OUR CONFERENCE, OUR COMMUNITY

by Todd Stoll

I write this as I travel to the 10th Annual JEN Conference in Reno, Nevada. I am so excited to participate this year as President as we move JEN into its next decade. So many important milestones have been reached, and there are only great “things to come”.

Throughout my 30+ years in music education (wow…when did I get so old?) I estimate to have attended nearly 100 conferences, nearly all related to music or education or the arts. I have mixed feelings about conferences. As a young educator, fresh out of college and newly off the road, my older colleagues showed me the “ropes”-the best restaurants, bars, and “hangs” one’s district could afford…the joys of a private hotel room, and generally, little to no conference related activity. If you were lucky (and your district possessed a significant enough budget), music stores, instrument manufacturers, and publishers would take you out to a serious dinner, indeed, one my $19K per year salary would not afford, and I was always a little more than intimidated at the conversations around me. Hell, I couldn’t participate in those conversations, given my youth and inexperience, I was happy to just tag along and maybe eat a steak! Years later, I recognized the greater opportunity to present, perform, and then organize and work on a conference. There was inspiration to be found, performances that would inspire, and colleagues, friends, and damn nearlegends with whom to shake hands.

Additionally, I was always amazed, and impressed, at the dedication the volunteer staff behind the scenes, those that organize, plan, set-up, register, and then work the actual conferences. These folks, are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people in our field; as a big chunk of the work happens in the 12 months leading up tothe actual event. Additionally, there are numerous committees that agonize over details and panels, and performances and presentations. It is work that is largely anonymous and nearly thankless, but vital to the success of any professional conference.

How are the volunteers and my earlier depiction of a conference related? It struck me this morning when I re-read an article by David Brooks, a conservative political and cultural commentator, (with whom, I occasionally agree) entitled “The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite”. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/opinion/failure-educated-elite.html

One of Mr. Brooks opinions is that we have a “misplaced faith in autonomy”, that a society built upon this metaphor will become high in narcissism and low in social connection.  And it struck me that this exactly why we go to these conferences and specifically why the JEN conference (and many other music education conferences) are so important and impactful. We build community. Period. From the restaurants to the presentations to the workshops to the concerts to the awards ceremony-we are building a community with every overcooked piece of chicken and nervous introduction. In jazz, especially, given its origins, struggle, and continued dialogue, the concept of community is more important than ever. Our music itself is based upon self-sacrifice, self-expression, and self-awareness-it is built into the DNA of our fundamentals, as the jazz community, who better to demonstrate this idea? Who better to be the incarnation of community?

Weneed these moments, flawed as they are, (agendas on display) to renew our commitment to the music we serve; to remind us that we are not alone, that our individual struggles are not new, that our failures and challenges-as players, educators, as humans-are indeed the some of the best parts of the journey, and that only together do we have the type of impact that raises our shared consciousness.

So, if you’re reading this at our 10thJEN conference, enjoy (and thank a volunteer)! If you are at home, work, or travelling, remember these words at your next professional gathering; continue building your own community, support others doing the same, and maybe at your next conference, buy a young teacher dinner!


Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.

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