What Teachers Should Learn From Jazz Directors

Writing for Psychology Today William Klemm tells us What All Teachers Should Learn from Jazz-Band Teachers. He writes that, “Our schools are broken. Here’s the fix.” After attending a high school jazz festival Klemm was astounded by the abilities of high school and middle school musicians’ abilities to not just play what was on the page, but also to improvise.

Hearing such wonderful music from children raised a nagging question. Why can’t kids master complicated science, math, language arts, or social studies? Why does everybody struggle so mightily to get kids to pass simple-minded government-mandated tests in academic subjects?

And then it hit me. Jazz-band teachers do the right things in teaching that other teachers need to learn how to do.

Klemm goes through what he thinks is so special about jazz education and comes down with a list of six qualities that jazz education revolves around: passion, personal ownership and accountability, constructivism, social interaction, high expectations, and reward.

The (biased) jazz band director in me wants to agree wholeheartedly with Klemm. After all, the above qualities are all things that I try to instill with my student bands, but not just the jazz ensembles but all music groups. In some ways I think Klemm makes improvisation out to be more mysterious and challenging than it really is.

Learning to playing any musical instrument is hard, but playing jazz is the ultimate challenge. In jazz you not only have to know the tunes, you have to use the chord structure and complex rhythms to compose on the fly.

Improvisation is often compared to learning to speak a language. Learning to  participate in a class discussion on any topic requires the student to not only understand the materials, but also use the syntax and grammar of language to write on the fly. Imagine if subjects like history or literature were taught purely through rote learning and repeating (or reading) word for word from the textbook. Students “improvise” all the time in school, we’re just not used to thinking of it as such.

At any rate, Klemm concludes his article with Ten Commandments for Better Teaching.

1. Love your students as yourself.
2. Be professional. Know the stuff you teach.
3. Instill passion for the content – especially, make knowledge fun.
4. Make learning personal. Show students how to own their learning.
5. Take away the hiding places of unprepared and under-performing students. Let them embarass themselves.
6. Show students they have to earn self-esteem. You can’t give it to them. Praise success and do so publicly when it is earned.
7. Require students to do things that show they have mastered what you are trying to teach them.
8. Give students opportunities to “strut their stuff” in public, in and out of the class.
9. Help students learn how to work with others as a team.
10. Expect excellence. Do not teach to the lowest common denominator.

Trumpet Physics Masterclasses

Professor John Harbaugh of Central Washington University has a couple of videos up on YouTube of a trumpet master class. I liked his demonstration using a glass tube and a torch to produce a sound, although the discussion of physics are actually pretty light. Here are the two parts.

Personally, I think that he makes too much about the sympathetic vibrations of the lips to have the lips “relaxed” so that you’re not “fighting the horn.” He’s really discussing playing sensations there, which are notoriously difficult to pin down universally. Some players may benefit from thinking of their lips being relaxed, but others will want to work more on firming the lips. His isometric physics demonstration is a red herring, as I don’t see how it directly relates to the brass embouchure. Squeezing your fingers together for a long time is tiring, of course, but so is playing a brass instrument for long periods of time. If you’ve built the strength and endurance to do this, I feel that it is better to actively firm the embouchure formation (at the mouth corners, primarily) rather than focusing on “kinesthetic response.”

Ultimately Harbaugh wants to advocate a “subconscious or intuitive way of playing,” but the acoustical principles he discusses don’t support this argument. Again, this is a red herring because the point of doing any analysis (embouchure or acoustics or whatever) is to do the active thinking about it while drilling so that you can be intuitive later when it counts. It’s not an either/or issue, just do the proper thing at the proper time. In the practice room you can afford to think about how your are playing and whether your mechanics are correct. On the stage you must concentrate on making good music (which you must also practice doing too).

A much better discussion of trumpet physics (in my opinion) is by Nick Drozdoff, who is not only a very fine trumpet player but also a high school physics teacher.

Asheville Jazz Orchestra Live at White Horse Black Mountain July 14, 2012

This Saturday (July 14, 2012) I will be playing again at the White Horse Black Mountain with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. First set of two starts at 8 PM.

It happens that we’re going to have a bunch of heavyweights playing in the sax section Saturday night. Steve Alford, Joe Lulloff, Matt Olson, Patrick Brown, and Frank Southecorvo are going to be playing with us that night. I’m planning on calling lots of sax features and making them all work hard playing solos and sax solis.

If you’re in western North Carolina this Saturday please come on out and hear some live big band jazz. Be sure to say hello to me during our break or after the show.

Teaching Aural Skills

I’ve been poking around looking for different thoughts on teaching Aural Skills and came across two interesting blog posts about this topic. The Pianistic Wordsmith notes that Teaching Aural Skills is Hard.

For the non-musicians reading this, aural skills is a two-pronged course focusing on ear training that every music major must conquer, and nearly everyone struggles immensely with a few aspects of it, because developing your ear in new ways is a very hard thing to do. One side of the aural skills coin is dictation, which teaches students to be able to see what they’re hearing – to visualize and write down the notated music for melodies, chords, rhythms, complex chorales, and other musical elements. The flip side is sight singing, which is the exact opposite: teaching students to be able to hear what they’re seeing. It’s relatively easy to sit down and push the keys, press the valves, or pluck the strings on our instruments as we see them on the page, but a much taller order is to be able to look at a piece of printed music, hear in your mind exactly what it will sound like when played, and sing those notes out of thin air with no accompaniment to check yourself against. Aural skills is kind of a rite of passage for musicians. It’s a very hard course for a lot of undergrads, and developing these skills that don’t translate into propositional knowledge is challenging at best, torturesome at worst.

In spite of the challenge, you should read through the entire post. There is a nice example of a cooperative learning project for the final exam and the excellent results make this an idea worth trying.

Toby Rush has some thoughts about why teaching aural skills is so difficult in his post on Aural Skills is a Funny Thing.

I would wager that most Aural Skills teachers look forward to teaching Music Theory more than they do Aural Skills. The reason for that is simple: Aural Skills classes are usually taught by Music Theory professors.

Sure, that makes sense, right? After all, Aural Skills is part of Music Theory. Except for one thing: it’s not. Aural Skills is not Music Theory and never was.

This is interesting, because it’s exactly opposite of what I like to say about music theory and aural skills, that they really are about the same thing, just two sides of the same coin. When I teach music theory I like to stress the sounds that the music will make and encourage my students to listen closely to them and memorize how an authentic cadence sounds differently from a plagal cadence and what parallel 5ths sounds like.

Yes, the Aural Skills curriculum correlates well with the Music Theory curriculum, and it is primarily this reason that the Theory faculty usually teach the classes. But they are different disciplines. Music Theory is, as I’ve usually defined it, the art and science of figuring out why music sounds the way it does. It is the exploration of what makes music tick. Aural Skills is something entirely different: it is the development of physiological skills, both aural and oral, that are necessary for a professional musician or music educator.

I can’t really argue with Rush’s thoughts here, but perhaps the analogy that works best for my thoughts are that music theory is to aural skills as learning about writing is to reading out loud. Speaking is a different skill than learning to write well, as learning about the structure of how music sounds is different from learning how to understand what music sounds like visually.

. . . over the course of the last decade I’ve learned a few interesting things about Aural Skills:

  • It’s not only a different discipline, but a different type of discipline: it’s physiological (involving mind and body working together) rather than purely cognitive;
  • Research in Aural Skills pedagogy (the science of teaching aural skills) is a hugely underdeveloped field; and
  • I have come to find the stuff fascinating.

Regarding his second point, I wonder if some of the strategies used to teach reading may be helpful with aural skills. At the very least, research on effective reading instruction might offer interesting avenues to explore for new research in aural skills pedagogy. Any grad students out there looking for a thesis topic?

Salute to U.S. Armed Forces and Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all the U.S. readers. The Trinity Jazz Orchestra posted a video on YouTube of them performing my arrangement of the Armed Forces Medley last year on the 4th of July. It’s a good performance and very well produced.

While I’m at it, if you’re in western North Carolina looking for something to do to celebrate Independence Day (2012) tomorrow you can come out to hear me perform with Linda Gentille and the American Big Band at the Smoky Mountain Performing Arts Center in Franklin, NC.

Thursday evening (July 5, 2012) the Asheville Jazz Orchestra is playing a free concert at Furman University’s Music by the Lake concert series. We start playing at 7:30 at Furman’s outdoor amphitheater in Greenville, SC.

If you come out to either show be sure to come up and say hello.