What Makes a Great Jazz Educator? Part 3

Simply put, it’s your talent and years of training as a musician and music educator.

The “jazz” label on an ensemble or a rehearsal doesn’t mean the skills you acquired to teach band, choir or orchestra classes don’t apply. Quite the contrary!

Which brings us to the third and final point on former Missouri MEA Jazz Vice-President Chris Becker’s checklist:

Use your ears and your best musical skills every time you rehearse and work with students as they learn to perform jazz.

“Finally, your ability to develop into a great jazz educator depends on your best musical skills and your ear,” says Becker. “Remember, the musical skills that work well in any group work equally well in a jazz ensemble. Playing the right notes at the right time, as well as sensitivity to intonation, tone, balance, blend, and phrasing are as important in jazz as they are anywhere else. The specific ways you articulate, shape dynamics, emphasize (or de-emphasize) certain notes and place the rhythmic figures within the beat create a variety of styles within the broad genre of jazz. And the only way to master the nuances of style comes back to …LISTENING!

“In one of his books,” continues Becker, “David Baker, the legendary jazz educator at Indiana University, stresses how imperative it is that we use our ears constantly to improve what is happening musically. The ear training we’ve all endured is designed to make us hear and really listen to what the music is doing. Transcribing solos from recordings also makes us hear and listen to the music. Every performance and rehearsal tests our ability to listen analyze, and adjust. If it’s a jazz rehearsal, we listen and adjust to the jazz language going through our minds.

“One final thought. There are many examples of ‘classically’ trained musicians and music educators who’ve become great jazz educators. Ron Carter, a great jazz educator at Northern Illinois University, readily admits that he began his formal training as a ‘classical’ clarinet player. He attended Northwestern with the intention of becoming a symphony clarinetist. Ron and others with similar backgrounds listened to jazz and talked to the accomplished jazz teachers and performers. Beyond that, their enthusiasm was infectious, and they used their best musical skills in the classroom. Enthusiasm, musicianship, and knowledge of style transfer easily to any musical setting, and that setting can as easily be a jazz rehearsal as a symphonic band, orchestra, or concert choir rehearsal. Just because you lack a background in jazz, don’t give up the idea that you can become a great jazz educator!”

Adapted from “What Makes a Great Jazz Educator?” by Chris Becker, originally published in Spring 2010 Missouri School Music Magazine

Chris Becker is Director of Bands at Parkway South High School in Manchester, MO and Director of the Jazz Band at Washington University in St. Louis.

—Nick Webb, June 15, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (www.menc.org)