Conservatory students from a broad range of disciplines are expanding their horizons through the tutelage of the Punch Brothers, the virtuosic bluegrass ensemble that will conduct a three-part residency on campus during the 2013-14 academic year.
The residency is the first of its kind produced through Oberlin’s American Roots Residency Fund, established by actor-comedian Ed Helms, a 1996 Oberlin graduate and an avid musician. It is intended to support annual visits to Oberlin by renowned performers of various American musical styles, encouraging interaction with students through collaborations, concerts, master classes, lessons, discussions, and mentorship.
Presented in conjunction with Oberlin’s developing Performance and Improvisation program, the Punch Brothers’ residency will unite students in classical applied studies and contemporary music with those in the jazz department, as well as musicians in the Technology in Music and Related Arts program, or TIMARA.
“I hope that students will feel a charge from being so close to these artists, and to hear straight from the artists the sheer amount of work that goes into this kind of lifestyle,” says Helms. “It’s really a special opportunity to pick the minds of musicians like that.”
The Punch Brothers’ residency began December 2 with a week-long visit highlighted by a pair of late-night performances—one of them a raucous jam session in which students joined in on instruments ranging from harp to kazoo. When the Punch Brothers return in March, students will have the opportunity to further develop ideas uncovered during the band’s initial visit.
The residency concludes with a collaborative performance on Commencement Weekend in May, bringing the discoveries of the students’ and band’s work together onstage.
"There is a certain genius in the Punch Brothers' music, and they are capable of evoking so many styles so masterfully," says Bobby Ferrazza, director of the Division of Jazz Studies at Oberlin. "Our students will gain so much by having this opportunity to work this closely with them."
"There’s a very real sense of musical cross-pollination with the Punch Brothers," adds Michael Strauss, an associate professor of viola and chamber music, and a member of the faculty committee that coordinated the residency. "Because of their unique voice, they’ve been able to stretch the musical perceptions of their medium.
"It’s a perfect marriage to bring this group to campus," says Strauss. "Oberlin's Performance and Improvisation program has already opened these kinds of avenues to students. The modern musician really shouldn't have boundaries, and there just isn't a lot of music that the Punch Brothers can’t sync with."
Formed in 2006, the Punch Brothers boast members who hail from all over the musical map, from bluegrass to jazz to classical. MacArthur Award-winner Chris Thile has elevated mandolin playing from its folk origins to the finest in jazz improvisation and classical performance. Fiddle player Gabe Witcher has more than 300 records and countless movie and television scores to his credit, including the 2006 Oscar winner Brokeback Mountain. Three-finger banjo player Noam Pikelny developed his bluegrass facility growing up in Chicago; he studied music at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana before striking out professionally and redefining the role of the instrument. Versatile bass player Paul Kowert, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, has performed with orchestras as a soloist and section member, in such internationally renowned venues as Switzerland’s Verbier Festival.
Guitarist Chris Eldridge, a 2004 graduate of Oberlin College, devoted his student years to creating an independent major in bluegrass music, working closely with guitarist Ferrazza.
“Everybody stands to learn from everybody else, and from all approaches to music,” says Eldridge. “There’s really no reason they should be separate, and no reason that they shouldn’t all be embraced. No matter what you’re doing musically, having a wider grasp and a love of different things will only help you to be a better musician.”
In addition to the residency, the Punch Brothers will perform at Finney Chapel on Sunday, March 9, in a concert produced in conjunction with Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series. For tickets and more information, visit oberlin.edu.
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