Constructing a General Music Curriculum Based on the Skill Set of the Jazz Musician

In my previous blog post I shared my initial struggles creating meaningful music lessons and assessments. As I was introduced to Constructivism in grad school, I learned about creating authentic musical problems for the students to solve. I began to develop lessons using backward design. This entails starting with the following questions:

What is it that I want the students to learn?

How will I know that the students understand the material?

How will the students demonstrate an understanding of these concepts?

What musical problems do I want my students to solve?

At every step of this process, it was only through my own developing musicianship that it became clear what I wanted the music learning to be about. As a jazz saxophonist, my primary goal was to develop a vocabulary that would convince the jazz musicians that I respected that I knew what I was doing. In essence, this means telling a convincing story using the proper syntax. I don’t mean to imply that I am teaching my general music students to develop jazz syntax, but rather that it was the study of jazz that framed my ideas about curriculum construction. I began to focus the learning process in the music classroom through the lens of the skill set of the jazz musician.

The jazz musician is an improviser, composer, and performer, all in one. Ed Sarath refers to the Integral Jazz Musician as a Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP). I’ll get to Ed more a little later. I began to try and distill all the things I was learning in my attempts to be a CICP down to the basic elements that would become the General Music Curriculum. I was simultaneously doing this for two other middle school ensembles, but that is for another series of blog posts. If you want to go into that in detail, see my thesis Teaching Towards Learner Agency In Instrumental Ensemble Settings.

To sum up the CICP in as few words as possible, they are creators of the highest order. To condense this down a little further for the purposes of general music, I’ll just say “master storytellers.” This is the skill set I am attempting to use as a basis for the general music curriculum at Holly Academy. The students are already learning to tell stories through their writing classes. I felt I could draw comparisons to a process they already know, while using the conventions and terminology they know, as well. We are always telling a story. Our students are telling their story. I came to believe that letting the students tell their story, and helping them along this path is important in many ways.

When a student is creating his or her own music, the process is inherently authentic, providing the student with ownership over the process. The concept of ownership over the learning process is called agency. If the student has ownership over the learning process, problems with classroom management immediately begin to fall away. Getting back to the story telling process, when a musician improvises, she is telling a story. It just happens in real time. You don’t get a second chance at it. When a musician composes, she has time to create the story as she wants, depending on the allotted to time given to work it out. Using the jazz musician as a template, the student must also perform the compositions.

Teaching For Musical Understanding, as I understand it, is the study of the musical elements that go into this story telling process. It is up to the teacher to decide what musical processes to include when setting problems for the students. The musical processes involved could include steady beat, tempo, dynamics, tessitura, texture, meter, orchestration, form, or any number of musical parameters. As the student gains a better understanding of these processes, they become better equipped to tell their story. This then reinforces the learning process as being a valuable and meaningful part of their education.

For more information about the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP) and Ed Sarath’s Integral vision for music education, please read his Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness from SUNY press. In an upcoming blog post I will share specific story telling problems using non-syntactic music elements as catalysts for composition and improvisation.