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Interview with Giovanni Perin – Italian Vibraphone Genius

Giovanni Perin is an incredible vibraphonist, an exceptional composer, a rounded musician, but to me, he is mostly a great friend. I feel honored to have the chance to interview him on my blog, even though the interview could have easily been conducted in front of a cold beer in our favorite pub in Padua, the city where we both live and work. Maybe together with Mac, our teacher for a very long time.

I have known Giovanni since we were fourteen. We spent many years side by side in the same conservatory. We played in our first orchestras together and thanks to him I fell in love with jazz and fusion. For a few years, I also had the privilege of playing drums in his group. And even though we did choose different paths, we meet once again as colleagues, both teachers in the same city.  

He has just moved back to Italy after spending four years in Berlin, studying at the faculty of jazz vibraphone with Dave Friedman and playing in one of the most interesting jazz circles in the world.

His interview is simply inspiring. Enjoy!

Giovanni Perin

 

Ok Gio, let’s start. I’d like you to tell me something about your personal and artistic life.

I was born and raised in Sarmeola, a quiet suburb of Padua. Thanks to my father, a doctor but also a musician, I developed a strong attraction for music, especially percussion instruments, at a very young age.

When I was three, my parents bought me toy drums and then later a guitar and a small xylophone, you know, one of those with colored keys which play the C scale a bit out of tune. I had great fun creating melodies with that strange and fascinating toy.

When I was nine, I asked to take piano lessons even though I was already banging on my drums, completely self-taught, trying to emulate (or so I thought) the drummers I saw playing at the jazz concerts my father took me to.

One day, my old man came home with a used vibraphone he had just bought. We both looked at that strange instrument and immediately realized it was perfect for us. I spent my youth between games of ping-pong, Foosball and lessons at the conservatory, which I began attending at the age of 14, even though, admittedly so, what I loved more and more was not playing classical or contemporary music but rather jazz!

Unfortunately, because the academic environment in Padua was still extremely biased against improvised music, I was forced to complete my studies at a small conservatory in Adria, which at the time boasted not only one of the largest jazz departments in the area but also a more relaxed and fun atmosphere.

Since those who love jazz can’t escape the irresistible attraction towards the United States, I too asked my parents, as a high school graduation gift, to send me to the Berklee College of Music for their summer seminars, also encouraged by Dave Samuels, the vibraphone and marimba player who held summer seminars in Bassano sponsored by Berklee. After graduating concurrently from college and conservatory, I felt I had outgrown Padua and therefore packed my bags and moved to Berlin.

The choice of Berlin was determined in part by the presence at the conservatory of a great jazz department, whose teachers (many of whom had come from the New York jazz scene) were among the most famous contemporary jazz musicians in the world, but mostly by the opportunity of studying with David Friedman, finally a teacher specialized in vibraphone and jazz marimba.

All I knew up to that moment I had learned from jam sessions and from listening to records, but I had never had a jazz teacher, let alone a vibraphone teacher! The audition was hard because David could only pick one candidate… but I did well! However, auditioning was really the easiest part. I had in fact just gotten engaged to a beautiful girl I was crazy about and who is still my fiance today, and in October, just one week before my adventure was to begin, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was the one who told me, from her hospital bed, right after a long and difficult surgery, to follow my dream…and so I did.

Aside from the initial difficulty of getting settled in a big city, of getting used to the harsh weather (Berlin is really cold and winters are long), and the new language, the four and a half years I spent in Berlin were a great growth opportunity both personally and musically. The air you breathe in a large city is exhilarating and Berlin is known for its lively arts scene, always open to the cross-contamination of different genres, especially in the field of improvised music.

In Berlin, I had the chance not only to refine my technique as an improviser and composer but also to study under the Maestro of keyboards, from whom I learned a lot as a human being as well as a musician. I also became involved in the local jazz scene, which gave me the opportunity to play with some of the greatest names in the European jazz scene, with whom I recorded my first CD, “Dream with Open Eyes”, also with the collaboration of trumpet player, Fabrizio Bosso.

In 2013, I spent a month in Australia, where I held various Masterclasses for vibraphone at the conservatories of Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne and played with a project created in my name, called “Australian Group”, which gave the opportunity to bring my music overseas.

A few months ago, I came back to Italy and now divide my time between teaching and working on the musical projects I have going in Italy and Germany.

 

The memorable quote

Thank you… Well, now I’d like to continue the interview by asking for your favorite quote among all the ones you have heard from your various mentors.

All the Maestros I had the privilege of training with, agreed on one thing:

Timing and feeling are everything! Without these two variables, music can’t work.

Can you explain how you put these words into practice in your daily life as a musician and a teacher?

I worry about timing and feeling even before I worry about notes. I see them as a frame on which to build valuable musical pitches. The frame is not visible but it supports the whole structure…if it is not there, everything comes tumbling down and the music dies. Mind you, I don’t mean tempo, dynamics, or phrasing, but rather how you feel the tempo and interpret the music. These are the two factors that bring life to music and that make us unique musicians, different from each other and from the synthesized sounds created by computers.

I do try to transmit the way I feel about music to my students, without forcing them to follow my approach but rather by making them understand the value of their uniqueness as musicians and human beings.

 

A difficult moment in the career

As musicians, we all experience difficult moments at some point in our journey. Gio, tell us about one of these moments in your career and about the events that led to it.

My first concert in Berlin as a bandleader was a total disaster. I was very nervous because not only was I in the midst of preparing my first CD, but I had also put together a superband for the occasion. Unfortunately besides us, there were only four other people in the club: the pianist’s girlfriend, his two roommates…and the club owner. I had never been in such an embarrassing situation, especially since the owner obviously did not pay us, and as the leader of the band, I had to tell the rest of the group that we didn’t even have enough money for the subway. We actually ended up playing anyway, making some very intense and interesting music. I do believe in fact that musicians must play even if there are only two people in the audience, because those two people have come to watch you perform.

What lesson have you learned from this episode?

I learned that unfortunately the music world is very hard, that you must persevere and truly believe in your own projects and qualities, even before seeing any tangible result. It is somewhat similar to the life of a farmer who after having seeded a field has to wait months before reaping the harvest.

 

A moment of glory

Somewhere in your career, there must have been a moment of glory, in which you must have said to yourself, “Ok, this time I really scored!”. Explain to us exactly what happened.

I have to admit that life has always been very generous to me. There hasn’t been one specific big moment, but rather a collection of smaller moments, that combined together gave me the strength to go on and believe in myself day after day. I did have the great fortune of winning many national and international contests, such as Premio Zorzella, which gave me the opportunity of recording and producing my first album, Premio Jazz Lighthouse, Premio Internazionale Massimo Urbani, and others. I also performed in some of the most important national and international theaters, together with the greatest international jazz musicians. However, I can’t say I hit it big yet!  I am working on it…we work on it all our life, always setting more and more ambitious goals… because in life you are never really quite there or at least that is what I believe.  Every accomplishment becomes a starting  point.

 

Giovanni Perin with vibraphone

Current and future projects

What is the most important project you are working on right now?

I’m working on a new CD of original pieces that I will record in Berlin at the end of May, together with my jazz sextet, formed by Tino Derado on keyboards, Tommaso Troncon on tenor sax, Dima Bondarev on trumpet, Diego Pinera on drums, and Marcel Kromker on double bass. This project is meant as a conclusion for my Berlin experience. It will close an important chapter in my life and I hope will open new doors for my music career!

What are your plans for the future?

I’ve always loved traveling and bringing my music with me (the instrument, on the other hand, is always hard to transport!!!). I’d like to travel to South America and especially to Brazil to organize some vibraphone Masterclasses, play my music, and why not, let their world of rhythm capture me. I would also like to travel east to China, Japan, Taiwan, places where western music, as far as I was told, is more appreciated.

 

Last questions

What prompted you to study percussion instruments and to specialize in the vibraphone?

I have always deeply loved rhythm and percussion instruments. I can still remember when, at school, I kept getting punished for constantly tapping on my desk like a drum and disturbing the whole class, especially math, subject in which I have always been pretty bad (let debunk the myth that those who are good at music are also good at math). I have also been fascinated with harmony and improvisation and when my dad came home with a vibraphone, I felt I had found the right combination of melody and rhythm. Even though the vibraphone is not a complete instrument like the piano, it does offer many possibilities especially when playing using four mallets.

Can you tell us about your daily routine of study?

I am a bit “naive” in my method of study and I really don’t have a set routine (maybe my not following a routine is my routine), but I do try to practice my instrument at least one hour a day. I know it isn’t much, but through the years, I realized that concentrating for an hour can be difficult. After a while, my brain begins to wander and I start playing without a true study objective (this phase can obviously last for hours). However, I do work a lot on music pieces and I write arrangements of different types, that range from music for solo vibraphone to music for big bands, reviving standard jazz and pieces that I find interesting for my personal growth (I just completed a version of Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla for solo vibraphone).

When I have difficulties with a piece I am studying, I start from the measures I have problems with and create custom exercises (maybe a short study) to solve the issue in a musical way. I try to maintain a musical approach even when I am working on technique.  A practical example could be the study of scales and of the techniques developed from them; so instead of going back and forth on a scale, I improvise melodic patterns based on the sole notes of the scale and create harmonious patterns from it. This way I can study scales, harmony, and create “music” at the same time. Have you ever heard a piece created solely from scales? If yes…well, then you must know it’s horrible.

I also spend a lot of time transcribing and analyzing my idols’ solos and music creations. Analyzing the harmony and melody of music sheets and its related transcriptions helps us understand the pieces we are going to perform, because by understanding the mechanisms behind the music, we can better interpret the music we are performing.

When I can, I try to compose music as well. In my opinion, the creative process is part of being a musician because it gives you the opportunity to fully express yourself and to develop your own idea of sound.

Why did you decide to come back to Italy?

Last year, once I graduated, I was offered the opportunity to teach percussion instruments to middle school kids, and so I am back, at least for a while. I had always known in my heart that Berlin was not going to be my final destination in life and I felt as I had matured and reached the goals I had gone there for. Coming back wasn’t easy, but I knew deep inside that it was the best thing for me while trying to figure out what to do with my future, because it would give the chance to recuperate from four very intense years and to stay close to my family after the death of my mother.

Do you  recommend any online resources to our readers?

First of all, I definitely recommend Youtube, which has become an endless source of concerts, free online lessons, masterclasses and records (unfortunately sometimes to the detriment of artists who can no longer sell their CD because they can be found free on Youtube). Youtube tutorials, for example, taught me how to play piano better. As a novice, it is obviously difficult to differentiate between good stuff and trash.

As far as mallet percussion, I would also like to mention vibesworkshop.com, the greatest online community, founded by Tony Miceli, specialized in the study of the vibraphone, which offers online paid video lessons by many of the most renowned vibraphonists in the world, such as David Friedman, Gary Burton, Joe Locke, Tony Miceli, and…Giovanni Perin!

If you wanted to recommend a book or a method useful to percussionists, what would it be?

I am usually not a fan of methodologies because I believe that the exercises they recommend have been created by the authors to solve their specific problems but won’t necessarily solve yours. In a book of technique I usually find only a couple of exercises that interest me, partly because I find them completely antimusical per se. Obviously, a basic knowledge of technique is absolutely necessary, but overall I am convinced that we all need to stand on our own two feet, with the help of our teachers who will, if well prepared, choose for each lesson the more appropriate subjects for the growth of their students.

I often write the exercises for my students myself or I ask them to write four measures using the patterns of rhythm and melody they have learned in class. More than a methodology, I recommend playing real music as much as possible (music pieces not exercises) but mostly playing with others (if possible with better musicians than us). Interacting with other musicians is a good way to self-analyze from a psychological point of view as well as musical. Ask them what they are working on and don’t worry, they will be able to recommend a good exercise for you to work on for at least a week!!

What instruments do you play other than the vibraphone?

I play many…poorly!! Actually, after a phase in which, as any good percussionist, I had tried to play everything, I recently specialized on mallet percussion (vibraphone and marimba) and piano, because it is a complete instrument that allows me to really explore harmony and composition. I also play drums in my spare time. Some time ago I used to play timpani and the small orchestra instruments, but I abandoned them when I realized that orchestra is not for me. I don’t know how to stay in my place!

Finally the last question: if you could go back in time, at the beginning of your studies, would you do anything different?

I often ask myself that question and I came to the conclusion that if I had done anything different, I would not be who I am today, both personally and musically. Probably the only thing I would do better is studying and listening to my teachers more, as I tend to do things my own way since the only rules I can follow are the ones I make myself.

 

Conclusion

Gio, thank you for sharing you story with us. It is definitely a source of inspiration for many musicians. I’d like to ask if you have one more advice for the percussionists reading this interview and if you’d like to share with us the best way to contact you.

My advice is to live life fully, don’t lock yourself in your house to study for ten hours a day a Japanese piece for marimba that you’ll play once in your life in a half-empty concert hall. Try to live music in a healthy way, as a passion that will give you the opportunity to make profound and wonderful experiences. All the greatest musicians I encountered had a fascinating past, full of music but also of travels, passions, loves, and hardships…and all of that transpired in their music. This was what made them unique! The instrument is simply a means to communicate our story and if our story is a life spent studying locked in a room, the music we’ll transmit to the audience will be technically perfect by lifeless and meaningless.

The best way to contact me is on my website www.giovanniperin.com or on my Facebook Page. You can also email me at giovanniperin87@gmail.com. I will be happy to respond to all your questions and more!

Gio, thanks again for your time, bye for now and I will see you at your next concert, which will be…

… on March 14th at Barazzo in Bologna with a very interesting jazz sextet.

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