On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Learning Styles – How Can Teachers Best Help Students Learn

The idea of students having a “learning style” refers to a concept that that individuals differ on how the best learn, develop, and retain information. For example, someone who is considered to be a “visual” learner needs to see the information in some way, while an “aural” learner will want to hear it explained. On its surface this seems like a good thing, since we are all individuals and experienced teachers develop strategies to help students with different needs and backgrounds learn better. Unfortunately, the idea of catering lessons to a particular student’s learning style doesn’t show that it actually helps. In fact, it can even leave some students behind when proven methods of instruction are avoided in favor of what essentially amounts to a preference on the student’s part. Teachers end up working with a student’s strengths and not addressing the weaknesses.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the learning styles theory, this is a pervasive myth among educators, students, and the general public. Companies that want to sell lesson plans and other educational support materials to schools and teachers are, in part, to blame for the continued belief in this myth. Here’s one example that purports to tell you your learning style by asking you 20 questions. I tried it out and learned that I was an “auditory” learner.

Auditory

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

As an auditory learner, you probably hum or talk to yourself or others if you become bored. People may think you are not paying attention, even though you may be hearing and understanding everything being said.

Here are some things that auditory learners like you can do to learn better.

  • Sit where you can hear.
  • Have your hearing checked on a regular basis.
  • Use flashcards to learn new words; read them out loud.
  • Read stories, assignments, or directions out loud.
  • Record yourself spelling words and then listen to the recording.
  • Have test questions read to you out loud.
  • Study new material by reading it out loud.

Remember that you need to hear things, not just see things, in order to learn well.

The problem with assessing a student’s learning style with questions like this survey is that it doesn’t actually address learning. Asking someone the “best way to study for a test” doesn’t offer information on how a student best learns because it doesn’t assess whether the student did well on the test! The only way to assess whether learning styles are helpful is how well they learned the material, not what someone prefers to do for fun or what strategies they want to try.

Another online “test” (I won’t link because it wants you to register before it gives you results) is a bit more thorough one that has some more nuance to the questions and asks more, but again, I find many of the questions odd (“You have a good sense of color” “You hear small things that others don’t” – can a so-called visual learner be color blind or can someone with some hearing loss still be a so-called aural learner?) and none of the questions assess learning.

A good summary of why learning styles is a myth can be found in this Wired article.

Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Here is another one.

Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favour of evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.

Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

What about all that literature that supposedly supports learning styles? Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork wrote a review of the literature.

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific apti- tudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtu- ally no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for vali- dating the educational applications of learning styles. Al- though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Searching online for evidence that both supports and refutes the theory of learning styles shows a general difference between those supporting and those debunking. Sites and “articles” that support learning styles tend to lack citations and when they do have them, the studies listed either are from companies that want to sell their materials to teachers, are poorly done, or even state the exact opposite of what that source is claiming. On the other hand, criticisms of learning styles tend to be well researched with peer reviewed articles from reputable authors and journals and provide a much more nuanced view of teaching and learning.

The bottom line for teachers is that while we can and should use every tool available when necessary, it’s important to look at the bigger picture – whether learning is taking place and whether the results we’re getting from our students is what they are truly capable of. By all means, reinforce the students’ strengths, but address their weaknesses too.

NCMEA 2015

This Sunday and Monday (November 8-9, 2015) I will be performing and presenting at the North Carolina Music Educators Conference at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC. While the conference does have a fee to enter, if you’re a member of MENC you get a discount. If you are a member, there’s a chance you’re already planning on attending. If so, please come to one of the events I’m presenting at.

On Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:30 PM the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing one set for the music students and educators present. We’ll do a mix of my original compositions and some others by bands like Count Basie, Buddy Rich, or others. I haven’t finalized the set list quite yet. We will be in the South Main Hall 3 at the convention center.

The next day at 3:30 PM, Monday November 9, 2015, I’m joining Chris Nigrelli, Matt Buckmaster, and Wes Parker in a big band trombone section workshop. We will be performing some trombone solis from standard big band rep and talking a bit about how to get the best sound and style from younger trombone students.

I will also have a wee bit of downtime on Sunday evening and Monday morning. While I plan to spend it at the convention checking out other performances and clinics, I can also break away for a bit in case anyone is looking for a lesson or cup of coffee. Please feel free to contact me.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday. Here are some random music-related links for you to peruse this weekend.

Did you know that there is a brass band in New Zealand that since 1895 performs on bicycles?

 How about a bicycle brass band from Holland?

When directing an ensemble in rehearsal I often use an analogy that isolating individual musicians playing, as if we were recording everyone, would sound different than when you hear the same part played in the context with the whole ensemble. For example, a single big band trumpet part isolated might sound too short, but when the whole brass section plays that way together it comes out just right. Here’s a similar idea, listen to the vocal tracks from the Beatles isolated out of context from the rest of the parts.

An older discussion about teacher tenure and why it’s not the firing itself that is the issue, it’s how the threat of firing teachers allows other people (often not qualified or informed enough about the teacher’s job and situation) to control the teacher’s day to day work.

And lastly, something a little lighter. Here are 27 jokes only classical music nerds will understand.

Music Competitions: Art or Sport?

Marching BandThis weekend I hear there’s a big sporting event happening in the U.S. I have a gig that night, so I won’t be hanging out at a viewing party like many folks here do, but it did get me thinking a bit about music competitions.

At least in the U.S., competitive music festivals are regular and popular events for music students to participate in. In North Carolina, where I live and teach, there are several different types of festivals with different levels of competitiveness involved. For example, there are All-County, All-District, and All-State ensembles for middle school and high school music students. A student needs to audition to be placed in these ensembles, so in essence these groups are similar to how a professional ensemble might select its performers. Each student competes against other students and the best student musicians are chosen.

There are also music festivals where schools will bring students to perform as ensembles or even solos. Some of these festivals will be non-competitive. When I coordinated college jazz festivals I always insisted that they be non-competitive. The students will sometimes perform for a rating (sort of a grade) or even just perform for clinicians who will then work with the students to help them improve. These are my favorite sort of music education festivals for reasons I’ll go into in a bit.

Then there are the competitive festivals, which have been around in the United States as early as 1923. Each school ensemble will perform for a set of judges who at the end of the festival rank each school. Sometimes there are “playoffs” where a certain number of ensembles will perform a second time. Prizes for these festivals can range from bragging rights to trophies to performing on a featured concert.

These competitions are a double edged sword. There are pros and cons to participating in them, but often times the motivations directors and administrators have for them miss the point of music education, in my opinion.

Pros

  1. Generates interest in the music program.
  2. Promotes high musical standards.
  3. Provides an effective motivator for middle school and high school students.
  4. Provides extra incentive to directors and students to prepare better than for a standard concert.

Cons

  1. Undermines balance of music programs by overemphasizing certain specialized aspects towards winning.
  2. Conceptually leads to what Alfie Kohn calls a “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” One person or group succeeds while the rest do not.
  3. Emphasizes an extrinsic goal, rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of music for its own sake.
  4. Leads to student and director burnout.

Over-scheduling for competitions is a serious issue that I think deserves a bit more attention here. Lynn G. Cooper notes in his fine text, Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials, that the grueling schedule of marching band competitions results in beginning to prepare music for each season in March or April, starting the drill design in March or April, and beginning rehearsals in July. Add after school rehearsals in the fall semester, weekend commitments at football games, and then 6 to 8 Saturday competitions are a monster that once begun is expected by parents, students, administrators, and the community at large. This leads to a high level of burn-out.

Every bit as important as the concern for teacher burnout is the problem of student burnout. Many students drop out of programs that over-emphasize competition (with its attendant 0ver-commitment) at the expense of music education. College band directors find that many students who come from such programs do not continue to play their instruments in college or later in life – they are tired of all the activity and lack the intrinsic motivation needed to continue to play. But students who know about music, listen to fine music, love music, and possess the skills, techniques and understandings to be mature, independent musicians will continue to participate in music even after they graduate from their school music program, because music has become important to them.

Remember balance. It is important in the ensemble, and it is important in life.

– Lynn G. Cooper

 

Weekend Picks

I’m playing tonight (Friday, August 29, 2014) at Highlands Playhouse with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Dinner is served for attendees at 7 PM and the concert starts at 8. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Here are my picks for your weekend surfing.

Liz Ryan offers 7 Reasons To Let Your Kid Study Music. It’s a little different from your typical list that strives to show a connection between musical study and academic success, although there’s a bit of that in there too.

Are you a trumpet (or any brass) player looking for some new exercises to break things up? Check out the Exercise Database For Trumpet Players, Teachers and Students.

In 1920s America admitting to a homosexual relationship could get you thrown in jail or worse. In spite of that, some lesbian blues singers more than alluded to their preferences. Lisa Hix has written a fascinating look at Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem.

Lastly, it’s easy to find YouTube videos of trumpet players showing off their high range. If you find those videos impressive, you’ll enjoy this High Note Trumpet Nation Anthem.

Weekend Picks

I just began working on a new project that is taking up much of my free time just now. It’s not ready for a public announcement, but it will be of particular interest to student jazz composers and involve the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Details on the AJO web site and here when it’s ready to go live.

AJO at Woody's and Becky's PartySpeaking of the AJO, we played a private event for one of our trumpet players, Woody, and his wife, Becky. Their sons threw them a 40th anniversary party. Since it wasn’t a formal performance for us and there were a lot of musicians in the crowd to sit in, I got to go out front and listen for a change. I even moved around and took a bunch of photos. Too bad I didn’t think to bring a better camera.

At any rate, here are some music related links for you to surf this weekend. There’s a bit of a theme this weekend. Everything here is something I take with a grain of salt.

Well it’s about time. Science declares Universal Property of Music Discovered.

Researchers have discovered a universal property of scales. Until now it was assumed that the only thing scales throughout the world have in common is the octave. The many hundreds of scales, however, seem to possess a deeper commonality: if their tones are compared in a two- or three-dimensional way by means of a coordinate system, they form convex or star-convex structures. Convex structures are patterns without indentations or holes, such as a circle, square or oval.

Do you buy it? Assuming the math is sound, it’s probably just an interesting quirk. At least that’s my guess.

There’s definitely some good advice and food for thought, but the headline is just click bait, The End of the Symphony and How Today’s Music Students Should Adapt. I’ve been hearing about the end of symphony orchestras for decades and they’re still around.

Speaking of the end, here is Frank Zappa explaining the decline of the music business. An interesting perspective from someone who experienced a changing music industry, but the business has changed quite a bit more since Zappa recorded this.

And finally, here is “Hans Groiner” discussing the music of Thelonious Monk. The comments on YouTube are hilarious.

AJO Tonight and Weekend Picks

AJO-Logo-Transparent copyI’m directing and performing with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra again tonight (Friday, August 8, 2014) at the White Horse in Black Mountain, NC. The show starts at 8 PM and we’ll play two sets of big band jazz. If you’re in the area looking for live music, please consider coming on out.

Here are some music related links for you to check out this weekend.

Low-Down Sires Busk
Low-Down Sires Busk

The first time I ever performed on the street (AKA “busking”) I had just graduated high school. A sax player heard me play and we talked for a while about a band he was playing in. A month later I went off to college and coincidentally I met another member of that band, eventually leading into me recording and playing some gigs with them. Recently I started busking again with some friends I play trad jazz with. We’ve found it to be a fun way to practice new material, essentially becoming a way to make a bit of money to rehearse. Sometimes if we’ve got some down time on an out of town tour we will go out and play on the street to not only pick up a few more bucks but also plug our gigs later. If you’re interested in trying out performing on the street, check out this advice on How to Busk.

One piece of advice I often give to my composition/arranging students is that they should show their parts to players that perform the instruments they are writing for. Even instruments in the same family will differ in terms of playability. For example, I sometimes get parts written by trumpet players that lay horribly for trombone because they took what they wrote for a trumpet and simply transposed it down an octave. Horn is a particularly challenging instrument for me to write well for because it has some idiosyncrasies that don’t translate from the other brass instruments. Fortunately, John Ericson has given us 9 Ways We Can Tell a Composer or Arranger Doesn’t Know How to Write for the Horn.

Did your metronome battery die? Or maybe it’s just too quiet and you need to blast a metronome through your computer speakers. Here’s a handy (and amusing) online metronome that simulates a pendulum style metronome.

And lastly, since school is about to start up after our summer break, here is a list of Ten Things You Should Never Say to Your Music Teacher. The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but the advice is golden!

Jim Chesebrough Sabbatical Project – 50 Lessons

Dr. Jim Chesebrough, who teaches at Keene State College, has a sabbatical project going on now where he’s traveling across the U.S. and taking lessons from a variety of different brass teachers. He’s video recording each lesson and then leaving some thoughts up about them on his web site here. It’s a very cool project and sounds like a great way to not only revitalize your own playing but also learn some new approaches and pick up some new teaching tricks.

I learned about Jim’s project when he contacted me asking if he could take a lesson from me as part of it. I’m very honored to be considered, since there is some very august company in his list of teachers. Jim was interested in picking my brain about embouchure with me, so we spent pretty much the entire lesson going over that. It’s not something I always focus on, but it may be one area where the information I can offer is different from what he might get from other teachers.

That said, I know he’s planning on grabbing some lessons with a couple of brass teachers that I’ve learned a lot from, Dave Sheetz and Doug Elliott. It will be interesting to hear what Jim learns from those guys and compare it to what I thought. In our lesson we ended up discussing some comparisons and contrasts of what Donald Reinhardt taught, for example, and some other more traditional approaches to teaching brass technique. Both Dave and Doug studied extensively with Reinhardt.

Check out Jim’s web site from time to time. As he adds new lesson notes and videos I’m sure there will some great stuff up there.

Blues in F Clinic For Concert Band

I recently got the chance to teach an introduction to improvising over a blues in F to a couple of classes at North Buncombe Middle School.  I put together a handout for the students and wanted to share it here, along with some ideas on how you can use this to introduce improvisation to virtually any group of woodwinds and brass players. It’s basic concept is flexible enough that you can use it to teach age ranges from middle school to adults and adjust the speed and difficulty level accordingly.

First, download the Blues in F Concert Band Clinic handouts and take a look at the score.

Blues In F 1

The very first thing on each part is the F blues scale. Letter A is one chorus of blues in F with the chord symbols for each part and each chord arpeggio stacked up to the 7th of the chord. But before you even hand out the music to your band, I suggest you try teaching some of this to them by ear. Depending on your students, what they may already know or be able to pick up, and how much time you have to devote to this, you might do only a bit by ear and then refer to the handouts. If you have a lot of time you might be able to do the whole thing by ear. But no matter what level or age group, I think it’s important to approach teaching improvisation as “sound before sight.” The goal is to get the students playing what’s not on the page, so get them used to not using music as quickly as possible.

You may want to start teaching by ear by demonstrating one strategy to help beginners match your pitch. Have a student who plays an instrument quite different from the one you’re playing chose a random pitch and hold it out. Whatever pitch he or she played, play a pitch a ways away from it and play a slow chromatic scale, getting slower the closer you get to the pitch, until you end up on the same pitch. I would intentionally do this on an octave or two away, if feasible, to also demonstrate that you can use the same technique if the pitch they’re trying to match is out of their normal playing range.

Then with a goal in mind, teaching the blues scale for example, teach your band the pitches one note at a time. When the majority of your band has matched the pitch, cut them off and establish what concert pitch everyone was playing. I usually do this by asking students in different sections, although sometimes you have to introduce transposition if they haven’t learned how to do it yet, so you might skip that step or just ask about what pitch their transposed pitch was.

Teaching the basics of the blues form can also be done by ear. In the clinics I gave the other day I taught them the roots of the three chords by ear and then had them repeat riffs back to me. I played only a single pitch (F, Bb, and C) on each riff and just played simple rhythms, but in doing it I went around the blues form. With plenty of time or more advanced students you could teach the chord arpeggios or fragments of chords by ear as well.

Here are the riffs at letter B.

Blues In F 2

 

There are three riffs happening that when put together provide enough of an accompaniment to improvise over. Higher voices, such as high woodwinds and trumpets, have a rhythmic riff that is based on the 3rd and 7th of each chord. The tenor and alto voices have a 3 note riff with longer notes and the bass voices play the triads of each chord.

Because each riff is simple you can teach them to your band by ear and even make everybody learn all three riffs, depending on how much time you can devote. At the very least, it’s useful for everyone to learn to play the bass riff by using the stacked chords at letter A. The other day when I was giving this workshop the balance of the mixed groups I was working with was such that there wasn’t enough of the bass line. I simply had some of the other lower range instruments play the chord arpeggios over the form. If you need more of another riff, you can also easily change sections around as needed.

Whether you teach the riffs by ear or from the handout (or make up your own riffs), once the band has gotten it together enough have them play it at a quiet dynamic level while you demonstrate improvising over it. Whatever basic concepts I want to teach with them is how I will play hear. I suggest that you choose a single topic to work on at this point and focus their attention on that. For example, if you’re going to be teaching them to use the blues scale for note choice selections, make yourself demonstrate only using notes in the blues scale. Other topics you could use here include using silence to build interest, playing long notes versus short notes, chord tone soloing, modal improvisation, whatever (if possible, see if you can introduce this topic earlier in your workshop by ear). But play a chorus or two while they accompany you and then you can explain what you did.

Then get your band riffing and go down to different players and have them try it out. You can do this a number of different ways, depending on your circumstances and goals. I like to have every student play at least 4 bars and go around the entire band with everyone trading fours. If you have a small enough group and enough time everyone can take a chorus, or you can even just let the braver students jump in and try them out.

Regardless of how you organize the students into improvising themselves, I think it’s a good idea to pause a couple of times or so, not only to rest chops and ears, but to evaluate a little bit what was going on. I prefer to emphasize positive things I noticed as well as offer suggestions at this time that other students can try. Demonstrate again for them, if there’s time.

The nice thing about using this approach is that it’s flexible. The handouts are designed to help speed things along and give a clinic that goes about 30-45 minutes, but you can jump right in and get them going right away with the handouts. I’ve done similar warmups with student big bands. If you want, you can spend maybe 10 minutes warming up your band on a piece of the handout and the next rehearsal quickly review what you did previously and learn something else new.

If you’d like to read an earlier post of mine about this topic, as well as download some different riffs you can use with virtually any group of instruments, see Introducing Improvisation in the Concert Band Setting.

Please let us know if you are a band director and try this out. How well did it work for you? What did you do differently or what would you change next time around?