Monday, June 25, 2012

How to hook kids on jazz: a successful case study

Gerhard Mornhinweg
On my previous post, I introduced the Conchalí Big Band, a project that has now been working successfully for 18 years with kids from an unprivileged district in Santiago, Chile, rolling social work, group therapy, and, above all, music education, all into one, in such a context that this project could have easily been dismissed as unattainable; however, in 2002 they even did a European mini-tour.

The fact that this has happened at all, and quite succesfully too, is down to two factors: the kids' enthusiasm when they're given the chance to play music, and the drive and intelligence of their leader and founder of the orchestra, Gerhard Mornhinweg (pictured).

In the video below (only in Spanish), Mornhinweg, originally a classical French horn player, explains how the orchestra came about (when he was only 22, and at a time when there was no other big band in the country), after being provided with some violins and other assorted instruments, including a sousaphone, and how the municipality supported him, even though they originally wanted a marching band and he conned them into having a jazz big band. More importantly, he also tells how he had very little experience as a teacher and how, being just slightly older than his first students, he sought his own method and soon realized that
it's not about my teaching; it's about their learning
and that
if they're not interested, we cannot teach anything.
In that very first job as a teacher he had to deal with kids living in a home for children from broken families, their imbalance between their huge enthusiasm and very little technique. Shortly afterwards, he grabbed the chance to form a band as part of a public cultural programme in Conchalí. He grins widely when he explains how the big band became a music school and at the same time he became a fully qualified teacher along the way. He notes, though, that this fundamentals remain the same:
The only way to learn is practice. That's what makes us different. My first objective was for the student not to get bored...

We have a system where, first of all, we nudge them gently towards the right instrument for them... - that is very important. The very first lesson is with the instrument, and I don't even teach them anything. I just lay out the instruments and let them see, and experiment, and in about 20 minutes, at the most, one of them will ask 'how do you play this?' That's when we have the interest. Without interest, we cannot teach, we cannot guide a learning process... I don't do much in this job, I don't teach much, I don't planify much... I give them the instrument and as they evolve I give them tips, let's listen to what you're doing, are you interested in that?

In a first stage, these students learn how to read with the instrument, and after that they have their personal tutors, which they use if and when they need them... it's a self-regulatory process, each student makes their own path, and I couldn't care less which way they go, as long as it's a good way.

Originally, this was a project to take kids off the streets. Now, this also carries a series of benefits. First, to make music they have to develop the ability to concentrate deeply... They have to work as a team... They have to develop a strong character, because it's not easy being on stage in front of a lot of people... In spite of all this, some teachers complain that the musicians are the pupils who challenge them the most in class

What I always try is to give them the chance to become professional musicians if they want to; if they don't, I give them the chance to be good amateur musicians; and if they don't want to play, that's up to them, obviously. What we achieve is that when they're done with the Big Band, they have the ability to play, even to earn some money to help them with whatever higher education they choose to follow.
At the end of the video, Mornhinweg lends a trumpet to a man in the audience who's never played, with the expected results. After he tries, Mornhinweg explains,
Can you imagine, going from that to playing a solo? They do. Do you see why I do this job?


Chris Albertson said...

Another fine entry—thank you, Fernando. Apropos introducing kids to jazz,I am reminded of a unique—and, I thought—excellent approach employed by Jeremy Steig some fifty years ago. Performing at schools and kindergartens, his group would play tunes that every child is familiar with. They rendered a straight version first, then improvised upon it. The children listened to the variations with full knowledge of of the base melody. It was both a learning and a fun experience. Jeremy told me, at that time, that the kids were amazingly quick to grasp what he called the essence of jazz.

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina said...

Thanks, Chris. I think that the opportunity to explore as individuals is one thing about jazz that should be very appealing to kids, at least for those who are musically inclined.