Paula Martínez and Alex Valdés
Alex Valdés is a UNT jazz studies alumnus. He was one of the first jazz studies students to participate in the exchange program between UNT and the Conservatori Liceu. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Alex returned to Barcelona, Spain, and completed a Master’s degree in Sonology at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Currently, Alex works in Barcelona as an on-call bass player and arranger. He lives with his wife, Paula, and their two cats.
Q: Alex, you were one of the first UNT students to participate in this exchange. When you first arrived in Barcelona, was it easy to adapt?
A: I felt immediately at home. I had to get used to some changes like the language barrier and the cultural differences. But, overall, I think it was easy to adjust.
Q: Did you find your limited knowledge of Spanish to be a problem?
A: Before I arrived, I learned some basic Spanish. It was a challenge to re-learn musical terminology in another language. It helped to have a roommate who spoke English. Some of the students and professors speak English but certainly not the majority. You should try to learn as much of the language as possible because you’ll make more friends.
Q: Do you have any stories about the differences in culture?
A: Yes, the Spanish have a different concept of time. In Texas, if you have a rehearsal scheduled at noon, then you’re expected to arrive ten minutes early to plug in and tune up. Here it means you meet at a café or bar at around noon, have a drink, and then head to the rehearsal together.
Once I missed a jam session that I had scheduled with some friends because I showed up “on time.” I arrived at the exact time and place that we had agreed upon and waited for fifteen to twenty minutes. Nobody showed up. So, I gave up and went home. Later I found out that my friends were in a bar across the street having a coffee before the session. When they finished, they came to the room and continued the jam session without a bass player. So, that experience taught me a lesson.
Q: How did the conservatory and your classmates initially treat you?
A: The students were friendly and supportive. They were curious about life in the US.
Q: Did the professors and students know anything about UNT’s approach to music?
A: The students asked about the differences between UNT and the Liceu. The professors never asked me questions. The chair of the jazz studies department, Iñaki Sandoval, seemed familiar with UNT’s jazz studies program.
Q: What are the major differences between UNT and the Conservatori Liceu?
A: The major differences are the location, classes, and the environment. There’s a big difference between Denton, a small town, and Barcelona, a big city. Regarding classes, at UNT you have a syllabus. Usually, at the beginning of every class, you have a test such as a transcription or performing the melody to a new tune. In the Conservatori Liceu, it’s more like a workshop. The class thinks together, tests out new ideas, and plays together. There is less emphasis on one structured way to play. Regarding the environment, it’s a conservatory, not a university. So, there are only music students. For example, you don’t have anthropology students taking classes with you.
Q: Out of the one hundred twenty-five Liceu jazz studies students, there are only eight bass players. Why are there so few bass players? Also, since you’re a bass player, did you find yourself in high demand?
A: In every institution there are always less bass players than the other instrumentalists because the bass is an expensive instrument. It’s a big investment to learn bass. Even student models are expensive. Consequently, some primary schools can’t even afford to have a school bass. So, fewer students get to try it. When I was at the Conservatori Liceu, there were lots of playing opportunities. But, no, ensembles weren’t desperate for double bassists.
Q: In your opinion, what is the strongest department within the Liceu jazz studies program?
A: I thought the arranging program was the strongest department. At UNT, we only have small group and big band arranging. But at the Liceu, I took string quartet arranging and another small group arranging class.
Q: Do you think what you learned at the Liceu was unique, or could you have learned the same material/ideas at UNT?
A: I learned things that were not available to me at UNT. Most importantly, I was introduced to modern music technology such as audio units, VST instruments, and Logic Pro. Many Liceu professors are tech savvy, so they’re confident in helping students and comfortable in discussing the latest updates. At UNT, there seems to be an emphasis on writing by hand and old-fashioned methodology. While these are important fundamentals, they’re not practical tools for competing in the music business.
Another unique experience was being exposed to flamenco music. I learned a few basic feels and how to appreciate it more in depth. I also encountered quite a bit of traditional Catalan music in street festivals and neighborhood block parties.
Q: Has the cultural experience of living abroad had an impact on your music? Has living abroad had an influence and caused you to write, listen, or perceive music in a different way?
A: No, I don’t think so. I can access my favorite music from anywhere in the world because of the Internet and programs like iTunes and Spotify. But living abroad has definitely changed my personal and philosophical perspectives.
Q: Overall, would you recommend this program to interested UNT students?
A: Yes, definitely. It’s very different to live in a foreign country than it is to travel there on vacation, or pass through on tour. I’d encourage UNT students to take advantage of this opportunity because they can apply for a student visa. Without a student visa, it’s hard to relocate to another country.
Q: Alex, you returned to Spain to be with your wife, Paula. You learned Spanish and Catalan so you could assimilate with the people and culture. You also finished a graduate research program at a Spanish university. This is your fourth year living in Barcelona. Based on your considerable experience, are there job opportunities for musicians in Barcelona?
A: First, let me clear up this mystery: no matter where you are in the world, it’s difficult to make a living solely as a musician. For example, before I came to Europe, I had the preconception that jazz musicians were more respected here than in the US. When I came to Europe, I discovered that the Spaniards had the same preconception about Northern Europe. When I met people from Northern Europe, they had the same preconception about musicians in the US. So, there’s no country in particular that glorifies musicians.
Times are tough here. However, despite the economic crisis, there are still gig opportunities in Barcelona. Those opportunities go to the most pro-active and motivated people. Personally, I would recommend musicians to make as many friends in whichever scene interests you. You’re opportunities will come from your contacts, and it takes time to build up your contact list. For example, if you’ve lived in Texas for several years, then it would be easier to work in Dallas than in Barcelona because you’ll have more contacts and there’s no language barrier. When I first arrived in Barcelona, it took me a long time to network and integrate myself. It was also very difficult to bring my instrument and gear here. The second time I returned to Barcelona, I ended up buying a new double bass because it was cheaper to buy a new inexpensive bass than to ship my old bass from the US.
Q: Do you feel your degree from UNT has helped you find work? For example, are people more likely to hire you because you have a degree from UNT?
A: Yes, having a degree from UNT helped me get accepted into the Master’s program at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. However, no one asks you for a transcript before you play a gig. When people do ask me about my undergrad degree, they normally don’t know anything about UNT because it doesn’t have the same brand recognition as Berklee. Through my contacts, I’ve found a small community of UNT alumni living in Barcelona.
Q: What’s the most popular type of music you get hired to play?
A: I usually get hired to play popular music like blues or rock because it attracts a larger audience. Some employers think it makes the music “more authentic” if they have an American in the band.
Q: Can you describe a “typical Spanish gig”? For example, are the majority of the gigs in the city or in the surrounding towns? How long are you expected to play? Does the average audience appreciate live music?
A: When I first came to Barcelona, I was impressed with the audiences. For example, non-musicians come to the jam sessions to listen. They turn their chairs towards the stage and when the music starts, everyone becomes quiet. I can contrast this atmosphere with the Greenhouse. Usually, you have great music playing in the corner, but most of the audience isn’t listening. Instead, they’re talking, socializing, and missing some amazing music. Here there are more places where the music is the central focus. Also, since Barcelona is a metropolitan area, there are a lot of gig opportunities in the surrounding towns as well.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the general level of musicianship? Can it be compared to your experiences with musicians in the US?
A: I don’t have an opinion regarding the “general level of musicianship.” At jam sessions, you always have a mix of amateurs and virtuosos. At jam sessions in the US, you also have a mix of amateurs and virtuosos.
Q: How do you advertise your work?
A: Usually, my friends recommend me. I have a SoundCloud and a YouTube channel with examples of my work. On the YouTube page I have some arrangements of popular songs which I post as “video responses” to the original video.
Q: Do you get any international commissions?
A: Yes, I occasionally get international commissions: from New Jersey to Oslo, Norway.
Q: In your opinion, did your UNT education prepare you for most musical situations?
A: I think UNT omitted a lot of subjects about making music in the modern world. UNT prepares you with the fundamentals: ear training, theory, and sight-reading. But, they didn’t prepare me for my current work of making soundtracks for a production company. Instead, my Master’s degree and my own research filled in those gaps.
Q: Is there any other advice you want to offer to UNT students interested in studying abroad?
A: Definitely: make friends with the exchange students from the Conservatori Liceu. Offer them gigs and invite them to parties. Nothing is more valuable than a friend, especially a friend from another country.