CLARINETFEST® 2023 Day 2: Masterclass with Virginia MacDonald

The Clarinet Online, by Joanna Wiltshire, July 18, 2023

Virginia MacDonald, Canadian jazz clarinet virtuoso and ClarinetFest® 2023 headliner, inspired with a workshop/masterclass at 3:45 PM on Thursday, 7/6 in the Meadowbrook room at the Westin. The large room held about 50-60 people and continued to fill in throughout the hour. MacDonald started the class by talking about her background–she started playing clarinet when she was seven and was fully immersed in the jazz language due to her dad being a jazz saxophonist. When MacDonald began playing clarinet, she did not realize that it was not a “typical jazz instrument,” and was continually asked if she played saxophone during her post-secondary education. Despite this, and the fact that she had never taken clarinet lessons until she was about 16, she persevered and found the clarinet to be her authentic jazz voice. Today, she tours as a bandleader and side-woman throughout the US, Canada and Europe and is also in high-demand as a composer.

After discussing her background, MacDonald serenaded the audience with a soulful rendition of the jazz ballad, “Blame it on My Youth.” Sitting casually cool with her legs crossed in the chair, she floated through the melody and chord changes effortlessly with a clarinet timbre that was equal parts breezy, captivating, soothing. After playing the ballad from memory, she asked the audience if they had any questions. The first question was, “do you have any advice for a classical clarinet student who is interested in going into jazz?” MacDonald was ready for this question and she enthusiastically answered that students should immerse themselves in the jazz tonal language by listening to recordings and transcribing solos. “Jazz is a language,” she said, “and you have to become fluent.” She recommended learning the solos of saxophonists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Joe Henderson and walked the audience through an exercise where she took a lick from a solo, and then transposed it into different keys. This, she said, is a great way for a young jazz student to build improvised solos. She ended her answer to this question with a piece of advice we can all use, jazz players or not–”play with people that are better than you.”

Another question that was asked was, “How did you create your own voice in a traditional jazz world?” MacDonald answered that she had to believe that she had something unique to offer to the jazz music scene. As she continued to play with bands and get great feedback from the players, she developed confidence in herself. She said she also learned how to play jazz by learning the musical lines played by saxophone and trumpet players–this allowed her to become an important part of the group and blend as if she were part of the traditional horn line-up. A great compliment that she received was, “You make me forget I’m listening to a clarinet,” she said

After the Q&A, there were three student performers. Leonardo Palma played Eric Dolphy’s “God Bless the Child,” Julia Lanni played Bela Kovacs’ “Hommage a M. de Falla” and Rudy Rodriquez played the fourth movement of John Russell’s “Nomad Concerto.” For each performance, MacDonald sat in the corner of the front row and listened intently as each student played through their entire selection. She complimented each student on their control, especially in the altissimo range and their technical facility on their instruments. MacDonald ended the class by offering a PDF of improvisation exercises she uses with her students to the class participants and took the time after the class to answer individual questions. The audience was gracious and gave her a huge round of applause.