Monday, February 12, 2024

The Jazz of Teaching

I grew up listening to swing and jazz thanks to a father who was slightly out of synch with the music of his own times. When I had the chance in fifth grade to start learning an instrument, I picked trombone, because that was what Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey played. 

When we started learning recognizable tunes in lessons, I started trying to "jazz them up." And I started trying to play tunes that I knew even though I didn't have music for them. I was fortunate to have a teacher encouraged this kind of unrestrained blatting, even told me that there was a name for trying to play a tune by ear-- faking it. 

I've been playing now for about 57 years or so, any kind of playing there was to do (my fifth grade teacher was also my middle school and high school band director and a regular working sax player, and one of the things he taught us was music is music and don't be a snob stuck in a particular rut and playing always leads to more playing) and my playing has always included some form of jazz, Mostly I have stuck to the traditional improvisational style, what folks who don't listen to it much reflexively call dixieland.

So when Larry Cuban ran this piece-- "Playing Jazz, Rebounding Basketball Shots, and Teaching Lessons: Instant Decision-Making"-- it spoke right to me. A month later I'm still thinking about it. Because teaching, on my best days, felt exactly like playing jazz, on my best days.

Improvisation is freedom, and it isn't. You can't just pick up an instrument you've never touched before and just start winging away. Learning to play an instrument is learning not only another language, but another way to speak, so that when you reach for a note, it is there. And what you play rests on an underlying structure of chords and progressions and musical lines (your relationship with that structure is a big part of what characterizes the style of jazz you're playing)-- even if you have control of the horn, you don't just honk randomly. And! On top of that, you're also working things out in relationship with the other people who are playing at the same time. And!! On top of that, even as you are racing forward into the next note, you are also casting back, an ear on what you just milliseconds ago did. All while in a feedback loop with your audience. 

Cuban focuses on the idea of decisions-- thousands of decisions made in an impossibly short period of time. Maybe we shouldn't say "decision" because for folks who aren't in it that conveys a slow consideration, and that's not it, exactly (though it can be), as much as it's just reaching a point of action and acting in one of dozens of available directions. Your brain is just firing--bam! bam! bam! bam!--so quickly and fluidly. Being in the zone often feels as if you've disappeared, you've become Emerson's transparent eyeball, and you are just a conduit and a powerful Something is flowing through you into the world.

As Cuban points out, neuroscientists have done some studying of musicians and the micro-decisions, and he ties it to basketball, though I think many sports fit (sports add an extra dimension with the addition of opponents). 

And teaching. There is certainly an underlying structure and order to what a teacher does in a lesson. But researchers tell us that there's a lot going on. From Cuban's piece:
*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).
Nancy Flanagan, spinning off Cuban's article and a tweet from Ed Fuller, notes that this offers an explanation for why teaching requires so much mental energy. Those little micro-decision points come at you relentlessly in a way for which your college courses do not prepare you (college education students--play jazz or basketball or racketball). 

There are thousand strands running through that room, and your job is to stand at the intersection of them all, keeping them balanced and connected, and it takes a million little adjustments and movements, like riding a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling monkeys with your hands and balancing a broomstick on your nose. 

Teaching, as Flanagan rightly points out, is not the only profession like this, but it is certainly one of them.

The requirement for immediacy, spontaneity, improvisation, deliberate presence-- all of those are more reason that scripted lessons and demands to implement materials With Fidelity are just obstacles to better teaching. 

But wait, someone is about to say. Don't types of music that aren't jazz require players to just follow the notes as written, just like following a script with fidelity? Don't actors on screen and stage follow a script, with fidelity?

There's two answers here. First, there's way more improvisation involved (those Baroque players, for instance, rambled all over the place, just in a Baroquey way).  And no acting script gives you everything on the page; it is the job of actors and directors to fill in the rest.

But second, of course people don't just follow the marks on the page. If they did, there would be no difference between any two recordings of a particular work, or between recordings and live performances. Not every player is a technical whiz or an improvisational genius. Some are just what a friend of mine calls blue collar musicians--they're capable and they get the job done on a regular basis.

That's one more way the mental load of teaching resembles playing. Working musicians find themselves covering the same territory time and time again, and part of the mental discipline is clearing your head so that you can approach the thousandth time while staying fresh and immediate and deliberate and in the moment, true to the path you know well, but open to the opportunities and options that appear in the new moment. 

You can get tired and coast in your ruts. You can get over-excited and try too much at once and drop a bunch of monkeys. And some days you just can't quite connect with that sweet spot and so you fall back on some tried and true routine, which may not be exciting or surprising, but it can get you from Point A to Point B. As I've argued before, teaching is both art and science. But it definitely can be jazz.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. I was entertained and impressed with the comparisons…and I say this as a retired teacher and former musician! Well done.