At a Distance: The Ins and Outs of a 21st Century Duo

Written by guest contributor Solara Martin

Chamber music duo, Jâca, is composed of clarinetist Wesley Ferreira and guitarist Jaxon Williams. Not only is this instrumental pairing unique, but so is the situation in which the ensemble operates: long-distance. Without the ability to consistently rehearse in person, I wanted to find out how Jâca was able to maintain such a high level of performance and continued engagement. I was interested in learning the ins and outs of how a performing duo operates while living many states away. After sitting down for an interview with them, I discovered the many creative and industrious ways that Wesley and Jaxon make Jâca highly successful collaborators, and how their distance actually benefits the group:

Solara: As a duo living in different locations, how does this affect your ability to collaborate?

Jaxon: It’s important to look for opportunities rather than the negatives. It’s clear what our limitations are but we focus more on what we can do at a distance. Weekly meetings are a must to keep us accountable and productive. We want to be creating, always.

Wesley: … and when we are together in person, our time is incredibly productive and creative. Sometimes I wonder if we would actually be as productive if we did have access to each other in person each week.

Jaxon: People ask us how we are able to get our pieces together in such a short amount of time. But because we are so far away, it means we have to be 120% ready individually so that when we are together, we are able to piece everything together. The distance holds us accountable. It is absolutely amazing how much you can get done when it’s crucial that you have to be ready.

What specific tools do you use to effectively work together?

Wesley: Yeah, we use a lot of different tools and technology. For keeping on task we use a Trello board to set goals, a shared Apple notes file, and Google drive folders. We make sure to use the same notation software so that we can easily send ideas and compositions back and forth. We use Zoom or FaceTime to meet weekly online. Voice memos or Garageband are also helpful to record us playing to send back and forth.

Jaxon: It’s kind of like a Frankenstein situation! We record bits and pieces and overlay them until it resembles something we are looking for… and then we use that as a base for when we are together in person, when we can really piece the music together.

Wesley: It has been really important that we have the same products so that we can share and pass material easily back and forth. We’re also experimenting with some up-to-date live streaming software.

How often do you get to play in person?

Jaxon: When we do get to be in person, whether it’s for a day or a week, we are optimizing every opportunity we have to rehearse together. Fortunately, we are able to meet together fairly often in a year. Also, we’re together preparing for an upcoming concert, we’re accomplishing many other things on the side too. Whether it’s a video filming or audio recording session, discussions about one of our current or future projects and programs, we are always using our time together wisely.

Does your living situation affect your thought process when planning and scheduling a performance or a tour?

Wesley: Yes, I think so. Of course, we have lives outside of being a performer, including teaching and family time. These are things that need to be worked around. Fortunately, we are each very organized and efficient people, so you learn to balance the different parts of life.

Jaxon: And to spin your question a different way, there is also an automatic expense built into the life of a touring musician. These expenses could be financial or just even the value of time, and so we always have to consider these other aspects before accepting and securing our concerts. It’s like we were talking about before, when we are on a concert trip we try to pack more into it so that we are optimizing our time and turning that into an even more valuable experience.

Does your duo style come from the locations you live in or from your musical background?

Jaxon: Definitely. We’re influenced by our backgrounds musically, culturally, and also because of the versatility of our instruments. For me there is a special connection to Spain due to my time living there and because of my wife. I would say that my musical and cultural understanding and experiences and also the type of music that classical guitar has typically played is what contributes to my voice rather than the location in which I currently live. I would say the same for Wesley. He’s a Portuguese-Canadian living in Colorado so there is a mix of a lot of culture.

Wesley: There is definitely a unique style and identity in our music due to the musical heritage of the particular instruments we play. As musicians we also each have our own tendencies in how we perform, what kinds of styles of playing we each feel comfortable in and gravitate to. But I think for any chamber ensemble to be successful, there needs to be a similar approach to the music from the individual musicians. The playing just has to fit, it can’t be work. For us it was never difficult because our playing fit together easily and our approaches were so similar that it just worked. But we also really enjoy the multicultural aspect of our lives and what that brings to the table.

After adjusting and learning to rehearse and collaborate at a distance, would you prefer to maintain the distance or would it be easier if you lived closer together?

Wesley: When we started this ensemble there was never any hesitation because of our distance. It was never a question of being an impediment. Starting this ensemble was and has always been about what we wanted to accomplish. Even now there is very little discussion about the distance between us. I think we end up valuing our time together much more because of it.

It is clear that this group has mastered collaboration at a distance. Where many ensembles would fall apart by working at such a distance, this group has flourished. Jâca proves that distance is no barrier. Solara Martin

Musical Life During The Pandemic

Written by guest contributor Solara Martin

The global pandemic has hit performing groups hard. Since March 2020, concerts and entire seasons have been cancelled, safety concerns and protocols have made rehearsals impossible, and grant funding has all but disappeared. Many chamber ensembles have been struggling to stay afloat, but Jâca is one group that has been managing despite all the challenges. I had the opportunity to speak with clarinetist Wesley Ferreira and guitarist Jaxon Williams about how the pandemic has affected their ensemble and how they have been navigating the current situation.

The pandemic initially brought a dramatic change for all performing ensembles. Morale was low, shock was high, and everyone was unsure of what the future held. This was no exception for Jâca. Jaxon reflects, “we quickly watched every single concert that we had through the whole spring get cancelled until there was nothing left. We weren’t surprised that our Florida concert tour in March was cancelled, but then it just didn’t stop. I guess I didn’t think it would last this long”. The ensemble continued to reach out to their connections to book concerts. Wesley recalls the situation. He said, “We received answers from our contacts saying ‘We can’t confirm anything’ or ‘we don’t know what if we are going to have a season at this point.’ That is when reality hit us. The world has stopped and no one can really plan for the future”. But just because performances were cancelled, that didn’t stop this duo. They took the time away from performing to work on new repertoire and even experiment with writing their own music.

Jâca has always had a clear mission to sponsor new works and now was the perfect time to focus on pursuing that. Welsey noted, “Even prior to the pandemic we were ‘on a mission to commission’. We didn’t want to alter course so we are still seeking funding and still look to connect with composers to commission new works. We started an emerging composer competition prior to COVID and we wanted to continue this regardless. We are looking forward to hearing all the great works from emerging composers.“ Pandemic or not, this program has flourished with many submissions from a variety of age groups and genres.

Though their spring concert schedule was cancelled, Jâca was determined to perform in the fall. They had one engagement on their concert calendar that had not been cancelled, and while working with the concert series organizers, the chamber group planned and executed a unique virtual performance with plenty of interaction for an excited and willing online concert audience. I wanted to know how the idea for this came up and exactly how they pursued this task. Jaxon filled me in, “We wanted to make sure to include the audience during this concert so we implemented an interactive side. We also had to decide whether to perform via livestream or to record the performance the day before to ensure a good audio and video connection. We ended up doing a hybrid of the two which allowed for a top quality performance with multiple camera angles and a guarantee of no audio issues, and then we used multiple livestream breaks in between the performance footage where we interacted with the audience. We had giveaways, a question and answer period, and short, fun performances that were live. We even had an improvisation session based on cues audience members put in the chat! I’m excited to get to continue this format with other virtual concerts.” The idea was in place but there were still many obstacles this duo had to get around when pursuing the virtual concert. Jaxon continued, “We had to work hard and adapt in order to make this work. We had to be open to learning new skills such as video producing and graphic design. These were sometimes challenging skills to pick up, but also necessary to stay afloat in this pandemic.” Both Wesley and Jaxon agreed that while their experience with this unique concert was challenging, they emerged much more confident that they could produce a quality virtual concert experience for audiences, and that was as close as you can get to real life without actually being there. Watch a snippet of the performance

Since it seems there is not a near end to this pandemic, and with no sense of how arts and musical organizations will venture into the future, I wanted to know how Jâca planned on moving forward. They responded that their main focus during the pandemic has been to tend to the things that chamber groups don’t necessarily have the time or the bandwidth for, whether it be reflecting on their vision and goals, refining aspects of their online presence, as well as composing and releasing their own arrangements on their website. They have been kept busy and they do not see an end to the pandemic anytime soon. As long as normal life continues to be temporarily halted, Wesley and Jaxon say that they will continue to focus on bettering themselves as musicians working to grow Jâca into the ensemble that they aspire to be. During these times it is both easy and understandable for performers to let go of responsibilities and to simply “take a break”, but Jâca is doing everything they can to stay active. Their drive to better themselves while still giving back to their communities is inspiring and gives me hope as to what will come once the coronavirus pandemic has ended. – Solara Martin