Improvisation in the Classroom

I’m nothing like a jazz saxophonist. Not even a little bit. One time a few years ago, in a misguided flurry of musical ambition, I borrowed an extra trumpet from the band teacher at my high school with the hope that I could practice and get good enough to hang out in the band room during a beginner music class. I had convinced myself that I was probably a prodigy, and I just hadn't given my talent the wings it needed. Unfortunately, when I tried to play, it sounded kind of like a walrus orgasm. Maybe. I’ve never actually heard a walrus orgasm, but I imagine it would sound like the noise I made when I tried to play the trumpet.

That’s the closest I ever made it to being a jazz saxophonist.  

I also know very little about the black church. I’ve been to black churches, but I mostly just sit quietly and try really hard to clap on beat during the songs. Then, once I think I have the rhythm, I try not to look like an awkward white guy that is working really hard to clap on beat.

That’s ironic though, because in life as well as in my few trips to black churches, I am nothing more than the awkward white guy trying desperately to clap with the beat.

Last month I went to a funeral for my friend’s grandfather. I joined in “I’ll Fly Away,” as the service began and I tried as usual to look normal as I swayed and clapped my hands. I knew my friend was singing, so I looked through the program to see his song choice. There was no song name listed by his name. Later that night, I asked my friend about it. He told me that he simply told the organist the song choice as he was walking up to the stage. It was unlike the church experience in many large, mostly white, churches, where full bands practice for hours and lead performances that often felt as staged as a bad lunch time soap opera.

My friend sang “God Will Take Care Of You” perfectly, as the organ danced around his leading vocals.

It reminded me of a time I saw an old Philly jazz musician named Byard Lancaster in a smoke-filled downtown bar. I was barely old enough to sip the beer that was in front of me, but I had a fotunate habit back then of finding jazz shows and trying to figure out what was happening. Listening to jazz felt like hearing something that was beyond my grasp of understanding, and I loved the mystery of it. At some point in his performance, one of his band mates surprised him by playing a didgeridoo. Lancaster didn’t miss a step though. I remember him stepping to the side as the drone of the wooden instrument filled the room. He watched for a few seconds before joining him on his sax. He wove his avant garde style around the sound of the other instrument creating a dance that worked perfectly.

The improvisation of Lancaster on his sax and the organist at the black church were similar. They both watched the other musician, and skillfully joined with the performance. They both jumped from melody to harmony, progressions to pauses, at times joining the lead and at times venturing off on their own.

In each case, the result was beautiful.

The reason that I was drawn to those jazz musicians in my early 20s was that their art felt like it was capturing some universal truth. They weren’t dictating their music, their performance, or their style, but they were reacting to the moment with fluidity and grace.

It felt like real life.

It also feels like good teaching.

People ask me all the time if you can train a teacher to be great. Is there some natural skill to this profession that some people will never have? Or, as some believe, can you teach anyone the skills the need to be an excellent teacher?

I never know the answer to this, but I have started to answer with a question.

“I don’t know… Do you think you can teach someone to play the jazz sax?”

I get confused looks, but I’m starting to think that great teaching requires the same improv ability of the church organist and the jazz saxophonist. For teachers to be effective, they have to learn to interact with another melody. They need to learn when to take the lead and when to follow. They need to fill the empty spaces with something meaningful. At times, they need to do all of this at the same moment. 

They need to be willing to make music that sounds much like real life.

If you think about a classroom, this analogy starts to make sense. Teachers take their plans and their activities and work to mesh them with the 25 different students in front of them. It’s like 25 colliding melodies, and the teacher is working to find a way to tie them together. She is working to bring the didgeridoo to the sax, or take the sax to the didgeridoo. There are times that a skilled teacher follows tangential melodies, and times that he stays with the notes written on the page.

Teachers should work to be more like jazz musicians, and less like a classical orchestra. We have to be willing to change our plans and move in another direction. We need to be willing to interact with our context to make something beautiful. 

This is what makes good teaching. The ability to improvise in a way that helps our students. The willingness to hold loosely to the means, while delivering the end. There are, after all, many ways to move an audience. When I watch good teaching, much like when I watched Byard Lancaster join with the didgeridoo, I fall short of understanding. It is why the "how can we help teachers get better" question is so difficult to answer. These are skills that are relational and contextual, and can't be transferred on a page or a textbook. 

On my best of days, I feel like I’m the teaching version of Charlie Parker spinning gems with ease and brilliance. But more often, I’m just the awkward white guy trying to clap with the beat.