Jazz Education’s Uneasy Return


University of Kentucky’s Miles Osland rehearses his band in accordance with COVID protocols.

(Photo: )

Since mid-March 2020, the COVID pandemic has altered the landscape of jazz education at universities and colleges across the United States. The transition from in-person classroom teaching, rehearsals and performances to remote teaching, online rehearsals and virtual concerts happened almost overnight, as jazz studies programs improvised and adjusted to meet the challenge.

DownBeat recently spoke with five jazz educators from around the country to explore how their programs adjusted, lessons learned in that process and strategies in place for a hopeful return to in-person teaching for the coming academic year.

Trombonist Conrad Herwig, head of jazz studies at Mason Gross School for the Arts at Rutgers University, discussed how the immediate transition to remote learning in spring 2020 laid the foundation for how the program prepared for the 2020–’21 academic year.

“We were a traditional jazz conservatory model, and had to transition overnight to emergency remote learning,” Herwig said. “Over the summer, we wanted to move to what we call a 21st century online curriculum. Instead of an emergency Band-Aid, we wanted to reinvent how we wanted to teach. We set up a three-day jazz technology camp for students that focused on audio and video technology and sent out items like USB mics and visual interfaces beforehand. Many of the students had GarageBand or Logic, and we started working with a digital online collection portal called Band Lab.

“Every two weeks we would start with a tune, lay down basic guide tracks and the rhythm section would play along to create rough tracks. The second week, we called refined track, and the students would play against each other, finding nuances and coming up with ideas. At the very end the rhythm section could come back, feel that interaction and freshness and add the final touches.”

For Darden Purcell, director of jazz studies and voice instructor at George Mason University, it was important to try to get back in person as much as possible for the 2020–’21 academic year.

“Certain aspects of online teaching have specific strengths,” Purcell said. “But I like to teach in person and see smiling faces behind masks. There’s so much about posture and breathing involved in teaching vocalists, and that you can’t see through a computer screen. We ran ensembles one day in person and one day online each week, moved ensembles to large stages that had better HVAC systems and rotated rooms to air them out between classes. We had hoped we could fully get back in person, but stayed in hybrid mode all year, which I think was a good decision.”

Miles Osland, director of jazz studies and professor of saxophone at the University of Kentucky, was able to keep full, in-person rehearsals for students in place this past year.

“We used social distancing and masks and moved large ensembles to the concert hall stage so they could spread out,” he said. “We even had large vocal groups spread out in the seating area of the 1,200-seat hall to safely rehearse. For combo rehearsals, I found a room with the right capacity, measured out six feet — nine feet for trombones — and placed the saxes closer in a U-shaped situation. We were pleased with the way it turned out.”

In terms of lessons learned from teaching jazz studies last year, Janice Borla, director of vocal jazz at North Central College in Napierville, Illinois, noted the challenges as well as the opportunities offered by online technology.

“Our students were all over the place as far as technology,” Borla explained. “Some were even using their phones. We were all using Zoom and Vox to function, with a focus on pre-recorded and live-stream concerts. And the faculty expressed how much more time-consuming preparation for classes became, because they had to come at things in a very different way.

“The good news was that we all got very savvy about the technology available, and it opened up a whole new vista for us. Personally, I was initially reluctant to embrace online technology, but I had no choice, and it became very interesting. Going forward, I know we’ll be using a live-stream component even when we go back to teaching in-person.”

Saxophonist Bob Mintzer, professor of jazz studies at Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, also noted that technology can’t replace the importance of live rehearsals for jazz students, but it can offer the next best thing.

“As director of the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, I followed our regular format of meeting twice weekly for two hours, but instead of meeting live, we met on Zoom,” Mintzer said. “And I really encouraged all the students to become composers and arrangers. And it went well beyond composition and arranging because each band member remotely recorded their part.

“The accuracy and musicality that’s required to record yourself in a convincing way is a real discipline that you don’t necessarily get playing with a live ensemble. And since you’re remote recording, you might hear a lead part from a player in your section and need to match them. And there’s a certain amount of ESP required to imagine how to place your part so it all makes sense when it’s assembled. And finally, they had to learn how to mix and do a video for the tune. The students were really stretching out and exploring other disciplines.”

Herwig also saw his jazz students become much more knowledgeable about music technology.

“As tech savvy as students are in many areas, we found they weren’t as knowledgeable in terms of music technology and video recording production,” Herwig said. “So one lesson we learned is that the students are now really much more empowered. Some of them have even found jobs as assistant engineers and in video production. It’s like having a whole other palette.”

For Purcell, the hybrid combination of live and online teaching at George Mason reinforced her belief that vocal students need to interact more with instrumental students.

“I’ve always felt very strongly that vocal jazz students and instrumental students needed to take classes together,” she said. “So I wanted to make sure we made every effort during hybrid instruction to have them take classes together. Every student needs to feel the strengths and challenges faced by other musicians — regardless of whether they’re a vocalist or instrumentalist.”

Osland missed having guest artists visit the University in person, but was pleased that master classes could take place by Zoom.

“Musicians haven’t been able to tour during the pandemic, so a lot of them were looking for things to do,” he said. “We had a great Zoom class with Adam Larsen, and although we missed out on him being there live and the jam session aspect, it was still a real treat for the students.”

All five programs are planning to return to live teaching as much as possible for the 2021–’22 academic year. However, the delta variant and the increasing COVID infection rates are raising concerns.

“North Central is planning to go in-person,” Borla said. “But unfortunately, we’re facing these new concerns with COVID. And I’m expecting that things are likely to evolve. I do know that even if we have live performances, we’re going to explore and implement live-stream components.”

“At USC and Thornton, the message was sent out at the beginning of the summer that we plan on teaching in person this fall, but in some sort of altered structure,” said Mintzer. “But it’s very fluid, and it all could change. We’re trying to be optimistic, but we’re still working out how do deal with certain instruments and vocalists. Let me put it this way, we’re not getting rid of our Zoom accounts.”

“We’re planning for the new semester being live and in-person at Rutgers,” Herwig said. “All the students are required to be vaccinated, so we’ll be rehearsing together. But we invested a lot last year in teaching with technology and don’t want it to go to waste. We’re planning on having every student do a virtual recording project during the year. We’ll get the hybrid of traditional conservatory and virtual. And if we have to go back online, we’re empowered.”

“At George Mason we’re going back 100% person as much as we can,” Purcell said. “We’re watching the delta variant and everyone has to be vaccinated to participate in person on campus. I’m really look forward to two days of rehearsals a week and in-person classes. I’m excited, and the students are excited. We want to give them the experience they want — fingers crossed.”

“At Kentucky, we’re planning on having in-person teaching and concerts with live audiences,” Osland said. “But who knows? I was just talking to the dean, and we’re putting in another order for playing masks. We have to be fluid and prepare to go with the flow.” DB

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