5 Questions for the October 2011 Jazz Mentor

Zachary Poulter is director of bands at Syracuse Jr. High in Utah. His jazz band and combos have won multiple first-place awards in statewide and regional festivals where they regularly perform student-composed material. Syracuse Jr. High’s Symphonic Band is a perennial participant in the state band festival, and annually creates and performs an original student-composed silent film soundtrack. The author of Teaching Improv in Your Jazz Ensemble: A Complete Guide for Music Educators (published by NAfME), Poulter is also working on a saxophone harmonics book and his first album.

Please join us in welcoming Zachary as the NAfME jazz mentor for October 2011.

Could you tell readers a little bit about your program and the ensembles you direct?

In my district, band begins in 7th grade. I teach grades 7-9, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and jazz. Private lessons are a rarity with my students, so the constant challenge is teaching and modeling every instrument correctly. I supplement my limited abilities by giving students play-along recordings of local professionals performing fundamental exercises on each instrument –lip slurs for brass, register skips for woodwinds, bassoon flicking, percussion rudiments, etc., and having them listen to as much high-quality music as I can. My goal is for every student to have a positive life-changing experience through music. For this to happen, they must not only master music fundamentals, but also have significant opportunities for expression through improvisation and composition.

Every year your Symphonic Band students compose an original soundtrack for a silent film, which they perform live along with the film at the final band concert (see below). What was the thinking behind this idea?

Our enjoyment of quality music increases with our understanding of it, but music theory can seem pointless unless students have a way to apply the information. After a few years of composing folk song variations with the band, we moved to composing a silent film soundtrack. The activity is mostly about the things we learn in the process, but given the opportunity and tools to be creative, the students are making great strides. We’re developing a creative culture in our program where even beginning students are excited to learn about composition. The activity is a huge win with administrators and parents, but, more important, it’s helping the students love and understand music.

What do you find most gratifying about teaching jazz to young musicians?

Jazz is vital and relevant and rigorous, and I think it brings a great deal of joy into the lives of students. You won’t see a measurement of joy on any standardized test, but what better gift could we give? I love to see my students realize their own creative visions – performing, and improvising tunes they have written themselves. It also gives me great satisfaction when students recommend a recording to me, something they have found and fallen in love with on their own. Then I know they’re hooked.

What are the toughest challenges facing jazz educators today, in your opinion?

Trying to teach an individual skill like improvisation in an ensemble setting is inherently difficult. The curriculum most of us rely on for performances–full-band arrangement–isn’t designed to teach improvisation. Effective educators need to choose songs wisely, and find additional opportunities for improv, such as starting jazz combos within the band. Otherwise, I worry that many students play in school jazz bands for years and never connect with jazz standards, swing, or improvisation.

What are you listening to these days?

With my students–classic Basie big band and Ray Brown recordings to get them feeling swing style. Also improvisers/combos like Miles DavisCannonball AdderleyJohn ColtraneJ.J. JohnsonArt BlakeyArt Tatum,MJQ, and Clifford Brown.

On a personal level, I’m enjoying some really beautiful and striking sounds happening in Indian-influenced jazz: Vijay IyerRudresh MahanthappaCharlie Mariano, and a great New York group called Red Baraat. The last few weeks I’ve rediscovered Benny Goodman’s small-group stuff, which is just fantastic.

There are some amazing improvisers playing in “Americana” styles outside of jazz too. Every few months I seem to go on a bluegrass/country jag where I can’t get enough of people like Tony TrishkaJerry DouglasDavid GrismanBela Fleck, and Edgar Meyer. There’s so much great music out there, it’s hard to list just a few.
(film edited for length – used by permission of Zach Poulter)

—Nick Webb, September 30, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)