Tuesday, April 30, 2013

THE PARENT PART ~ Jazz Education in San Francisco

volume 6


The SFJAZZ All-Star Jazz Orchestra, led by director Paul Contos, playing at 
San Francisco City Hall at the inauguration of the new mayor in 2012


Though my sons both got their start in the California state school system and we enjoy a first-rate music department at our local public high school, we didn't have to look far for more advanced programs and instruction in jazz and classical music.  In the Northern California Bay Area, we couldn't be better positioned.  We are fortunate to be here, but we know many who have changed their lives in order to participate here.  The large string bass, always a cause for conversation wherever we go, was the impetus for an interesting exchange with a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train engineer.  This gentleman relayed that he relocated his family to the Bay Area, when it became clear that his intellectually and musically gifted son (winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee & Harvard student, just to name a couple of his numerous achievements) had quickly outgrown his small community's offering.  He was comfortable expressing their clear goal to raise money for specialized services for their son, living in reduced circumstances, working past retirement to fund that goal.  A former school music teacher relayed to me how he and his family lived in a trailer at the nearby fairgrounds in order to have a qualifying address for the school district where he taught so his children could enjoy that benefit.  We also know kids who are taking commuter trains to the city or moving in with host families to take advantage of public or private 'Schools of the Arts'.  Another family travels from out of state to see the valuable master classes with jazz professionals offered by one organization.  As these kids are my son's friends and bandmates, it is of great interest.  It makes us even more grateful for our own exemplary high school music educators, who feed this system reliably and consistently.  Add to that the many local college offerings, community-based honor bands & orchestras, city-based arts programs and endless possibilities for private/group instruction and you can build an enriching music experience, tailor-made for your child.  

Below is information on the two jazz programs with which we have the most experience.  We would recommend them both highly for different reasons.  There are several others which I'd be happy to include.  If you have experience or a recommendation, please include your thoughts.

Qs for Parents: How far would you go to take advantage of a better program for your unique child?  Would you move?  Would you consider allowing your child to travel daily or weekly?

Qs for Students: It's a very brave thing to do, but...would you consider changing schools and possibly traveling further for a chance to spend more time studying what you love and to be around other kids & specialized instructors who felt the same way? 



The JAZZSCHOOL in Berkeley, California, (www.jazzschool.org) situated in the heart of the Downtown Berkeley Arts district, is a music conservatory offering a myriad of options for solo or group instruction, composition and performance.  The Jazzschool Institute offers a four-year degree in musical performance.  In addition, The Jazzschool Community Music School offers community education including advanced High School classes, audition required*.  The Jazzschool Advanced High School Studio Band is comprised of about 20 - 25 high school students, dedicated to the study and performance of standard and contemporary big band literature.  Beyond their focus on performance, the band spends time in the recording studio, a very real-world experience for a young musician.  The group also performs and competes at various national and international jazz festivals, including the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Next Generation Jazz Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland), the Vienne Jazz Festival (France), the Umbria Jazz Festival (Italy) and the North Sea Jazz Festival (Netherlands).  There are also multiple options to join one of the Jazzschool Advanced High School Jazz Combos, with 6 to 8 musicians.  These are groups of varying degrees of skill & instrumentation, each with their own dedicated director, audition required.* The Jazzschool also boasts a theater, a book and music store, and a photo gallery called the Jazz Image. Add a visit to their intimate and delicious Jazzcaffe for an unparalleled performance experience, or a lovely way to spend time while your child is in class.   In addition to home performances, the band will play at various jazz clubs and venues such as Yoshi's in Oakland, Freight & Salvage Theater in Berkeley and local restaurants. 

*audition requirements vary for different instruments and can be seen on the website (under Young Musicians & Studio Band), but in general include a required piece, a standard jazz piece of your choosing, sight-reading, and improvisation on rhythm changes

SFJAZZ (www.sfjazz.org) is a non-profit organization dedicated to jazz music and the presenter of the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival.  The January 2013 completion of the new SFJAZZ Center, a 35,000 sq. ft. glass-enclosed building devoted entirely to jazz, its performance and study makes it the only building fully dedicated to jazz in the Western US; it sits at the corner of Franklin and Fell in the beautiful Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.  The SFJAZZ Collective is an 8-piece ensemble of the most prominent jazz performer/composers working today; launched in 2004 the group changes yearly and records their own themed album.  In addition to hosting all types of jazz performance, SFJAZZ has a thriving education department which offers the popular Discover Jazz music appreciation classes for adults taught by expert jazz musicians, Jazz in the Middle for middle school students and Meet the Masters.  Devoted to the future of jazz, SFJAZZ forms the yearly "All Star" bands.  The SFJAZZ All Star Jazz Orchestra is an audition-only**, advanced high-school big band directed by Paul Contos.  There is also an All Star Jazz Combo, directed by Dann Zinn.  In addition to weekly rehearsals, the bands perform and compete at many festivals and venues including SFJAZZ Family Matinees (designed for younger students with a question-and-answer portion), the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, CA, the Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival (Boston, MA), and the Mingus Festival (NYC).  The All Stars performed at the Grand Opening of the new center, which was also broadcast live by NPR.  

**audition requirements vary for different instruments and can be seen on the website (under Education and All Stars), but in general include a required piece, a standard jazz piece of your choosing, sight-reading, and improvisation on rhythm changes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Volume 5

In his book "What to Listen for in Music," composer Aaron Copland put it this way:

"Music expresses, at different moments, serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight.  It expresses each of these moods, any many others, in a numberless variety of subtle shadings and differences.  It may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate word in any language."  So, what is Jazz?

Top: excerpt from the straight melody of "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind" by Irving Berlin. Bottom: corresponding solo excerpt by Louis Armstrong (1924).


Difficult to define, wikipedia offers one point of view.  "Because it spans music from Ragtime to the present day – over 100 years now – jazz can be very difficult to define.  Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions – using the point of view of European music history or African music for example – but jazz critic Joachim Berendt argues that all such attempts are unsatisfactory.  One way to get around the definitional problems is to define the term "jazz" more broadly.  Berendt defines jazz as a "form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of blacks with European music"; he argues that jazz differs from European music in that jazz has a "special relationship to time, in some cases defined as 'swing' ," "a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role"; and "sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician".                                       

There is no doubt that the resultant music depends on the musician.  


Music and mathematics are deeply related; comparing math & jazz improvisation, it is all combinations and permutations (melodies, harmonies, riffs, hooks, bridges...), modeled on assumptions (the head: the main melodic device, music style: blues, swing, etc. & rhythm) with infinite solutions (solos: born anew with each new play).  My son informs me that in the standard soloing procedure, wherein several members of the band take turns improvising solos (accompanied sparsely by the rhythm section), each musician must craft a unique solo on each performance.  I wonder aloud if professionals work towards that 'perfect' solo, building toward it each time.  He says maybe in some developing way, but practicing a solo is akin to cheating.  Beyond transcribing (committing to written sheet music) a famous solo for teaching purposes, you must be original, always.  Any given recording takes note of one particular moment in time, a one-time artistic expression.  Add to that, in improvisation you must reflect off of and incorporate the head (main melody), complementary pieces of your band-members' afore-played solos, all keeping in perfect time, with respect to the current key and music style.  For me, this seems like the unsolvable math problem or the problem with infinite solutions, some more elegant than others, the perfect one in the eye of the beholder, or ear of the listener.  


The specific parts of a Jazz Chart are: 

the Head: the main melody, usually also the first & last chorus
the Style: Ragtime, Bebop, Swing, Blues, Fusion...
the Meter & Tempo: the organization of strong and weak beats of time and the rate at which they are played
the Changes: the chords of a tune, also called Rhythm Changes
the Solo: improvisation during a chorus or unaccompanied during the Break, many musicians may solo on the same chart

Declarative Knowledge: plans, ideas and concepts; schemas that direct the form and flavor of a piece.  Facts stored in declarative memory stay in a part of the brain known as the medial temporal lobe (part of the hippocampus) and after they have become firmed-up facts, they shift to the temporal and frontal cortices.  

Procedural Knowledge: explicit knowledge of the overall form of a piece; memorizable; highly practiced habits that allow seamless, lightning-fast scales and riffs.  Concerned with 'automatization', this information is encoded in a loop that centers on structures in the brain such as the cerebellum and the basal ganglia.

Formal musical knowledge is treated by the brain in different ways.  Declarative knowledge has been optimized for instant use as conscious knowledge, whereas procedural knowledge is more concerned with fine motor skills, optimized for rapid reflexes, used somewhat unconsciously, when they become known.

As we master any skill, our brains get better at two things: recognizing the pieces of the whole (known as chunking) and knowing where to look (known as attention).  Melodies and riffs are just random combinations of notes until they are recognized and categorized.  Then, they become useful blocks of information, part of the student's ever expanding musical lexicon. 

Many music theory concepts that began as innovative, improvisational ideas become part of the musical canon; declarative becomes procedural once it is mastered.  Much of jazz blends the declarative with the procedural.  The best jazz often uses a mixture, a blend of style with expected features and a kind of natural, automatic playing in the moment.


Jazz.  Wikipedia, 23 April 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz>.

Marcus, Gary F. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

5 Qs for Eddie

5 Qs for Eddie

Edward Evans is one of the musicians that directly inspired this project.  Thoughtful and personable, he is a parent favorite...and he plays the trumpet like a pro.  He has impressed many with his considerable skills playing and improvising, auditioning into several Bay Area jazz bands including SFJAZZ and The Jazzschool.  He also plays in his high school jazz band.  Edward currently plans to pursue music in college.


Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Secondary Instrument: Flugelhorn

MUSIC I LISTEN TO: Classical, Jazz, Pop

Private Lessons: Yes
Year I will graduate HS: 2014

1. How do you approach improvisation?
My approach to improvisation is basically just lots of transcribing. Everything that I know how to play stems from lines and phrases that I've stolen from various great trumpet players eg. Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw etc...  And modern players such as Ambrose Akinmusire or Billy Buss.  Now that I have built up my vocabulary, many lines from all the players that I have learned from sort of mesh together and form new lines, although I can say assuredly that I've yet to find my own voice.

Another extremely important aspect to improv is the technical part.  I study jazz with Dann Zinn, probably the most rigorous sax teacher in the Bay Area.  For him, if you don't have the technique, then you got nothin'.  His routine is extremely challenging, especially for me as a trumpet player, but it is all so important so that you can execute perfectly, all the things that you hear.  It can make your playing mechanical at first, but it is just a work of art to see someone who has mastered their instrument both technically and musically.

In another sense, improv is a whole collaborative experience.  For me, it is always such a joy to be able to play with other great musicians because there is so much to learn from them every time you play.  Everything that someone plays is unique to them and what they play can make you react in a way that you would've never thought of by yourself.  The interaction and improv between great musicians is what makes jazz so unique. 

2. What makes you play the way you play? (Influences? Where do you find inspiration? Group vs solo?)

The biggest influence I've had playing trumpet is Clifford Brown.  When I was first getting into jazz, my teacher would give me CD's of great trumpet players but once I found Clifford I fell in love.  He is my all time favorite trumpet player and it pains me to think of all that he could have accomplished had he not died at such a young age.  I remember his solo on "Jordu," was the very first thing I ever transcribed.  Some of my other big influences are people like Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell, and Ambrose Akinmusire.  These days, I get a lot of inspiration from sax and piano players like Chris Potter and Taylor Eigsti, their technique is usually unmatched by most trumpet players and it is certainly something to strive for in my playing.  I also get a lot of inspiration from Dann Zinn, who always knows what to say to make you want to practice more. 

3. When you're frustrated & want to quit, what makes you come back to your instrument?

While trumpet has been a great experience and I know I will certainly want to continue for the rest of my life, there have certainly been, and are, frustrating moments that make me want to never touch the instrument again.  During these times I listen to recordings of great musicians, and it just gives me the most wonderful feeling in the world and it reminds me that that is the way I want other people to feel when they hear me.  That makes me come back to the trumpet and makes me strive to keep improving.  

4. How does pressure ('good' or 'bad') affect your performance?

Pressure has been a problem of mine in the past.  I used to prefer the practice room to the performance hall any day.  I would get very nervous and be liable to mess up just because I was so afraid of messing up!  Now that I have performed much more with many groups pressure doesn't affect me as much and I now love playing for live audiences.

5. Parent support directly affects musical achievement.  How does parent support look in your family?  How does it affect your ability to succeed? 

My parents are super supportive of my music and it is amazing.  There are many people who have parents who think music is not a good path for their children, but my parents are totally open to what I want to do.  At the moment I take two lessons a week and it is very expensive.  Even still, my parents are willing to pay for them and sacrifice other things such as going out to dinner or going on vacations.  If it weren't for their support I probably would have already given up on the trumpet.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

practice makes perfect, but if no one's perfect, why practice?

volume 4

 "First you learn your instrument, then you learn the music, and then you forget all that s**t and just play."  ~Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

The decision to put this down in words was inspired by a recent book: Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, by Gary Marcus.  Marcus, a NYU professor of psychology and director of the NYU Center for Language and Music, makes his first musical education, learning the guitar, the subject of two years of cognitive study.  So much of what he describes as scientific study is normal activity around OUR LOUD HOUSE.  I started asking the kids what goes through their mind in the moments before a big solo.  Their answers are so engaging and so brave; you must be brave to do what these kids do.  I will expain the concept of 'the lead sheet' later, a brief, almost suggestion of a song, from which they must weave gold.  Slightly different weave each time too, desgined and created in the moment.  Add to that the complexities of jazz and classical music, and you have a deeply engaging subject.  

Many people can learn music on their own, but most do best with the student-teacher dynamic. Depending on the teaching style, many people find motivation and incentive with this pairing or grouping.  Marcus says that the science of music education is sparse.  "Although 40% of affluent American parents send their children to music lessons, comparatively little is known about what makes music teaching effective."  While many teachers may be musicians themselves, most weren't trained in education.  Marcus believes the two most important traits for any teacher to possess are patience and the ability to diagnose problems.  Beyond the classroom, true progress is supported by practice.  Not just any practice, but efficient practice.  The best teachers will train their students to notice their weaknesses and to practice towards a specific outcome.  That said, there are many working musicians who cannot read music but still function on a professional level.  

 "In studies of musical achievement (typically done in the context of classical music...), the one factor besides amount of practice that consistently predicts achievement is not whether you go to Suzuki school, or study under some other method, but parental support..."  
~Gary Marcus, Guitar Zero


Since parental support often includes private lessons, it is prudent to briefly look at the most popular methods.  Not all music teaching methods are created equal, nor are students.  For instance, the famous Suzuki method emphasizes memorization and learning by ear rather than reading sheet music.  Mr. Suzuki hypothesized that children who were able to learn their mother tongue at a young age (5 to 6), also possessed the necessary characteristics to learn a musical instrument.  Desiring to bring beauty to children's lives after the devastation of WWII, Suzuki believed in generating a positive environment from which to learn and that this positive environment would also foster great character traits in students.  His goal was to raise generations of students with "noble hearts".  The curricula is available for a range of string instruments and is comprised of 10 volumes of classical music, with emphasis on playing them as the masters did.  Students who wish to include popular music or improvisation in their training must add this on their own, though the newer editions include some jazz transcriptions, Gaelic melodies and folk songs.  Some Suzuki students may find themselves weak at reading music.  All things considered, this method is still today so widely utilized and has created so many masters, it must be respected.

"I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart."  
~Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998)

Popular in Europe, the Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) method, also sometimes called Eurhythmics, from Greek roots 'eu' (harmonious), and 'rhythm' (motion) is based on rhythm and movement.  Toddlers learn 'entrainment', to move in time with music or a metronome before ever laying hands on an instrument.  The Dalcroze Method involves teaching musical concepts through a variety of movement analogues to develop an integrated and natural feel for musical expression, effectively turning the body into a well-tuned musical instrument.  In addition to eurhythmics, the Dalcroze Method consists of two more equally-important elements: solf├Ęge (sight singing with the syllables do re mi fa so la ti do) and improvisation.  This method is also commonly seen in music education in public schools across the USA.

Reading about this method of early music education takes me right back to my struggles parenting a perpetual-motion baby.  My boys were both super-active in utero and never at rest once mobile.  My mother's time-honored methods of 'quiet time' and relaxing reading activities were of no use at all.  Some days I seriously wondered if they could learn in the classic way.  Counting was mastered by concurrent stair-climbing or ball-tossing.  The eldest was hungry for constant stimulation, constant motion, napping only occurring for 15 minutes max due to sheer exhaustion and never by choice.  I was stunned to discover my second son had the same attributes.  By this time, I knew the term 'kinesthetic learning style' and realized I had stumbled upon a whole field of study, one strongly related to musical study.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Wikipedia, 26 February 2013. 30 March 2013 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurhythmics>.

Marcus, Gary F. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Suzuki Method.  Wikipedia, 27 March 2013.  30 March 2013 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzuki_method>. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tech Tunes

Tech Tunes

volume 3

I am very interested in an upcoming event called Open Make @ The Tech: Music at the Tech Museum in San Jose, California Saturday, April 13.  It says that handrawn images will be instantly transformed into playable musical instruments.  Intel's new product called Sketch it! Play It! will be featured by Intel Maker Jay Silver, as part of their Start Making! initiative.   

On the website, there is a 40 second video that shows pencil doodles being plucked and tapped as corresponding guitar sounds are generated.  It's a trip.  Much like seeing that first guitar app but in the idea phase on paper.  But, this is no guitar...it's sort of a circular band with attached tabs, 'played' like keys on a piano.  There's another example that looks like swirls and circles.  Others look like still-life drawings, trees and flowers.  The fact that the graphite in pencils conducts electricity makes this product simply elegant.  You are literally drawing an electric circuit.  Attach that circuit to the 'jam station' and add the sounds and lights.  Simply cool.

There will be other products like the MaKey MaKey, developed by Makers at Lawrence Livermore Labs that transforms conductive materials into instruments or, the Drawdio, which has the user painting with a conductive paintbrush and transforming the painting into a musical instrument.  Drawdio will also showcase a wearable, conductive, musical jacket.  I imagine dances creating music rather than the other [usual] way around- what about you?

There will be special 'Meet the Makers: Music' presentations with various product designers and special student activities all included with museum admission.  See the Tech Museum website at: