Jazz: Requirement or Elective?

Though most would agree that ideally all future music teachers would graduate prepared to teach jazz, that’s not currently the case (see Jazz and the Music Ed Major). How should music education programs with various time, size, and budget constraints incorporate jazz pedagogy?

A Must for the Music Ed Major?

“Including jazz in college programs makes sense, but so does including ethnic/folk musics, fiddling, how to work with older learners and the physically or mentally challenged,” says MENC orchestra mentor Susan Bechler. “There’s only so much time in a four-year program. Someone needs to decide what is ‘core’ and what is not, and of course there will never quite be agreement on that.”

In fact, there’s much disagreement on this issue. MENC jazz mentor Robert Larson argues, “A jazz pedagogy course is a must, and should be required.” He adds, “A jazz improvisation/repertoire course can only make a future educator more effective.”

MENC jazz mentor David Kay also believes jazz pedagogy is crucial: “Since jazz groups are found in so many levels of schools from high school to even elementary, it would follow that there should be pedagogical coverage of that kind of group. The profession would not consider not having choral or instrumental pedagogy.” He says that while genres such as folk music are valuable, “Jazz ensembles exist in much higher numbers than any other non-classical group.” As such, the gap in teacher preparation for this area is “unacceptable,” says Kay.

Different Approaches for Different Schools

For smaller schools with limited programs, extensive jazz courses may not be possible. This doesn’t mean that these programs can’t do their best to prepare future educators to teach improvisation and jazz.

As MENC jazz mentor Paul Cummings points out, “It’s not so much that jazz is entirely neglected in college music ed curricula as it is that there are many different ways of incorporating it.” At Humbolt State University where he teaches, music ed majors must take one or more semesters of a jazz ensemble and a course in jazz pedagogy or improvisation. “Many other schools have no requirement to take a jazz ensemble course, but do require students to take either a jazz pedagogy course or have a pedagogy unit within a required secondary methods course.”

Kay cautions that ensemble participation alone does not prepare a future teacher for jazz instruction. “Since jazz (and related non-classical musics) operate on a different paradigm of performance practice than European art music, that alone necessitates focused study for the music ed major.”

Susan Bechler retired in 2006 from the Victor Central School, Victor, NY, after 34 years as a public school music teacher. Mrs. Bechler now teaches violin, viola, and fiddling privately, and is an adjunct staff person at Ashokan Fiddle and Dance.

Paul Cummings is an assistant professor of music at Humboldt State University, where he directs the A.M. Jazz Band and Humboldt Symphony, and is coordinator of the music education program. Cummings is also active as a performer on clarinet and saxophone.

David Kay is on the music faculty of University School in suburban Cleveland where at the high school level he directs two jazz ensembles and a jazz combo, a guitar ensemble, and teaches music theory. He also is on the jazz faculty at the Interlochen Arts Camp (since 1988) where he directs a middle school jazz ensemble and jazz improvisation classes at the middle and high school level.

Robert Larson has been on the faculty of Shenandoah Conservatory since 1982. He has served as chair of the Instrumental Division, and is currently director of jazz studies. He is a jazz pianist, and teaches piano and all jazz-related courses, and performs regularly in the greater Washington D.C. area.

–Anne Wagener, February 11, 2009, ©  National Association for Music Education