Features, Interview

Dianne Betkowski: Pushing Through Self-Imposed Constraints


Dianne Betkowski: Pushing Through Self-Imposed Constraints

by Susan Frances

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The fusion of flamenco, jazz, and orchestral tones offers infinite possibilities for the Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion. Based in Denver, Colorado, the group has earned a place on the world music spectrum, establishing themselves in the adult contemporary realm, roots music’s annals, and contributing to the jazz improvisation treasury.


Beginning the journey with saxophonist Lynn Baker, bassist Randy Hoepker, percussionist Andy Skellenger, cellist Dianne Betkowski, and leader and guitarist Miguel Espinoza, the group has made four recordings: Turtle Dreams (2019), Veneta (2020), Living in a Daydream (2022), and their forthcoming Gabriella (2023). All of their recordings are self-released.


The group’s cellist Dianne Betkowski illuminates, “These recordings were made with a core group that included Andy Skellenger on percussion. He is not mentioned in recent bio information because he is pursuing other musical opportunities now, but he was a core member of our group when all four of our recordings were made.”


Presently, Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion has been pared down to a trio with Hoepker, Betkowski, and leader Espinoza. Betkowski encapsulates, “In the classical world, we can be upset with ourselves over a single note not played perfectly. With this group, we are always experimenting, trying new things, improvising, creating, taking risks.”


She cites, “We change dynamics, for instance, when the idea happens, and we respond accordingly. Our solos may or may not be a particular length, depending on mood and circumstances, so we are always aware and ready to adjust and respond. The music is alive and unpredictable to a greater extent, and I feel alive in it.”


This type of spontaneous, homespun riffing makes the Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion part of the jazz family, though they don’t limit themselves to making jazz music. Betkowski attests, “I have been attracted to and open to all sorts of musical genres and expressions since I was very young. Though I am a cellist, I also tried piano a little bit and studied trumpet, and tried to make music of any instrument that I came across. I played a few chords on the guitar and composed songs when I was very young and made percussion instruments out of all sorts of materials.”


She recalls, “By the time I was in high school, I was listening to Pat Metheny, Stephane Grappelli, Weather Report, Miles Davis, The Memphis Nighthawks, Stan Getz with Charlie Byrd, and groups like Chicago, Steely Dan, Average White Band, and Supertramp. I was also listening to Beethoven and Brahms, Bartok, and so many other classical composers, too. I’m not sure I was aware that I was listening to any sort of Jazz Fusion, per se.”


“Realizing that languages of all kinds,” she discerns, “including the language of music, are always in a process of evolving, changing, and mixing with other influences and tendencies, I did not categorize non-classical music. But classical music was doing this too, and being influenced by jazz as well.”


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Her choice to play the cello came after experimenting with other instruments; as she looks back, “Not many kids in my town were playing the cello at the time I started. Though I was really obsessively interested in percussion as a youngster, I was not allowed to play percussion and moved on to what I was allowed to play: piano, violin, or cello. I chose the cello.”


“I loved the physicality of the instrument,” she professes about the cello, “how I literally hug it when I play. I enjoyed the lower, but not too low, range of it. How it felt so easily vibrant and sonorous. I chose to play the cello professionally because I became good at playing it and wanted to spend all my time doing it, and not having to spend my days doing something else for a living.”


“I was always composing music,” she considers. “When I was very young, I was composing songs to sing with my guitar. Then I was composing on other instruments like piano and trumpet. I didn’t write anything down for quite a while. It was when I was 14 that I realized I’d not given myself permission to write music onto paper because I wasn’t male, believe it or not.”


“At 14,” she reflects, “I thought to myself that the revolutionary act of holding a pencil and writing notes on paper was not actually scandalous; it was so mundane and possible as to be ridiculous. I had subconsciously forbidden myself this because the only composers I knew in any genre at all were male. But when I had this epiphany, I began to ‘write’ music a lot.”


She remembers, “I wrote a piece for French horn and short pieces for piano. I wrote a piece for string orchestra and pieces for cello, and cello ensemble. [My] Early musical experiences were mainly private lessons, and then playing in youth ensembles of various kinds. I attended an arts high school, the National Academy of Arts, which mainly had students from other cities, states, and countries, and I was one of the few students who were from the town and lived at home. I learned a lot from the other students, of course.”


The course she embarked on took a turn to her current direction five years ago, as she recollects, “I met Miguel in 2018. I was asked to start a concert series for an organization in Denver. It ended up being scrapped, but in the meanwhile, I contacted people who had been recommended to me for it, like Miguel, who I didn’t yet know.”


She adds, “He asked if he could come over and play with me. We began to develop some of his newest material at that time: ‘The Wind,’ ‘Kushlamar,’ and ‘Joy.’ I wrote everything down so that I could remember what to play the next time we met. And after a few months, we had finished these three pieces.”


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“Then he invited me to join him,” she recounts, “and a few other musicians on stage at a concert at Swallow Hill. I had no idea he played with other people. I showed up and joined him, and the others: Lynn Baker-saxophone, Randy Hoepker-bass, Andy Skellenger-percussion, and [I] played these three pieces with them.”


She highlights, “I was doubling the saxophone and unsure of how things worked on stage, but I did my best and had a lot of fun.”


“I began to perform with them without fully knowing all their music yet,” she externalizes, “so I sat out what I didn’t know and gradually began to play the parts I could, improvising myself into pieces. Miguel would make suggestions here and there and teach me the style, what a montuno is, etc… and eventually, I could play all the repertoire and didn’t use written music anymore at all.”


“When it seemed I was being added to the band,” she surmises,” I began to work out my part with Lynn: ‘let’s play in harmony here, you take the melody now, and I’ll play it later, etc.’… and I began to learn more of their established repertoire as well as be involved in the process of developing more of it with Miguel.”


“It was so beautiful and stirring,” she describes, “really wonderful to play, and checked the boxes of skills and talents I have that were rarely if ever experienced through classical music. I felt like I’d finally found my niche, my comfort and happiness zone.”


The group’s 2022 recording Living in a Daydream, takes audiences to this happiness zone for both the group and the audience. “Our compositions come from Miguel first,” Betkowski reveals. “He is the composer of 99% of what is on this album with the exclusion of the solo cello piece ‘Zelda the Caterpillar Goes to Spain,’ which I composed but Miguel named.”


She remarks, “His inspirations come from so many different places, I’m sure he will tell you. I know that ‘Nagi Yaté’ is an expression of his part-Native American heritage, overlaid on a Flamenco foundation.”


Providing a synopsis of the tracks from the recording, she explains, “‘Division’ is a piece of despair about how humans are oppositional with each other and nature is suffering. For a while, we called it Angry Bees.”


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“And the other pieces,” she elaborates further about Living in a Daydream, “are pure whimsy, innocence, the best that humans have to offer. ‘Sunrise’ is meant to play with expectations and has a humorously macabre section before returning to the simplicity of the rest of the piece. Miguel is, above all else, playful.”


“‘Bubble,'” she illustrates, “plays with our rhythmic expectations, and I tried to go further on that idea with my solo. ‘Journey Home’ is a short and sweet piece that I named. It symbolizes my return to an authentic place for me, musically, but it also sounds to us in parts like a train, it turns out.”


“For this album,” she notes, “much of what we developed and composed was done outside in Denver’s Wash(ington) Park because of Covid-19.”


“‘Falling Snow,'” she continues, “was just a gorgeous little masterpiece of chords and rhythms that he showed Randy and me [on] one snowy day in my living room, and immediately our notes fell into place. What I improvised that day is what I have played ever since, because it felt perfect and pure.”


“Part of the inspiration for this album,” she points out, “was the knowledge that [harmonica and pianist] Howard Levy would be recording with us on four of the tracks. We were so excited about that. But because of Covid-19, Howard stayed in Chicago and contributed his parts remotely.”


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Another track on the 2022 recording, “The Storm,” is a stirring piece, which Betkowski supplies, “‘The Storm’ is actually a re-recording of one of Miguel’s oldest compositions, ‘La Tormenta,’ but translated into English. I learned the piece on the job, as it were.”


“Miguel and the others had developed a style together,” she muses,” mostly informed by Miguel’s tastes/directions for his music. He is the harmonic and rhythmic driving force here, as always, and of course, the artistic visionary.”


“When Howard joined us on this recording,” she asserts, “we left his contribution up to his amazing discretion. He sent us tracks for ‘The Storm,’ ‘Nagi Yaté,’ ‘Bubble,’ and ‘Sunrise.’ Then, at Colorado Sound Studio with Kevin Clock, we set about incorporating all of Howard’s amazing contributions to our album. Howard had sent us a few versions of each track to choose from, so we were really spoiled with options and versions, styles and moods, to pick from.”


Betkowski compares the recording experiences of 2022’s Living in a Daydream from 2020’s Veneta, proclaiming, “A few things stand out as differences between those two albums: Veneta and Living in a Daydream. One obvious thing is that Veneta was recorded mostly before Covid19, and Living in a Daydream was recorded mostly towards the end of the worst of it, but we were still quite affected by the pandemic.”


“Also, because of the pandemic,” she comments, “we did not have the opportunity to perform the repertoire a lot before recording it, which makes a big difference.”


“Another factor for me,” she ascertains, “is that each album becomes more intimate a process as we get to know each other more and more, grow and develop in our ways of communicating and working together. This makes some things easier and some things more difficult.”


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Betkowski’s first recording as part of Espinoza’s group, Turtle Dreams, was her start into the intimate process of composing with the group. “That was the first recording we did as a group,” she affirms. “My personal biggest challenge is that I’d never recorded with a small group like this. I’d mostly recorded as a cellist in a large orchestra. A lot of repertoires with the St. Louis Symphony, and the Brahms Requiem with the Utah Symphony, etc… I didn’t know what my contributions to the mixing process could or should be, what I wanted my cello to sound like, etc. We had never recorded all together before, either: Miguel, Lynn, Randy, Andy, and me. It was a learning curve.”


A part of Betkowski’s learning curve has been to let go of self-imposed constraints that she put on herself. “As a cellist,” she declares, “I have become more confident, more of a soloist, more of a risk-taker, and more varied in my roles. Now that Lynn has moved away and no longer plays with us, I have taken on a more prominent role in the group.”

“I may be setting up a rhythmic groove one moment,” she ventures, “playing a melody another, adding color or harmony to what someone else does another. I feel more flexible and more forgiving of myself.”


Besides being a part of the Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion, Dianne Betkowski has stepped out as an author, writing How to Get To Carnegie Hall: A Weekly Music Practice Schedule. She summarizes, “I wrote the How to Get to Carnegie Hall practicing book while playing in the Honolulu Symphony and also teaching 25 private students. I’d learned a few things about organizing practice time and seen what a huge impact it had on students that needed this kind of structure.”


“It’s not for all students,” she admits, “but for the ones who both need it and are comfortable with it. It does wonders. It both helps an aspiring instrumentalist carve out productive niches of time out of a mass of hours AND helps make the most out of precious little time to practice. If you have four hours to practice and don’t know what to do most efficiently with all that time, or you have 15 minutes here and there, and that seems like unproductively little bits of time, the book helps you make the most of it.”


Additionally, she created the Denver Eclectic Concerts series, now known as MAS (Music Appreciation Society)-Eclectic. She praises, “I created the Denver Eclectic Concert series for a number of reasons. I wanted to juxtapose classical and non-classical music, side by side, to offer the kind of ensuing culture shock that gives audiences the visceral understanding that music is music.”


“Taking away the other elements that give different music their socio-economic pigeonholes,” she perceives, “and offer music genuinely from vastly different genres in the same temporal space was my way of taking the intimidation factor out of classical music, making it more accessible to audiences that might not yet connect to it.”


She admires, “Also a hallmark of the series was collaboration: whichever two groups just happened to be on an Eclectic Mix concert would need to find a way to offer something together to end the program. It could be an arrangement, a new composition, an improvisation… and finally, there was the element of audience participation whenever possible, so that people didn’t just put butts in seats and passively soak in yet another event as usual.”


“In part,” she regards, “I think, I wanted to play with people of other styles of music, though nothing appealed to me in the long haul, till I met Miguel. He didn’t play on the series, but if he had, and if I’d played with him at the end of a concert, we’d have begun our collaborations a lot sooner.”


Another project that Betkowski has been involved in and co-founded with her bandmates Espinoza and Skellenger, is the music camp Urban Arts Music. She shares, “I started Urban Arts Music with Miguel and Andy. I wanted a place where kids could learn music, be happy, spend a lot of time socializing, playing, doing art, and not being over-structured. I wanted to give kids freedom with a proper proportion of planned and structured events.”


“Also,” she enlightens, “I wanted to experiment with different kinds of learning opportunities. I hired an intern, Quinn Dymalsky, an excellent jazz saxophonist and composer/arranger, who was studying jazz at the University of Denver. We had private lessons, listening classes, improvisation classes, master classes, and group music-making. The kids were crazy about the song ‘American Idiot,’ and that became the camp’s anthem song!”


“The kids,” she assures, “each got their own cardboard cajons to decorate and keep at the week’s end. There were pan flutes made and camp tee shirts to decorate and design. There were percussion classes and games and all kinds of things to learn. And plenty of time to play badminton, Monopoly, basketball, and make more art.”


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She intimates, “I don’t like formal education these days. And summer camps tend to be where kids end up bored and structured out of their minds, week after week, all summer long. We wanted to offer something different and wonderful. Randy and Lynn did not participate because, as lifelong educators, they wanted their summer completely free from teaching!!”


Blending elements of flamenco, improvisation, orchestral hues, ambient, and Latin textures into a sizzling panoply offers the Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion an endless supply of possibilities, restricted only by their imagination. As a result, the trio is ensconced in the world music market, establishing a niche for themselves in the massive jazz treasury.

About Susan Frances:

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Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.

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