Eric Dunan Interview

Eric DunanEric Dunan is an expat American trumpet player and leading jazz educator now resident in Australia. He is director of the very successful jazz program at the Wollongong Conservatorium. He is also a regular on the teaching faculty at the annual JWA Jazz Camp. He kindly answered a few interview questions late in 2012, about his life as a musician, the program at the Wollongong Con, jazz in Australia plus he shared some insightful thoughts on teaching and learning jazz.

Eric lives in Wollongong with his wife Helena. His son Toby is a very talented young jazz drummer.


JWA: How long have you lived in Australia?

Eric: 11 years. I moved to Wollongong from California with my wife and one-year old son a few days before the World Trade Center Bombing in New York in September 2001. I was still feeling jet-lagged when I turned on the news and saw the TV footage from my home country.


JWA: How did you come to be running the jazz program at the Wollongong Conservatorium?

Eric: When I moved here I had no job. I was living at my mother-in-law’s house with my wife and 1-year old son. I had a teaching degree from America, but there was a problem with the transfer of my credentials so I was not allowed to teach here at first. The problem was simply due to the fact that the person who was able to approve my credentials in the NSW Department of Teaching and Training was on long service leave and nobody else could put my paper-work through.

I had nothing but time on my hands, so I opened up the phone book. Under “music” there was a listing for Wollongong Conservatorium of Music. I called the principal and asked to speak to him. He told me that they wanted to build the brass section in the orchestra and increase ensembles. I went back home and re-wrote my CV to make myself look like an expert in orchestral trumpet and managed to get myself hired to teach trumpet lessons to kids who wanted to take AMEB exams.

There was no jazz program at the time, but a great jazz piano player named Nick Southcott was there. He ran a small jazz combo. I decided to put together a big band with Nick Southcott, his students, plus other musicians I met in the first few weeks of being in Wollongong. The Big Band was a success, and by the time the New Year started, I had turned it in to a class.

Once the big band was sorted I set my sights on getting the younger kids involved with playing Jazz. I started a Jazz Improvisation Class that was open to all ages and abilities. Other than the string orchestra and the brass bands in the area, there was nothing really for young musicians to play in, so enrolments were good. Eventually the improvisation group became big enough that I turned it into another Jazz Big Band that could serve as a feeder band for the Jazz Orchestra. Within a year’s time, there were other students wanting to play, so it was easy enough to start another smaller jazz combo.

Someone asked me to run a band at a local high school and pretty soon I was teaching bands at three high schools in Wollongong. This was a great way to recruit more players to the developing Jazz Program. Ultimately it put in place a system were the keenest high school kids would join the developing Conservatorium Jazz Program where they could play in a big band and a jazz combo. As more students enrolled (especially bass players), the more jazz groups I started.


JWA: What background did you have as a teacher and performer before coming to Australia?

Eric: Before I was a teacher, and while I was working on becoming a performer, I sold Water-heaters and air conditioners at Sears Department Store to put myself through University. I mention this, because it was an incredibly helpful part of what helped me deal with the business part of being a musician and teacher.

Sears was a commission gig. The more I sold, the more money I made. It turned out I was really good at selling things, even things I knew nothing about. I was so good, that I eventually I got promoted to selling lawn mowers and garden tractors at a higher commission. I was even offered a promotion for full-time employment selling washers and dryers.

I made good money, and I liked having cash in my pocket (something many of my musician friends did not have). I learned an awful lot about all sorts of different kinds of people. I think its one of the things that really helps me to understand most of the people I deal with outside of the music field. In 5 years of selling stuff at Sears, meeting lots and lots of people, I don’t ever remember selling anything to a Jazz Musician. The people I mostly deal with as a teacher are parents, and most parents are not jazz musicians. The people I most deal with who are hiring me as a professional musician are not musicians. In many ways, its similar to Sears, but now, its music I’m trying to sell.

As a professional musician I did a lot of free-lance work, mostly R&B, Jazz, swing, salsa, and blues gigs. I played regularly with a band that had a huge following on the West Coast of America called Lydia Pense and Cold Blood. I loved that band because they played a lot of 70’s funk. During this period I got to meet and play in San Francisco with guys from great bands like Tower of Power, The Stan Kenton Orchestra, and Santana. (I wish I could say that I played with those bands, but it was still cool getting to play with the guys who did). I also got to travel a lot.

My reputation as a solid trumpet player was developed in the jazz-related idioms. I’d occasionally play a musical or brass quintet gig. I was always scared to death of getting “classical gigs.” One time I was playing in an orchestra that required a lot of transposition. All the other guys had their C trumpets, but all I had was my Bb trumpet. All I owned was a Bb Trumpet and not a single one of the charts was written for Bb trumpet. I tried faking it, but the conductor kept signaling me to play louder. We took a short break, and I packed up my horn and snuck out the fire exit. I had to scale a chain-link fence to sneak away with out being seen. I never looked back, and never took an Orchestra gig again.

While I was working as a professional free-lance trumpeter, I decided that I really liked teaching, so I re-enrolled in University for a Diploma of Education so that I could teach Music in the School System. After I got my teaching certification, I spent two years teaching high school and one year teaching middle school band programs. In America we don’t teach classroom music, so all my classes were performance-based classes including jazz band, orchestra, and concert bands. They were great teaching gigs. I had no papers to mark, no desks to organize, and no reason to give a kid a bad mark (unless I wanted them to quit). I really enjoyed and like my students. I loved seeing how good they would get after playing in band 5 days per week for an entire school year. We had some killer final year concerts.


JWA: How is your program at the Con structured? What groups, lessons? Who are the students?

Eric: The basic structure of the Con Jazz Program is fairly simple. There is a “flagship” band called the Jazz Orchestra. You must be really good to be in this band. The band does great international trips and plays with famous people. By design, it is meant to create desire and interest in young people to want to be good enough to be in that band. This band includes high school and post-high school age students.

The Jazz Ensemble is a feeder band for the Jazz Orchestra. Though the Jazz Ensemble is a good band, it is still meant to be seen as stepping-stone to the Jazz Orchestra. This is a high school age band that is seen by the younger kids as a band to strive to part of.

The Concert Band and Schools Bands programs are the most important part of the whole structure. The Wollongong Conservatorium is very active in starting band programs in the local schools. We recruit students at the primary age to join our concert band programs where they learn to play as an ensemble and develop rehearsal and performance skills. Once they are in these programs, we hope they see how cool the jazz program is and want to join.

There are also Jazz Combos that are small jazz groups. There are different levels within the jazz combos, so that beginners can learn along with other beginners and advanced students can play more challenging music with their peers. Ultimately, the kids who are playing in the beginner combos see how cool the advanced combo musicians are, and they practice hard so that they can be cool too.

All students are encouraged to also in our Wind Ensemble and Concert Band programs in order to expose them to a wide range of literature and experiences. We do not encourage kids to think of one kind of music as being better than another kind of music. We just want them to be good musicians.

We also have jazz specific teachers at the Conservatorium. We encourage our students who are interested in jazz to study with these teachers.

This year we also started a Latin Jazz Ensemble that is taught by Fabian Hevia, who is a specialist in this field.


JWA: What is your long-term aim with the Jazz program in Wollongong?

Eric: My goal is to see as many people as possible learn to play, love and appreciate jazz and improvised music. I want young people to come here and be challenged to their potential and beyond. I’d like to be a place where many great jazz artists from all over the world come and perform and have a great shared experience with our students and the Wollongong Community. I want our program to be able to affect change in the local schools so that music students are not simply relegated to sitting at desks talking about music and analyzing Lady Ga Ga songs, but instead, picking up an instrument and playing something that requires a high level of skill that comes from deep within their soul. (By the way, I’ve got nothing against Lady Ga Ga. She seems like an incredibly talented entertainer and singer. I just think that exposing students to something other than popular music has value.)


JWA: What challenges have you met in establishing the program? Was or is there any resistance to jazz?

Eric: I can’t really think of any challenges in establishing the program. Everyone I work with has always seemed to think it would be a good idea and I’ve always had good support from administration. Now that it is well established and proven, the support is superb.

The only resistance is from a few parents who see jazz as a lower level of music, so they won’t encourage their kids play it. Or worse, they’ll let them play jazz, but refuse to let them take lessons with a teacher is a jazz musician.

My colleagues are really supportive. All of the top professional musicians that I meet tend to hold jazz in high regard. Likewise, the high-level jazz musicians recognize that it takes the same dedication, practice, and hard work to be a great classical musician.


JWA: What are some of the main daily challenges you face?

Eric: The biggest challenge that I face is getting students to love the music. I mean love it so much, that they spend a lot of time listening to the music, going to jazz concerts and learning about the music and the musicians.

We Jazz educators are constantly faced with students who go to school where they learn in very controlled way: The teacher presents material. The student takes notes, studies the textbook, crams for an exam, they get a mark and it is assumed that the student then knows the material. Even in music we have the AMEB exam: Student is presented with a set list of music and scales and if they pass, they get a grade.

Most parents are not jazz musicians and they will understand the concept of a child getting a good grade for and exam. They will look for the same thing with their child learning jazz. I think there is a sense that we can provide them with a set amount of material, and they will come out being able to play jazz. Even some of the parents who play classical music will share that belief: “Why can’t we just teach my child the right notes to play?”


JWA: What makes a good teacher?

Eric: Three things come to mind: 1. The intention to be a good teacher. 2. Being a great musician. 3. A willingness to look at the specific needs of your students and adapt.


JWA: What makes a bad teacher?

Eric: Someone who puts their own needs before their student’s needs. Someone one who doesn’t have chops, and doesn’t realize it. I’ve known some great teachers that didn’t have chops, but realized it, and were able to lead their students towards the right solutions to developing into great musicians.


JWA: Can jazz be taught?

Eric: This is absolutely the hardest question for me to answer. My answer changes every time I look at this question.

So, right now, my answer is yes…everyone can learn it to some level. I’ve known guys who other people said were jazz players. When I heard them, I thought they sounded terrible. But, they were improvising and getting joy from what they were playing. Who am I to say they weren’t playing jazz?

Ultimately, if someone is not really interested in Jazz, I think it’s pretty limited how much he or she can be taught. I’ve known heaps of people who have taught themselves how to play jazz, because they just love it so much and copy the sounds they hear. I’ve also known people who have studied for years who just don’t seem to grasp it.


JWA: What are a couple of the main things that could be done, in your experience, to improve the effectiveness of jazz education in Australia (if any)?

Eric: It seems like there’s some really good stuff happening in Jazz Education in Australia. There are heaps of great jazz players that have private students. We currently have a staff of 13 professional jazz musicians who teach at the Wollongong Conservatorium. Eleven years ago there was only one. How great is it that all the students in my jazz bands can go to a lesson with a professional jazz musician each week?

There is of course Jazz Workshop Australia, which again is chock-full of great jazz staff. Lost of great young musicians are coming out of that program. The performing Arts Unit has a good program with great staff as well.

There are some shockingly bad teachers out there who are claiming to be teaching jazz. I’ve seen lots of advertisements by private music teachers who “teach all styles.” That to would be like me advertising that I teach orchestral trumpet! (Which is ironically how I initially got my job 11 years ago at the Conservatorium, but shhh…don’t tell anyone. And in my defense, I never actually have tried to teach anyone how to play orchestral trumpet.) Parents who are non-musicians quite often don’t know what their kids are capable of and will be perfectly happy for their child to get lessons with these teachers. And of course, the kids don’t know. I wish I knew how to fix this. I’ve really upset some people by honestly telling them that they were with an inferior teacher.

The effectiveness of jazz education, as with all the arts, would be greatly improved if music, jazz, and art were seen to be more important in the day-to-day lives of everyone. I reckon we could put all that responsibility on to the schools, but honestly, I feel like it comes back to the parents. I think the key to music education (including jazz) is for kids to see their parents, grand parents, and family friends supporting music by playing it themselves, attending concerts, and taking kids to concerts. If kids see it as an important thing, they will learn it and the education part will be easy.


JWA: Who are some of the outstanding students you’ve had over the years? What are they doing now?

Eric: There’s a long list of students who have come out of the Wollongong program. I feel bad not listing them all. I’m sure I would leave someone out, so I’ll list a few that come to mind in this moment and leave it at that. Some of the great students that have come out of Wollongong Conservatorium Jazz program are Justin Fermino, Nick Garbett, Jodie Michael, David Reglar, Ben Panucci, Lucy Clifford, Abel Cross, Matt Smith, and Freyja Garbett. All of these young musicians are playing professionally right now and sound amazing. There are heaps of others who are playing semi-professionally and are great musicians as well.


JWA: Why should students learn to play jazz? Any reasons or benefits?

Eric: I think there is a benefit for all young musicians to learn how to improvise. I don’t think that needs to be Jazz Specific. The ability to improvise leads to freedom of expression within music. To be able to get together with other musicians and create something spontaneous is such a beautiful gift that is there for the taking.


JWA: What has been your proudest achievement as an educator?

Eric: The achievements I feel most proud of are really those of my students. I guess I live vicariously through them sometimes. When I’ve done something that has been helpful on their journeys to success, I’m happy and proud. When they tell me they’ve won an audition, or are playing with a big name artist, or simply that they are loving music, I take one a tremendous sense of satisfaction.


JWA: Thanks so much for your time and your input!!

Interview by Saul Richardson, December 2012.

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