Originally from the Netherlands, Hugo Vliegen moved to the United States about 20 years ago...
Hugo wears many hats including father, traveler, businessman, and jazz musician. About once a week Hugo comes to the Riekes Center for jazz improvisation classes with instructor Bennett Roth-Newell. We had a chance to sit down with Hugo and find out how his classes at the Riekes Center are going, along with his other interests.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I am from the Netherlands but have lived in the United States for the past 20 years. Technology and business are passions of mine and one of the reasons I came to the United States. I currently work in product management for a high-tech company.
What are your hobbies?
I do jazz improvisation at the Riekes Center, and I really like that. I also really enjoy reading with my daughters.
What are some of your favorite books?
I like reading nonfiction, mostly surrounding the topics of technology, business, politics, and history. More specifically, pieces about economics and world future. I really enjoyed a book I read on a plane recently. It’s titled In the Garden of the Beasts and takes place just before WWII in Germany. It’s a story of the U.S. German Ambassador who was in Germany for only a few years right before WWII. It goes into the psychology and history of the decision makers and the different countries involved in WWII. It is a phenomenal book that I would definitely recommend to others.
Where have you traveled?
I’ve traveled to many countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. Some that I can think of off the top of my head are the Netherlands, Colombia, China, Japan, and India.
Is there one traveling experience that really sets itself apart?
The biggest experience I remember was with my wife about 20 years ago. She was born in Indonesia and raised in the Netherlands. On one of our trips we went to the island where her father was born. It was very interesting and different. To get there we had to share a very small boat with some sheep and be in the middle of the ocean for hours and hours. The island was in the middle of nowhere and mostly just had local people on it. There was a different level of facilities, and it was completely off the grid. It had no harbor, no running water, no telephone, only a little electricity produced from a generator, and no sanitary facilities except for a little house in the garden or yard. It was a crazy experience to see people living like that.
Do you travel for work as well?
Yes, I do travel for work. One trip that really stands out happened about 20 years ago when I had to find a factory in Russia with manufacturing capabilities. Since this was around 1995, it was just after the Soviet Union disintegrated so there was complete economic chaos. I took the train from Moscow to Gorky and we were picked up by the potential manufacturing party who was in charge of the old and humongous Russian factories. These factories used to build everything: vacuum cleaners, missiles, tanks, refrigerators, TVs, etc. They used to have maybe 50,000 to 70,000 people before, and now they have no one. It was an unreal experience because nothing was functioning in those factories.
What impact did it have on you?
It was unreal seeing the transition Russia was having to go through. We were in factories where nothing was working anymore. I asked the executives when the last time the factories were running. They responded, “Well like yesterday.” However, I could see it had not been running in at least a month because there was dust and rust everywhere. But they were trying to appear very confident because there was an investor company trying to find production capacity. They had to show that they could restart in a heartbeat. It was a very interesting dynamic. I found only one functioning factory but they wanted to have a barter exchange. It was something that I did not expect at all. So the whole experience was completely shocking.
When did you start coming to the Riekes Center?
I think it was September of 2013. My daughter had already been coming here. She started at Riekes doing RISE-UP in 2011. About three years ago, she started taking guitar lessons, and now that’s mostly what she’s doing.
Did your daughter inspire you to get involved at the Riekes Center?
Not completely. I took piano lessons from an early age with my mother, who was a piano teacher, and I really enjoyed doing that. But the one thing missing was that I didn’t learn how to improvise. I can learn a piece, but I cannot change, adapt, or improvise at all. There are some people who have that natural capability. They hear something and can immediately play it. I’m not one of those people. So I decided that I wanted to find a place where I could take lessons on improvisation. I also really like jazz, but learning jazz from home can become boring very quickly because it’s always the same. That’s what led me to make the decision to come to the Riekes Center and take lessons with Bennett.
How is Bennett helping you learn improvisation?
We basically use this [pulls out a book]; a lot of jazz teachers are using this book. It only has the main melodies which are written in chord symbols. So the whole song is not written or spelled out. Bennett will just start from somewhere and pick something reasonably simple. He starts right in the middle and I have to learn the chords. He also talks about some of the theories behind it which helps me a lot. And then we start doing it. It’s a lot of trial and error.
Are you enjoying your experience?
Yeah, I’m enjoying it very much. And I can see a lot of progress. First, I recognize more and more of the chord symbols. I have no problem with reading notes, but I had no understanding of chords. Even though I was reading about chords and what they are, there’s a difference between that and then being able to see a chord written out and play it. If you can play it, the next step is being able to improvise on it. So that’s what Bennett has been teaching.
Do you listen to jazz improvisation at home and recognize some of the techniques?
Yes I am listening to it. Before I decided I needed a professional teacher to help me, I was listening to it on YouTube. There is a lot of material out there which attempts to explain it, but it didn’t help much. Having a teacher is far more efficient and better than trying to do it yourself.
Is there something at the Riekes Center that you haven’t done yet but would like to try?
Well the one thing is maybe going on stage and participating in the recital. I haven’t done one yet. Bennett keeps asking when I can do one, but I just respond maybe the next one. I might actually do the next one.
You definitely need to do one! Have you ever done a live performance before?
No I haven’t. My biggest fear is not to be on stage, but to have to play in a group which involves being synchronized with everyone. That is not my biggest strength. I have to keep up with the group or else I am out of sync with the others.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience here?
The Riekes Center is a pretty easy-going place. Bennett is very flexible with my schedule and having to go back and forth. I think the style of teaching is also extremely beneficial, because it’s not the traditional way of piano teaching. There are multiple ways of teaching. The piano lessons I got when I was young were more of the traditional way of teaching. The aspect of improvisation compared to executing a piece in the way it was written are two different skills. Bennett is teaching it in a way where most of it is practice, but there is also a solid theory behind it, which helps me since I am more of a logical than intuitive person. Understanding the theory helps with my execution. It also helps with my development of intuition and gives me a framework to work with. I have had a great experience and would definitely recommend the Riekes Center to others.
Interview by Sagesse Graham | Written by Taylor Morrow