Why students quit jazz: part 2

Part two. The jazz education ‘knowledge crunch’

There could obviously be many reasons why students quit jazz. This is part 2 of a series of posts exploring obstacles to students staying involved in jazz education and succeeding, focusing especially on younger students or musicians early in their jazz learning journey. The series also answers the questions why this matters and what can jazz educators do about it. Part 1 looked at reasons why students drop out prematurely (read Part 1 here). Part 3 explains why big bands and strict instrumentation can actually exclude students from learning jazz (read Part 3 here). In this part, I talk about the crucial issue of real skills and knowledge. Eventually, students reach a point where they struggle if their skills and knowledge are limited: a knowledge crunch.

Eventually, you need skills and knowledge

Jazz students inevitably reach a crunch time at which knowledge and real skills become too important to ignore. The same applies to experience of jazz sounds and styles. Beyond this point not knowing scales or being able to play them fluently, for example, is untenable. Not knowing jazz ‘languages’, what the music can sound like, stops progress and limits the opportunities available to students. Early on, many students can get by with a bare minimum of knowledge. Here, knowledge refers to skills, techniques, theory, procedures, and how they are used by improvising musicians to create various sounds, styles, genres, and so on. Beginner students can learn a bare minimum and just have fun. And that is fine.

The crunch comes when that is not enough anymore.

The difficulty with this crunch time for knowledge is that it approaches gradually. It can creep up so gradually that many students do not see it coming. What happens is that they start to notice that other students are playing much more fluently than they are, they struggle to keep pace with their peers and start missing out on opportunities. This is the knowledge crunch: it seems virtually universal that to access more difficult and interesting music demands specific skills and techniques. To access more advanced or more prestigious playing and learning opportunities likewise requires a background of knowledge that, if left underdeveloped, is likely to leave students excluded.

Rainbows, unicorns, cupcakes, then hard knowledge. Why students quit jazze

Because students may be unaware of even what it is they can’t do or how even to begin fixing the problem, at this point they may start to dismiss the issue with excuses such as ‘I’m just not talented enough’ or ‘I’m being unfairly excluded’. Lazy teachers might compound such views by dismissing students who fall behind as lacking talent or motivation – ‘either you have it, or you don’t’. There are certainly students who might be lazy or who give their jazz studies a low-priority – and why not, given the laissez faire, knowledge-empty character of some approaches beginning jazz education? However, such reasoning is mostly false, based upon an unhelpful mythologized collective fantasy of jazz teaching and learning. If students are not made aware of essential skills and knowledge well before the knowledge crunch arrives, they cannot be expected to develop those fundamentals. Compounding this difficulty is the problem that the pedagogy of jazz teachers may not even build any useful knowledge to speak of, emphasising instead the personal attributes and emergent abilities of musicians. This happens amidst a widespread but foolish narrative in jazz discourse that it is who you are, the quality of your natural talent, and even where you are that predetermines success or failure in jazz (Richardson, 2019).

What are some examples of essential jazz-playing knowledge?

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that for different jazz players and the diversity of approaches they may enact, there may not be any single, clear-cut body of essential knowledge. That is not a reason to dismiss any suggestion of a problem, not a ‘gotcha’.

Here I refer to whatever jazz means to you, or to the people who might employ young professionals for gigs, or the expectations a university/college audition panel might have, or what might be required to join an advanced class or student ensemble, as some examples.

This is not an exhaustive list but give a sense of the kinds of things that jazz students need to know.

Some jazz knowledge: why students quit jazz
  • Techniques and fundamental theory: scales, arpeggios, chords, chord-scale theory, above-average facility on an instrument or voice.
  • More advanced techniques & theory: drawing on the above things and combining them creatively to create music in various styles. Theory will include guide tones, playing chord changes, playing ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.
  • Procedures and assumed band-playing knowledge: head, solos, introductions, endings, trading 4’s, form, how to arrange a ballad, communication on the bandstand, knowing tunes and their chords from memory, transposing, sight-reading, playing off lead sheets, playing by ear, interaction between rhythm section and front line

Why students quit jazz when they hit the knowledge crunch

Students who fail to build this kind of knowledge will eventually hit a ‘roadblock’. There is a lot to learn and it takes time. Therefore, students and teachers should work to build this knowledge over time, from the beginning. By the time students become aware of the problem, it could already be too late. To neglect this knowledge-building is to fail the student and will inevitably lead to difficulty, discouragement and may end in student drop-out. 

Why students might miss out on this essential knowledge, or why teachers might neglect to teach it, is complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, I do plan to address this question in a future post. For a detailed examination of some major reasons for ineffective jazz teaching, see my major study on teaching jazz here.

Having looked at premature dropout and the knowledge crunch, the next post in this series will look at the potential role the predominance of big bands in school and university/college music might have in pushing students to drop out of jazz education.


Richardson, S. (2019). Teaching jazz: A study of beliefs and pedagogy using Legitimation Code Theory. (Doctoral thesis, University of Sydney). https://hdl.handle.net/2123/22066. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *