I sat at the piano staring at the bold letters and slashes covering the staff where neat little dots and lines should have been. It was junior year of high school, zero hour, Jazz Band. Thus far, I had been classically trained on the piano. But wanting something new, I signed up to play the piano in the jazz band at zero-dark-thirty in the period before school started. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Lesson From Miles
Miles Davis, jazz legend, recorded arguably the best jazz record of all time, Kind of Blue, in 1959. The album boasted jazz greats John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on sax, and (my personal favorite) Bill Evans on piano.
With only 5 tracks, Kind of Blue epitomizes the perfection of jazz music. Recorded in only one session, without rehearsal, it is the peak of improvisation and creativity. But how did they do it? How did Davis engineer such a masterpiece? And how did the musicians perform as if through one mind?
I listened to that record over and over again that junior year, trying to unlock the secret to playing jazz. In the school music room, though, the magic of jazz eluded me as I tried to find the “right” notes to play at the “right” time. I tried and tried to take my rigid, rules-following method of playing classical piano and make it fit into the loose, rules-abandoning method of playing jazz. I would write in notes in pencil where I could, giving me something to read instead of relying on the feeling of the keys below my fingers. But finding those perfect notes at the perfect time was impossible. I struggled through senior year jazz band, and a little bit of jazz piano in college (when I wasn’t playing my required classical repretoire). Then I realized my problem.
There were no perfect notes at the perfect time. There was only music.
Lesson From the Classroom
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that was true for me with my jazz journey. When I started teaching music to K-6 elementary students, I discovered the power, and necessity, of improvisation. I had to learn how to stand at the piano and play without looking at printed music, while teaching 25 kids, disciplining, and singing at the same time. My fingers learned quickly how to break out of the rigidity of sheet music. And the secret of jazz revealed itself to me.
The music came alive when I stopped following the rules and started following the spirit of those rules.
Jazz is not about the right notes at the right time. It is not hundreds-year-old sheet music to rehearse. But, at the same time, jazz follows certain guidelines in order to sound good. Think of it not as the “right” notes as much as the “best” notes for that moment in that particular setting in that particular way.
Lesson From Education
I hear Eduspeak hot words almost every day. Trauma-Informed, Culturally-Relevant, Personalized Learning, Project-Based, Student-Centered, Social-Emotional, the list goes on. These words are not bad in and of themselves. They are wonderful ideas and I support whole-heartedly the direction these words are taking us in education as a whole.
The problem arises when we take a lower-case words (like trauma sensitive) and turn them into hyphenated Upper-case words (like Trauma-Sensitive). All of a sudden, an idea for how to reorient your teaching becomes a marketable strategy.
Then you have the “Seven Ways to be Trauma-Sensitive” book, and the weekend seminar to call yourself a “Trauma-Sensitive” teacher, and the $2,000 curriculum to put “Trauma-Sensitive School” on your website. You follow the seven steps, and you go through the motions you learned in the seminar, and you print out the worksheets from the curriculum, and you still have a student run out of the classroom yelling obscenities.
Or, you go through the process above and find that the magic formula to become “Culturally-Responsive” or “Project-Based” didn’t work.
We’re trying to find the “right” ways to do these things in education when there’s no “right” way to treat a child. There’s only the “best” way to treat that particular child in that particular moment. We’re trying to play classical piano in a jazz setting.
Instead, we need a Jazz Mindset. The ability to use trauma sensitive teaching instead of Trauma-Sensitive Teaching Programs. Take the principals, and the seven steps, and the three best practices, and the worksheets in the curriculum and use them as guidelines, tools, not requirements. Respond to the child in the moment, with the tools in your teacher tool belt, but also considering the fact that this child is a living, breathing human being who will not act exactly the way the book says she will act.
When you follow the Jazz Mindset, you can adhere to the rules when it’s appropriate and break the rules when it’s appropriate. It’s knowing when there’s a right note at a right time and when there’s no right, or wrong, note to play. It’s knowing the difference between rules and guidelines, between task lists and suggestions. It’s knowing the why behind everything you do so that you can build flexibility and adaptability into your teaching, and your students’ lives.
Lesson from Louie
Scat singing was a mistake. The popular method of improvising nonsense syllables to jazz music was not supposed to happen. Louis Armstrong, singer, composer, trumpet extraordinaire, “invented” scat singing on accident.
The story goes that Louis was singing in a recording session and dropped his sheet music on the floor. Not knowing the words, and not wanting to stop the recording session, he started making up sounds to fill the space where the words should have been. It was such a hit that they kept it. And the rest is history.
What would have happened had Louis stopped recording to pick up his music because of the necessity to “get it right”? We would have been robbed of one of the richest and most beautiful aspects of jazz culture. Ella Fitzgerald would have had nothing to do. A cappella music, perhaps, would not be what it is today.
The Spirit of the Rules
After my discovery that I could improvise, that I could play the “right” notes at the “right” times by simply adhering to the spirit of the rules of piano music, my playing transformed. As did my teaching.
I no longer worried about getting it ‘right.’ Instead, I found how to get it ‘best.’
The Jazz Mindset opened the door to a whole new world of making music and teaching music. I stopped insisting my students get the music ‘right,’ giving them freedom to make mistakes and discover their own ways of making music. I started giving more control over learning choices to my students, trusting them to direct their own music education.
And amazing things happened! I heard music that I would not have been able to orchestrate myself! I witnessed students creating magical moments that were better than anything I could have imagined or planned.
Do you need the Jazz Mindset today? Let go of the rules, let the music, and the learning flow, and see what magic happens in your classroom.