Steven Feifke, LHS class of 2009, recently became the youngest person to win a GRAMMY Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble album. His compositions and orchestrations have been prominently featured on hit TV shows such as The Masked Singer, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Impractical Jokers, Animaniacs, and more. Feifke teaches at Berklee College of Music and The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. He recently returned to LHS for a Q&A session and master class with LHS jazz students.
Interview by students Ella Bilge, Darren Huang, Tara Mukherjee and Amanda Offsey, jazz educators Justin Aramati and Pat Donaher, and complied for publication by Amanda Offsey. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student: To what extent did the LHS jazz music program jumpstart your interest in becoming a jazz pianist?
Feifke: It definitely continued an interest that I had, that was embraced by my parents and my previous educators. When I first started taking classes here, I was in middle school, and there was a jazz program that Mr. Leonard used to run. I remember being in that big band. And then when I came to the high school, I did some of the improv classes, then eventually Septet, Big Band and Combo, the Jazz Ensemble and the Pit Orchestra. When I was doing the pit orchestra for Les Mis, that’s sort of when I realized that I wanted to be a professional musician.
Student: Did you also get into composition when you were at LHS?
Feifke: Yes, one of my favorite parts of the program was that my teachers were so open to me bringing in compositions, and were very responsive in an encouraging way. For the ones that worked, and for the ones that didn’t work so well, there was always constructive criticism. And that was very, very impactful, because it can be easy to get discouraged, but I felt encouraged.
Student: What were some musical influences that impacted your journey into finding your own musical voice?
Feifke: When I was a freshman, Jeff Leonard brought Makoto Ozone to the program. I remember walking into the band room and seeing Makoto sitting at the piano, not knowing who he was, but he was just really shredding on the keys. Musically, that was very impactful. It was very encouraging to see that he seemed very comfortable professionally, and I had never seen that before out of a musician. There was like a certain lifestyle that Makoto seemed to embody, that I was like, “Oh, that’s a cool vibe, that’s a cool sound.” I was very, very influenced by that meeting and I remember it very, very well.
Student: What classes do you teach at Berklee? Can you tell us how you teach new concepts to students while meeting them where they are?
Feifke: I teach various levels of harmony and jazz composition. I love teaching. I’ve been teaching since I was your age. Teaching is really, really difficult, and I’m still getting better at it. One of my goals is to become the best teacher that I possibly can. What I’ve found is that teaching is all about storytelling. Especially in harmony classes and in theory classes, it can be difficult sometimes to get students interested. Even though I think it’s super cool now, when I was their age, I definitely did not think it was super cool. I think that you have to realize whether you’re teaching arts or craft. A really good professor can take a craft course and inspire art. But it’s not my job to teach art in those cases, and I struggled with that. I think that craft can be taught, but art has to be inspired.
Student: Is there any advice you can give to people who want to start a career in composing and arranging or just music in general?
Feifke: I think composing, arranging, and orchestrating is the best career in the music industry. The best way to start is to just go and do it for yourself and record it and put it out. If you want people to come to you because you do it, people have to know that you can do it. So you have to do it.
Instructor: One thing I try to share with my students, especially intro students, is the idea that these days jazz is a much broader genre than I think most people realize at first. What do you think are the essential elements of music, where you’d be like, “well this doesn’t sound like traditional jazz, but I still consider this to be jazz.”
Feifke: I think that jazz is definitely broader than, you know, the 50s and 60s, ‘Blue Note era’ that most people think of. But then again, there’s also a contingency of people who think that jazz is just Kenny G. And then what’s to say that Kenny G isn’t jazz? I think that you’re 100% right, that jazz is a really broad spectrum. And so I think that in order to answer that question you have to understand what jazz really is at its core. Jazz is freedom music. Jazz was born out of slavery. Jazz was born out of extreme oppression and hardship. But it’s an expression of freedom in the midst of all of that. And music, when we create music together, it’s communal expression. And so in order to communicate together, we have to have an understanding of where one another comes from, and be willing to come to the bandstand with the ability to have a conversation.
And so how do you have a conversation? Well, in jazz, everybody’s talking at the same time, and we have these frameworks that we work from, like chord changes, and melodies that are common. There’s standards, like the American Songbook. But once we get away from that framework, I think that your question is mainly about if there are there other frameworks that work, and so if we can agree that jazz is freedom music, that it does come from that dark place, and yet is an expression of freedom in the midst of all that, then we can sort of arrive at the conclusion that everybody has something to say, so long as we know how to say it. And so I guess the primary element that I would think is a common denominator to all, “jazz” is improvisation. But then you go and you check out a Bruce Springsteen concert…they might have a different introduction to the song or that song, or different outro, or the drummer plays a different solo, and then you realize that there’s improvisation in all that kind of music too. Music is music.
Student: How do you deal with competition and toxicity in music?
Feifke: I have noticed that when there is competition or toxicity, I can just tune it out. That’s sort of how I deal with it. I just do my own thing, and try to be positive and try to spread love. It sounds silly. But yeah, just be who I am and connect with the people who I’m naturally/organically supposed to connect with, and hire as many people as I possibly can. That’s what I love to do. I like to create opportunities for my friends and for people who I admire. So I don’t notice a lot of toxicity or competition. I think I just have a natural aversion to it. It definitely exists, but you start to notice that the higher you climb, the less it exists.
Student: You’ve mentioned that you’re teaching right now. Are there any other projects that you’re currently working on that you would want to talk about?
Feifke: I do have an album coming out in June. It’s my next big band album. It’s called Catalyst. I’m really excited about the music on it. I think it’s a great record. I never say that about my albums. I’m really proud of it, and I cannot wait for June. It comes out on June 16. And we’re doing a show at Scullers on June 10 and a show at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I’m going to be in Florence for a couple of weeks leading up to it and Ecuador afterwards.
Instructor: You are the last generation that remembers life before social media. What do you think are the pros and cons of sort of having a career that involves being present on social media?
Feifke: Only pros. Social media is like a TV network. And your page on social media is like your ever-changing business card. It’s free marketing. It’s incredible. The only con that I can see is that there is a number associated with it, which could invite some sort of competition, which different people respond differently to. I have been able to create a lot of opportunities that I would not have been able to create without social media.
Instructor: If you’re interested in music, whether or not you want to be a professional musician, or if it’s going to be just a big part of your life, what are some things that someone can do right now to foster their interest in the craft?
Feifke: My answer would be, just to embrace it. And that’s vague for sure. But that can mean a lot of different things. You have to generate some sort of self awareness for yourself, to understand what it is that you relate to in the art form. I use music to express myself. And then at a certain point, you make the active decision to actively work on your craft, to get better at it.
When the time comes to make a choice, whether you’re going to go into music full time, or minor in music, you can decide what direction to go in with that self awareness, and the knowledge that you’re going to continue to develop greater self awareness as your character deepens over time.
A lot of people can look at me and say, “Well, you have a Grammy now, so clearly you’ve made it.” But to those people I would say, “Well, I’m making it, I’m doing it. I haven’t done it.” To be a professional freelance musician takes a lot of focus. I did not have that focus when I was a kid. I might have had a certain affinity for the arts, but I didn’t have the focus to have a career in it. It’s something I’ve developed over time. And I’ve developed it over time because I had no choice. Because I just realized that for me, nothing else was gonna satisfy me in my life unless I was a musician. But for now, just embrace where you’re at. And if you want to do it, just trust in the process.