Teaching a class: some thoughts

So my big news this month is that I'll be teaching a new course that I developed with a colleague at the Moores School of Music. You can read all about it at the new UHjazz.com site. In the process of gathering and organizing information to teach people how to listen to (and appreciate) jazz music, I've discovered a couple things and formed opinions that I did not previously hold. In other words, I really need to unload my brain.

Assembling a YouTube playlist

As part of the course, I've decided to implement a journal for students to record their listening habits and tastes as a means of developing their "active listening" skills. To help with this, I've started to build a YouTube playlist for each student to remotely access and write about. (Remember less than 10 years ago when copying CDs for playlists could be such a hassle?) In a recent post by another Houston jazz artist/advocate, I noticed the phrase, "Isn’t it funny...how YouTube has become the world’s largest free music jukebox?" This is so true, and yet, I'm a little apprehensive about the notion of assembling a large playlist of videos to obligate students to write about.

First:

Should I program their listening selections? They will already be responsible for knowing a handful of truly great landmark recordings for exams. Is it smart that I should try to continue to cram this stuff down their throats? Would that give me or the student a more honest depiction of their habits and observations? At first, I thought that maybe I should instead open up the listening journal to all musical styles, but this seems counter-productive. After all, I'll need to be reading these entries and I don't really need to read 20+ entries on hip-hop or country music or whatever else. Instead, I'll just try to include as much significant jazz music (and jazz-based music) that can be had on YouTube, whatever I feel will be relevant to the course. I just hope it doesn't discourage anyone from exploring a new realm of music, something I consider to be the most exciting aspect of listening.

Second:

YouTube has those darn user comments. Do we really need to be subjected to some anonymous person's pretentious and/or racist remarks on ANYTHING? I just read a great CNN article on this. My vote? Eliminate these completely from YouTube.

Future of Jazz?

Here's another good read on the future of jazz, or better yet: jazz today. I'm really looking closely at the history of jazz music in the United States, its cultural impact and its significance. I'll have to be teaching this to people who I assume will have had little to no encounters with the music in their past, and if they did, it was probably unpleasant. Because of this, I've been reassessing all those big artistic questions that need to be answered in order to explain and defend anything deemed "relevant" or "important". I have no problem doing this and I think it's something that a lot of artists should do more often, especially in the 21st century. (For instance: "cool" ≠ "art")

I have yet to watch Icons Among Us, but I speculate that it's a worthwhile documentary that appeals to both the jazz enthusiast as well as the newbie without being shackled by the pre-conceived notions of historical conventions of the art form. And really, that's my goal for this course. I want new people to appreciate a music that has played a crucial role in the development of our country, in addition to understanding why it's still significant and NOT dead. While you must acknowledge the history and the classics, you cannot also lose sight of the present and future.

I just hope this works. (crossing fingers)

Tell Me a Story

It's commencement day at the University of Houston.  That means we're unleashing a whole new batch of young and energetic college graduates into "the real world".  Regardless of their major, age, interests or skills acquired while in college, I encourage these new graduates to continue to focus on a bigger goal: communication.

Whatever it is that you want to do in life, it's important to know that you can't get there alone.  People need people, and building a supportive constituency is critical. So please, work on your communication skills in order to spread your ideas and goals to people outside of your immediate circle.  In 2008, Robert Krulwich over at WYNC's Radiolab gave what I consider to be the best advice to a graduating class at California Institute of Technology. Do yourself a favor and give his speech a listen.  It's worth every minute you have.

[audio http://audio.wnyc.org/radiolab_podcast/radiolab_podcast072908.mp3]

Moores School of Music: Collage 2009

Last Thursday evening (9/10), the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston held its annual Collage program for the beginning of the school year.  This is an event where every department within the music school is showcased and serves as a preview of things to come for the semester.  The Jazz Orchestra was scheduled to begin promptly at 7:30, and at 7:28 a fire alarm tripped!  This delayed the show AND forced the crowd of hundreds outside until the premises was declared safe by authorities.  Gheesh!  Talk about your feats of aleatoricism!  John Cage would have been proud.  The review below is from the university's daily paper, The Daily Cougar.

Photo by Pin Lim

Rousing melodies engage crowd

By Christina Hildebrand, Monday, September 14, 2009

Even a highly sensitive fire alarm could not prevent Collage 2009 from introducing students to the Moores School of Music’s delightful fall schedule.

The alarm went off shortly before the concert was scheduled to begin, leading to a mass evacuation of the Moores Opera House. The show resumed, however, at around 7:42 p.m. Thursday.

The delay did not dampen the spirits of the audience or performers, as the concert was a success.

Moores School of Music Director David Ashley White joked about the ordeal, saying that the event was “censorship.”

White also said last year’s show was cancelled due to Hurricane Ike.

The concert was a preview of the many ensembles at the Moores School of Music and the concerts they will participate in during Fall 2009.

The MSM Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of faculty member Noe Marmolejo, opened the show with an excellent rendition of Phil Kelly’s “The Refrigerator.” This piece included a dashing trumpet solo that gave the selection edge.

Other great moments from Collage 2009 included Howard Hanson’s “Serenade,” performed by faculty members Jennifer Keeney (flute) and Timothy Hester (piano). Keeney made beautiful usage of vibrato on this slow, soothing piece.

One of the highlights of the evening was the world premiere of the mini-opera comedy, “Review: A Satire, An Opera, A Party.”

The mini-opera comedy starred vocal performance alumni Steve Uliana and Andrew Papas, vocal performance graduate students Jennifer Noel and Jack Beetle and vocal performance senior Kristopher Herron.

This segment was filled with Seinfeld-esque gags and included a joke that is common to the hit television show The Office when Beetle’s character said, “That’s what she said.”

After the mini-opera concluded, UH’s Concert Chorale took the stage with their hilarious rendition of the overture to “The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini. Each vocal section of the chorale imitated the instruments used in the piece, creating interesting and amusing sounds.

The audience clapped at the command of MSM Wind Ensemble Director David Bertman during Karl E. Kings “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorites.” To conclude the evening, Bertman directed the Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band with the upbeat, rhythmically driven “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

During the piece, many audience members showed school spirit by flashing the Cougar Paw.

If Thursday’s exciting performances were indicative of what people should expect, the Moores School of Music is set to have a great semester.

Taking the initiative: The best thing you could POSSIBLY do

The new school year began on August 24 and now everything’s getting back into shape for what I would consider my “normal schedule”.  At the University of Houston there are two jazz bands: the Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Ensemble.  I rehearse the latter (also known as the “second”) band twice a week.  A couple years ago, I started a Google Group for each band in hopes of making communications easier and to share music (NOT for illegal downloading!) as listening examples.  The following email showed up on the message board from a student:

Looking to get together with fellow students to work on tunes and general playing/reading/improvising. I'm booked solid Tuesdays and Thursdays unti 2:30. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I'm free after 11:00 a.m. Please don't wait until rehearsals to practice your parts.  I've been in too many bands and ensembles that waste time learning parts during valuable rehearsal time. We can make it fun and a valuable learning experience.

To which I replied:

Everyone,

This is great to hear!  Whether it's working on the ensemble's music or combo tunes and improvising, the outside practice and self-rehearsing will help your overall musicality in bounds.  My advice?  Take advantage of your time and situation while you're in school to put yourself in as many different musical situations as possible NOW.  Don't put it off, because you'll never get this time back (and you'll probably continue to put it off), it's important to practice as much as possible now when you have the luxury to do so.  It's important because you need to test your limits as a musician and then try to break through those limitations.

If anyone is interested in rehearsing combo tunes and improv, I'd suggest talking to some of the students in the Jazz Orchestra about this, since they're always looking to learn new material.  That group meets from 12-2pm MWF in room 175.  Also, if you haven't already done so, please go check out some local jam sessions around Houston.

Here's a short list:

Monday: Straight-No-Chaser Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Jam @ Smitty's Cafe and Bar Tuesday: King Biscuit Jazz Jam @ King Biscuit Patio Cafe Wednesday: Latin Jazz Jam @ Smitty's Cafe and Bar Thursday: Mike Owen Jazz Jam! @ Legends Jazz Cafe More info can be found at http://www.jazzhouston.com

Don't worry about showing up to play if you're new to this, but as a musician, you should definitely see what these are all about.  Then, maybe you can work up a small repertoire of tunes to play within a month or two.  It's just as important as going to see the symphony or opera!

Since then, a great deal of communication has been taking place on the group, planning for after-school jamming and rehearsing.

So what’s the point of all this?  I constantly stress to students (both new and senior) that they can’t sit around waiting for "it" to happen.  The "it" can be the gig you've been hoping for, or just simply progressing in your playing level.  We're not guaranteed anything in life, and the phone just isn't going to magically ring for work.  One popular saying is that "a good jazz musician is never at home alone every night of the week".  What this means is that hungry, motivated people are always out there seeing and hearing new things as well as meeting new people.  In the music world, this is especially true.  A quality musician is aware of what is going on in their world and yearns to interact with people on the bandstand.  Because a good percentage of this business requires a great deal of social networking, it is critical that you get out there and be seen, heard and liked!

We all cannot afford to waste any more time just simply hoping that "it" will happen for us.  Motivated students in turn motivate me to be a better teacher, player and person.