Composing Through Collaboration: Clarice Assad’s Comprehensive Approach to Teaching Music

The best pieces of art have a three-dimensional feel to them. Whether you’re looking at it ten years after inception, as a companion piece to a film, or simply an album’s artwork, the total picture of the music is essential. Such is the case with the seminal bossa/samba album, 1965’s Getz/Gilberto. Now, not much can be said of this record that hasn’t been said already. However, it’s the ideal example of three-dimensional art. Just looking at the original artwork on the cover, an expressionist painting by Olga Albizu, you’re thrown into the world of the impeccable tunes that introduced Brazilian music to an entire continent.

Such are elements that composer/singer/pianist Clarice Assad understands well. Although her talents are numerous enough to stretch an album length, she has turned her focus to workshops emphasizing education and the utilization of multiple art forms to bring a piece together. “The whole concept is that there’s not a concept, because you never know who you’re going to be working with”, says Assad of the workshops, aptly titled Voxploration: An Outreach Program for Spontaneous Music Creation. Though Assad’s main form of expression is her voice, she doesn’t limit herself or her students to one particular art form. Whether collaborating with percussionist Keita Ogawa or choreographer Andrea Santiago, the workshops pull together elements of musical theater, dance, jazz improvisation, and a litany of other styles.

Whether young or old, the people involved in Assad’s workshops go through a transition. They begin having no idea where their form of expression is going, and end with owning the unique sounds they’ve created through collaboration. It can be seen on their faces. I asked Assad what it was like to work with the shyer participants in the bunch: “You have to be so sensitive to that! I have a gift of being sensitive, but I’m so happy when they come out of their shell!” In working with youth, the stakes are even higher. But Assad has a patience and grace with the teenage participants she’s worked with. “It’s personal work that we have to do. It’s easy to get caught up with bullying in school… even if a person is not able to sing, we find what that person is good at.”

Brazilian-born and raised by musical parents, Assad stretches her talents beyond her main instrument. Her piano compositions are so dense, it becomes easy to forget that she’s primarily a singer. Despite the success of ballad ”The Last Song,” she remains humble: “I wouldn’t say I’m a fantastic piano player. I really struggled with it for many years.” We talk on about how some instruments remain complex to the performer while others come more naturally. We agree that the guitar is something so mathematical and complex, it’s hard to wrap your head around it while playing. She says the same of the piano: “I feel like [the piano] is not organic at all!”

This is strange to consider while listening to “The Last Song.” It’s been covered by many other musicians, and played the encore spotlight for her 2012 performance with Symphony Parnassus. There’s even an arrangement for big band. She jokes about how far the piece went after its simple beginnings: “I wrote that in 2010 and recorded it in one clear take!” In a way, it’s not up to the composer how their music is going to be received. Composers must let go of their ego, and let the music speak for itself. Indeed, few artists understand this balance as well as Assad, who translates this idea to Voxploration, where the express plan is to let improvisation lead the way. “We don’t always have an end goal,” she says. The proof of her words is in her work, so it’s easy to take whatever she has to say to heart.

Still, you don’t have to take it from her. In 2015, Assad brought her workshop to new heights with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra for “Cirandadas.” An effort to introduce broader audiences to classical music, people aged 9 to 40 fused a litany of talents and backgrounds together to create a symphonic piece. “What she’s doing is listening closely to what people are doing and organizing it… how do we assemble the pieces?” says the orchestra’s director Christopher Wilkins. I asked Assad if that was an accurate depiction: “He got it. He nailed it. It’s about listening and seeing what everyone has to offer. I want everybody to shine, and to find their moments of shining.” Her selflessness translates not only to the success of her own music, but also to the success of others. Even those with a hip hop background made connections with the music, claiming that the rhythmic backbone of “Cirandadas” was ubiquitous enough to break dance to.

Though a backseat to Voxploration, Assad’s studio work is equally impeccable. 2012’s Home was recorded in a mere two days, but has a laundry list of compositional ideas. She sings in multiple languages, performs on piano, and draws on different traditions over the course of eleven tracks. “The Last Song” is track five, and it’s a well-deserved instrumental break for Assad. “[Home] was like this horse that just went wild,” she says. That said, only a well-trained horse could pace itself as well as this record. Even straight jazz is covered on last year’s Live at the Deer Head Inn. “The performing part is where I get to play – like a kid.” On this record, her voice is on full effect, and it’s boggling to remember just how many other endeavors she’s got her hands on. Many of the songs on Deer Head are representative of her Brazilian roots, and it’s exciting to hear Assad’s vocals spread out in a flashier way than the unselfish version we see in the Voxploration videos.

After having lived in New York for a few years, Assad is happy to be back in Chicago where her parents live. Her mother the singer and her father the guitarist: it’s no wonder her range of musical skill is so diverse. “I had an apartment in New York, which was great, but it was getting too small for my things. I love to collect instruments, and I just remember thinking, ‘Where am I going to sleep?’ It made sense to come back to Chicago.” Indeed, creation requires space as well as inspiration. If switching cities is what it takes for Assad to continue composing and performing, so be it. Chicago just may be the visual component of the art she’s yet to release into the world. Though Assad is a musical person, the visual may just compose the last few degrees before we reach 360.