In Response to Cory Weeds’ Open Letter Regarding the Issue of Students Skipping Live Jazz Shows

This post is in response to the discussions regarding jazz students’ attendance at jazz concerts.

I teach privately at the University of Toronto, and usually have between one and four piano students studying with me during the academic year.  My students rarely attend my performances. I can think of one or two instances in my four years teaching at UofT.

Also, In October 2011, my trio Myriad3 performed UofT’s faculty concert.  This was part of the Faculty of Music’s official calendar of events, and Myriad3’s performance was meant to represent the jazz faculty.  We counted two students in the audience.

It’s a valid concern – jazz students not attending jazz concerts.  If you want to learn about performing jazz music, you should learn from the jazz masters and attend their performances.

BUT!

It’s unreasonable to assume that students attending a school for “jazz” or “jazz performance” are solely interested in those things, nor should they be.

A Teaching Paradox

I hold two opposing outlooks when teaching students.

First, I assume they’re studying to become professional jazz pianists. I think this is a sign of a good teacher. Students are expected to achieve the same, high standard I hold for myself.  If they hope to achieve that standard, it’d be wise for them to attend my shows.  It’s very frustrating that my students never hear me perform.

At the same time, I can never assume my students are studying to become professional jazz pianists.  Our gatherings around the piano, jazz music, and performing may only be serving as a launching pad for related or alternate careers. My students are “finding their voice” in a broader sense, one that will inevitably include the piano, jazz music and performing, but may also include other, diverse interests.

Considering this, I can think of three reasons why my students aren’t attending my performances:

  • My students aren’t primarily interested in studying jazz performance.
  • My students don’t know how to teach themselves to be jazz professionals.
  • My performances aren’t appealing enough to attract students.

Students Aren’t Primarily Interested in Jazz Performance

Being a jazz performer may not be part of “finding their voice,” just as “Dixieland music” and “electrical engineering” aren’t part of mine.  Diverse interests and natural inclinations may drive them away from jazz concerts, and towards other activities.

Then why are they enrolled in a jazz performance program?

To learn.  To explore.

It’s both reasonable and narrow minded to assume that a jazz education is meant to inspire creative work in jazz performance.  A strong teacher and a strong community can harness both perspectives.

One of jazz education’s strengths (and music education’s in general) is that it can tolerate a broad range of individuals and interests, yet still be extremely rigorous and disciplined.  Graduates from jazz programs will also go on to careers in sound engineering, journalism, education, jazz theory, composition, medicine, law, film, finance and many others (including performance in multiple, diverse genres, not just jazz). That’s because music education can offer advancement in multiple skills, including communication, leadership, learning, business and problem solving.

A student’s education in jazz, whether focused on performance or otherwise, will stay with them forever.

Students Don’t Know How to Teach Themselves

Maybe they don’t know what it takes to craft a career in jazz performance.  Maybe their education has failed them.

It may seem logical – “if you want to perform, you should imitate master performers.”  This also may seem logical – “if you want to know something, ask questions.”

But how do you know what questions to ask?  How do you know specifically what to imitate?

Students need to be responsible and figure things out for themselves.  But teachers need to be responsible too.

A good education and good teachers will ingrain good habits into their students.  We’re really good at ingraining II-V-I habits, inspired by the jazz masters.  If attending jazz performances is important to the teacher, ingraining good social habits, inspired by the jazz community, should be on the agenda too.

My Performances Aren’t Appealing Enough

This is directed firstly towards performers.  Here’s a video of a Squarepusher concert – he has no trouble getting fans out to his gigs.

This is a pretty impressive performance.  I don’t mean to suggest that jazz artists incorporate LED light shows into their performances.  But I do suggest that all jazz artists work on developing their performance skills.

Putting on a good show is more than ordering songs fast-slow-fast-slow.  Performing (jazz or otherwise) is an art in itself and jazz artists aren’t excluded from studying what makes an effective performance.

In a way, jazz artists are competing with acts like Squarepusher and technology like YouTube.  Jazz fans and jazz students don’t necessarily expect LED lights and extravagant displays, but they do expect to have a good time.  Jazz artists should be striving to make it easier for audiences and fans to connect with them.

But producing good jazz shows isn’t only up to the artists.  There are many people responsible for making jazz appealing to students.

As I mentioned, we counted two students at UofT’s jazz faculty concert last year. But we also only counted two faculty members. If faculty members aren’t excited and talking about jazz concerts, it’s unfair to expect students to.

I haven’t been to any faculty concerts either so I don’t exclude myself from this criticism.  But it supports the idea of needing a strong, supportive community with effective leadership.

(Special thanks to my Myriad3 buds, Dan Fortin and Ernesto Cervini.  We’re on the road in Philadelphia and have been discussing this topic thoroughly.)

3 Comments

  1. Al Kay says: | Reply

    Well said! The same issues are discussed here at Humber as well. We used to have mandatory concert reports (25 a year) for each student but it was dissolved a while ago unfortunately. I agree with you that they do not know what it takes to learn this craft – watching live concerts is foreign to the students, watching a youtube video of a live concert is not. The big shock for them is when they have to perform in front of real people. Or perhaps this is the direction of this music, put together in a bedroom or small studio with multiple takes strung together, and miming to the track for the video portion. I really hope though there will be enough students out there to keep the live music tradition alive. Many of our recent graduates have that gift I think… Thanks Chris, enjoy your tour!

  2. josh rager says: | Reply

    I think also that the climate of jazz education has changed enormously over the past 15 years paralell to the shift in the live music scene. Unfortunately the perceived value of live music and, for students especially, the perceived value of participation in a local jazz community has been significantly altered in large part due to the content that is available for free on the internet. The internet has turned on its head the interconectedness of the global jazz community in a really complex way that has both good and bad results. Unfortunately gone are the days where the best way to learn jazz was to mentor your elders in a local community. It’s a shame because this has widened the generation gap so much so that even a 30 something aged musician finds it difficult to connect with younger aspiring players. Also I’ve noticed that it has become significantly more difficult for jazz students to find focus in a way that makes studying the idiom fun and rewarding regardless of their ultimate career goals.

  3. cat toren says: | Reply

    Here in new york there is no shortage of young people at jazz concerts. Maybe exploring why that is can lead to some answers. In my community, there is a lot of support of one another, not just because the music is interesting, but there is a sense of comradery because it’s a tough life here. As for the other shows, I’m inclined to see something if a) I already like the band b) I think it will be innovative or cutting edge c) if it’s not cutting edge, it’s a nostalgic d) it has heart — always always has to be from the heart, people can tell e) it’s a legend or once in a lifetime show f) you can dance or there’s a “hang” g) it’s educational and/or one of my mentors is playing (nice note on that, josh r)

    Those were in no particular order.

    I’m sure many of the jazz shows in toronto have these aspects (I adore toronto by the way). So, maybe this answers nothing, but it’s my personal experience. Thanks for the discussion!! More thought on how to make a jazz show exciting is appreciated; I’m not planning on have lasers and smoke…..yet…..

    side note, when studying jazz in college I expected to be performing jazz – as well as many types of music. I chose the language I felt most appropriate for my goals. I feel more than ever nowadays that students have a very broad range of musical interests – which is great. Teacher would benefit working with this not against it.

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