Teaching Philosophy

At the University of Victoria, I teach courses in Improvisation, Jazz Theory, Jazz History, Music Business, and Indigenous Peoples and Music. Contact me about our programs, or regarding private lessons on trumpet, guitar, or composition. I teach in-person and via Skype.

Music never speaks for itself. The teachers that have had the strongest influence on me are the people who have challenged me to articulate with equal clarity in words and music. Many young professionals are reluctant to talk about music because it can be so difficult. I see remarkable results in performances when students cultivate a clear image of the sound they want inside their mind’s ear. At any given point, they know how far away they are from that aural image and are able to describe what they are trying to accomplish musically. My greatest professional satisfaction is bearing witness to that integral awareness coming alive in my students.

As a musician who teaches, I generate creative discoveries among students and colleagues. My teaching goals are to:

CHALLENGE others to think critically

LEAD through example in performance and scholarship

ARTICULATE concepts with clarity and enthusiasm

PROVOKE critical action

Music succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage, that is, to provide new opportunities to think about a personal relationship to sound. Students thrive in situations in which they cultivate an awareness of the array of artistic choices available. In turn, students build unique and direct relationships between their music and the human condition. My role as an educator is to create and sustain such environments while educing a student’s latent musical and extra-musical abilities.

My philosophy of teaching is deeply informed by the method of phenomenology, which proposes that one’s social identity is not static, but is constantly formed and re-formed through relationships with other people, their chosen discipline, and the wider world. This social identity is not given: it represents an accumulation of choices. I believe the same can be said of one’s musical identity, in that people hear music in time as well as across time (Monson 1998). People listen and perform in relation to all the music they have heard before, recognizing the similarities, differences, stylistic elements, allusions, and surprises that contextualize their hearing/performing in the moment. The function of art is to expand consciousness and re-organize awareness and sensibility in artist and audience. Effective artists extend their critical thinking into committed critical action with passionate pluralism. Within the university teaching environment, I am an experienced facilitator and dedicated colleague who inspires critical thought and action among young artists as they identify relationships between sound, discourse, and people.

The craft of improvisation, to extemporaneously provoke and promote individuality within a co-operative framework, pervades everyday life. My students become aware that improvisation draws crucially on our ‘ordinary’ (i.e. extra-musical) abilities. Noticing, remembering, seeing, speaking, hearing, understanding detailed language, and recognizing patterns, metaphor and analogy all require the use of existing knowledge in new ways to deal with the situation at hand. My research supports that building creative improvisatory skills early on, within and without music, has a dramatic effect on a student’s technical and emotional development. It is not enough to simply “play well.” Making students aware of their vital improvisational fluency enables them to make conscious decisions about risk and failure in non-musical situations. Successful improvisation experiences prepare students for a world of increasing ambiguity by enabling them to confront and transcend uncertainty. Most importantly, students who improvise are constantly aware of the aforementioned function of musical art – to perform in a way that creates aesthetic feeling in performer and audience. This is why I love sharing integral and formative improvisational experiences with my students.

As a university music educator since 2004, I constantly field questions from students that stem from preoccupations of sounding ‘right’ – “What is the ‘right’ way to swing eighth notes? Which scale will ‘work’ over a particular chord? Why is my time ‘bad’? Can you write down what I’m ‘supposed’ to play?” Jazz pedagogy has primarily stressed the stylistic aspects of the genre for six decades, such as chord/scale relationships, melodic patterns, and formulaic harmony.  In contrast, the improvisational interaction that characterizes the ephemeral quality of jazz music has a less codified approach. I articulate an alternative asserting that students primarily make meaningful, original, and interactive musical statements only when they abandon their need to consistently sound ‘right.’ Furthermore, I incorporate collective experimentation and decision making while allowing mistakes to occur.

Negotiating error is a critical component to jazz improvisation and my personal teaching philosophy. Error and failure are unfairly identified as surprises. Shifting this mindset is imperative, which will involve viewing errors in the course of performance as “transient flaws that will make sense as events unfold” (Weick 1995). We can use errors better when we understand them as experiments that lead to new solutions. I posit that error will become accepted as an inevitable property of improvisation if we reframe its aesthetic qualities and thereby reduce some of the stigma that goes along with making them.

How then does a teacher effectively evaluate an aspiring jazz student if a primary goal of jazz performance is to project an identifiable, original voice that exists alongside, and away from, the obligations of style? In other words, how to you teach and critique someone when the idea is to simply “be yourself?” My preferred approach is to guide students to become constantly aware of the musical moment – I develop their perceptual agency. Exciting things happen once they decide to be themselves and figure out which musical tensions mean the most to them. Often this is as straightforward as letting the student know, through leading by experience and example, the range of possibilities that they can implement. For example, jazz improvisation requires constant negotiation between players moment-to-moment and performance-to-performance. Using problem-posing pedagogy engages students to make provocative questions about themselves and yields informative results when discussing group performance issues: What is the other person doing? How does that relate to my performance? What/where is the action? Am I leading, following or accompanying the action? The value of improvising does not lie in the outcome of a single performance, but emerges over time through continued musical and social interactions.

Perceptual agency as embodied practice is an aural skill central to improvisers in many genres. What we hear in a particular performance depends in part on where we focus our attention. Directing the ear to different parts of the ensemble yields a different experience of the music. This practice of shifting the focus of attention not only enriches the listening experience for audiences, but is an integral aural skill for improvising musicians, who must be able to locate themselves temporally and spatially and with respect to rhythm, harmony, melody, and the calls and responses of the other members of the band. It is a critical skill I use in my professional life that I share with my students. The better one knows a tune, the less one needs to focus conscious attention on the stylistic basics, and the more attention can be freed to take improvisational risks and aurally scanning other parts of the band for moments of improvisational opportunity.

Works Cited
Monson, Ingrid. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996.
Wieck, Karl E. “Creativity and the Aesthetics of Imperfection.” Creative Action in
Organizations: Ivory Tower Visions & Real World Voices. Ed. Cameron M. Ford and Dennis A. Gioia. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995.