Helen Sung conveys technique, life lessons through MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence program
The third of four critically-acclaimed artists to visit and teach students through the residency program.
Eating well and staying rested can be a challenge for student musicians, particularly when times for class, practice and performance fill the calendar.
Jazz Studies student Luther Allison learned tips for healthy living and jazz performance when pianist and composer Helen Sung visited the MSU College of Music through the 2017-18 MSU Jazz Artist in Residence Program. Allison—who juggles being a drummer, pianist and master's student—was inspired by Sung’s ability to manage a multi-tiered life while excelling as an acclaimed performer, composer and educator.
“I knew that life as a jazz musician would be extremely busy,” says Allison. “But what I learned from her is that maintaining optimal health mentally, physically and spiritually gives you the ability to consistently produce music that you’re very proud of.”
Sung was the third of four critically acclaimed artists to visit and teach students through the residency program supported by a $1 million endowment from the MSU Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU). Her visit spanned seven days of mentoring and touring with MSU Jazz Octets to high schools and academies statewide. Sung also performed at the MSUFCU for their Blue Mondays concert series and for the public at Demonstration Hall with Jazz Octets I, II, II and IV.
“It was amazing to work and tour alongside her,” says Allison who played drums in a Jazz Octet. "And while she’s a remarkable musician, her achievements didn’t put up a wall between us. She showed us that no matter how successful you are, we’re all people at the end of the day. She treated everyone with respect and that showed in her music.”
Xavier Davis, associate professor of jazz piano in MSU Jazz Studies, says he and Sung were performers in New York City around the same time and often played with a lot of the same musicians. He remarks that Sung relates extremely well to students since she studied both classical and jazz in college. He adds that Sung can also clearly articulate what it takes to thrive on the jazz scene.
“Several of my students have talked about how they learned so much from playing for and with Helen,” Davis says. “It was also great to hear her discuss her unique perspective of being a woman on the jazz scene and coming from a classical background.”
Sung grew up in Houston, Texas, and attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She originally aspired to be a classical pianist and switched to jazz in college. She is a graduate of the New England Conservatory, and winner of the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition.
Sung has worked with a “Who’s Who” of jazz, including the late Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter. She has appeared at major U.S. festivals and venues including Newport, Monterey, Detroit, SFJAZZ, Carnegie Hall and international stages. She has recorded five albums as a leader, and her sixth release For a New Day (Concord Jazz) topped jazz radio charts. An active composer, Sung has received several commissions and grants, including a 2014 Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation New Jazz Works grant. Sung also teaches through residencies and workshops, and is on the jazz faculty of the Juilliard School and Columbia University.
Allison says he enjoyed playing drums alongside Sung as well as learning jazz techniques through workshops. He says her consistent and direct approach made it easy to interpret and assimilate the concepts she explained.
“Ms. Sung was very clear when communicating to me what she wanted to hear from the drums, which helped me better understand my role on the bandstand,” he says.
The MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence program represents the largest-ever investment in the College’s curriculum and provides one-on-one instruction, collaboration and performance opportunities with some of the world’s best jazz musicians. Since 2013, 16 artists have come to MSU to carry out an itinerary that includes workshops, concerts, events and outreach to more than 27,332 students and adults in communities across Michigan. The 2017-2018 season features four weeklong residencies including Trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman, Drummer Harvey Mason, Pianist Helen Sung and Saxophonist Steve Wilson.
Recap: On the Road with Helen Sung
While an MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence in February, jazz pianist Helen Sung took to the road with the Jazz Octets I and II as part of MSU’s efforts to bring jazz performance and education to Michigan high schools, music academies and colleges.
Destinations and highlights:
Warren Mott High School, Warren . . . 80 people attended a community outreach concert; 30 students were involved in workshops
Hastings High School at First Presbyterian Church, Hastings . . . 150 people attended a community outreach concert; 22 students participated in workshops
Cheboygan High School, Cheboygan . . . 200 people attended a community outreach concert; 17 students were involved in workshops.
What they said:
“What a great experience to be able to sit with Helen and Diego and the members of the MSU Jazz Octets and jam onstage together.”
“Thrilling experience for the students to hear music played at such a high level.”
“The compositions and arrangements were top notch.”
“These are experiences that our young musicians need to be exposed more and more too. It is a great motivator for our students to be a part of this.”
—Erik Miller, director of bands, Warren Mott High School; past president emeritus -District XVI
“The students had an incredible time with the MSU students, Dr. Rivera, and of course, Ms. Sung. Their favorite parts included the clinic time when the MSU students played with them. They also loved getting to ask Dr. Rivera and Ms. Sung questions. During the concert, our students were very excited to see the Octets perform at such a high level. It was inspiring and invigorating! Thank you again for coming to Hastings!”
—Spencer White, band director, Hastings High School
“For my students to experience world class performers all the way up North is a huge reward and truly inspiring. These are often the moments that light a fire within a young person. Beyond the incredible performance, the interaction of the MSU students, professor and guest artist with my students is something they will never forget.”
—Andrew Dunham, Cheboygan High School
“Thank you for this amazing opportunity for the Cheboygan Area High School Jazz band and for Northern Michigan. I was lucky to be able to watch Diego Rivera and Helen Sung teach members of the CAHS Jazz Band. They coaxed, cajoled and enlightened but never spoke negatively. The theme was confidence and by the end of the session, students played fearlessly and beautifully. What a gift. Having the MSU Jazz Band and their artists in residence play on the Opera House stage was a great honor. Concert-goers want them back!”
—Kathy King Johnson, Executive Director, Cheboygan Opera House