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Culture of an Era

Boundary County School District No. 101

“Culture of an Era” was a project undertaken by the Bonners Ferry Band students in the 2017-2018 school year.  The primary focus of the year was swing jazz.  Students researched the history of swing jazz music and recorded short historical reports that were played at the concert. In addition to the jazz band, the honor choir also participated in the concert.  A video from the concert can be seen at the link provided in the section marked “Video Sample”.

Another piece of the project was to enrich our jazz program by adding authentic jazz instruments, primarily a vibraphone and an upright bass, to our inventory and then displaying the instrument on stage at a concert. Unfortunately, funding only allowed the purchase of one instrument, so we chose the vibraphone.   Finally, we attended the North Idaho College Jazz Festival and the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival to observe musicians that demonstrated a stellar example of jazz and watched several professional vibraphonists (Daniel Bukvich and Jason Marsalis, respectively) perform.

This project was important to the students and I because it presented the opportunity to dig deeper into the roots of jazz and truly explore performance practices of swing jazz.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

How do the arts, other disciplines, contexts, and daily life inform music?

“Culture of an Era” was designed to provide students with a deeper understanding of jazz.  Two areas of focus were established from the Core Arts Standards to represent what students should know at the culmination of the project.  The first standard was to identify how cultural and historical context inform performance and results in different musical effects.

Students accomplished this standard over several months of research.  All students in the jazz band class researched broad topics from the Swing Jazz Era.  At the culmination of the project, students were assigned a specific topic to delve into more deeply and then prepare an audio presentation to be played at the “Swing Jazz” concert.

The second standard was to demonstrate performance decorum (such as stage presence, attire, and behavior) and audience etiquette appropriate for venue, purpose, context and style.

Students watched videos, including the Ken Burns documentary “Jazz” and video clips of swing jazz bands, to get a feel for decorum and etiquette.  Students then compared how current professional musicians  had adapted or maintained swing jazz performance customs in live performances at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and North Idaho College Jazz Festival.  Finally, decisions were made as a group before the “Swing Jazz” concert as to what our band wanted for our performance.  Several stylistic choices were made including staging, allowing audience members to dance, standing for solos, and concert attire.

Both standards are clearly demonstrated in the video of our “Swing Jazz” concert.

At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:

Students have been developing their performance decorum as an element of musical growth as part of this project.  They had some astute observations made at events throughout the year such as Ella’s comment about student’s attire on stage: “their dress wasn’t as professional as some of the other bands, which detracted from the performance,” she said, or Tamera’s comment concerning stage presence and behavior, “I noticed that they had a shaky stage entrance and could have lined up more properly,” she noted. “Once seated though, the band had appropriate posture which removed the sense of disorganization.”  Finally, Mia commented about a trombone soloist “owning the stage with her attitude and passion” during her solo at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.  She later stated that this was a goal she and all her fellow band students should be working to achieve.

Students also spent months researching the cultural and historical significance of Swing Jazz.  Elena, who studies the Fletcher Henderson Band noticed that “he helped to build a bridge between Dixie and Swing eras. Thanks to this band, jazz styles from New Orleans came to New York, beginning the spread of a regional musical style.”  Ryne commented, “Benny Goodman was known for leading the integration of African Americans into professional orchestra groups.  The inclusion of African Americans into jazz bands shaped the music, bringing sounds, rhythms, and insight that would not have been seen otherwise.”

Both of these Core Standards are shown on the video.

Impact

“Culture of an Era” culminated with the “Swing Jazz” concert which had a huge impact for all who attended.  Parents and students alike were raving about the concert, the combination of audio clips, student performances, and the collaboration of jazz band and choir were a hit.  Several students said, “it was their favorite concert ever,” and “can we do it again?”  The parents were impressed with the growth and learning demonstrated by the students.  They commented about “having many of the advantages enjoyed in a larger school” in response to the purchase of the vibraphone.  Many credited the opportunity to attend the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival with an increased interest in practicing and the success of the concert.  Finally, an email from the Superintendent, Gary Pflueger, following the concert said it all, “I have to say, of all the school events I attend over the years, I enjoyed this event the most!!! The student performance was excellent, well-coordinated and collaborative. I could feel the passion and love of music!”

Reflection

Looking back on “Culture of an Era” there are several changes I would consider.  First, it would be useful to document progress throughout the year with videos at each concert, allowing a final comparison at the end.  Another change that might promote the project would be additional involvement from parents.  Asking them to serve small but important roles could increase the community buy-in, as well as help parents reach a greater understanding of music and how it factors into the lives of their student.

If I were to make recommendations for a similar project, there are several elements that are important to include.  If purchasing an instrument is part of the process, shop around and call local stores. There are some fantastic deals (and not always from the internet) on high-quality brands and sometimes a lightly used instrument can save thousands of dollars!  Take students to see live performances. Nothing beats seeing it in person; even a video of the most talented musician cannot rival the real-life experience.   Finally, collaborate with colleagues, there is so much to learn from others and so much for the students to gain!

“Culture of an Era” was our most successful project to-date.  Several things worked well. The collaboration with the choir for our finale concert was a huge success. With the creation of the video there is tangible evidence of learning and our accomplishments as a band and in the performing arts department in Bonners Ferry.  The purchase of a vibraphone allowed students to participate in jazz on authentic instruments.  Finally, students saw jazz come to life in person at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

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