Eschewing Convention through Music
Leonard Garrison didn’t like his fourth-grade teacher. But he did like The Beatles. For a budding musician in the 1960s, the relationships were mutually exclusive.
“She taught some really boring songs,” said Garrison, who will release his tenth CD this year. “So I suggested, ‘Why don’t we study some Beatles?’”
But Garrison’s teacher countered that the pop sensation wasn’t worthy of being studied. That afternoon, he went home and told his mom that he didn’t like music anymore. Her solution was to immediately enroll Garrison in piano lessons — with an 80-year old teacher who was a student in the early 1900s under one of Franz Liszt’s pupils. According to Garrison, a self-described non-conformist, something clicked during those visits. However, he realized that playing the piano lacked a social element he craved — it’s often not featured in bands or orchestras — so he sought a change.
At age 10, Garrison found his match in the flute, compositions for which are “the most progressive in modern music,” he said. Before long, he outgrew the teachers in his hometown of Billings, Montana, and began traveling 100-plus miles to study under a university professor in Bozeman, Montana.
Today, Garrison continues to eschew convention at the University of Idaho, where he is an associate professor of flute and associate director in the Lionel Hampton School of Music. He augments the more familiar French approach to the flute, which imitates operatic singing, by exploring the instrument’s nontraditional sounds. He plays music by composers like longtime friend Harvey Sollberger, who produces unique effects by speaking into the flute and using it for percussion.
“Traditionally, the flute has been played one way, and everybody has this idea of what it sounds like,” Garrison said. “But I don’t want to record the same music that 20 other people have recorded. I want to make an original contribution.”
It’s with this aesthetic that Garrison released his 2016 CD, “Chimera,” on New York-based Albany Records. The album features Garrison’s collaboration with clarinetist Shannon Scott, his wife and musical partner of over 25 years.
This affinity for innovation exists in many areas of Garrison’s life. He is arranging a tour to China to observe how traditional Chinese societies teach music through UI’s Confucius Institute.
“Especially now, we need to understand and respect how different cultures function and what their values are,” Garrison said. “I want to find out how they pass their music on from one generation to another and what can we learn from that.”
Garrison also ensures that his students understand the need for music to exist outside the confines of the orchestra hall. Every spring, the UI Flute Ensemble visits a local assisted living facility to play music for its residents.
“There’s a lot of research about music and healing,” Garrison said. “There have been studies that show music does more good than aspirin or certain drugs.”
If an audience member sits next to a person playing the flute, Garrison said, the vibrations can be felt and produce healing effects. In addition, the breathing techniques used by the musician lead to positive effects for the performer, too.
What’s more, Garrison said, music can result in a better understanding of the human condition. Performers inhabit composers’ thoughts and emotions when they play their pieces, which becomes an exercise in empathy.
“If you play a Beethoven symphony, you can get into Beethoven’s innermost thoughts, and I enjoy that,” Garrison said. “There’s something elemental about expression through music. It’s been a part of every culture since prehistory, so it can express a wide array of emotions. We need that outlet. I think it’s really important for children to participate in and learn music. We need something to supplement the scientific, logical approach to life.
“Music and art are what make us human.”
Update: Since this story was written, Leonard Carrison has been promoted to full professor. Congratulations!