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Meet Jason Oberman

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jason Oberman.

Jason, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I first fell in love with music when I was around three years old. I used to spend countless hours listening to my parents’ classic rock records, and by the age of five, I was completely in love with The Beatles. Around that time my mother suggested that I start learning an instrument, and the images of George Harrison and John Lennon immediately came to my mind. I decided to embark on the lifelong journey of exploring the guitar. From that point on, I was absolutely in love with music. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Wonder were almost always playing in my room. By the age of twelve, I joined my friend for a summer jazz workshop at a high school here in LA. I was initially quite put off by jazz; the syncopation, dissonance, and unfamiliar vocabulary gave me stomach aches. Ironically, it was John Coltrane’s “Stellar Regions,” a piece that pushes the boundaries of harmony, melody, and rhythm, that really turned me on to this unfamiliar art form. I remember listening to this highly experimental and challenging piece and being overcome with such an intense wave of emotions that I was covered in goosebumps. This moment marked the beginning of my love affair with jazz, and has led me to dedicate the vast majority of my creative time and education to this wonderful art form.

As a cum laude graduate of Harvard-Westlake High School, it was difficult for me to have the courage to pursue music after school, as I had considerable external and internal pressure to pursue an academic career, not to mention a considerable love for academia. I initially decided to pursue both music and academics and enrolled in the dual degree program at Eastman School of Music and University of Rochester, majoring in Jazz Guitar and Audio Engineering. However, by the end of my first semester, I knew that I needed to devote the rest of my life to uncovering the mysteries of music . By my fourth semester, I had to leave school due to a shoulder injury which took a year to recover from. During that time, I lived in Portland, Oregon and taught a music appreciation and history course at a community high school. After my year in Portland, I returned to LA, where I had the honor of receiving my Bachelors of Fine Arts in Jazz Guitar at California Institute of the Arts. At CalArts, I not only furthered my studies in jazz, but also explored a wide range of music styles including Western Classical and North Indian music. I also studied composition and devoted much time to developing my compositional voice.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I must admit this has been an incredibly rocky road. I had a very difficult childhood, and it is a blessing that I was able to make it through that period. In addition, it was very challenging to maintain my straight A average at Harvard-Westlake while also maintaining a consistent practice routine and attending rehearsals and performances. However, the biggest challenge to my musical career occurred at Eastman School of Music. My experience at Eastman, while full of many beautiful moments, was very difficult to say the least. I, along with many dear friends, became disenchanted with music and life as a whole due to the horrible living conditions, harsh instructors, and incredibly demanding and unrealistic workload. I recall seeing peers breaking down and crying in practice rooms, and friends who were suicidal and struggled with serious mental illnesses. I found myself quite overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. In addition to the academic demands of the school, I slipped on ice and injured my shoulder at the end of my freshman year. Although I was initially able to recover, the physical and emotional stress of the school brought me to a point of being unable to play guitar without severe pain. I took a medical leave of absence in February of my sophomore year and returned to the West Coast to undergo surgery. At that point it was uncertain if I would ever be able to play guitar again, so my career and education were in question. Thankfully, after about a year and a half, I was not only able to fully recover and play the guitar again, but I was able to transfer to a nourishing and inspiring school — CalArts — where I was given the tools needed to develop my own creative voice. I am incredibly grateful and humbled to have overcome so many challenges, and to have been blessed with the ability to continue creating music on a daily basis. All of these obstacles ultimately helped me grow as a person, artist, and guitarist, and I now understand that suffering can lead to much growth if tended to properly.

Please tell us about your work.
I am a jazz guitarist, composer, and instructor. Although, I now find that the traditional conception of jazz — or the “J” word, as one of my mentors puts it — to be quite limiting, and have been exploring a variety of creative music from a slew of diverse backgrounds. My approach to guitar heavily borrows from the jazz tradition, while also borrowing elements of Western and Indian Classical music and American folk music. My compositional style also borrows from the Western Classical and jazz traditions, and I thoroughly enjoy composing for ensembles with non-traditional pairings of instruments. My most recent projects have been centered around playing and composing for piano and guitar, and an ensemble with violin, viola, cello, guitar, and trumpet. Due to my physical, mental, and emotional challenges, I have been led to create a performance and compositional practice which is deeply nourishing and spiritual. In addition to my performance and compositional pursuits, I also have a unique and informed approach to teaching guitar lessons. I have been teaching students since I was 15 years old, and deeply enjoy connecting with students of all levels. I focus on sharing a sustainable, authentic, and heartfelt approach to practice and performance.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Despite the challenges and uncertainty introduced by COVID-19, the future is quite exciting for me. I am working on a Fulbright Scholarship application to study the intersection of music, food, community, and healing in Berlin, and would ultimately like to reside in Berlin to continue my career in performance, composition, and teaching. In the meantime, I will be working on a farm this summer to get connected to the land, inform my research project, and find new perspectives on my creative process. I am continuing to teach online lessons to students of all levels, and continue to develop my musical voice every day.

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Image Credit:
Alen Lee and Maya Paredes

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