Oran Etkin may be a Grammy winner, but that doesn’t mean he takes himself too seriously. Etkin’s clarinet allows him to reach a wide range of audiences, from the high brow to the downright silly. Using his unique talent, this nice Jewish boy has traveled to LA, Paris, Tokyo and beyond, performing concerts that are sometimes designed for adults, sometimes designed for children.
Etkin’s brand of youth classes, called Timbalooloo, has attracted celebrity parents like Naomi Watts and Edie Falco. His adult albums, meanwhile, have earned Oran the sort of career that keeps him constantly on the go. Jspace recently caught up with Oran to discuss Grammys, jazz and how to turn children into musical prodigies.
Jspace: How would you describe your music?
Oran Etkin: That’s a difficult question. My background is based in jazz but it draws on music from all over the world. I started playing jazz when I was very little, that’s definitely a big element of it. I also draw a lot on my own roots in Israeli and Jewish music as well. I bring all those elements together and try to do so in a very natural way. When I pick up my horn and play, that’s what comes out because that’s who I am. It has all of those different elements in there.
How do you incorporate Jewish or Israeli sounds into your work?
For example, being a clarinetist, the whole phrasing and way of playing music has become such a part of my sound, that it would be hard to separate it out. Because I’ve gotten into playing some Jewish music that kind of influenced everything else I played. And it just naturally comes out. The whole idea is to reflect who I am in a very honest way. So I’m not necessarily thinking, “Okay which element comes from Jewish music? This element comes from African music.” But when I sit down and write, all of those things naturally come out, whether I’m sitting down and writing a tune or improvising or even just the way I phrase melodies and stuff.
How did you get your start in music?
When I was 5 I started playing piano. My big brother played piano, and I would just run after him and try to do what he did, so I played piano. And then after that I started the violin in third grade and then sax in fourth grade and then guitar in fifth grade and then clarinet in high school. But really what grabbed me and really made me want to become a musician is when I was 9 years old and my parents bought me a CD of Louis Armstrong. They bought two CDs, Mozart and Louis Armstrong. Louis got me at that point, but the Mozart, I really wasn’t into that yet, I had to put that aside. But Louis really got me, and that’s what I listened to from age 9 to 14. That’s all I listened to, Louis Armstrong and all of the New Orleans music and musicians.
My parents took me down to New Orleans a few times and hearing the music and how it’s a part of life, that really influenced me as a kid. That sound of Louis Armstrong is really strong in whatever I do. Even if the music’s not traditional jazz, I keep kind of his sense of melody and rhythm. He plays his horn like he sings. And the groove and the swing of that music is something that I try to take all of my music through. I try to have a really strong melody and a sense of freedom. The way he sings and the way he plays the trumpet is really joyful and free and spontaneous. It’s not like planned out and rigid and perfect.
You’ve worked with number of different instruments. What specifically about the clarinet speaks to you so much?
I still play a lot of sax and I play the bass clarinet too, but I think that the clarinet, there’s just something about it. It speaks, it’s like a human voice almost. And you can get it to express so many different emotions and really sound like it’s talking. All the emotions that can come out of it, for me, make it the perfect instrument. It expresses me well. I found my voice on the clarinet.
How did you come to be nominated for a Grammy?
In 2011, I was in a project that was nominated and then in 2012 I was in a different project that actually won a Grammy. And both of them were benefit albums. In 2011 I was contacted by these producers who wanted me to make a track that was going to be a benefit for healthy food in schools. The other artists on that album included Russell Simmons and Moby. I didn’t really think much of it. I just said “Sure, it sounds great.” I spent like a day and a half making this track and sending it off to them. I was surprised that I was nominated for the Grammy. We went out there to LA and went to the ceremony and everything, and then when they opened the envelope, it was Julie Andrews who won. So what can you do? My hat’s off to her.
A week or two after the awards, the same producers approached me about doing a new project. So we thought of a different kind of charity to donate money to and it was anti-bullying. The whole concept was making a CD that promotes awareness of bullying and all the proceeds go to organizations that fight bullying. So I wrote two tracks for that CD, and then that one was nominated and we went to the awards, and when they opened it up, they said that we won.
What did it feel like when you won?
I guess because I was there the previous years, I felt like I kind of knew a little bit what to expect, I thought it wouldn’t be that much different being nominated and winning. But definitely when you win it’s like a huge surprise and shock. Then we went up on stage and afterwards you go backstage and they take you through this whole maze of different press interviews and photo shoots and then the red carpet. So it was definitely a big, happy surprise.
You teach a number of classes for children. Why did you get into youth music?
That’s a whole other side of what I do. It’s called Timbalooloo. It’s a method that I developed to teach very young children the concept that music is like a language. When we’re very young we learn languages very easily. A child who’s 2 years old can become fluent in a language whereas the way we teach older children when they’re in high school, is we teach all the rules of grammar and everything and in the end after a year they can kind of piece together a sentence with a bad accent and they’re thinking too much to actually speak freely. I see that happening with music as well.
When we teach music with older kids, we’re teaching them the rules of music, thinking about it so much. And then they get to the recital and they’re thinking so much about what to play and it comes out in the confidence and just very rigid. Like I said, in my own music I strive for that fluency and that freedom that I heard in Louis Armstrong’s music. I want to find a way to teach children to be that fluid and that natural. The way I see it, if I can teach them when they’re very young, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 years old, and really find a way to teach the fundamentals of music at that age, then they learn it intuitively and they don’t have to think about all the rules but they know the rules in their bodies and intuition. Then the music just becomes a language for them and they say whatever they want to say, musically.
We have music classes throughout New York. Some music classes are in schools, but a lot of them are in homes. Parents get a group of kids together, and either I go out or I also have teachers that have trained, and I send them out to do a weekly group class. The parents get a group of six, seven, eight kids together in their home and every week they meet with that same group and do a class like that.
I put out a CD for children called “Wake Up Clarinet,” and that’s been doing really well. It got “Best Children’s Album” at the Independent Music Awards. We do concerts for children, like Central Park Summer Stage. We’re going to do one on August 9, for Summer Stage. And I just got back from Tokyo where I did a concert for kids. We’ve been in Paris, LA, all around the world doing these concerts for children. And part of the whole concept is that instruments come alive and become characters and speak.
In the concert I come out and I have my friend Clara. I say my friend Clara is so tired, she can’t wake up, so I had to bring her to the concert in her bed. And then we wake her up and it turns out her last name is “Net,” like clarinet. We do this whole thing where the instruments talk and take the kids around the world in different styles of music.
Oran Etkin will be performing at the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn on August 28, and at City Winery in SoHo on September 23.