Improvising around COVID-19

CMS-D keeps the jazz playing.

Photo of Remote CMS-D class with Marion Hayden
Acclaimed Detroit jazz artist, jazz historian, bandleader, and bassist Marion Hayden leads a remote class of CMS-D students in the Spartan Youth Jazz Orchestra.

With a little “Spartans Will,” a lot of innovation, and support from a long-time foundation partner, the MSU Community Music School-Detroit has ensured that Detroit area youth continue to receive high-quality jazz education despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In late March when stay-at-home orders were announced, CMS-D became one of the few music education organizations in Detroit to pivot almost immediately to online, interactive teaching and learning. The quick thinking of faculty and staff kept kids engaged and moving forward in a time of uncertainty.

Since then, faculty in the Spartan Youth Jazz Program have implemented a fully interactive, online instruction model that, like before, delivers group instruction twice a week to aspiring middle and high school jazz musicians. About 40 students interact each week in one or more virtual classrooms, using a combination of Zoom video-conferencing and music production technology.

MSU Jazz Studies alumnus Chris Glassman (MM ’19) is among the faculty teaching individual students and leading ensembles through Spartan Youth Jazz. Before stay-at-home mandates, Glassman came to CMS-D every Wednesday to provide studio instruction on the trombone/bass trombone, teach advanced jazz electives and direct a student combo ensemble. Now, he works remotely from Lansing, leveraging technology to teach.

“Right from the start the message from our leadership was ‘we’re not going to let anything stop us from teaching, because that’s how Detroit rolls,’” Glassman said. “At CMS-D, we’re here to teach. That’s what we do.”

Photo of Spartan Youth Jazz Orchestra
Back when in-person classes were safe, students like this group from the Spartan Youth Jazz Orchestra had lessons together. Thanks to CMS-D leadership, these students can now take advantage of online instruction.

Online continuity

Director of CMS-D Jill Woodward said the innovative online model allows students to preserve the important relationships they have with their instructors through interactive learning, recording technology, apps and software workarounds. Students also access weekly assignments and video tutorials through a Google site. Perhaps most important, Woodward said, is that these activities provide weekly structure and continuity for students as social distancing and other challenges reshape their lives.

“Jazz music is so much about conversation, connection and the human experience,” Woodward said. “We are finding that the emotional sustenance students get from being able to socialize with their peers during this time of isolation is significant, as is the support they get from our caring faculty.”

Glassman said the 80 to 90 percent attendance rate through the program’s online platform speaks to the devotion of the students and their families. Many students, he said, have told him their lives are more stressful since their schools switched to online learning. But they also shared that the virtual studio environment offered by CMS-D is a welcome outlet—similar to how it had been when it was an in-person activity.

“Keeping in touch with our students is more important than ever,” Glassman said. “Not only is this an extracurricular activity that’s uniquely theirs, the students are continuing to get interaction that enables them to grow and feel satisfied.”

While Glassman said there has been a need to occasionally work around the limitations of remote learning, the youth have a comfort level with technology that enables them to pick up quickly and adapt. Many are inspired and using recording technology to prepare for possible digital performances at the end of the term.

“Some students really thrive in digital environments,” he said. “We’re seeing some students open up and explore more, especially those who we’ve sensed are intimidated by personal interaction.”

Trust and support

The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation has supported jazz instruction at CMS-D since 2009. They fully backed CMS-D’s desire to re-envision its curriculum online to keep kids learning and faculty employed. The resulting vision provided a unique opportunity for young people to learn new technology applications and for faculty to adapt teaching methodologies, generating a brand new template for online jazz education.

“With the support of the Erb Foundation, we were able to create a new and successful model for teaching jazz ensemble music online,” said Woodward. “They trusted us to creatively overcome the logistical challenges of what musicians know as internet latency, which prevents musicians from playing online in real-time. We are so grateful that the students can continue to access their passion.”

Erb Family Foundation President Neil Hawkins said the founder’s love of jazz prompted him to support organizations that provide training and education for any student interested in the jazz art form. The Erb Family Foundation’s 10-year partnership with CMS-D reflects its preference for long-term relationships with organizations aligned with its mission, and provides flexibility in the way that grants are applied.

“We are only two months into this pandemic, so by providing flexibility to our grantees, it enables them to be responsive in deploying new methods and technology in serving their students,” he said. “CMS-D has aggressively pursued that as evidenced in Spartan Youth Jazz programming, and we appreciate that they are so open-minded and intensely focused on delivering high quality education for students in a very challenging environment.”

As spring comes to an end, Glassman reflects on the ability of Spartan Youth Jazz faculty, students and supporters to pull together and come out the other side of an extreme challenge.

“Jazz musicians are improvisers,” he said. “We always have to be expecting situations you think aren’t going to happen. It’s all about the skill of recovery —getting thrown a curve ball and coming up with a response.”

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