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Empowering Youth Thru Music
By Mick Polich - 11/09/2013 - 01:27 PM EST

First off, I'm not a jazz player - always considered myself a guy who grew up on rock and pop music that has played AT jazz for almost 40 years. Many reasons for that - I just didn't want to fully immerse myself into the jazz world to devote all my musical adventures to said topic. That said, I've manage to play either guitar or bass in a couple of jazz groups,and continue to teach the subject of what I know on jazz theory and improv to any one who wants to listen. This brings me to now,as we've been embarking on new adventures in life since moving back to Iowa in 2010. Northwest Iowa doesn't spring to mind as a hot bed of young,burning jazz talent to many,but yet,the area schools continue to score high at festivals and contests throughout the season.Why is that? A couple of observations - being rural,or 'farm' kids,these young people have a discipline, and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic to get what needs to get done when called upon. Yeah,they're typical teen-agers at times,but work is a word in their lexicon, and they do it well. Secondly, there is a profound love of the arts and music - no matter what the setting, or budget they work with, it seems there are no lack of kids out for band,choir,theater,speech,and art.This is good,this is what we want to see....... As a private lesson music instructor, I've been sketching a 5 year plan to expand into other areas of lessons in the arts - partly creative expression,partly financial (like,how to get the non-musician into the music world through electronic music and drum circles,but alas,another tale for another outing in these hallowed pages). Two months ago,I sent out flyers to area band directors stating that I would make myself available,free of charge,to come to their school to give a class on jazz improv. So far, I've given and expanded on one session, and am slated for another session in the coming week. Said Session #1 was at Newell-Fonda High School,whose band program is under the solid,experienced direction of Colleen Hecht ( who happens to be a great musician in her own right ). The good thing here is I know the band kids, being a substitute teacher and having subbed for Colleen a few times ( believe me,reading a score is crazy for a rock dude like me,but I have learned ALOT in two years....), so getting warmed up with a history and introduction wasn't needed - we proceeded right to the matter at hand. First,I wrote the word 'fear' on the white board,then asked the kids how did they think that word played into their ability to play music,especially soloing on a chart. 'Making a mistake' was the numero uno answer - after years of struggle and distress on sight reading music scores,the ability to 'free' themselves to come up with a handmade music part was scary. This part took some tactics to ease their mind - with high schoolers,as a group they are very self-absorbed and self - conscience,so I needed to stress they are no 'wrong' notes to be played during a solo at this point. Fear was not an option. I tuned up the school's electric guitar,plugged in,and we counted off the first chart - a nice little swing/blues number. The kids with solo spots knew their minor pentatonic scales,which is standard issue for blues tunes. Little by little, as each student took their solo turn,you could feel and hear the confidence build up.After the first run,I appaulded,then told them good job, now cut in half your nots you used for soloing - use just four notes,give it some time and space,and see where you're headed. Next pass through,each solo sounded stronger,more melodic, and more of a statement.This was good, and it was so cool because you actually see some smiles on some faces! Not too shabby........... I felt good about the session - this was a first for me with a large group,and it was a nice shakedown cruise. What I learned,besides just getting the clinic off the ground,was that you need to make kids at ease while pushing them a bit to get into the game of improv.One, most of these kids rarely have heard of Ellington,Coltrane,Miles, or Charlie Parker,so you need to get them connected to the music in some fashion so it's less of a history lesson, and feels more personal to them.I asked a few kids before the session what they listened to, and their answers varied - Demi Levato,AC/DC,Imagine Dragons.I said,o.k., bring those influences to the table when you're soloing.How can they not? They wouldn't be themselves if they didn't. Everything you've grown up and listened to in music comes into play at that point.If not,you're denying yourself some truth.... Hopefully there will be more sessions on the horizion - there's alot more work that can done, and definitely alot more fun to be had with these clinics.Hats off and thanks to Colleen,and the Newell-Fonda jazz band - I hope they mop up at contest time!

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