In his recent post, Still On The Moon (http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/2012/09/still-on-the-moon.html), Ethan Iverson criticized The Thelonious Monk Contest and the idea of music as a competition in general. Creating this game out of music has always been an idea that I have been aggressively hostile towards. It should go without saying that there are no true winners in an art form that is entirely abstract. Regardless of how I have always felt, throughout high school I was obligated to go out and compete to bring home as many accolades as possible to prove to our school district that music was something worth investing in.
Las Vegas—I am going to go ahead and apologize for the constant return to my homeland (but don’t think for a second that I won’t bring it up again)—has always been, in my experience at least, culturally dry and desolate. One of the few ways I was able to expand my musical desires was to audition for the local performing arts high school. Out of respect for the institution—since I am going to be criticizing it—I will not name names: however, I will say that there is only one performing arts high school in Las Vegas and it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. That aside for now, I entered the school beaming at the idea of actually taking classes in music. As a much needed step up from middle school, where beginners would play overtly simplified charts without ever actually learning about the theory behind the notes, it was to my own dismay that high school turned out to be more-or-less the same.
The level of talent was immense and never-ending. My first year was spent in awe of the upperclassmen and sophomores who seemed to play their instruments—and I am including the voice in those instruments (the separation of instruments and the voice still seems silly to me)—at a level that I didn’t think I would ever be able to achieve. Almost immediately after stepping foot on campus, I started practicing to catch up to everybody’s ability; the level of drive I had then is something that I envy now and is something that was fundamental to my development. And herein lies the only enduring part of my experience: the passing on of knowledge from the older to the younger. This is absolutely one of the best and personally beneficial aspects of attending any form of music school. Nonetheless, the school could have been more involved in taking a hand in the development of each of their students.
I was quick to notice that the top band really relied on a few key players to carry the rest of the band. Essentially, as long as there were a few good musicians in certain spots—first and second trumpet, first and bass trombone, first alto, tenor, and bari sax, and a great drummer and bassist—then the rest of the band just had to have music driven into them day in and day out.
The major high school jazz festivals, Reno Jazz Festival and the Monterey Next Generation Festival to name two, required a three piece set: no more, no less. Our teacher knew that fact from day one and began, almost from the beginning, to get an idea of which charts would be best suited for that year. A majority of my senior year was spent on three pieces. I will repeat myself for emphasis: a majority of my senior year was spent on three pieces. The logic, or lack thereof, that was applied to this atrocious use of time was the poorly conceived idea that to play a piece that was more difficult—more difficult technically that is—than the piece of another high school band at the same level would give us a better rating, thereby allowing us to win the competition. This should leave any musician utterly offended at the thought that technicality and virtuosity is the end all be all measure of defining good music.
The difficulty of jazz—and I’m saying jazz because these are in fact jazz competitions—is not only due to the increasing emphasis that the modern scene—shamefully I might add—has been putting on rhythm, odd meters, and virtuosity. Its mastery is in the level of competence and experience that a musician must be at in order to convey a good feeling that even the most simplified version of this complex art form requires. If these “festivals” truly want to provide an event that will encourage students to develop this craft, then they should put a restriction on how difficult the music can get. Honestly, if these festivals limited the number of works a high school can select from when programming—focusing on, for big band, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and, for combos, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—then students would realize that making 4/4 feel good is ultimately a better goal than being able to play a patter over 11 or 13 or whatever the next fad is in time signatures on the contemporary jazz scene. I digress.
As I direct my memories towards high school, I remember running sections over and over again, essentially allowing the lesser musicians to practice their parts in class since none of them had the dedication to their musicianship to work on it at home. Looking back, this was not only a disservice to those musicians, but also a disservice to the true level of ability that the program could have actually achieved.
If, instead of running the same odd-meter charts over and over again, time had been spent on teaching improvisational, harmonic, and rhythmic theory, those students who spent their time at home as time away from school might have possibly been inspired to work on music. Had they known the deeply rich history that shows jazz rising out of an incredibly juxtaposing combination of strip clubs and Baptist churches, maybe they too would want to find even a small way of contributing to an ongoing tradition. And, perhaps, if they had been exposed to a live performance of a world-class jazz musician then they too could have truly come to appreciate the hours upon hours that it takes to find the perfect quarter note in a medium tempo blues. But alas, they were only asked to loop this or that section in hopes that they would be able to master their parts by the time the bell tolled.
It should come as no surprise when I tell you that when I talk to other alumni about how the music program was ran, I invariably get this answer: “I could run it better.” The obvious problem that everyone, except the people actually in charge, picks up on is that there is no true educating of the student body; instead students are simply expected to know their parts. Countless times I saw students being verbally attacked for messing up parts without any good criticism on what it was they were doing wrong. I myself have been a victim of this thoughtless harassment. One time in particular, I was only a sophomore in high school and I had recently switched to piano—mainly because there was no pianist and a plethora of saxophonists—when the band was asked to sight-read a chart. The piano part was full of six note voicings in complicated rhythms that were, simply put, beyond me. Instead of being given techniques to read written chords at first sight, such as looking for the shape the notes make against the staff to make an educated guess as to what the voicing was as opposed to literally reading each note, I was chastised in front of the class for having “murdered”—murdered having the opposite meaning of killin(g)—the chart; “murdered” being stated three times for emphasis. This belittlement, which I saw more times than I would care to remember, did little to actually inspire me to practice. The theory behind belittling students is to motivate with fear, but in reality, when I came home after being denigrated in class, the last thing I wanted to do was work on music. Inspiration was the only factor that ever motivated me to be the best musician I could be and honestly, I blame these competitions for how poorly high school programs are run.
If it wasn’t for the pressure band directors are faced with from these competitions to produce a band capable of playing three difficult charts at a professional level, then they would focus more on actually educating young musicians. Of course, I only have the disadvantage of my own point-of-view. Maybe performing overly difficult music at festivals gave me confidence to perform overly difficult music in less stressful situations; maybe being yelled at and humiliated did have some twisted effect of making me practice to avoid another thrashing; or maybe all of these facts are the reasons why I feel so fucking bitter about my experience and would have given an arm and a leg to have had a teacher who used positive motivation instead of fear to push me to my potential. My high school—focusing on performance over education—was a joke. So it goes.