Good Bandstand Behavior: Discipline, Focus, Respect

How to encourage and enforce good behavior on the bandstand

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Paul Carr leading his Jazz Academy Orchestra

If the students in his rehearsal room at Camden’s Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy start to get restless, unruly or unfocused, Jamal Dickerson simply points to an empty spot on the wall. The average observer might search in vain for the object of Dickerson’s gesture, but his students know exactly what he’s pointing out, as vivid in their minds as if it were etched in stone.

“There’s an unwritten rule on the wall that no one can see except the students and I,” says Dickerson, who’s been the Director of Bands and Instrumental Music Teacher at the New Jersey middle and high school for over 15 years. “It says: ‘It’s not about music; it’s about life.’”

While he’s guided his students, who hail from a city regularly described as one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous, to scholarships and award-winning festival performances, Dickerson says that instilling discipline is a far more crucial part of his job than any music lesson could be. “How important is discipline on the bandstand? I would answer that question with a question,” he says. “I would say, ‘How important is discipline to being successful in life?’

“Discipline by definition is strict and regular mental or moral training,” he continues. “We’re here to develop the hard-work muscle. Because if you develop the hard-work muscle, then you’ll be successful at whatever you plan on doing. It’s like my father used to say, ‘You have to impose discipline until they develop self-discipline.’ So every day we’re going to come back to the same boring room and practice discipline in every way—the way we look, the way we walk, the way we act.”

That sentiment is echoed by saxophonist Bob Mintzer, Chair of Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It’s critical to develop good habits in your formative years, because this is something you’re going to work on for your whole life,” he says. “It’s so important to have a strong work ethic. That’s going to be the foundation for getting work, keeping work and getting called back.”

Discipline, focus, respect: These can be challenging concepts to grasp for young men and women on the cusp of adulthood, many of them tasting independence for the first time in their lives. So while a teacher may want to concentrate on instrumental technique or harmonic theory, reality often intrudes. “I think the smaller part of my job sometimes is teaching,” says trumpeter Terell Stafford, Chair of Instrumental Studies and Director of Jazz Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I should have gotten a degree in psychology, because the biggest part of my job is speaking to students and helping them work through problems and issues. It’s a challenge, but I do believe that discipline and focus can be taught.”

For Stafford, that means treating every class or rehearsal as if it were a professional gig. “Every time we’re together it’s a performance setting,” he says. “The way they act, the way they carry themselves; let’s have posture, let’s have attention to detail, teamwork, listening and respect, just as you would in a performance. If you do it in rehearsal, in performance it’s second nature. But if you only instill those principles in a performance, then they never get a chance to really rehearse them.”

That said, different musicians and educators have different approaches to instilling good behavior on the bandstand. Where Stafford encourages a more formal environment, perhaps reflecting his early training in classical music, Mintzer prefers to keep things a bit looser. “I like having fun,” he shrugs. “When I started my big band in New York, it was full of a cast of characters and it was a lot of fun just to partake in the patter that would happen on the bandstand. So I’m not a hardcore disciplinarian. Having fun is all good by me, as long as it doesn’t wind up being a distraction. If we’re in the middle of rehearsing or discussing something important, I don’t want people fooling around. But generally I don’t have to bring it up. Most people realize when it’s time to stop kidding and get serious.”

Saxophonist Paul Carr, founder and Executive Director of the Maryland/D.C.-based Jazz Academy of Music, which hosts summer camps and year-round jazz ensembles for high school-age students, and Jazz Band Director at Gettysburg College, explains that being too strict can actually hamper students’ imaginations. “Jazz is a social music; that’s how it was born and bred,” he says. “We’ve turned it into this hyper-intellectual sit-down music and put it in big concert halls, but jazz grew out of people having a good time. The way that kids are taught today is actually anti-creativity. Everything is a formula, so when it comes time to be creative it’s very intimidating to them, even if they’re really prepared musically. So making it fun, having them smile, keeping them loose, actually makes the music better.”

Students arriving at college or a jazz camp come together with other musicians from a variety of educational and skill levels, which could easily result in disrespectful comments or complaints. Carr overcomes that challenge by making respect a self-policed quality, as his students critique one another in a daily exercise he calls the “Cocoon of Love.” “Every day at JAM Camp a group comes up to play and the kids critique themselves,” he says. “They learn how to say something to somebody without hurting their feelings, because they know five minutes later they’re going to be up there. So if someone misses an entrance or someone turns the beat around when we’re trading fours, they’ll point that out in a more constructive way. At that age there’s always some smart aleck who’s going to say something a little mean, but the whole camp gets down on them. Most of the time the faculty doesn’t have to say anything.”

Dickerson has built his entire program around such self-reliance, as each class in the four-year high school program plays its role in relation to fellow students. “The system of discipline is vertical,” he says. “We critique one another, and everyone knows the rule is to first tell them what they’re doing well, then one aspect of their performance that needs some improvement. Everyone has to be listening, actively engaged in what we’re doing. Doing this day after day, the freshmen’s eyes glaze over, but by the time you’re a sophomore you understand it. The juniors are the enforcers, while the seniors start to focus on getting out of here. It’s a well-oiled machine: encouraging to the ninth-graders, affirming for the sophomores, the juniors drive the bus and the seniors pass the torch. I become a coach on the sidelines.

The modern age offers its own challenges, as perpetually distracted teens and 20-somethings now have an outlet for those distractions in the palms of their hands. The umbilical link that students have to their smartphones inspired Carr to fight fire with fire, inventing the hashtag #ResistYourPhone as a reminder for JAM campers. “When you cut the band off and you’re explaining something or you’re in a coaching session with a combo, as soon as the attention turns away from an individual they go right to their phone,” he says. “So I started a rule where I don’t want to see your cellphones in rehearsal. But the attention spans are so short that when you’re teaching now you have to remember to say the same exact thing four or five times—minimum—maybe within a span of five minutes. We’re in such a mind trance with these devices, which annoys a lot of educators, but I just look at it as the way of the world now.”

Many teachers maintain a love/hate relationship with such devices. Stafford points out that tablets are now a regular presence on the bandstand as a limitless resource for sheet music, which has changed the way young musicians learn tunes. “We’re an information society,” Stafford says with an edge of resignation. “When I was growing up, if there was a tune you didn’t know, you learned it. You knew not to bring music on the bandstand. These days kids bring iPads, so there’s no such thing as memorizing tunes; everybody can just flip to a page in seconds and pull up music. If being able to pop on YouTube is going to help them learn, then I support that. But if they’re doing it in a disrespectful way, checking out the Internet during rehearsal, that’s a big problem and something I really don’t tolerate.”

That said, individual responsibility has to play a role in forming discipline as well. As Mintzer says, “If you don’t want to learn, I’m not going to force you to learn. I’m not going to hold your hand. You’re paying a lot of money to be at this school, and I’m from the tradition that if you don’t do the work, you fail. An F grade doesn’t mean nearly as much as getting out into the world and not being prepared, so if someone gets thrown out of the program, maybe that’s a good message that they’re not going to be prepared when they get out of school.”

Aside from imposing rules on students, there are subtler ways to inspire discipline: dress, for one. “I tell students that someone on Wall Street is dressed the way they dress because they have respect for their job and their community, so they do the same,” Stafford says

Carr agrees, saying, “When our forefathers were playing jazz, they always looked great. When you look a certain way, it tells the audience how seriously you take what you’re doing. When you ask a non-musician what they’re doing, they say they’re going to ‘see’ so-and-so play. If everybody wears whatever they want, some people have holes in their jeans, they’re up there without a smile on their face, looking disinterested as soon as they finish their solo, and that’s what the people are taking in.”

But again, where some are strict, other educators see more wiggle room. Mintzer remembers facing a particularly SoCal issue with one student. “We had one kid who never wore shoes,” he recalls with a chuckle. “He’d show up for a concert in a tux and barefoot. You have to take into consideration that people who are 18 to 22 years old are not yet formed as mature, coherent people, and they’re trying things, they’re searching, they might be doing some things that on the outside seem somewhat peculiar. I think back to when I was that age, and I was a handful. So I’m tolerant of these young folks—within reason. Eventually I told him, ‘In certain situations, you’ve gotta put some shoes on.’ But other than that I left him alone and he’s doing just fine.”

Perhaps the most important method a teacher can employ—especially those with their own professional credentials—is to lead by example. Stafford directs his own big band, the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, and opens the ensemble’s on-campus rehearsals to interested students. “They get the opportunity to see how respectful and well disciplined their teachers are,” he says. “When you can get students out to live performances and rehearsals, they can see that their heroes and mentors are for the most part good human beings and treat each other with respect. Even with professional musicians you have some knuckleheads, but it’s important that teachers get students out to see the quality of teamwork.”

Mintzer points to his nearly three-decade tenure in Yellowjackets as living proof of the benefits of mutual respect. “If you create any sort of drama or sense of tension it’s going to be picked up on immediately, and there’s just no time for that,” he says. “In the Yellowjackets there might be disagreements, but they’re talked through in a respectful fashion and there’s a profound level of gratitude that we all get to play together. You don’t want to bring your laundry to the bandstand. You generally want to have a positive, optimistic demeanor when you’re playing music. Be on time, be prepared, practice your music and be a team player.”