Renowned Jazz Musicians Celebrate the Work of Music Educators

In September a group of elementary and secondary music teachers gathered at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, to discuss their vision for a school music program shaped through collaborative teaching. The meeting was organized by Damien Sinclair, director of arts and events at The Reston Community Center (RCC).

RCC is in the same geographic area as the center and the schools are grouped in what is known as the South Lakes Pyramid. The pyramid includes South Lakes High School and several feeder schools, and is in the Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools district.

The group of teachers at the South Lakes workshop discussed the tools that would provide a seamless curriculum transition from grade to grade. Called vertical articulation, this method focuses on sequencing, or linking elementary curriculum with middle level curriculum and middle-level curriculum with high school curriculum. The teachers discussed ways in which they can work together across music disciplines and with classroom teachers. They also explored resources that would enable them to provide a high-quality, well-rounded music education to all students.

Among the resources the teachers said they most are instruments, new technology, scholarships, venues for performances, and support from parents and the community. “I don’t think a lot of people in the community understand the great need for resources, how much of our programs are not subsidized by the [Fairfax County] school district,” noted Rita Gigliotti, a choral teacher at South Lakes.

South Lakes pyramid teachers gather to shape a vision for their music programs

At the end of the day, the teachers’ created a mission statement asserts: “Music is intrinsic to the development of the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills necessary for success in a 21st century society.

“We inspire students and influence the greater Reston community by working collaboratively to continually foster a higher level of lifelong participation and understanding in music.”

Sinclair said the center “has a long history of partnering with our local schools. For years we have brought in artists to teach master classes and speakers on topical issues. I had decided that it was time to find out the true needs of our teachers at a very deep level to make sure that our programming truly matched the needs of the schools. So we broke the conversation down by disciplines, and this year we focused on music.”

The Music Classroom as an “Oasis of Love”

The center has dedicated it 2011–2012 performing arts season to music. As part of the daylong event, which also included an evening panel discussion, RCC arranged for two jazz greats, Nnenna Freelon and T.S. Monk to address teachers, and work with South Lake students during the day.

In addition, Freelon will return in January to rehearse with choral students at South Lakes High School. The students will perform a song with her during a January 16th concert at the community center.

At the high school visioning session Freelon and Monk both praised the work of music educators.

Nnenna Freelon

“I want to thank you for the work you do every day,” Freelon said. She is a six-time Grammy® Award nominee, a singer, composer and arranger.

“I am here to encourage you because what you do is meaningful and essential. You are changing the hearts and minds of everyone you touch,” said Frelon who said she has been a singer since she was “knee-high to a blade of grass.”

She often works with students when she travels to perform and she talked of a high school she visited several years ago. She said she was nervous about walking through a rough neighborhood and felt tension and saw “sullen kids” as she walked the hallways of the school. Frelon said she was greeted with indifference, and she questioned her decision to visit the school.

However, when a student led her to the choral classroom she said, “The door opened to an oasis of love. I saw students who felt valued, who felt respected, and who felt like they were in a safe place where they could thrive. It was amazing,” Freelon said

As much as she enjoys working with students, Frelon said of the music teachers in the room, “I could not do what you do every day. What you do is special.”

Monk, a drummer, composer, record company founder, and band leader, followed in the footsteps of his father, pianist and composer and jazz legend Thelonious Monk, who died in 1982. The Monk family and jazz supporters founded the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz after his death.

T.S. Monk

The Institute, which has offices in Washington, DC and New Orleans, identifies the music’s new voices, celebrates present and past masters, and takes jazz education into classrooms around the world.

Monk discussed the musician friends who often visited his childhood home to hang out with his father—Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey. The interesting thing is they didn’t come to play music. They discussed music, philosophized about music, and discussed music theory, Monk said.

“Jazz is not a technique. It is a philosophy. It is democracy. It also teaches tolerance and inclusion. One member of the ensemble may be the star at any given moment, and then it is someone else,” he added.

As the institute staff works with students in the United States and other countries, Monk said he considers it an “honor” to bring jazz study into the classroom.

Of educators, he said, “Teaching is the noblest thing you can do, and you do what you do because you love it. You share that love of the arts with your student. Learning to appreciate music in grade school will follow children the rest of their lives.”

The teachers who attended the workshop are looking forward as well. Gigliotti said the group created a task force that will continue to meet and brainstorm to come up with strategies that will work for all of the schools in the pyramid.

“We know closing the achievement gap is important but we want all kids to have the same education, access to the same opportunities and that certainly includes music,” Gigliotti said. “We know that working across disciplines, will help us achieve that.”

Davey Yarborough, who founded the Washington (DC) Jazz Arts Institute (WJAI) in 1998, moderated a panel discussion called “Music in the Community.” Freelon and Monk spoke, as did Christian Donlon, co-chair of the Fairfax Arts Coaltion for Education, and Sue Rarus, director of research at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).

Nnenna Freelon’s education programs

TS Monk Institute

Yarborough Washington Jazz Arts Institute

Reston Community Center


Photos by Roz Fehr and Kevin Danaher

Roz Fehr, October 14, 2011. © National Association for Music Education (