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What We Should Learn From Jazz Band Teachers

Our schools are broken. Here's the fix.

I just came back from a jazz festival at Katy High School in Texas that show-cased student stage bands from ten schools mostly near Houston, but some as far away as Beaumont and Brownsville (the latter band stole the show).

The festival was also a teaching event, with each band or ensemble performing for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of critique from six professional jazz musicians (two of whom were music professors at universities). The critiques were shared with the small audience consisting almost exclusively of family and friends, even though this festival was advertised for the general public. Performances were staggered so that if you didn’t want to hear a critique you could go hear a student combo and vice versa. The facilities were magnificent, highlighted by the presence of a natatorium, impressive athletic fields and stadium, and a Performing Arts Center where the festival took place. If Texas schools are hurting for funds, it certainly wasn’t evident at Katy High School.

I was astonished at how accomplished these students were. I asked myself: How did those kids learn such complex music? The music played was mostly the big-band music of Goodman, Basie, Kenton, Ellington, and others from the eras of swing and “progressive-modern jazz of the '50s and '60s.

Jazz is sophisticated stuff. Yet these bands, of 16 to 24 kids each, could do what a lot of adult musicians cannot do. One band was a middle-school band, and the professional musicians who critiqued each band’s performance were amazed that these 7th and 8th graders “played like adults!”

Jazz fans everywhere lament that jazz seems like a dying art form overwhelmed by the simpler music of country, rap, hip-hop, and whatever it is that most kids listen to these days. But the professional “coaches” at the festival reassured the audience that “jazz is in good hands.” Fortunately, many school and university music programs teach jazz.

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. A jazz professor from the University of North Texas counseled in one of his critiques, “I know you have sheet music you have to follow, but when you hear something in your head, play it. That’s what we (jazz musicians) do – improvise!”

Another jazz professor, during a critique session had two bands re-play a number from their performance. About one-third of the way through, he silently and casually walked through the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) and picked up the sheet music. The kids went right on playing without skipping a beat, because they had already memorized the sheet music. His point was they were using the sheet music as a crutch and not engaging with each other. Musicians talk to each other with their instruments, and listening is a big part of jazz improvisation. Students needed to be engaged with what each member of the rhythm section was doing, and, moreover, the rhythm section needed to interact with the saxes, trombones, and trumpets.

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.

Two things are essential in teaching, the professionalism of the teacher and the motivation of the students. Most school jazz programs provide both. Sad to say, this is not so true of traditional curriculum.

Consider professionalism. It was clear that these band directors really knew what they were doing. Some had professional playing experience. Most, I am certain, were music majors in college. Think about what they have to do: They take young kids who know little about music beyond humming a tune and teach them music theory, teach them to read music, and teach them to play the different instruments in a band. And then they have to teach students how to compose on the fly. You can’t do that without being a real professional.

As for motivation, teaching and learning jazz involves clearly identifiable motivating features. Jazz-band teachers can’t take credit for some of these features, but creative teachers in other subject areas can think of similar motivating things they could be doing, based on what is involved in jazz.

First, there is passion. Jazz stirs the emotions, from blues to ballads to hot swing. If Benny Goodman’s music doesn’t make you want to jump up and dance, you better check your pulse to see if you are still alive. That brings up this point: Jazz is fun! Learning chemistry, for example, is almost never considered by students to be fun, but teachers should be thinking of ways to make it fun. 

Some academic subjects do have intrinsic emotional impact. If, for example, the emotions of history students are not stirred by the Federalist Papers, or the turmoil of the Civil War and the country’s other wars, then history is not being competently taught. If the beauty of the laws of physics and chemistry or the biology of life are not evident in the teaching of science, it is the teacher’s fault. 

Second is that jazz is personal. A jazz student intellectually owns his instrument. He or she owns the assigned space on the bandstand. One critiquing musician at the festival reminded students they own that space and if the sheet music stand or the audio at their station was not left just right from the previous band, they must fix it. It is now their space.

How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. They can’t hide. What you know and can do is on public display, all the time in practice sessions with fellow band members and, of course, in public performances. In marked contrast, it is against the law for teachers in other subject areas to reveal grades on individual performance, even within the more private area of the classroom. The belief system in education these days is that you should not allow an unprepared and under-performing student to be embarrassed. What dingbat policy maker came up with that? I know; it comes from the perverse politically correct movement that ignores the reality that self-esteem needs to be earned.

Third is that jazz is ultimate constructivism. All teachers know about constructivism, which is the idea that students have to do something to show they have mastered the learning task. Student jazz bands and combos demonstrate personal accomplishment all the time in rehearsals and stage performances. But in many traditional courses, the main constructive thing students do is fill in circles on a Scantron test answer sheet. "Science fairs” encourage constructivism, but these are usually one-time events. Students need to be doing something every day to demonstrate their learning. In English, how often to students write and re-write an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? Do students spend hours of writing and editing comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government

Fourth, jazz is social. Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the festival where the professionals had to emphasize this point by taking away the sheet music. Students had to learn to talk and listen to each other through their instruments. In traditional education, there is a movement called collaborative learning, the idea of learning teams, but many teachers don’t use this approach or do it without regard to the proven formalisms needed for success. Regardless of academic subject, students benefit when they learn how to help each other learn.

Part of the social aspect of jazz is competition. In many schools, students don’t have to compete to get into a music class. But once in, they have to display learning to advance into more prestigious classes (think the “One O'Clock Lab Band” band at the University of North Texas). In whatever music lab they are in, they have to compete for “first chair” in their instrument section. It is like competing to make the varsity and then the first team in sports. Where is the equivalent in science, social studies, or language arts?

Unlike traditional education, where the goal is to meet minimum standards on state-mandated tests, jazz band directors make very clear their high expectations that everybody in each band class should become as proficient as they can. The whole point of their teaching is mastery and excellence. They expect excellence and they get it, as witnessed by festival performances such as I saw. Thanks to the unenlightened thinking of No Child Left Behind law, our public education has degenerated into “No Child Pushed Forward.”

And finally we consider the matter of reward. Somewhere in the college courses of teachers they learned about “positive reinforcement,” and most teachers try to use these ideas to shape the learning achievements of their students. But jazz performance provides public reward, in the form of public applause. Is there anything comparable in the teaching of science, social studies, or language arts? Is publishing (inflated) Honor Roll lists in the newspaper the best we can do?

So in a nutshell, the reason jazz students do so well is because their learning environment is built around:

  • Passion
  • Personal ownership and accountability
  • Constructivism
  • Social interaction
  • High Expectations
  • Reward

What I took home from this experience is a renewed feeling that outside of jazz music programs our schools are letting our children down. These young musicians prove that when motivated and challenged, they can do astonishing things. The printed program for the festival concluded with the comment, “The future belongs to those who are able to capture their creative intelligence. Jazz music education and performance develop the ability to create and produce the ideas that are individually unique.” 

Why doesn’t the rest of education do that?

This festival experience leads me to suggest:

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.

William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.

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