Ensemble, which instructor Eric Redding calls the flagship of the music department, is an elective class unlike any other.
“The ensemble is basically rock band fantasy camp for credit,” said Professor Eric Redding.
At the end of the semester, the students in the class perform a concert in which they play a different instrument for each song. A single student might switch between playing drums, guitar, keyboards, bass, a horn and singing. A tall order, considering most of the students have little to no experience with any one instrument, let alone several.
“The logistics are staggering, let alone the skill of playing a bunch of new, different stuff,” Redding said. “The headspace for each instrument is different as well. The drummer needs to think ‘1, 2, 3, 4,’ ‘don’t slow down,’ don’t speed up,’ ‘heavy on the snare’ while the guitarist is thinking ‘g minor, eb major, two measures on the d7 and get louder, and louder, and louder.’ It’s a lot for a novice musician to take on.”
Kiana Slone-Wells is playing bass, drums, guitar, electronic wind instrument, vocals and auxiliary percussion. Before coming to APU she’d never played any instrument. However, that wasn’t just one semester’s worth of work — she’s enrolled in ensemble several times and took private lessons concurrently to beef up her abilities.
Jonathon Singler, who had some experience playing guitar, bass and vocals (and added percussion to his repertoire this semester), said the class wasn’t at all what he’d expected.
“The backgrounds of each student in the course range skill levels,” Singler said. “The best part is that Eric appreciate the struggle students face as new instrument and styles are introduced. For those without musical backgrounds, it is a great opportunity to learn and figure out what instruments make you feel alive.”
The number of students enrolled varies from semester to semester; it’s been as few as five and as many as 15. This semester the band has eight performers.
Each performer submits one song (as does Redding). Depending on the semester and students participating, the vibe of the concert varies – sometimes it’s classic rock, sometimes it’s punk rock, sometimes it’s bluegrass or folk.
Redding said this year is shaping up to be particularly diverse. Artists ensemble will be performing include Imagine Dragons, Less than Jake, The Pixies, Grateful Dead, Termination Dust, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Beastie Boys.
For Slone-Wells the variety of songs is harder than the variety of instruments.
“The hardest part for me, personally, is putting in time and effort learning to play songs that I really don’t like,” Slone-Wells said. “I understand music taste is subjective, and that everyone has different opinions. We all remain respectful of each other’s choices and try to put an equal amount of effort into learning every song performed by the ensemble.”
Having been at the head of the class for 15 plus years, Redding has no shortage of stories: the time performers shaved someone’s head during a song, the time a guitarist smashed their guitar after a song, the numerous times people have fallen over amps’ mid-concert and the times concert-goers rushed the stage during the finale and formed a mosh pit.
“Our concerts get a bigger turn out than any school event, period,” Redding said, adding that the concert gives “this big chunk of rock star wannabe’s a platform to express themselves and a place where their friends can come and support them publicly.”
Beyond a new skill set and the calluses that come with practice, Redding said what he hopes students take away from the class is a sense of possibility, the know-how to book a gig, and a bond with their band mates.
Singler echoed that sentiment, saying “The memories and bonds that have been forged with peers are unrivaled. That is the beauty of music.”