Carmen Braden
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Carmen Braden

Yellowknife, Canada

Yellowknife, Canada
Band Classical Folk


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"NACO in the North: It’s lesson time in Yellowknife"

YELLOWKNIFE – Seven people around a table, sifting, sorting, polishing. An experienced composer, a young composer, and others there to learn.

After, the experienced one speaks.

“I aim high with every single piece,” she says. “Only you know if you get there.”

The next day, in the music room at St. Joseph School, a girl with a trombone in her hands aims high, but hits low. It’s Halloween, and she’s a pirate trying to play an F note.

“You don’t want to be too loose, you’ve got to have a bit more tightness in your lips,” says Donald Renshaw from the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

A poster on the wall states that “brass instruments are made from long, twisted brass tubes.” Faces of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and other composers border a bulletin board.

There’s an officer from the Starship Enterprise and a zombie among the girl’s classmates, from Grades 5 and 6. They share three trombones between the six of them.

Renshaw blows into a mouthpiece to show the girl what he means. She tries again. Too high this time.

“You see it’s a bit too much now. ... It’s what they call target practice. You’ve just got to back off a little bit, and you’ll be right in the middle, just where you need to go.”


“You had the note, now hold it a little longer.”



As the seven people sat around the table, they discussed some of the young composer’s work. Alexina Louie, the experienced and award-winning Canadian composer, says one piece was very pretty, but all based in the marimba’s central register. The “sort of meat-and-potatoes register,” she calls it.

“I’ll give you an assignment. Deconstruct that comfort zone until you get to the end of the second minute and only get to two individual notes: Bing ... Bing,” she says.

“Make that move from your comfort zone to the highest register of the marimba. You have to intellectually give yourself an instruction, because if you are always working within the place that you’re comfortable, you won’t explore any of those other realms.”

The next day, Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik teach Inuit throat singing to young students at K’alemi Dene Shool, which has 107 aboriginal students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

“It’s very important to learn your language and your songs, and your stories,” Mark tells them. “Very important. If you do that, your feet will stand very strong on the ground.”

She calls for volunteers. There’s hesitation before two girls go to the front. Mark and Sivuarapik start them off trading sounds, and slowly fade until it’s just the girls. They go on for a while, and it ends in smiles and applause.

There’s no problem getting a volunteer next time.

Sitting around the table with six other people, Alexina Louie talked about the importance of being critical.

“You have to say ‘Is that too long? Did I get boring there? Do I need to bring in a different musical colour there? Do I need to have a different sound?’” she says after.

Her own piece, which the NAC Orchestra is performing on its northern tour, went through that, she says. Take the Dog Sled, which echoes sounds of Northern life and has been received to much applause, premiered with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Back then, there were two movements where Louie felt “that the piece didn’t get to its ultimate point.”

Both had to be fixed. One was too long, she says, “virtuosic music that showed off the players, but it didn’t propel the movement forward, and it was sort of extraneous to the musical information in that movement.

“I couldn’t leave it like that. It would have just been fine, nobody really knew that that was amiss, but I knew that it didn’t drive.”

The next day, orchestra member Karen Donnelly describes lungs like a paper lunch bag to about 20 students at St. Joseph, before showing how she warms up on the trumpet.

“The more good stuff we put into the lunch bag, the better lunch we have,” she says. “You have to make your lunch bag big. So if you’re sitting, hunched over or sideways, you’re compromising, or you’re not allowing the lunch bag to have all the good things in there: The apple, the juice box, the granola bar, the good vegetables.”

One of the seven people around the table was Carmen Braden from Yellowknife. The young composer, 27-years old, received Alexina Louie’s advice during a public workshop under the stage lights at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre.

Braden found out the orchestra was coming to Yellowknife and offering educational events, bringing Louie with it, and sought feedback.

Wednesday was a busy day for the orchestra, with 15 such events scheduled out of more than 50 educational activites on the tour, which also includes six concerts. There were workshops from orchestra members like Donnelly and Renshaw, and featured guests like Mark and Sivuarapik. Small groups of brass and strings played at schools and retirement homes. Acclaimed Canadian violinist James Ehnes was to hold a master class, while Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit was scheduled for a choir conducting workshop.

Braden sent some her scores and recordings to Louie before they met, giving the experienced composer a sense of her strengths and weaknesses, “which was what I was looking for because up here you don’t get a lot of people at that professional level able to give critical feedback,” Braden says.

“That’s what I was really hoping for, and it really was very successful.”

At the table, Alexina Louie talked in general terms about making music.

“I’ll tell you what’s bad, boring is bad. Boring is really bad. It’s probably the worst thing. I’d rather go out on a tightrope with a composer and say, ‘OK, what adventure are you taking me on here?’ It’s a sonic adventure, and it may work, it may not work,” she said.

“And not all music is the most avant-garde. You can open the door and you can risk and go to other places, and it doesn’t have to be ugly, it doesn’t have to be the newest of the new, but it can be just feeling an experience through music that we’ve never felt. How wonderful is that?” - Ottawa Citizen


Still working on that hot first release.


Feeling a bit camera shy


Currently at a loss for words...

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