Students dropping out of jazz education: Part 1

Part one: students dropping out of jazz education in the first year, or ‘premature dropout’.

This is the first in a series of three posts about reasons for students dropping out of jazz education. Each looks at a significant jazz education ‘roadblock’. These are three critical stages or factors that can lead less experienced students to quit jazz. The discussion focuses on younger students, but could apply to anyone. These are not the only causes of attrition but, in my experience and in research, have emerged as significant.

1. Introduction

What might lead young students to drop out of jazz education? In this series of posts I discuss three significant student roadblocks to success, reasons why students might drop out of learning jazz: (1) premature dropout, (2) the knowledge crunch and, (3) strict instrumentation. I also suggest some practical solutions for each issue. The first roadblock is most relevant to very young students in the first year or two 

Empty seats

of playing and can lead to premature dropout: ‘the other kids aren’t good enough’ or ‘we never do anything’. The second roadblock is a ‘crunch time’ for knowledge, a point beyond which progress stalls if a student lacks knowledge and skills or jazz-listening experience and understanding of style. The third roadblock, to be addressed in Part 3, is the dominance of big bands in school jazz education and a consequent widespread insistence on standard instrumentation. Part 3 also touches on some other, miscellaneous obstacles to jazz students and gives solutions for overcoming these.

Of course there are students who drop out of jazz education because they have other priorities, have too little time, find other interests, or simply do not enjoy playing in jazz band. This series is not about them. But what of those who would or should otherwise continue, if not to professional level then to higher levels of school jazz?

These observations come after many years teaching and watching students progress.

The main take away is that there are various roadblocks that jazz students need to get over. These are critical periods or issues they must push through in order to stay motivated and progress. This series focuses on three of these critical points. A second takeaway is that we need to dismiss myths about talent and some people being born with ‘a gift’ for playing jazz. That is just jazz mythology. Most, if not all, of the jazz greats were taught, took lessons, studied, and practiced just like everyone else. Students dropping out of jazz education is not related to lack of talent and they do not quit simply because they ‘don’t have it’.

2. Premature drop out – very young students

Premature dropout is an early roadblock in children’s jazz learning careers that  can stem from their own lack of socialization into how to participate in an improvisational group.  Children may experience jazz combo-playing as unstructured but fun, conducted in a relaxed environment with friends and taught by a teacher with an informal manner. Compared to school lessons or highly regimented concert band rehearsals, classroom management can seem laissez faire.  This is for important reasons: I for one strive to create a learning environment that is relaxed, safe, fun, and encouraging. I deliberately set out to make my combo rehearsals feel quite informal. I also try to be friendly to students and treat them with kindness and respect. Helping beginners to practice improvisation is not well-served by an overly rigid or overtly authoritarian teaching approach.

However, problematically, children may often perceive teacher kindness as weakness. They might also see combo rehearsal as a fun playtime, and rightly so. Unfortunately, these student misconceptions can lead to misbehavior that disrupts lessons and hinders progress for individuals and the whole ensemble. My frequent experience is that the first year or years of jazz combo for very young students is mostly devoted to socializing the children into how to play in that kind of group and how to behave. Early on, students’ own behaviour is commonly the main obstacle to be surmounted. The apparently slow progress that results can lead prematurely to very young students dropping out of jazz education.

2. Expectations from classical music may lead to frustrated students & parents

In my rehearsals we certainly cover a lot of important material, much of it procedural. Students learn the routine of head-solos-head, what ‘trading 4’s’ means and how to do it, the roles of rhythm section and horns, how to improvise in a ‘jazzish’ way using a simple key-centre approach, and more. They do learn the basics of how to play in a jazz combo playing off lead sheets or by ear. However, students (or their parents) can be over-focused on notes and notation. After a year of combo they may complain that ‘we don’t do anything’ or ‘this music is too easy’. They may feel that the other students are too naughty, even though their own behaviour is no better. Students or parents may also believe that their child should be in more advanced group playing harder music and blame their peers for their personal shortcomings.

Bye bye blackbird lead sheet

At first glance, the notation on a simplified lead sheet can seem to be very simple. If one focuses on the written part of “Bye bye blackbird” or “C-Jam blues”, the music is simple. Students and their parents need to be taught that the complexity lies in the improvisation, including individual solos and a jazz band’s collective realization of a lead sheet. To make things more complicated, very young students frequently lack the instrumental skill to play more complex heads and the disruptive behaviour endemic to rehearsals can preclude working on more advanced material.

3. Some solutions to prevent students prematurely dropping out of jazz education

This raises the question of what we can do to solve this premature drop out problem. I have already pointed to one solution: work hard to educate students and parents about what is being taught and learnt. Help them see that what is written on a lead sheet is not a representation of the whole performance. Try teaching jazz as a way of playing music rather than a finished-product or a specific repertoire. The main thing being learnt is a process, a way of understanding, interpreting, experiencing, and playing music. What matters most is the collective process of generating a full performance out of the bare-bones sketch of a lead sheet. As students get better at this creative process over time, the product will also improve.

A second solution to the slow-progress problem is to apply effective classroom-management. Here are some tips:

  • Ensure that, at times, rehearsals are explicitly structured and tight teacher-control is maintained sometimes.
  • Use varied pacing to keep lessons moving and build a sense of progress. You do not need to perfect every detail in every rehearsal.
  • Keep all members of the ensemble engaged in worthwhile learning as much as possible.
  • Avoid using drummers as simple timekeepers while other students learn their parts, and keep the rhythm section involved in the rehearsal with useful learning activities.
  • Respect students’ wishes and acknowledge what music they like and what they would rather not play but be confident in your expertise as a teacher and do not pander to their every whim. Children often dislike things they find difficult. Neglecting those things is not helpful. Leaving important musical styles out of your program is also unhelpful for students, denying them experience in aspects of jazz they will later need to be familiar with in order to progress or succeed. A program with no swing or no rock, for example, disadvantages students in the long-term.
  • Differentiate your curriculum to allow for individual differences in experience, level, and learning. Design activities that extend all learners in the group regardless of their level. Beware of teaching only to one group at the expense of others.
  • Give clear and useful feedback that relates behaviours to effects. Avoid reflex praise and make criticism constructive and give feedback in terms that students can act upon.
  • Make your teaching explicit. Work hard to make sure students know what they need to do and how.

There are more practical examples on the JWA blog and soon to come on my Teaching Jazz YouTube channel. A previous blog post described a progression of skills and knowledge that young jazz improvisation students move through.

In my experience, constantly rigid discipline is not a viable solution, for it is not usually conducive to practices and attributes essential to developing skill as a jazz improviser such as risk-taking, personal initiative, creativity, and self-confidence. If jazz combo is an extra-curricular activity, then it should be something students do for enjoyment and we as teachers should respect that aspect of children’s music-making. Students prematurely dropping out of jazz education is a problem because it deprives them and the jazz community of a potentially exciting musical future. It can also be a problem for the viability of teaching programs, so it is worth addressing.

Again, this draws on my personal observations and I am aware that my own teaching style probably contributes to the problem but I think my manner is not unusual in jazz education. A lot of my work has been with relatively very young jazz students, children ages 7 to 12. My experience with this age group is largely teaching improvisational jazz playing in combos (small groups with flexible instrumentation). Teaching big band is a different discipline conducive to stricter classroom management. However, teaching and encouraging learning of improvisational jazz demands a relaxation of teacher control and thus solutions such as those I have highlighted for surmounting the premature dropout roadblock.

Part 2 of this series will look at what I call the knowledge crunch: the point in learning jazz at which you really need to actually know and be able to do some things, but many students cannot.

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