Teach Like A Jazz Musician

6 Min Read  •  Inspiration

Jazz music is the ultimate art form that fuses mastery, mentoring, improvisation, communication and many other creative concepts into a unique approach that offers many insights to teachers. Here are five ways to teach like a jazz musician:

1. Master the craft

The great jazz musician – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and many more – were astonishing technicians who had mastered scales, harmony and rhythm. One of the most common things I hear when people mention jazz is “you just make it up as you go along.” That is a false notion. Great jazz musician have mastered their craft and this is where their genius and  freedom comes from. As a teacher, how can we expect ours students to learn when we haven’t always delved deeply into the inner workings of what makes good teaching? Like a jazz musician, a specialty will emerge and that becomes your signature sound or approach. John Coltrane has his “sheets of sound” arpeggios, Bill Evans had his lush impressionistic chords and Miles Davis had his plaintive, spacious tone. What is your signature? The use of visual art in science? Drama in social studies? Music in math class?

  • Choose a single aspect of your craft to master, hone in on it and make it your signature. No teacher can teach everything well, so choose something that you can master or are already good at and build upon that. Seek professional development, classes and books to guide you.
  • Do you know your core content area inside and out? Make a list of what needs a review, update or even a complete overhaul and tackle it one step at a time.

2. Be a mentor

The great drummer Art Blakey and trumpeter Miles Davis mentored many of the greatest jazz musician – Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Tony Williams to name but a few. They provided “on the bandstand” laboratories to try new innovations and concepts under the watchful eyes of more experienced mentors. Too often, classrooms are overly rigid and students don’t have the opportunity to discover their own strengths and talents. The great mentors in jazz understood that their mentees, young lions, made them sound and perform better – they kept things fresh. Teachers should learn and be inspired by their students, carefully observing their behavior and accomplishment in the classroom. Mentors don’t have a monolithic, static approach to teaching. The incomparable Duke Ellington composed music specifically for his sidemen that played to their strengths and personality, thus drawing out performances that may have never existed without that sensitivity to individual needs, experiences and desires.

  • At the beginning of the year and at the start of each quarter, ask your students, “what would you like to accomplish?” Have them write down their goals, what they would like to improve, what they would enjoy and ask them “how and when do you do your best in school?”
  • Who mentors you? Going it alone as an educator can be lonely and unhealthy. Surround yourself with positive teachers who are still excited by what they do.

3. Be a fearless improvisor

How often does your day, lesson or even year go as planned? Right, not very often if ever! That’s why jazz is special, because of the mastery of craft, musicians are flexible and adaptable to circumstances that occur in real time, on the bandstand. As an arts integration specialist, I have built a huge range of activities, lessons and approaches over time that I know longer panic or worry about a lesson that isn’t turning out well, a lack of materials or even a lack of knowledge. I know that whatever the lesson, I can find my way in, collaborate with teachers and students and assist them in creating something useful. You cannot be afraid to fail as an educator, plain and simple. If you afraid to fail, you will never take the risk at trying lessons, concepts and approaches outside of your comfort zone. Miles Davis brought his musicians into the studio and handed them sketches of tunes they had never practiced or rehearsed. The result was Kind of Blue, arguably the greatest jazz album ever produced.

  • What scares you about teaching? The lesson prep? The administrative overload? Student discipline? Have an honest conversation, find the places that scare you (isn’t the fear always worse than actually taking action?) and list as many workarounds, hacks and alternative approaches to what you are doing now.
  • Fear comes from not having options or the ability to act in a way that is effective. Be a jazz musician! Master your craft, become a technician so that when things start to go astray, you have a massive arsenal of options that keep you on your feet.

4. Keep the mystique

Miles Davis had a mystique and an aloofness that kept his musicians guessing about his direction and style. He was always evolving his musical approach, fashion, philosophy and lifestyle. He stayed ahead of the curve, always innovating. Have you ever noticed how smart students are? Many are even street smart, ahead of their years. If students figure out “your game” it’s “game over” in your classroom. I recently worked with a teacher whose primary disciplinary approach was yelling. Can you guess the result? Students tuned her out. They figured out that they could simply ignore her until she finally “lost it.” You have to strive to stay ahead of your students, don’t let them completely figure you out. The stability and regularity has to be there for them but so does the surprise and a little bit of distance. We aren’t friends with our students, we are their teachers and mentors and there is a big difference there.

  • How do you stay ahead of students? Have they figured out “your game?”
  • If you were going to give yourself an innovation makeover, what would you change? What would you add?
  • What lessons do you need to spice up with some arts integration?
  • Was your disciplinary approach effective this year? What worked and what didn’t?
  • What teachers are exciting and engaging? Hang around them and get influenced by them.

5. Balance structure and freedom

In the 1960’s and 1970’s a genre called Free Jazz really hit the scene with full force. The musicians of this period were excited about generating energy, randomness and raw emotion. Bravo for them! Except for one minor detail – their approach further alienated the audience from a music that was already not very popular. I have been in dozens of classrooms and some have so much structure that the the students are straight-jacketed by the teacher’s inability to relinquish any control. On the other hand, I have been in classrooms where the teacher has been “gamed” by the students (see #4 above) and that there is no structure or order. As teachers, we have to think like a great jazz musician – the classroom is our audience, our listeners and we have to make sure to provide students a structured approach so they can gain mastery of the material but also provide freedom so they can make the material their own.

  • Be honest – are you too rigid? To free? Or just right in the classroom?
  • How could your students benefit from more structure? Think back on the past year.
  • How could they benefit from more freedom and creativity? Think back on the past year.
  • Duke Ellington famously said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” That means a balance between a tight rhythmic groove (structure) and freedom (an earthy, loose feeling). So, what can you do to make your classroom swing like Duke’s band?