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Schoolhouse Jazz!

by on June 21, 2012 12:53 PM

By Amy King

Sarah Zschunke is fresh and upbeat, just as you would expect a new teacher to be. She came to Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High School two years ago straight from her undergraduate studies, and she brought with her enthusiasm to her job as the senior/junior high instrumental music teacher.

“It’s no secret that music is important for a well-rounded education,” she asserts. “I take that to heart in my teaching.”

There are numerous studies as to why music is significant in the educational life of a student. Catherine Dupuis, a jazz vocalist who is president of JazzPA’s Summer Jazz Celebration held each year in Bellefonte, says that “all music is necessary for developing the brain and its different connective ways of communicating between its parts and then to the senses, the memory, and on into the body. Study after study proves how much better students who have access to music listening and participation score on standard and other tests. Participating in music is so much more than ‘just having a period off’ or ‘having a social opportunity.’ Music is real learning and helps the brain learn how to learn better, more efficiently, and more quickly. The academic payoffs are amazing, real, and beautiful.”

When it comes to the music performed by high school students, the first image many have is of the marching bands that perform at football games. But in Centre County’s five school districts, music teachers also are emphasizing another genre — jazz.

“This is a developing jazz band,” Zschunke says of her efforts. “At times, it’s hard for them to decipher exactly what jazz is about, so we’re working together to appreciate some of the classics. I keep the kids involved and interested by giving them a say in some of the songs we play. And they enjoy pop music. There are some nice jazz arrangements of these current songs, so pop music is the carrot I dangle when I want to introduce something ‘new’ — typically an older tune.”

Bellefonte High School’s director of bands Jay Zimmerman would say that, in part, jazz is important to teach because it’s the only American musical form. But it goes deeper than that.

“Jazz is so personal, so individualized, and you’ve got to be in tune with what’s going on around you,” he says. “It’s an expression of what you’re feeling inside. Because of that, it demands a higher level of musicianship.”

This way of thinking is in tune with that of State College High School’s band director Paul Leskowicz. When asked why jazz music is essential in developing young musicians, he visibly pauses and considers his answer. When he speaks, his passion is palpable.

“It’s a great democracy,” he says. “Everyone has an equal voice to this ensemble. Within that, you have a sense of musical manners that can translate into life as a human. When someone else talks, you listen, even within spontaneous dialogue. You share emotions. You interact and celebrate with each other.”

His fervor reaches his students, many of whom feel as though experiencing jazz has helped mold them into better performers today.

Eva Mei Shouse, a recent graduate, began playing jazz roughly 2 ½ years ago. “They needed a pianist in Jazz I, and I originally went in [to audition] as a favor to a friend. A few years later, the jazz program has helped my musicality and gotten me involved with other various ensembles.”

Rei Phillippi, also a recent State High alum, knew from a young age that he wanted to continue in higher education with music. He’s an alto-saxophone player who started with jazz at the middle school level in State College and continued to work his way up. When he contemplates what jazz has taught him, he says, “It’s great that we have so many opportunities through jazz. We have the chance to solo, to improvise, and to make mistakes. Jazz band has forced me to listen to all styles of music, truly enhancing my musical capabilities.”

Zschunke fosters the love for jazz in her young musicians by generating directive roles. “Jazz naturally creates leadership within a group,” she says. “It incorporates everyone as they all have a certain responsibility. Your part is fundamental — it’s key. Students crave that even if they don’t think they do.”

Recently completing her sophomore year at Philipsburg, Cassie Lewis agrees. “Parts really stand out in jazz band. Your individual component is important, and it takes a lot of practice!”

Zschunke says, “The idea of teaching jazz used to scare me, but surprisingly, now it’s the favorite part of my job. It’s relaxed, organic. Best of all, it allows my students to be creative.”

Creativity abounds in the music room at Penns Valley High School. Although it has been a transitional year for Darris DeRemer, the future looks brighter. DeRemer, in his current position for the first year, has high hopes for increasing participation in the jazz ensemble. His high level of energy and attitude of being there to help his students succeed should help garner those positive results.

His focus is on being a partner with his students, and he assists them in taking charge of their own educations. One way he exhibits this ideal is through allowing his jazz students to help pick their repertoire.

“I look at many factors when picking our repertoire,” he explains. “First, I look at our current inventory, coupled with our instrumentation and ability level. I search for which techniques can be taught through the music, and I narrow items down that way. From a list I give them, my students then vote on a few pieces. It makes them feel like they’re contributing, and turns out as a team effort.”

Of course, he has certain expectations for the finished product of a number. “There’s a reason the classics are classics,” he laughs. “No matter how many times you may hear or play a song, there is something to be learned from those standards.”

With that being said, it’s important to him that his ensemble makes a piece its own. “We listen to jazz but not necessarily the piece we’re working on,” he explains. “I don’t want the kids to play ‘Count Basie’s version’ of a song — I want them to play ‘Penns Valley’s adaptation’ and make it authentic.”

He emotes, “I challenge them to feed their souls and their minds.”

Kellie Long faces challenges head-on as the band director at her alma mater, Bald Eagle Area High School. Her background is as a classical flute player, and she never thought she’d enjoy teaching a high school jazz band the way that she does. In addition to her instruction, she looks to progress along with her students.

“I strive to continue learning and improving my own jazz skills with them,” she says. “Jazz is so different from classical playing. I find that the most difficult part is introducing jazz styles to any new members. Teaching the concept of ‘swinging’ notes versus playing notes ‘straight’ is tough in the beginning.

“Another test is teaching students to gain the self-confidence in their own musical abilities to improvise — and when that one student who never wants to improvise volunteers to play a solo, it’s the best!”

When asked what jazz means on a personal level, she reflects, “Jazz is such a different language than classical music that a lot of people, unfortunately, do not appreciate or understand. I am very fortunate to have jazz in my curriculum at Bald Eagle. Because of this, I see my students grow as musicians and develop a musical confidence in themselves. There is no greater joy than that!”

Zimmerman has been teaching music just shy of 30 years. His approach in teaching jazz is to expose his band by introducing them, first and foremost, to the standards. “They need to know them,” he states simply. “There has to be that historical perspective.”

When picking his performing repertoire, he sticks with a simplistic approach. “I’ll often pick a song I like,” he says. “The kids may have a little input, and if I find an arrangement of their suggestion, I’ll take a look at it. Mainly, it needs to be a piece that meshes with the group as a whole.”

He is a stout believer in listening to the pieces his band is going to perform; he enjoys exposing his students through musical footage. “There is an infectious feeling when you hear a recording,” he says. “Listening to music makes you a better musician — especially in jazz.”

When it comes to high school jazz bands, State High’s has set a high standard not only in the county but also in the country. It has received 37 consecutive years of “Superior” ratings in festivals and competitions. The band has made five tours of Europe and has performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, at Disneyland Paris, at the Umbria Jazz Festival, at Jazz a Vienne and Jazz a Juan in France, and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. It has been finalist four times for the Essentially Ellington Competition, and, in April 2010, the band performed at the Swing Central Festival in Savannah, Georgia.

This year’s band also won superior ratings at jazz events held at Rowan University in New Jersey, Penn State University, State College Area High School, and New York City, and will be touring Europe.

Leskowicz credits much of the success of the music program to Richard Victor, his predecessor who retired one year ago after 37 years of teaching service. “The program here has had decades worth of legacy musicians,” Leskowicz asserts.

Two of these are Greg Johnson and Billy Test. Johnson and Test graduated from State High in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Johnson says with conviction that his heart is in music. Although he has known since middle school that he wanted to be a musical professional, he didn’t find definitive direction until his college years.

After two years at Penn State, he transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to major in jazz studies. While there, he discovered his love of writing music. “It lit a fire within me where I continually want to create new music,” he says. He is continuing his studies at the University of Southern California.

When he ponders what jazz means on a personal level, he says, “Jazz, to me, is a combination of techniques from every style of music. I like to think about the ‘pure’ elements of any genre — those being melody, harmony, and rhythm as the focal points of music. This means that Beethoven, John Coltrane, and Steely Dan all have equal influence on me. The process of continually growing and understanding these three elements has been my life’s work so far.”

While at State High for only his senior year after transferring, Test had a goal to become as complete a musician as he possibly could. He realized this goal by being involved in several musical ensembles, including jazz band. By this point, he knew he wanted to continue on with jazz throughout his life. He had seen the Count Basie Orchestra in concert one summer, and from that experience, he was hooked.

“I remember being floored by how much fun everyone was having,” he says. “I left the concert with such a feel-good high, and I think that really opened my eyes to the idea of doing jazz as a career. I wanted to do something that left me feeling that good every day as well as making somebody who would take the time to listen feel the same way.

“As I get older, the idea of ‘jazz’ almost becomes synonymous with ‘freedom.’ There’s a liberating sensation when everything lines up that allows anything to happen or go anywhere at any time. I love that about performing jazz. The music needs a connection between the performer and the audience, and the spontaneity of being in the moment encourages this. Jazz has come to define the essence of my personality and my life.”

The State High Jazz Band along with the Bellefonte Jazz Band will be performing at this year’s Summer Jazz Celebration, held July 27-28. Dupuis says performing in a jazz band requires a different kind of “listening, interplay, and trust” as opposed to the experience of participating in marching or concert bands.

“The jazz idiom requires huge listening on the part of all the players, particularly where improvisation is concerned,” she says. “This complex, multifaceted understanding requires tremendous communication between many parts of the brain, creating conduits that are then available when other learning is happening, whether it be history, math, science, literature, athletics, or cooking.”

Leskowicz eloquently adds, “Jazz is a collection of people from different walks of life coming together to express the very depths of their beings. It is undeniably American.”

Amy King is a contributor to Town&Gown, and teaches preschool at Grace Lutheran Preschool & Kindergarten. She lives in State College with her husband and three children.

Amy King is a contributor to Town&Gown, and teaches preschool at Grace Lutheran Preschool & Kindergarten. She lives in State College with her husband and three children.
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