What School Jazz Programs Teach Us About Learning

Published: Jan 23, 2020  |   Category: motivation, learning, practicing, performing, benefits

Six key principles for effective learning.


Jazz is complex music that even some professional musicians have difficulty playing. Yet somehow, jazz-band teachers create new jazz musicians out of youngsters who just a few years earlier knew nothing about music. What magic must they be using? In the spring of every year in Texas, Katy High School near Houston hosts a jazz festival that showcases junior- and high-school stage bands from around the state. I have attended several times and never fail to be astonished at the musicianship of these youngsters. Each year, there is one or more middle-school band. Even the professional musicians who critique each band’s performance are amazed that these 7th and 8th graders “play like adults!”


I never cease to be astonished at how accomplished these students are. I ask myself, “How did those kids learn such complex music?" The music played by the school stage bands is 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. They also play more modern jazz.


The emphasis on teaching reaches into the festival itself. Each band or ensemble performs for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of critique from professional jazz musicians (some of whom are music professors at universities). The critiques are shared with the audience, consisting mostly by family and friends. Are university professors ever asked to evaluate student performance in regular secondary school academic classes?


The festival includes small-group performances, which are also openly critiqued by professional musicians. Katy High puts great emphasis on music teaching and has built a magnificent Performing Arts Center, where the festival takes place. If Texas schools are hurting for funds, it certainly isn’t evident at Katy High School. I bet they get extra support from parents.


Jazz fans everywhere lament that jazz seems like a dying art form overwhelmed by the simpler music of country, rap, hip-hop, rock, and whatever it is that most kids listen to these days. But the professional “coaches” at the festival reassure the audience that “jazz is in good hands.” The future of jazz is bolstered by the fact that 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 also have to use the chord structure and complex rhythms to compose on the fly. A jazz professor from North Texas State University 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!” My impression is that in regular academic classes, we don't do much to encourage the creative application of knowledge. In jazz, it is the whole point.


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 playing jazz need to be engaged with what each member of the rhythm section is doing, and, moreover, the rhythm section needs to interact with the saxes, trombones, and trumpets.

Hearing such wonderful music from children raised a nagging question. Why can’t kids master 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 do more of.


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 involves personal ownership. 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 that 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.


Jazz players demonstrate their learning in public. How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. 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. Unlike many traditional classrooms, there is no way to hide. Every student is exposed to embarrassment by mistakes. In a traditional classroom, the teacher is counseled not to embarrass students. It is actually against federal law for teachers 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 policymaker 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. In science, “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 do students write and rewrite an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government? Do students in academic courses spend hours in deliberate practice and applying their learning comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? 


Fourth, jazz is social. Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the Katy 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 for 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, many students don’t have to compete to get into a music class. But once in, they have to display learning in order to advance into more prestigious classes (think the “One-o-clock Lab 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?

The fifth point: Unlike a 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, not just achieving minimum standards. They expect excellence, and they get it, as documented by the festival performances. 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 teacher college courses, pre-service teachers learn 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 six motivating factors:

1. Passion

2. Personal ownership and accountability


4. Social interaction, both collaborative and competitive

5. High expectations

6. Reward

What I take home from attended these school-band performances 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 can’t the rest of education do that?

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