On the shoulders of many

On the shoulders of many

There can be a lot of “cherry-picking” in education. Many stellar teaching reputations are built on carefully selecting only the best students who are already advanced. Not to mention the musicians themselves who might pretend none of that teaching or support even happened.

Sometimes, too much undue credit is given to jazz educators or institutions where students who can already play at a high level are auditioned and only the ‘best’ few are even allowed in. Other people have done all the heavy lifting already: other teachers, schools, parents, conductors, not to mention the highly motivated students themselves.

Here’s an example: Jenny Jivelord* runs an “all star” or “honours” big band as an extension for advanced high school jazz players. That’s fair enough as far as it goes. More advanced students certainly benefit from more challenging opportunities or to benefit from specialised teaching like Jenny can give them. But here’s the problem, and its not just limited to jazz education: people hear that band, made up of cherry-picked students who were already great to start with, and say “wow, that Jenny is such an amazing teacher, just listen to the results she gets!”.

But did she really get those result? Or did she just cherry pick the best players to form a band that could probably run itself just as effectively?

How about Tommy Tickletraps* and his Ultra Prestige Jazz Conservatory**? Each year, he runs auditions. Demand is high so the audition process is rigorous. Only the very best students make it in, the cream of the crop. All the students at the UPJC sound great, and the bands are smokin’. Folks hear that and they know that UPJC is obviously the best school, the best! You can’t argue with those results: amazing from day 1!

But of course those students, those bands, and those graduates play well. Take only the best, and that’s what you get. Given the high levels of motivation and the personal practice work ethic that is takes to reach an elite level in any skill, Tommy and the UPJC could probably do no teaching at all and just put those students together for a few years, and they would still improve.

Anecdotal reports out of some institutions are that this is pretty much what happens in some cases.

How about taking someone from zero, an absolute beginner and building that student up to a high level?

What about taking Franky Fumblefingers*, who’s been struggling for years to learn jazz guitar, and helping him become great?

What about taking the battling-but-enthusiastic jazz band from Rough As Guts High School** and making them sound awesome? It will be hard with three guitarists, no bass player, four flutes, and a trumpet player who holds her instrument upside down. But it is doable.

And where advanced students are to be given the kinds of challenging opportunities and high-level teaching they need, the measure of success should examine just how much ‘higher’ they have been taken. How much value has explicitly been added to those students?

How about not hiding behind myths of ‘talent’, and just do some real teaching? That’s what a great jazz educator would do. Without doubt, Jenny Jivelord and Tommy Tickletraps might do that kind of work, and hats off to them if they do. But don’t give cherry-pickers undue credit when it is a team of other, invisible, teachers and supporters who have done all the hard work.

Remember that most great jazz players stand on the unseen shoulders of many.

*not an actual person
**not an actual school

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