A bright smile, sparkling eyes and a curious attitude. That was how photographer Elfi and me met music student Sara Decker (31) on a cozy Friday afternoon in Maastricht. Sara almost finished her studies as a singer at the Jazz department of Maastricht’s Academy of Music. During her studies, she had the opportunity to live in New York City and follow classes at the Manhattan School of Music where she expanded her musical horizon and founded the Sara Decker group. With the group she won the European Jazz Award last summer, which gives her the opportunity to record her own album this year. Now that Sara is finishing her studies in Maastricht, she is saving money to go back to New York and further explore the musical opportunities the city offers. We met Sara to ask her about her experiences in New York and Maastricht, her ideas about the music business as well as her musical dreams.
How did you come to study music in Maastricht?
“Before I started studying music I studied Journalism and Cultural Science in Marburg. I was doing internships for radio and television but I discovered halfway through my bachelor that it was not really what I wanted to do most. I became more interested in music and singing, so I started going to jazz sessions and sang in a soul and an emo-band [laughing]. I realized that making music and singing was what I really wanted to do. When I was singing I found out that I could not proceed with my technique and stumbled upon my limits. I only started following singing lessons before I applied to the conservatory; I was this typical singer, who loved to sing but did not have a clue about anything [laughing]. I finished my studies in journalism and then applied for different music schools in Germany and The Netherlands. Journalism was never really a challenge for me, but studying music definitely was; I could not even read notes when I started, I was really bad [laughing].”
For your studies you spend some time in New York, how was it to live in this city as a musician and why do you want to go back?
“My time in New York was beautiful and full of energy. It felt like I was always living a 110%, which was great in one way, but it is something that I could not do forever. The city is full of high-level energy; it is always noisy, there are always people and there is always stress in a way. In the music school I attended, there was a high level of education and I tried to take as many classes as possible; I was like a sponge [laughing].
Most of the teachers in the school are contemporary jazz musicians that are globally active in the music scene. In the city itself you can meet contemporary, young jazz musicians but also the 80-year old jazz pianist who plays like crazy on a Sunday night. This is something you cannot find in Europe; in New York the roots of the jazz and the new music come together.“
If you look back at your time in Maastricht and your time in New York, what can you learn from both places?
“I think Maastricht has a very nice music and art scene, with very interesting people. It is just difficult to meet each other. You maybe meet at a party in the Mandril, but it’s not the conservatory or the art school that makes these connections readily available. In New York making these connections was easier. I really enjoyed my first few years in Maastricht, I had the time to learn everything from zero. There was not so much pressure, which was nice. At one point I wanted to leave, because I was uninspired. I think that is really a personal thing. Some people are really disciplined and inspired in any place, but I feel like I really need a challenge and certain atmosphere from outside. I am much more inspired when someone tells me: “ you cannot do it”. There was a point when I was filled up with what I could get in Maastricht. I really needed New York as a place to inspire me again. “
The emotional and intellectual value of music is commonly recognized. However, it seems like professional musicians do not always receive sufficient financial support for their musical effort. What is your opinion about this topic?
“I think it’s a very difficult topic. The idea of music being a free thing is partly a result of the online availability of it. I think we have to find new ways of earning money with music. All the musicians I know love to make and play music and are happy to share it, but you have to know your own value as well. You don’t have to live as a starving jazz-musician, you also need to survive and be able to continue what you do. For example: some gigs are offer and demand gigs, like weddings. For those I want to be paid well, because I am serving the wishes of the client. But when I perform my own music, I am much more willing to negotiate, because I want to perform it of course.
Actually, if you think in rehearsal time and preparation time, paying a musician is beyond price. But most musicians don’t think like this, they just like to sing in a bar and are fine with doing it for no or very little money. Of course, you have to start somewhere, but it is important to at some point think about your own economic value. It can be annoying, because it has nothing to do with art, but it is important to think about if you want to survive.”
If you could imagine anything, what is your dream of where you would like to be in 5 years?
“Ah, that’s really hard. I know there are some dreams I know I can make true and some that are more like visions. Basically, I am very happy with my life and I hope can continue with what I am doing. I hope I can be as happy still in five years and maybe be a little bit more stable in my career. I would like to play at some more festivals and strengthen my connections with the people I know.
For the upcoming year I am planning to do a tour with a bass player, Daryl Johns, who I met in New York. I want to record my new album in Italy and go to New York after the summer. Those dreams seem doable right now, they are within my reach. But for example, dreaming of wanting to sing at the Montreux Jazz Festival is much more of a vision, I don’t know if I can do that.”
Sara is currently organizing her tour with bass player Daryl Johns for the coming year. Curious about the combination of bass and voice? Click here for an impression. If you’re interested in Sara’s performances, new recordings or teachings, keep an eye on her facebook page and website or contact Students of Maastricht for more information.
© Photos: Elfi Thrane Bemelmans