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Why I teach what I teach and how I’m trying to teach it (part 2)

April 9, 2013

Strange as it may seem, after a new School Board, a few different subjects taught and a brief stint in admin, I needed a change. I had a good life: I was (and still am!) married to an extraordinary woman, was the father of 2 amazing boys and had a quiet yet satisfying social life. But I had been working towards a career; I needed to work towards something else. I was going back to teaching but, this time, I was doing it on my own terms. No longer was I the inexperienced apprentice playing the role of a teacher. I had been around. I could debate pedagogy with the best of them. Well, maybe not the best, but at least the better ones. I was good at establishing relationships with my students, which I still think is at the heart of every educational act. I now knew myself enough to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, and working with my strengths is what I decided to do.

My first love had been teaching Music, so that’s what I decided to do. But instead of going into it like an underserving impersonator, I would accept who I was and, not only work with it, set it at the core of what and how I would teach.

Did I mention I’m a part-time Jazz musician? Jazz music is, of all art forms, the one that moves me the most. I love it almost unconditionally. All I need to hear are a few notes or snippets of a rhythm pattern to get goosebumps (When my students play a song really well, and the know it, they always check if I have goosebumps on my arms to confirm that they sounded great!). So the guiding question changed; instead of : “How can I become a real Band teacher?”, it now became: “How can I use my love of Jazz for the betterment of my students?” I no longer felt the need to teach it like everyone else did. Their had to be a better way. A more honest way. I’ll admit that my happiness was still part of the equation, but I still believe that, although our students’ needs should to be at the heart of every pedagogical decision we make, loving what I do and being passionate about what I teach makes me not only a better educator, but a better role model as well.

Once again, I had to start from scratch. The overwhelmingly vast majority of band programs focus on Concert Band material (essentially what most would call ‘Classical’ music); would it be so wrong to have my bands focus on Jazz instead? What could Jazz offer that would justify the change? How could my students actually benefit from Jazz? To most non-musicians, this will probably sound like a detail. Who cares what music you use… Music is music, right? But this change of musical culture has huge implications. While Concert Band repertoire tends to focus on the students’ ability to express the composer’s ideas, emotions and esthetics, Jazz music is about personal identity and expression. It encourages individuality and, through the art of improvisation, creativity of a very high level. Having been around teenagers for a while, this was certainly a selling point! Most teens need to feel special, different (from their parents, usually!), yet they still require a sense of belonging to a group. We were the same way, and perhaps still are… Remember when we used to identify with a certain musical genre or style? At my school, we had the Rockers who were into, well, rock! The had longer hair, wore leather jackets and tried to look angry all the time… We had the Preps who only listened to top 20 Pop tunes and adopted any fashion coming through town. We had the ‘Alternative Freaks’ who were into bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode or almost anything musical either electronic or requiring black mascara around the eyes… But one thing was certain, you didn’t listen to your parents’ music! You were different! Modern! Evolved! Aware of the world around you!

Today, listening to and playing Jazz is certainly not be considered ‘mainstream’ for adults, and even less for teenagers. And its main characters may not all be adequate role models, but they certainly are colorful! As well, most working professional musicians have a Jazz background. It enables them to play almost anything, anytime. I would be better preparing my students for a possible career, if they so chose, as well as opening them up to an entirely new musical universe! (I’ve never actually felt comfortable pushing my students towards a career in Music. Not that it can’t be immensely gratifying, and I do try to prepare those who are considering it to the best of my ability but, being a family man, I find it difficult to encourage youth onto a path that will make juggling family life and professional life very complicated.)

So the decision was made: I would rebuild my newly acquired Music program from the bottom up, with Jazz as the ‘matériau de base’!

Six years later, I still stand by that decision. It was a bit risky, and seen as a few as a bit ‘cocky’, but the kids loved it, parents were thrilled that their kids loved it and my school admin loved that the parents were thrilled that their kids loved it. To be fair, it wasn’t just me: the music program was a bit of a mess before I took over. I probably could have just stood in a corner and smiled all day without doing anything else and people would have been happy! But it was the perfect time to act. And I did. And I was proud of myself. Not ‘I’m such a genius’ proud, but content that I had turned a weakness into somewhat of a strength.

 

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