April, 2020 –Chad Eby, JAZZ ROOM frequent performer and jazz instructor at UNC Greensboro, says he worries about his students. Several weeks ago, we were walking around carefree, mingling and sharing music. The sheer shock of this predicament can be “terrifying”. This generation grew up with the idea that someone could come into the classroom and shoot them. “Anyone who has spent time with these high school and college students can see in their demeanor the anxiety and fears they carry on their shoulders. This current isolation broods a mix of low simmering dread with a big pile of boredom on top.”
A JazzArts Ensemble student reached out to Lovell Bradford last week after a virtual group meeting. “Mr. Bradford, I’m struggling to find my place in the music right now. How can I get motivated to practice and improve?” Lovell understood. Lovell is also a frequent JAZZ ROOM performer, an adjunct at Davidson College, and Director of Music at Mount Carmel Baptist Church. He admits he and his piano don’t look at each other the same recently.
It’s no wonder this quarantine has stolen the fervor and excitement out of their music, notes Lovell. “When you have young students, sometimes the music lesson is the least important part.”
“During this time, they just want to know they have an instructor who cares about their growth as a person and as a musician. Someone to keep them accountable, who will hash out their limitations and help them along the journey, as during this pandemic, they worry their skills are diminishing, they aren’t inspired, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
These caring mentors don’t hesitate to start by helping their students talk it out for a few minutes. After all, what else is music but an expression.
Even with virtual lessons, you will never fully replace the dynamic information exchange in a studio or bandstand playing with a group, shares Chad. “It’s tricky. I have taken my foot off the gas. Pulled back on expectations of how many things they are doing, refocusing on the details. Created goals they can easily quantify, even without direct help.”
This group of jazz instructors has some excellent specific advice as we try to maintain some normalcy amid this physical and emotional upheaval.
First, “be kind to yourself,” says Lovell. “This pandemic and isolation have stolen our creative juices. Allow the focus of your practice to be on small accomplishments, and they will carry you until you find your inspiration. I believe you will, even now.”
“My biggest words of wisdom to students and instructors: continue to meet, regularly. Don’t stop. You’ll have limitations. And you will discover together creative ways to work around them. I have used a metronome and click, with mics mute, to do drills together, then discussed the struggles each student had. Be willing, present and committed to the process. “
Make small goals for your practice time. Lovell recognizes as a young musician, practice time is driven by anticipating a performance or jamming with friends. “Without that as motivating factor, being regimented is grown up stuff. In the meantime, stay goal driven until creativity kicks back in. “
Sean Higgins, JazzArts Ensemble instructor, suggests you might recharge with your favorites. “Taking some time away to recharge and work on music you want to work on is a good thing. Think about some the saxophonists that have taken a hiatus: Sonny Rollins, Benny Maupin, Gerry Mulligan, Antonio Hart. Pick an artist and dive deep into their music; try to sound like them. And when we all meet and play together again your playing will show what you’ve been up to during these times stuck at home.”
For jazz specifically, learn something by ear off a recording, every single day, says Chad. “Learning by ear is slow and challenging but pays long term dividends. It helps you develop the oral skills to be a good listener on the bandstand more than any teacher can. You may have more time now than you will ever have in your practice. So, take out your iPad or phone, with your horn or piano or bass, and learn even just 4 measures at a time. Learn the heck out of it.”
Dawn Anthony, JAZZ ROOM performer, vocalist instructor, and Webop teacher, suggests delving deep. “Use internet access and streaming services to dig into your favorite music or artists. There are not just audio, but amazing documentaries, that can help you broaden your ears and understanding of the artists that inspire you. Teachers can help you uncover those resources.”
Ocie Davis, JazzArts Ensemble instructor, drummer, and JazzArts Charlotte artistic director, expands that thought by encouraging a sense of discovery. “Use the internet and let your search take you in new, interesting directions to enhance your music. Read about your favorite musician’s influences, and then listen to those. Discover how your instrument was created and its original uses to understand it better. Dig into a new musical style to unlock new techniques used on your instrument. Follow any interesting path or genre – it’s all good, it’s all music. ”
There are great tools out there to discover. Opportunities like Facetime and Zoom for virtual instruction and YouTube for discovering lesson tips and new music. “Sometimes even as a professional musician, I will put into a search engine an issue I’m focused on. It might take some searching, but I will find something round about that will lead to what I was struggling with.”
In this past week’s Keep Jazz A-Live-Streaming Conversations with Curtis, both guest trumpeters and educators Lynn Grissett and Ashlin Parker pointed out the genius of Ellis Marsalis’ approach to teaching. “Teaching jazz is an oxymoron. Ellis didn’t teach jazz, he taught people. Everyone’s music is unique. So you put in the work yourself, rather than being told what to do.”
Know that “this shall pass”, Lovell reassures us. In the meantime, the music continues, perhaps in a different way, a few notes at a time.