Jazzing Up Sistema Relevance

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Jazzing Up Sistema Relevance

Laura Patterson, Executive Director and Matt Rhody, Lead Violin Teacher and Curriculum
Development, Make Music NOLA, New Orleans


To many classically trained musicians, the El Sistema program model of learning in group classes and ensembles is very different from how we learned. However, the development of technique and discipline, and the understanding of music that comes with classical training, are just as important for playing in other genres. Classical training provides a foundation that can be used for learning any style of music. The notes, rhythms, and instrumental techniques are the same in classical music as they are in jazz. Professional brass bands may play the same notes and rhythms to Liza Jane as our students would, but in a different key, with open sections for improvisation and with a different sound.

For Make Music NOLA, in New Orleans, there is a commitment to introducing local music to our students. Our curriculum includes “Liza Jane”, Saints Go Marching In”, “I’ll Fly Away”, and Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking”. As a string program in a city of brass bands, MMN works to introduce our students to early jazz and even earlier string band music, in which the violin was originally the lead instrument. Our students grow up hearing the Second Line and dancing in the streets, but they don’t necessarily associate those things with their violins. How do we teach students jazz and improvisation when they are still learning to read and master Bach minuets?

Over time, our program has developed a curriculum that we call “Suzuki Jazz”, which is based on teaching beginning students the basics using the Suzuki method books, along with local New Orleans tunes that are in the same key as their current Suzuki pieces. MMN has implemented a system for teaching jazz, starting with the blues scale in D and our own Make Music NOLA Blues in D. We also incorporate Irish tunes, cajun fiddle tunes, and additional blues, all in sharp keys. This process of improvisation starts around the time that our students are learning Bach minuets. After several years, our students have a Suzuki book and more than a few tunes under their belts.

In conversations with our colleagues, we found that they are working out their own approaches to similar challenges. At Upbeat NYC in Bronx, NY, students have the opportunity to play in a Latin Jazz Band. The jazz band students range in age from 5th and 6th grade all the way through seniors in high school. This is the ensemble’s third year. Their repertoire focuses on Ellington charts, including “Main Steam” and “The Mooche”, and Latin jazz tunes by composers like Paquito Rivera and Tito Puente. Although the ensemble has been around for three years, many of the students are just learning how to improvise. John Austria, UpBeat NYC’s big band director, teaches beginners to improvise using one to two chords and just three notes to start. Eventually students start trading four’s and eight’s with their teachers and repeating the patterns in a call and response technique. UpBeat NYC brings in local professionals to perform with the students and their teachers. They also encourage their students to listen to jazz as much as possible.

We also had the opportunity to learn about Intempo Music in Stamford, Connecticut, a Sistema program dedicated to teaching their students classical music and indigenous instruments. At Intempo, students learn the violin, charango, and native percussion, and sing in a multilingual choir. Each year, the orchestra puts on a cultural crossover concert. Like Make Music NOLA and Upbeat NYC, Intempo students learn through classical pedagogy. Once they learn how to play scales, they can play Latin American tunes

All three programs have the same goal – to connect their students with the culture and traditions of their community. All are working to produce students who are strong improvisers and could potentially work in their cities. Giving students the foundation to be able to play whatever kind of music they decide to love is a key element of each program. Regardless of what genre we’re working in, we can all teach our students to keep listening, keep learning, and keep playing.


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