Listen, Learn, and Lead

We’re all familiar with the old stereotype of the band or orchestra director as the omnipotent, all-powerful maestro who sets the tone and leads the charge. “There is no democracy in the rehearsal room” is a phrase countless music students have heard time and again during the many hours spent under their own director’s tutelage.

Jazz performance, however, is both a collaboration with other members of the ensemble and a forum for individual expression. The director of a jazz ensemble, be it a small combo or big band, must always be mindful of this during rehearsals.

Greg Bunge, former Wisconsin MEA Jazz Education Chair, has a few ideas on the subject:

  • Student leadership is a vital component of the jazz group. Students must be able to help themselves and in turn help their peers. Combo rehearsals are often most productive when led by members of the combo. Members choose, rehearse, even arrange music on their own, and should be encouraged to meet as frequently as possible. The director becomes more like a  mentor.
  • Regular meetings with student leaders are crucial to the success of the small-group rehearsal. Specific issues from both the director and students are identified and put into a rehearsal plan.
  • During sectionals, it is important that the students be on task. Timelines or even a rehearsal schedule should be published and enforced. If the sectionals are left open-ended, students might get stuck on one selection or their favorite passage and not address the specific issues. The director should “roam” around to the different sections listening and making comments where needed, but making sure the students are working with each other rather than waiting until the director enters.
  • During rhythm-section rehearsals, allow time for soloists to come in and work through their solo  passages, and perhaps record the rhythm section playing a few choruses for the soloist. If time constraints are an issue, encourage sections to meet outside of the school day (in addition to  the regular classroom sessions). This is a fantastic way to encourage musical independence and camaraderie within the sections.
  • The most important tool in learning the jazz language is listening. Listening to jazz on a regular  basis and making it part of a listening diet will pay dividends. Once you have your listening library  in place, make time during rehearsals to listen to and evaluate recordings. Perhaps create handouts with questions that force the students to focus their listening. (Why does this piece swing? What kind of ride cymbal pattern is being used?) Eventually, students will become more involved, focused and eager to listen, eliminating the need for handouts.

“Partner the audio listening with live jazz performances,” says Bunge. “If within driving distance, a concert can be attended (often these concerts are free). Take advantage of these opportunities!”

Excerpted from “Key Factors in Developing Musical Independence: Student Leadership and Listening” by Greg Bunge, originally published in September 2003 Wisconsin School Musician

Gregory D. Bunge is director of bands at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he teaches three concert bands, jazz ensemble, jazz lab, combos and general music.



Nick Webb, December 15, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (