Feature/Interview

Alex Merritt (“The Shed With Alex”. Next session 10 March with Iain Ballamy)

“I am hoping that “The Shed With Alex” will continue to prove a useful platform and great resource for graduate students and professionals alike, for a long time to come, (even after our present, locked down state has been lifted!)” says tenor saxophonist and composer Alex Merritt(*).

Alex has been developing an innovative online and interactive teaching project in which guests come and present seminars on their area of specialism. The next session of The Shed with Alex will be on 10 March 2021, and will feature Iain Ballamy. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: How often is The Shed with Alex. Is it at the same time every session? Is there a cost?

Alex Merritt:
The Shed with Alex runs fortnightly, on Zoom, on Wednesdays at 16.00-17.30.

– It runs on a suggested donation of £10, but participants can pay whatever works for them.

LJN: If people want to get involved what should they do? 

AM:  I’m glad you asked that!

  • They can drop me an email at alex@alexmerritt.co.uk
  • They can join our mailing list, for more info by just emailing me just saying YES
  • Or join the Facebook group HERE

LJN: What kind of people is it aimed at?

AM: The Shed was initially conceived of as being an ongoing learning opportunity for graduate students, of UK music colleges or otherwise, to help stay engaged with practical ways of learning after leaving college- forming a virtual practice community of sorts and helping to keep up morale and motivation during these trying times for musicians. (Which are particularly challenging times for younger musicians and recent graduates.)

However, since the sessions have been running for a while I can safely say that also younger musicians (with some foundations in the music even if yet to study jazz formally), current students, and even professional players have been tuning in and finding the session very worthwhile. We have also had good responses and superb feedback from adult learners. We want to make it a welcoming and inclusive environment

LJN: When did you start and who was your first guest?

AM:  I initially ran these sessions as a pilot programme for some of my graduate students from the The Royal Welsh College, who I have loved working with over the last 7 years, looking at different areas of harmony, rhythm, transcription skills and different concepts for improvising. When I felt we had a good working format, last December, I started opening these up to invite guests and friends from the scene to come and present seminars on their area of specialism and to create a PDF of practice materials on their chosen subject for participants.

Our first guest was electric bass sensation Kevin Glasgow (Tim Garland, Asaf Sirkis, PGL) and since then we have had leading UK talents such as Dave Smith, Michael Chillingworth, Steve Fishwick, Reuben Fowler as well as sessions hosted by myself.

LJN: What was the real motivation in setting it up?

AM:  I was motivated by the fact that when online learning became the primary mode of teaching last March, I could see the potentials of using Zoom to create a format whereby I could bring together and form a digital learning community with participants and guests based anywhere.

I wanted to harness this opportunity to create a kind of online archive of fantastic, high level teaching content and materials that featured contributions from leading musicians and educators on the UK jazz and creative music scene. I hadn’t seen anything online that specifically represented the wealth, breadth and diversity of jazz talent that we have in the UK so I thought that lockdown, in a way, might create an opportunity to start building this platform.

I feel, with the calibre of guests, quality of the content created so far, and the positive response the sessions are receiving, we are well on our way to creating this and I am hoping The Shed will continue to prove a useful platform and great resource for graduate students and professionals alike, for a long time to come. (Even after our present, locked down state has been lifted!)

LJN: Has it gone as you expected or have there been surprises?

AM:  One factor that has proved very popular is that if people cannot make the ‘live’ session, I offer recordings of each session and learning materials created by each guest, on their chosen area of focus, for £7.50. Many leading UK jazz musicians have shown an interest in this archived footage and the resources from guest co-hosts so this encourages me that we have a model worth pursuing, and potentially expanding, in future.

I think I expected more technical issues with this quite novel format, but as many educators are no doubt finding, the online platform makes the quick sharing of resources, scores (annotations, examples) quite straightforward and sessions are largely very slick and focused as a result- this actually seems to aid comprehension with even quite high level conceptual content with all ages and levels of participant; allowing everyone to keep pace and stay engaged with the sessions.

LJN: Is the number of participants stable or growing?

We have a stable number of participants, regularly roughly equivalent to the size of a class in a college, so not too many people to feel like you aren’t an active participant in the session. I actually feel this is very important- I want to create the feeling of a personal learning model and that students are really part of a community, not a more anonymous webinar format where people cannot interact and have their questions answered easily.

As such we have an allotted time for Q&A with the guest co-hosts at the end of every seminar and encourage voicing your thoughts towards the end of the session.

LJN: Who will be the next few guests?

We have some fantastic guests and events lined-up:

  • 10 March- Leading figure of UK jazz saxophone- Iain Ballamy
  • 24 March- Wonderful young alto saxophonist, composer and personal voice on the scene-Tom Smith(*)
  • 7 April- Amazing young German singer and educator Miriam Ast
  • 21 April- Trainee Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner and fantastic musician and composer, Clare Lasserson will lead a special event in support of musicians wellness and mental well-being during times of crisis. (*)
  • 5 May- Distinctive and brilliant UK composer, singer/ pianist Dr. Sorana Santos

(* These events may happen on Facebook Live, to be announced on The Shed Facebook group: please check here for updates- )

LJN: Who would be your dream guest?

– Ah! Too many to name but people I think would give amazing sessions because of the depth of their knowledge, enquiry and who would be wonderful communicators perhaps-

Steve Coleman, Bo Van Der Werf, Nelson Veras, Gary Thomas..In the UK, I feel spoilt with who we have had and who we have coming up.

Alex Merritt. Photo credit: Steven Cropper

(*) Alex Merritt released his quartet’s debut album Anatta in 2015, featuring Jeff Williams, John Turville and Sam Lasserson. A continuing and distinctive feature of his work is the incorporation of influences from contemporary classical music into improvisation. The Alex Merritt/ Steve Fishwick Quintet will be releasing a new album on Fresh Sound Records later in 2021. Alex is also a member of the teaching faculty at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

LINKS: The Shed with Alex Facebook Group
Alex Merritt’s website

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