Outreach Idea: Play for Students During Their Lunch Hour

By Kim Aubuchon

From the moment the “big kids” walked into the building, we turned the heads of the students of River Bend Elementary School. Through a partnership with JEN and the help of a JAZZ2U grant, we had arranged for our quintet of local St. Louis musicians – all current or former students of the University of Missouri, St. Louis – to perform during the student lunches.

We had originally hoped to play on International Jazz Day, but due to state standardized testing, the school asked us to come a week later, instead. The delay didn’t seem to matter to the students; as we were setting up our instruments, curious kindergarteners and first graders flooded us with questions and comments:

“What’s that?”
“Are you going to play music for us?”
“My dad has a guitar!”

Some students were so excited by the prospect of our entertaining them, they could hardly sit still.

We weren’t meant to begin until the next lunch period, but since they were so excited, we began to play a simple blues progression, just to play. The effect was magical. The students quieted down and turned toward us, but they certainly didn’t sit still! Some stood to see better over their classmates, while others danced and wiggled in their seats. You might have expected this behavior from our younger audience, but even the fourth and fifth graders were visibly excited by the music.

Because this school district doesn’t begin their band program until sixth grade in the middle schools, many of these students had never been exposed to live wind instruments, much less live jazz. In less than two hours, we performed for almost the entire student body, as well as a number of the school staff.

Not one little face looked bored or disinterested. On the contrary, several students came up asking for autographs at the beginning and ends of their lunch periods, and some called out, “See you next time!” or, “Come back soon!” as they went back to class. We covered standards spanning several styles and eras, from Samba to Blues, medium swing and even a precariously fast rendition of “Cherokee.”

We told the students a little about each instrument, and of course demonstrated some of what each could do. The goal was to expose our captive audience to as much as possible during a time that was usually just seen a break from learning.

This idea of performing for students during their lunch hour had originally come from an NPR article about a music teacher in Colorado who began inviting musicians to come in to play for their school’s lunch periods. We decided if it could work in Colorado, why not here? I’m excited to share our experience with the rest of the JEN membership, to encourage everyone to try out this act of outreach in developing tomorrow’s jazz audiences. Whether it is one player or a group, the experience can be thrilling and memorable for the kids.

Our event was an outstanding success, and the school’s staff was very enthusiastic about future visits. For a minimal amount of work, we introduced a whole new audience to jazz!