“It’s a great program. I’m blessed to be a part of it,” 14-year-old freshman phenom Alma Macbride tells me of her association with the jazz band at West Hartford, Connecticut’s legendary Hall High School. Directed for the last 12 years by John Mastroianni, Hall’s renowned jazz program has mentored acclaimed artists such as pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joel Frahm. Now, Macbride, who won Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2009 Mary Lou Williams Competition — where she performed alongside Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — becomes our April 2010 MAJORminor profilee.
First memory of hearing jazz piano and being impressed/curious: I remember hearing my brother Jimmy, who’s a jazz drummer studying at Juilliard, play piano. He listens to jazz quite often. I wasn’t particularly into jazz at first, but I recall enjoying [jazz pianist and singer] Bob Dorough. I also like saxophonist Claire Daly.
Age you began playing piano: I started basic piano at age four, and jazz studies when I was eight with Earl MacDonald, with whom I’m still working.
First instrument owned and what age: There’s always been a piano in my house, but the first instrument I actually owned was a flute, which I got when I was seven. I still play and take lessons on it.
Current keyboard equipment: My family owns a Kawai baby grand piano. I also own a Casio PX-330 keyboard.
Musical heroes and influences: My piano heroes are Wynton Kelly, Kenny Barron, Cyrus Chestnut, Gene Harris, and Jamie Cullum. Other musical heroes include the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra, and too many others to list here!
Why piano and not some other instrument? Although I do play other instruments, piano has been my primary focus. I feel the piano is very versatile stylistically. I love how a piano can create music that sounds so much fuller than the 88 keys that it has.
Favorite music to play: I love to play jazz. The theory behind it, and incorporated licks, makes it unique.
Worst gig or gear nightmare: At a school concert, we performed a tune in which I had a piano intro. I started to play and the amp wasn’t working, so the sound was only coming out of the front speakers of the keyboard, making it nearly inaudible. The director tried desperately to fix the problem while I kept playing and tried to raise the volume. The conductor suddenly fixed it — and it was much too loud! In the future, I’ll know to check the amp before playing. Another bad gig experience was a fundraiser I put together where there were all of four people in the audience, two being my parents. It was kind of embarrassing!
How important is traditional music training? I think it’s important to achieve an understanding of music theory and basic skills before starting to pursue more difficult repertoire. Learning intervals and chords helps in all fields, from jazz to classical.
Read sheet music or play by ear? I do both. I usually learn licks and transcribe music by ear, but I also learn tunes using lead sheets. Both approaches are equally effective.
Life goals: I would love to be a lifetime professional musician. Another dream job I have is to be a film critic.