Are We Doing This All Wrong?
by Todd Stoll
For those of us who work in jazz, whether it’s performing, teaching, advocating, or retail sales, we hear or say “how’d did they sound” at least ten times a day. We can be referring to bands, individuals, auditions, gigs, solos, recordings, videos; the list goes on and on. We use “how’d they sound” as a kind of standard, like a test, to judge the worthiness of whatever it is we’re referencing. And, we spend enormous amounts of energy focusing on this worthiness found in jazz competitions, premier all-star bands, awards, scholarships, placements in ensembles, all in the name of quality. Recently I’ve been thinking — has any of this worked?
Does this focus on excellence (defined by whom?) help our music? We focus all of this energy on who’s the best, who is really playing, what kids get into the best bands. Is this the way our music should be honored, and is it helping us develop larger audience?
I understand excellence. It’s what we accept as the highest levels of achievement for any specific discipline. It inspires, entices, and can create enthusiastic audiences, which can stay loyal for years. The pursuit of excellence is what motivates us to practice, pay tuition, purchase instruments, search through a box of reeds for just one, and drive overnight to hear a master musician. It is the primary reason a MUSICIAN gets out of bed each morning (or afternoon…) It provides context and motivation for students and gives a sharp focus when heading into a performance.
But, the audience. They have different motivations and many times, their previous experience with our music has not necessarily resulted in love. This is a sophisticated, difficult art form. And we must recognize that our pursuit of excellence as artists is completely different from what causes audience members to love and support the same music. This brings me to an idea, a radical construct — what if our pursuit of excellence actually is killing our jazz audience?
Does our pursuit of excellence cause us to teach music that is beneath our students? Does it cause us to berate the love and energy out of the music? Does it cause us to lose sight of the goal? My colleague, and fellow JEN board member Pharez Whitted and I have had an on-going conversation about this for several years. His assertion is that if kids don’t love playing jazz, we may be doing something wrong. Pharez maintains that kids need to feel the music deeply, move to it, be inspired by it, and ascend to the music, which is key. We can’t pander to the lowest common denominator. We must raise them up by giving them a taste of something transcendent.
Here’s another radical idea. If something is worth doing; it’s worth doing badly.
Let me give you an example. I once played in a community/collegiate orchestra. It was a fairly average ensemble with talented college kids, a few pros, and a number of local adults, many of whom played just for fun. The conductor, a well know professor, insisted on playing masterworks. Mahler 1, Tchaikovsky’s 4th, Beethoven, and the impossibly difficult Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. It was absolutely above the level of this ensemble. But, the inspiration and aspiration of the art created an amazing feeling in the group and garnered us an enthusiastic and loyal audience. It was unbelievable. The concerts were packed, standing ovations were common, and this small community had great pride in and love for this orchestra. The names of the composers alone were enough to cause a stir. We knew we weren’t the major leagues, but we were breathing the same air.
…if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
Here’s another one. Ever watch nine year-olds play soccer. Are they good? Noooo! They’re terrible. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. The kids are playing the game with the same rules, ball, and basic skills as the pros, but at their own level. At the end of the day, they’re having immense fun. Youth soccer has a nearly 30% market share with kids in the US, so think about that for jazz.
(*authors note-while researching this article I came across an interesting statistic-youth soccer participation has dropped 14% over the past three years-reasons given by parents? Too much competition, too much pressure, too much expense…sounds like they aren’t having much… fun!)
So… what’s the answer? It might actually be simpler than we think. (And to be clear, I’m definitely not advocating for a fun-only approach to jazz education — it’s exactly the opposite.) We need to teach from a position of knowledge, enthusiasm, joy, and love. While that may sound sappy, it’s the thing I heard Dizzy speak of. If we love the kids, the music, the history, and the process, we will approach our programming and methodology from a different place. If our very worst fifth trumpet player is treated with the same care, enthusiasm, and love as our best alto soloist, that kid will LOVE the music forever. If we program the very best literature and push our kids to be excellent, then celebrate their performance, (no matter how they play!) they will love the music. If we dance in rehearsal, allow kids to express themselves, and push them to play with all the feeling they can muster, they will learn to love the music.
That my friends, is the ultimate goal.