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Jazz Goes Back to School

by Chuck Reider

The Reno Jazz Orchestra enjoyed a wonderful summer of jazz performances, the Labor Day weekend has passed, and the balloons have left Rancho San Rafael so it must be time for jazz to head back to school with the RJO’s fall mentor program.  First maybe I should refresh your memories on what our mentor program provides.  Through generous grants and donations, the RJO brings jazz professionals to select schools in Washoe County to work with middle and high school jazz bands for the semester at no cost to the participating schools and students.  So how does this work?

This year we have a new Mentor Program Coordinator, Jonathan Phillips.  You may remember that I introduced him to you last May in one of my articles and we are pleased he has accepted taking on coordinator duties in addition to being a mentor.  The process starts with a meeting with Washoe County School District (WCSD) Band Directors at one of their regularly scheduled meetings.  Jonathan describes the program and asks which directors are interested in participating.  Those interested express their band’s needs in developing jazz skills.  Some may need help with the trumpets and trombones or the saxophones or the rhythm section (guitar, piano, bass, drums).  Some directors may want some help picking the right music for the band to perform as well as learning rehearsal techniques.  Many this year expressed interest in improving the jazz improvisation of their students.  Jonathan listens and tailors a program for each school.  RJO mentors are members of the band, instructors at UNR, as well as UNR graduate students in the jazz studies program.  This year we are including undergraduate music education students to participate by sitting in with the school band or observing the RJO mentor working with the students.  It is Jonathan’s task to find the right mentors for each school.

Eight schools are participating this fall, three middle schools and five high schools.  I had a chance to speak with Billinghurst Middle School Band Director Leonard Neidhold.   Leonard is a 27-year veteran Washoe County middle school band director and was an adjunct professor at UNR where he directed both the second and then the first lab jazz band for eight years.  He is also a great trombonist who I have had the pleasure working with (I play trombone too!) for many years in the Reno Philharmonic.  He has also been featured on three of the RJO CDs. I started by asking him what motivates him to have his band participate in the mentor program.  Leonard enjoys the collaborative effort between him and the mentor. He likes to see the mentor’s strengths in teaching jazz and then apply that strength using a tag team approach.  It is valuable for students to see/hear someone different share jazz insight and direction as it reinforces what Leonard has been working on.  Sometimes a different approach expressing the same concept clicks with students.  Why teach jazz I asked?  Leonard feels it is important that students learn a true American artform which is at risk to be lost if our children do not get a chance to experience it. This leads me to the core element of jazz, improvisation.  Leonard knows students new to improvisation need to learn a little jazz “vocabulary”, or what makes a good jazz solo.  To do that he starts with a technique called call and response.  He plays two or three notes in rhythm (the call) and his students play them back (the response).  These are the building blocks of jazz improvisation that each student can take to grow their vocabulary. 

Jazz improvisation is also a passion of RJO drummer and UNR Director of Percussion, Dr. Andy Heglund.  Andy is thrilled the mentor program is expanding into improvisation in both the big band and combo settings.  The combo or small group allows more room for improvisation and time to apply new found jazz vocabulary.  It takes dedication to develop your soloing chops as improvisation requires an understanding of the technical aspect of music theory (left brain activity) and the emotional aspect of soloing (right brain activity).  Another aspect is group interaction.  When someone is soloing in a combo the other members can interact with the soloist.  For example, if the soloist hits a note hard, the drummer may respond with a cymbal crash or bass drum kick.  All of this translates to music of the moment!  It is our goal to increase the number of combo groups participating in our annual Jazz in the Schools held in February at UNR.  Of course, we will also help develop big band ensemble performance as a part of the fall mentor program as it helps to prepare participating schools for Jazz in the Schools big band performances.

Before I go I need to let you know that our sister organization The Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO) is beginning their program as well.  RYJO Director Vern Scarbrough let me know that auditions for RYJO’s 12th season will be October 16-19 and is open to middle and high school students.  This year there will be two full big bands and possibly a combo.  RYJO focuses on giving students exceptional performance experiences throughout the school year.  If you know a budding jazz musician visit their website  for audition information.  

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