, his students were able to intern at the International Trumpet Guild meeting held in Minneapolis.

Lyren, as co-chair, helped bring the event and its notable participants to the U.S. and give his students the opportunity to work with them.

However, with the budget cuts at BSU, Lyren had to turn his teaching from strictly classical study to include jazz. A long-time jazz musician and teacher, Steve Konecne, retired and Lyren stepped in to carry on the jazz tradition at the university.

One of last year's recipients of the Region 2 Arts Council/McKnight Career Development Fellowship, Lyren received a grant to support the study of jazz genre with an electronic wind instrument. Lyren traveled to Nashville for a week of intensive jazz instruction with Grammy winner Jeff Coffin.

"I studied at his home for five days, three hours every morning," said Lyren. "Coffin has a studio in his basement, walls covered with all kinds of awards - Grammy and platinum records. We worked together every morning, then we would go out to lunch and talk about jazz and he would give me a whole lot of homework to do.

"I would go back to my hotel room and practice all afternoon. In the evenings, Coffin would take me out to Nashville to listen to jazz. I was pretty much immersed in jazz for those five days.

"It was, for me, life changing because I had never studied jazz that way. I was always interested but didn't know where to start."

Lyren said Coffin showed him how to listen and learn from jazz.

"Playing classical music is so different than jazz," Lyren said. "Playing jazz is like learning another language. With classical music, one has to play every note and each piece is so well-known by musicians that a missed note is cause for concern or criticism.

"The pieces, composed by someone else, cause a musician to work hard at interpreting what the composer wanted to convey, play it (the score) as perfectly as you can. The tiniest incorrect intonation or a chipped note and people frown upon it."

That's far different with jazz.

"In jazz improvisation, the player is the composer and it is done at the moment," Lyren said. "Jazz is a lot looser in that respect. The audience is seeing and hearing for the first time an original piece of music within the written score. It takes skill and determination. It makes jazz more human in a way."

At one of the end-of-the-academic-year music recitals, Lyren stepped to the podium and admitted his jazz students taught him a lot, and with the downbeat the fun began. The students played enthusiastically, singers were added to the program, the audience applauded long and loud, and a new era of jazz at BSU began.

Lyren is quick to acknowledge that he is enjoying a renewed enthusiasm in practicing, teaching, rehearsing and performing a genre of music that he admits to be learning more about each day.

His music department colleagues also are departing a bit from the classical genre with the newest combo, the MIDIots, who will be recording a CD in the near future.

If you want to hear one of the MIDIots' pieces, with Lyren on the electronic wind instrument, visit online at

"Students really like this kind of music and especially the technology that goes with it," Lyren said. "I am excited about music again, I love going to work every day, it's a totally new thing and I'm loving every minute of it.

"People come to jazz concerts for the energy, the spontaneity As Jeff Coffin said to me, 'Improvisation is composition slowed down.'"