Thursday, November 16, 2023

Teaching in Washington

The drive home— the wilds of central Washington.
I was out for a couple of days teaching some kids in the tri-cities area in central Washington state. The people who run the Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra did three days of jazz clinics with the area middle and high schools, and a concert Tuesday night, and brought me in as a part of that. 

From Portland the tri-cities seems like a group of pretty small towns, but the metro area has about 300,000 people. There were a lot of great things happening there. First, there were a lot of kids into playing instruments. There were multiple jazz bands in each of the middle schools and high school. And they were good, doing good tunes, with lots of kids taking solos, improvising. The drummers were good, mostly well ahead of where most of us were at the same age, when I was in school— and I went to schools with strong music programs. The band directors are doing an excellent job— seemingly not overwhelmed by the overwhelming task of getting a lot of teenagers to play jazz. They've created a cohesive scene while not dominating it.  

It was interesting getting a sense of the texture of the students' playing, and relationships with music. They seemed more tune oriented than artist oriented— they had ideas about what tunes to play, but they didn't know some obvious names of players. Which was surprising, since even Art Blakey and Elvin Jones get exploited by the youtube clickerbaiters... suggesting the students are not overly online, which is a very good thing. I didn't detect a lot of concerns with the usual obsessions of online drummers. The drummer in the first high school group and the band director (also a drummer) were aware of me, and of this site. 

Really, everything was great—they're all learning to play, they had good attitudes about music, and about each other, and will have great opportunities to continue their musical growth all the way through school. All of them were taking lessons, several were using Syncopation. A couple were learning to comp by vibe, most had practice materials for working on that. They generally weren't afraid to hit the drums. They'll work out what they need to work out.

One small issue for me, from an educating drummers POV, was that selection of tunes was heavy on shuffles— it was great that they were doing a lot of 12-bar blues, but the shuffles are very limiting for drummers, with that particular technical problem of hitting the backbeat quickly after a soft note. Having a full range of dynamic control with that and having it groove is hard for students at that level. All the drummers but one were attempting to feather the bass drum, which gave them another coordination element to struggle with— whatever the merits of doing it, it doesn't make it easy for young players to put their focus on the primary things driving the time. 

Several of the drummers were generally not helped by their hihat and bass drum technique— lots of heel up playing, staying up on the toes the whole time. The best foot technique of the younger players was from an unassuming kid who didn't play real loud, but did really nail the arrangement he played.  

There was also a Mambo, a Tito Puente tune, with which they generally did a really good job, but again there's that technically complicated groove. The main problem there, for the drummer, was coordinating the feet. I would have preferred that they were learning to play strong time with fewer elements— cymbal and hihat on the jazz tunes, while learning to comp sparingly and accurately with the snare drum and bass drum; hands only on the Latin groove, then adding hihat, and then adding the bass drum sparingly. 

Generally the drummers were too strong when accenting the bass drum, with several prone to hitting more overpowering SD/BD unison accents than you would want. One would really hit them hard at times— which, we consider that to be not in good taste, but to me that's the emotional center of being a drummer, being into the sound of the drums when you play them loud, and liking the feeling of it. He was in the 8th grade, so he has plenty of time to figure out how to do it with some musicality. 

And that's why the situation is great, everyone is getting to play, and everyone seems to be oriented in a good direction, where they'll have time to work through things, without a band director trying to stop them from ever trying to generate some energy. Drums do need to be forceful at times, and you can't learn to do that without messing some things up. 

I tried to impress upon everyone the need to listen, to start getting into players and records— that seemed to be one missing element. Once they start getting excited about that, things will really take off. 

The senior drummer in the first high school band was excellent. Talking to him and asking him to do things in a master class with the drummers, there were the usual gaps you would expect, for that age. You don't expect high school kids to know about every great drummer who ever lived, and they usually will not be able to do every single easy-seeming thing right away. That's normal.   

But then he played the arrangements in a perfectly professional way— he had them memorized, and was able to play without reading. I might have played them differently than him, I don't think I would have played them better from the audience perspective, as an ensemble performance. Excellent taste and dynamics all the way through, really bringing some stuff when it was called for. He had some drummer chops available, but was very judicious in how he used them. Excellent musicianship there, and drummership, if we can make that a thing...

So, congratulations everyone, band directors and students at Libby Middle School and Richland High School (and any other school they might have snuck in on me) on running and participating in an excellent program! 

Shout out to whoever got my latest copy of Syncopation, which I think I left at the middle school. 

Extra special shoutout to the saxophonist who approached me after the jam session to get the correct spelling of McCoy Tyner's name— he'll do well.  

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