It ain't necessarily so hard to learn jazz

29th August 2008 at 01:00
It's time we overhauled the music curriculum and allowed improvisation, says singer Humie Webb

Classically trained music teachers are not always best at getting pupils to improvise, says gospel singer Humie Webb. She believes passionately that many lessons in Britain's schools fall flat because pupils are not given the freedom to make and develop their own music.

Ms Webb, from Cardiff, is working to put some soul into the music curriculum, helping teachers introduce jazz into their lessons to get the most from their pupils.

She is to lead an innovative professional development event featuring some of Britain's top jazz educators. Teachers will be asked to bring an instrument and take part in workshops at the first Jazz in Education Day to be held in central London on Saturday October 25.

Ms Webb, who has sung in church choirs since she was five and frequents former haunts of the diva Shirley Bassey, has long been on the Welsh jazz and choir circuit as a performer and concert organiser. More recently she has become involved in youth and music policy.

While there are outposts of excellence in Wales, such as Caerphilly music and arts service, which won four National Music Council diplomas in successive years, jazz remains an unknown quantity in many Welsh schools, Ms Webb said.

"Music education is in need of an overhaul," she said, "and it's recognised that too few classroom teachers have an understanding of teaching jazz. Classical teachers are competent readers but some are lost without the dots.

"The idea of jazz is to put your own stamp on things. If you're teaching young people jazz or gospel, it is about getting them to free up their vocal ability.

"We're trying to raise its profile and see how techniques can be brought into the classroom. If we can give them some simple guidelines and tools, they can pass those on to students."

Often, she said, teachers need to change their mindset and understand that with improvisation something is not simply right or wrong. "It's all about getting them (the pupils) to use their ears. This is something I've found they struggle with."

The number of music GCSE entrants in Wales fell 2.6 per cent this year to 3,779, down from 3,878 in 2007. But music remains one of the most successful subjects outside the sciences in terms of results, with 79.3 per cent of entrants gaining the top A*-C grades, and 99.3 per cent over all passing the subject.

But generating an interest in jazz in Welsh schools cannot be driven by policy alone.

This year Ms Webb was asked by Jim Smith, director of the Brecon jazz festival, to organise an event for the Hay festival. In five weeks she created a choir of 80 children from four local primaries. "We taught them three greats: `It Ain't Necessarily So', `I've Got Rhythm' and `It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It'," she said.

"Hopefully it will develop and next year a jazz choir will perform at Brecon. The festival wants us to work with schools further south, around Merthyr and Cardiff."

The Jazz in Education event may be the first chance teachers have had to work together, Ms Webb said. "The idea is that in future we'll hold it in different locations across the UK; perhaps next year in Wales, then Scotland and Ireland." and search for October 2008


- Seek out seminal jazz pieces and learn them.

- Try and experience different styles.

- Observe workshops where possible.

- Visit jazz venues.

- Revisit simple exercises, such as clapping, to develop rhythm.

- Do not be afraid to learn from your pupils.


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