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“Of All Places!”

10 Jun

Discussion of the whole “growing the jazz audience” idea continues! Because hey, this is not something that gets conceptualized and then put to bed in a couple of weeks.

In the interest of keeping the discussion going, NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” has gathered a few responses to Kurt Ellenberger’s original piece, among them the one I wrote for Kotaku.

I’m happy to see my work discussed at an NPR blog, particularly given the fact that I get to blindside jazz folks by posting such an article on a video game website. (In the NPR article, author Patrick Jarenwattananon refers to Kotaku as “of all places” two times. Ha!)

I have to say I wish I got the sense that there were more people engaging with this discussion with the same vigor as Kurt did. I’ve seen jazz musicians on Facebook and in comments sections using this discussion as an excuse to bring up bones they’ve been picking for a while–the academization of jazz, the way that largely white college professors have ruined things, the effect of Berklee in the 80’s, the unfair misconceptions under which jazz has labored for decades now.

But I’ve seen a dispiriting lack of further, deeper discussion, of people looking to honestly engage in these bigger questions: Whose responsibility is it to keep an artistic movement alive? What role does artistic evolution play in that? How might we better teach music to young people? Is a holistic approach to musical education perhaps more engaging and successful than a strict adherence to jazz dogma? How far can you go before you lose fundamentals?

These questions are asked routinely at conventions like the IAJE (now defunct) and JEN, of course. But questions as vital as those shouldn’t be relegated to educators’ journals and conventions. They should be online, and everyone who wants to hear them should be able to.

I’m thankful to Kurt for bringing this conversation out into the light, and I’m glad to see that it’s continuing. I hope to see some more responses published in the future. I get the sense that this conversation is only beginning, and that it’s a worthwhile one to be having.

Your Comments About Building Jazz Audiences And Musicians With Day Jobs [NPR]—


Play It Again, Samus

3 Dec

I’m thrilled to once again have contributed a feature to the lovely Kill Screen Magazine. This issue’s theme was “The Sound Issue,” so as you can probably imagine, I was excited to come up with something good to write for it. I think I did!

My article is a look at how both games and improvisational music (jazz) devise strict rule-sets to allow for improvisation. I talk about the rules on the bandstand, discuss some of the games I use to help young students learn to improvise, and take a look at composer John Zorn’s free-jazz “game pieces.”

It’s a collection of ideas that I’ve been chewing over for a very long while, and I’m happy with how I articulated them.

As I progressed from high school to undergraduate jazz studies and beyond, I began to see that both forms [videogames and jazz] have a great deal in common. Both play with the boundaries between designer/composer intent and player interpretation, both allow for improvisation and the reimagination of the original goals of the creator. And most of all, both use strict rules to spark endless creativity.

Thanks to my editors Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo for working with me so tirelessly on it; now more than ever, I am aware of the benifits of a rigorous editorial process, and working with those two gents was a luxury that few writers are afforded. Special recognition to Chris for coming up with the article’s excellent title.

Props, too, to the issue’s designer Jeremy Borthwick and art directors Keenan Cummings and Jon Troutman–this is the most eye-catching issue of the magazine yet, and Keenan’s illustrations on my article are brilliant! It’s so cool to send off a huge chunk of text and then, a couple months later, see it rendered into a sexy, art-laden thing.

The issue also features work by some of my favorite writers including Matthew Burns, Patrick Klepeck, Dan Bruno, J.P. Grant, Jon Irwin and Gus Mastrapa, as well as a terrific debut article by Sarah Elmaleh.

It can (and should) be ordered from Kill Screen‘s webpage.

The Spring Concert

13 Apr

Last week was the Urban School’s spring concert at Herbst Theatre. We always have a great time at these shows, but this year’s felt somehow special. My kids played their asses off, as did the other student groups. And there was this certain vibe, a joyfulness to the proceedings that was tough to describe but impossible to miss.

John Hefti, the father of one of my pianists, took some fantastic photos of the show. You can see them all here, but I thought I’d post a few of my favorites as well.

And my personal favorite, of our drummer Xander taking his ripping DS solo at the start of our closing number:

Wide Angles

20 Apr

From last week’s Urban School Spring Concert:

(Click to enlarge)

New Instructional Article: Approach Notes

22 Mar

"For my first example, I'm going to be misreading the teleprompter, then doing some cursing."

My latest instructional article for Acoustic Guitar magazine is now online! It covers a few techniques for adding approach-notes to your improvising, and it’ll run in next month’s print edition of the magazine. The awesomest part is that for the first time, the online version features video. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see my super-sweet teleprompter-reading skills in action, then my friend, you are in LUCK.

I had a really good time working on it – thanks to Adam Traum for being such a pleasure to work with behind the camera. Also, huge thanks to my buddy Dan Apczynski for being an outstanding editor and helping put the video shoot together, as well as for lending his guitar playing to the last video, a duet on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

So yeah, check it out!

Howard Levin and The Amazing Urban School Laptop Program

8 Feb

As I roll my sleeves up and prepare to really get my students ready for our spring concert, I want to take a moment to reflect on a particularly awesome individual, a man whose vision, discipline, and understanding of the fundamentals of teaching have pushed the limits of technology in education. Also, a really cool guy whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and learning from during my past six years as a teacher – the one and only Howard Levin, director of technology at The Urban School of San Francisco.

If you spend five minutes at Urban, you’ll immediately see Howard all over the place, though you might not know it’s him you’re seeing. Students all tote white macbooks, crowding around one another’s video projects, sharing earbuds to listen to music (both their own and that of their favorite bands), video-chatting one another or silently typing away on a paper. You can’t help but notice how remarkable it all is, and you’re not the only one – Urban is at the absolute leading edge of technological implementation.

The whole thing – the school’s much-talked about 1:1 laptop program, incredible (and incredibly important) FirstClass implementation, custom-designed PCR grade- and course-report database, unbelievably professional student-directed “Telling Their Stories” documentary series, vital and supremely helpful faculty training, student workshops, and even the philosophy that Urban has taken towards technology… all of that is the work of Howard, implemented over the past decade by him and his incredible two-person team. Additionally, Howard speaks at educational conventions around the world, has published a ton of articles, and is one of the most sought-after minds when it comes to tech implementation in the educational field.

I should add that Howard makes all this happen with the help of just two people. Two. Mercedes Coyle, groovy chick and drummer for dot.punto,  interfaces with the kids and gets them the technology (and, frequently, loaners and replacement parts) that they need. Computer-whisperer Igor Zagatsky, the man behind the curtain, literally keeps Urban ticking, and also built the school’s incredibly robust and flexible local server setup.  If something breaks, Igor will take a break from whatever giant project he’s working on and come make it work – he is as much a part of Urban as the walls, windows, and wiring.

But that’s it – two people. For a school of over 300 students, plus a huge number of faculty and staff… and all those people running over 50 wireless access points blasting around a constant, massive amount of network traffic… wow. That means that Howard, Mercedes, and Igor are overseeing the day-to-day operation of a network of over 400 computers.  And in spite of this, not only does everything work about 90% of the time (which, when you think about it, is insane), they have transcended technical considerations and are focused on how they can actually use this stuff to improve teaching.

Key to this is Urban’s philosophy of “making the laptop disappear.” (the brainchild of Howard, head-of-school Mark Salkind, and, and I’m sure, many members of the Urban administration and board).  If you talk to Howard for even a little bit about the Urban laptop program, you’ll hear him bring up the distinction between using technology to facilitate education and simply “teaching technology.”  It’s a very important distinction, and Urban’s embrace of the former over the latter is the entire reason that the 1:1 program works so well.

In the school’s view, a laptop is simply a tool like any other – pencil, or a notebook, protractor, calculator. Teachers at Urban don’t teach students how to browse the web, or how to type quickly – they teach math, science, music, art, and they use laptops to allow the students to learn those disciplines more effectively, and in a way that fits with how students (and people) think and communicate in the 21st century. That means that laptops need to be totally integrated into daily life at the school, from administration to teachers to students, to the point that lessons and assignments can begin, exist, and be completed online.  It requires a ton of training for teachers to make it work, but work it does, and you’d be amazed at the degree to which laptop actually does “disappear.”

By now, Urban is no longer unique as a laptop school – a huge number of schools nationwide have adopted the 1:1 program that Urban pioneered. But I’d say that Urban still does it better than almost anyone else, and remains at the cutting edge in other ways, too. They’ve installed interactive smartboards in every room, allowing teachers not just to show off sexy graphics and cutting-edge multimedia in their lessons, but to give their students immediate access to all lessons after they have been presented (by far the most useful aspect of smartboards).  What’s more, in-class video capture, as well as Skype and other videoconferencing tech, are letting kids learn and interact in a more global, decentralized way than ever before.

Wow. I still can’t believe I get to teach at this place. And while everyone here is pretty amazing, Howard still stands out. With his vision, patience, leadership, and clear-eyed understanding of the fundamentals of teaching, he’s led an entire school to the bleeding edge of the 21st century and shown us what is possible when teachers and students are given the knowledge and resources to embrace technology as a means to education instead of its end goal.

The Music Never Left You

27 Jan

It has become difficult, especially over these past few weeks, to shake the feeling that we are lying in the basin of some vast, vague ditch of malaise, frustration and crappiness – nationally, globally, but also individually.  Everyone seems depressed, and not just because it’s January.

We’ll see if Mr. Obama can get up there tonight for his first State of the Union and make us feel better about things. I imagine that at the very least he’ll make those of us who support him feel a bit better about him, which should in turn make us feel a bit better about “things.” I doubt, however, that it’ll be the spiritual salve that I, at least, am craving.

But I think I know something that could be. I was browsing the Facebook statuses of my friends and fellow musicians when I saw a post by a San Francisco saxophonist I know, Bari Sax-man extraordinaire Doug Rowan, who shared the following:

Everyone that ever played a musical instrument and quit playing for some reason or another should pick it back up again and see what happens.

To which I say: YES. Doug, I love this. “Pick it back up again and see what happens.” Yes. Yes.

Right after I saw that (and wholly unrelated to it), a singer friend of mine shared on my wall that she’d picked up her alto sax again after several years of not playing, and was loving it.  And I realized: that’s it!  We should go for it, we should turn that thought into some sort of unofficial national initiative.

People of the world!

Ex-band geeks, garage rockers! Former dorm-room strummers and lapsed fifth-grade recorder virtuosos!

Hear me, and heed the call!  It is time to pick up your instruments once more!

Seriously, I am talking to YOU.  Perhaps you played an instrument in your high school band, or banged on the bass in a garage punk group in college?  Maybe you sang in the madrigals or were a marching band nerd?  Did you rent-to-own a euphonium, or spend days learning scales on the xylophone? Is there an accordion moldering in a closet somewhere in your house?

If so, go dig that accordion up, dust of those drum cases, re-string that bass, have your folks ship out your old Squire. Find your old instrument and see if it still works, because I’ll bet it does. And more to the point, I’ll bet that you can still work it. Just place your hands on it and see what they remember. You just might surprise yourself.

And sure, you might be utter rubbish, you might give your cat a nervous breakdown. Playing again may remind you why the lip pain, sore fingers, and frustrating metronome bleeps made you stop in the first place.  But maybe, just maybe, you’ll realize how much you loved music, how much you miss it, and you might start to play again.  Find a teacher.  Learn some new songs you like.  Join a band.

I know this won’t solve anything tangible.  It won’t get back any bailout money, or fix the California state budget, or re-hire all the amazing teachers who are going to be let go this year, to say nothing of what it won’t do for the suffering multitudes of the world.

But what it will do is something less quantifiable, perhaps smaller but no less grand – it might allow you to rediscover a part of yourself that you’d forgotten was even there.

You don’t have to sound “good.”

You don’t have to sound like anything at all.

Just give it a try. See what happens.

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