Friday, April 30, 2010

Learning on the margin: playing jazz, jazz as learning

Last week I sat in a rehearsal room while my 14-year old daughter and four other junior high jazz students held a sectional. (They all play in the Little Big Band, an audition band that is part of the Crescent Jazz Institute. CJI puts together some very high level groups--its Super Band has twice been voted best high school jazz band in the US by Downbeat Magazine.)

I was the only adult in the room. Their director simply asked them to get better at several pieces before they record them next week. He did appoint a section leader, but the leader had no real power, or at least none not granted by the rest of the rhythm section.

The kids took a long time to get set up, playing with cords, rearranging the drum kit, horsing around. Finally someone asked which piece they would rehearse first. They picked one, the drummer counted them off, and they started playing.

The piece ended, followed by a bit more horsing around, then another piece, which they stopped once for tempo problems. Then they played through their other two pieces. When they finished they still had 45 minutes left. So they dug out a few copies of The Real Book a compilation of hundreds of jazz standards. Someone named a piece they liked. Many in the group had never played it before, so they messed a bit with the changes, and then played it, most of the group sight reading.

They repeated the process four more times, each time playing something that several of the section members didn't know. No perfect performances here, but a lot of good music, including some outstanding improvisation. Then the rehearsal time was over, they packed up and left.

I have long been interested in "learning at the margin"--those places that are school-like (community bands, karate studios, religious retreat centers) in that they focus on learning some discipline, but where the behavior and the learning are un-school-like.

This jazz band, and the sectional rehearsal exemplify what I see as the characteristics of learning on the margin.
  • There is an adult leader, someone recognized as having advanced skills and high standards.
  • That leader expects learning, but the students become responsible for the learning--often driving themselves to very high levels of work without much direction at all.
  • Quality comes from the expectation of public performance
  • The learning has a transcendent character--that is, everyone is in it for something beyond technical skill
In some ways jazz is a key metaphor for this sort of learning--it has a technical language, a strong tradition, and within those things freedom to improvise. (For a fascinating effort to apply the metaphor of jazz to the American experience, take a look at the great African-American essayist Albert Murray's The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement)

Jazz and learning at the margins also raise some serious questions about education. Margin learning is driven by student passion and commitment. These kids play jazz because they love it; they are good because they drive themselves to be good. Schools cannot count on this sort of passion, at least in their core curricula. There, two students may be passionate, 18 compliant, and five downright unhappy to be there.

Learning at the margins is also, well, marginal. Students do it evenings and weekends; adult leaders live makeshift lives scratching together several jobs to make a living; parents commit plenty of resources to making it happen. Schooling is central--everyone participates, it happens during the day, it is a job for adults and students as well.

I'm not interested in favoring the margins over the center. Nor am I interested in favoring the center over the margins. But I do wonder about the relationship. What at the margins is linked to the center? Are margin learners also better center learners? How do students negotiate their lives in the two parts of learning? What should the whole system--center and margin together--look like for communities to be healthy? For people to feel like they can shape their lives in common? To feel like life itself is meaningful?

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