Monday, December 31, 2012

Rethinking Concerts: One Idea

In response to my last blog post, "Rethinking Concerts", I have received some terrific ideas and suggestions for boosting concert attendance.  Please keep the ideas coming.

The following letter came from Shari Baum, the mother of my lead tenor sax player.  I think her ideas make a lot of sense, especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown.  Coincidentally, I had similar thoughts while leading some caroling at a senior's home last week with a group of friends.
I'm a social worker spending much of my time with senior adults....vibrant, engaged and brilliant people.....some still in their own homes, many living in independent living facilities, some in assisted living.  Research tells us that the healthiest way for people to age is to be involved with others of all ages.....unfortunately this isn't always possible. So we have older people living together or isolated and they see our youth as wild, out of touch texting zombies. I am constantly the voice of optimism defending our youth.
Just this week I attended my niece's holiday concert at the _______ Academy. I brought my 88 year Mom and the music and the sight of all those bright young faces with their futures ahead of them brought pure joy to us all....I saw my Mom's face light up when the kids opened their mouths to sing. 
In challenging times there is nothing more hopeful than seeing young people full of life and joy and hope. This is why I think the Newtown horror has really hit a nerve with everyone.....little babies gone in an instance at the hands of a 20 year old sick young man.....The seniors I work with are devastated......they feel powerless....what kind of future is there?

How can we ease some of the pain??? With music and the fresh faces of our young people. 
I am sure, near Storrs there are senior living apartments or assisted living facilities. They usually have some kind of van or bus available to them, or if the school has a bus maybe we can pick them up. They are a receptive audience, always looking for activities that are reasonably priced and local. Von der Mehden is fully accessible if some have trouble walking......I think it's a win-win. You have an audience and the seniors have a reason to feel good about the future, while also listening to great music!
Sorry for the length of this....I got carried away, but I feel very passionate and think it could be a model for the entire fine arts department....especially music.
I would be happy to do some research on senior housing near the school, unless you already know some places, and invite them to the next concert. There's usually an activities director so I would start there and see what the response is.  Let me know what you think.

Warm regards,
Shari Baum
I have already taken Shari up on her offer and am thankful to have band members with supportive, thoughtful parents such the Baums.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rethinking Concerts

Besides modifying my university jazz ensemble's curriculum (to include improvisation, sight-reading and listening), I have been questioning the way in which we do concerts.  I have been asking myself questions like:  Who are we trying to reach, and how can we better reach them?  Should we change venues?  What are we doing right, that needs to stay intact?  What can we improve?  What are we doing wrong?

Poor concert attendance is one of my greatest frustrations as an ensemble director.  After having spent hours in concert preparation, how can students not feel demoralized when they look out and see 20 or so people in a concert hall that seats 300?  I am curious, is this problem unique to Storrs, CT or is it experienced by other university jazz ensemble directors across the country?

In an April, 2011 post entitled "Where Did the Audience Go?", I outlined my plans to have high school bands perform as opening acts at my concerts.  My intention was to launch a new recruitment initiative, which would also expand our audience.  Because it brought prospective students to campus and reinforced existing relationships with band directors, I consider it successful.  But, as far as audience generation goes --- not so much.  One or two parent chaperones typically accompanied the groups. Unfortunately, this plan was also limited to the winter/spring months, as most high school band directors switch their focus from marching band to jazz band during the winter months.

I need a new plan.  One that works year-round, yields consistently larger audiences, increases our visibility, and helps recruit quality students.  On-campus performances, for a handful of people, simply aren't cutting it.

Earl MacDonald rehearsing the UConn Jazz Ensemble.

Before delving into some speculation as to why my ensemble concerts are poorly attended, I will state that I doubt it's for lack of promotional efforts.  Here's a list of the marketing activities in which I typically engage:
Sure, there are additional ways to get the word out, and I would love to hear your ideas.  What aspects of promotion am I neglecting, that are proven winners in spreading the news and enticing people to leave the comfort of their homes and attend artistic events?

I am also curious to hear from my professional peers if they have designated marketing personnel at their teaching institutions, to promote concert events.  Unfortunately, I currently do not.  Much to my chagrin, marketing is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my job each year.

My guesses as to why concert attendance is abysmal for my ensemble's shows include the following:
  • In size, the ensemble ranges between 9 and 12 players.  Obviously a group of 12 ensemble members has less supportive friends and family than an orchestra or choir of over 50.
  • People are venturing out less and less these days.  Maybe concerts are obsolete.  Live streaming and YouTube videos are perhaps more important today.  Do we even need formalized concerts?
  • We are possibly over-saturating our community with jazz.  Within a semester we have a weekly jam session, a showcase concert featuring all the groups, a combo concert, a jazz lab band show and a jazz ensemble concert.  The jazz lab band and jazz ensemble concerts have often been slated during the same week.
  • Maybe the programming needs to be more inventive and appealing to the general public.  ("Yule Be Swinging" seems to work while there aren't exactly line ups for "the Music of Jim McNeely".)
  • We might need to rethink concert times.  Most of my concerts are on Monday and Tuesday nights.  Maybe afternoon, weekend times would be better.
  • I hate the thought of mandating concert attendance, but when Jazz Lab Band members don't attend the Jazz Ensemble's concert (and vice versa), there is an issue which must be addressed.
  • Jazz may just not be popular in Storrs, CT.
If you have an opinion or idea, I would love to hear from you.  I do have some schemes of redesign in mind, but it would be nice to collect the thoughts of concert goers, musicians, and educators before I formally chart my course.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Active Listening

Today's post is more of a questionnaire than an opinion piece.

I want to include a structured listening component into the syllabus of the university jazz ensemble I direct.  In rehearsals I often play recordings of the pieces we are preparing, so that we can discuss musical details we notice, but have not yet mastered.  The students are also issued recordings of the pieces related to our current repertoire project.  Over and above listening to the music we are preparing, I want my students to listen to a broad variety of big band music --- both historic and modern, so that they learn the expected stylistic nuances which aren't always fully notated.  So here are my questions for fellow jazz educators:

  • Do you assign listening homework?
  • Do you play recordings during rehearsal time? If so, how frequently?
    • What discussions ensue?
  • How do you assess listening?
  • How do you determine that the assigned listening has been completed?

UConn Jazz Studies director, Earl MacDonald ironing out some musical details with his students.

Some years I have assigned written reports (or blogging) where I have asked students to address aspects of specific recordings.  Although I continue to do this with my arranging students, I would prefer to encourage personal instrumental practice, rather than writing for this class.

I'm leaning towards implementing monthly "drop the needle" listening tests.  What do you think?  How else might I be successful in encouraging my students to engage in active listening.

For those who might be interested, here is a list of noteworthy big band albums, posted on my web site.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sight Reading - the oft ignored, yet requisite skill

Perhaps the greatest disparity between school ensembles and the professional music world is the amount of rehearsal time.  It is not uncommon for high school and college bands to spend an entire semester (20+ rehearsals) preparing material for a single concert.  This weekend I played a commercial big band show, "The Rat Pack Is Back" at the Shubert Theater in New Haven.  We had a one hour rehearsal prior to the show, and nailed it.  Everyone in the band was obviously a great sight-reader.

If you can't read, you can't work in this business.  If we are truly preparing and equipping our students to become competent, capable musicians, reading must be taught.  It doesn't just happen on its own.  For this reason, I spend the last half hour of each rehearsal sight reading.

Earl MacDonald and the UConn Jazz Ensemble sight-reading in rehearsal.

For some unknown reason, the UConn jazz ensemble library has hundreds of dated (horrible!) disco, jazz-rock, and swing charts.  We are working our way through them at a rate of about five charts per rehearsal.  My rule is:  even if the chart is "corny" and poorly written, it must be played with as much integrity and accuracy as possible.

Questions for my fellow jazz educators:

  1. How many rehearsals do you allot to prepare your ensemble's concert set?
  2. Is sight reading a regular part of your rehearsals?
  3. How much rehearsal time do you devote to sight-reading?
  4. What do you have them read?
  5. Do you think sight-reading should be done in rehearsals, or practiced on one's own?
  6. Would you ever consider having your band read a (simple) piece in a concert?

I will leave you with an anecdote.  A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of adjudicating an educational jazz festival with Canadian jazz education guru, Gordon Foote.  I learned a lot from watching his post-performance critiques.  After a nearly flawless student ensemble performance, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a piece of music for them to sight read.  The band crashed and burned.  Although this band placed well in a prestigious competition that same year, by not addressing their reading deficiency, I think their director did them a great disservice.  What do you think?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Teaching Improvisation Within Jazz Ensemble Rehearsals

How many student big bands have you heard where the ensemble playing was acceptable but where the soloing was downright atrocious? Based on the adjudications and visitations I have done, I'd go so far as to say that this is the norm in most schools across North America.  I admit that over the years, to varying degrees, my bands too could be described in this way.  Despite typically having one or two star improvisers, improvisation remains a common area of weakness.

If improvisation is jazz's defining characteristic, why as ensemble directors are we prioritizing accurate mass ensemble playing over the development of soloing skills in our rehearsals?  My rationale has been: in improv class, I teach improv, while in jazz ensemble I emphasize ensemble playing and exposing students to big band literature.  The problem is, only a small portion of my band takes my improv class.  In fact, some of them are not receiving any guidance in learning improvisation.  This simply has to change.  To quote Popeye,

"That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more."

The UConn Jazz Tentet, practicing improvisation.
Teaching a new lick to the UConn Jazz Ensemble.

My band rehearses from 3 - 5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Starting in January, half an hour every Thursday will be devoted to developing improv skills.  There will be 15 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of testing, based on the material assigned from the previous week.

As stated in my last post, we will be working on repertoire from the Art Pepper Plus Eleven album.  Almost every tune is a commonly played jazz standard, thereby functioning as excellent vehicles for teaching improvisation.  Learning these 12 pieces (sans arrangements) will be reinforced by assigning them as the performance repertoire for our weekly, Thursday night jam session at Lu's Cafe.

Students will be expected to play and sing the melodies, bass motion and arpeggiate the harmonic progression.  A variety of directly applicable licks, patterns and scales will be taught and correctly inserted into the pieces.

Four transcription projects will be assigned over the semester, consisting of two choruses (minimum) from any recording of Bb rhythm changes, F blues, Donna Lee and Airegin --- all of which are found on the selected Art Pepper album.  Students will notate, learn and perform these solos by memory.  They will be taught how to extract licks from these solos to learn in 12 keys and apply to other tunes.  Additional choruses/solos will count towards extra credit.

I would love to hear from my my fellow jazz educators in the comments below.  Is teaching improvisation a regular part of your large ensemble rehearsals?  Why/why not?  If so, how much time do you devote to it?  What do you require and assign?  How do you assess it?  Have you seen substantial improvement when improv instruction has been a regular component of your rehearsals? What do you think of my plan?  In your opinion, am I asking for/expecting too much?  Should valuable rehearsal time be devoted to teaching improv?

In the next few posts I will continue to share some thoughts about how I am planning to transform my rehearsals in the spring.  Sight reading and listening will be the next two topics.  Again, I would love to receive some feedback.  Feel free to throw questions back at me too.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Every Ending Is A New Beginning

As the fall semester wraps up, I have been considering what musical project I will undertake in the spring with the UConn Jazz Ensemble.  I have also been giving some thought to how I might change my teaching approach next semester --- but I will expound on that in my next post.

For now, here is a taste from the 1959 "Art Pepper Plus Eleven" album --- Groovin' High.

I plan to prepare all twelve selections from this recording with the UConn Jazz Ensemble next semester.   Almost every tune is commonly played at jam sessions: Move, Groovin' High, Opus De Funk, 'Round Midnight, Four Brothers, Shaw Nuff, Bernie's Tune, Walkin' Shoes, Anthropology, Airegin, Walkin', Donna Lee. 

Because these tunes are perfect vehicles for teaching improvisation, this will be a strong focus in addition to ensemble playing. Plenty of rehearsal time will be devoted to "getting inside" these pieces and learning the changes (harmonies).  It should make for a fun project.