Speaking in Jazz: Lessons from the 2017 Thailand Jazz Workshop
Over the years, I have done a fair amount of work that is classified as Cultural Diplomacy. In my case, this typically centers around teaching and performing jazz in various countries around the world. My work in this arena has taken me to Guyana, Afghanistan, and most recently, Thailand, where for the past few years, I have taught for a week each spring at Rangsit University (about 30 minutes outside of Bangkok). The program is a collaborative effort by Jazz Education Abroad, Rangsit University, and the US Embassy in Thailand. I love doing this work and find it both a challenge and a joy to engage in, and on some level, it is nice to show others in the world that not all Americans are crazy……at least not entirely.
When you travel a lot, you begin to recognize the enormous amount of privilege you have as an American. Of course, you must allow yourself to see it as such, and some Americans may just observe things in a way as to conclude “this is just the way things are.” It is a view point afforded to those at the height of privilege, and as an American, it is in a sense, where I exist. This is not of my choice, but a product of hundreds of years of American policy, capitalism, imperialism, and many other factors I am not trying to unpack here. It is, however, my choice in how I choose to wield my privilege, and how I choose to let it inform my actions, reactions, and interactions with those of other cultures.
Teaching is already a challenge, and even more so in situations where English, as prevalent as it may be, is not spoken or understood by everyone. Thailand was no exception, but recognizing this, and owning my privilege, helps me to be an effective communicator in these situations. I am not always successful, but I am always humbled and I always learn from these experiences.
The 2017 Thailand Jazz Workshop was a week full of learning, performances, and opportunities to exchange ideas with others. During the week, over 300 students came together to learn about jazz. They came from Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Nepal, and China. They were some of the most grateful, humble, and hungry-for-knowledge students I have worked with.
Each day, I taught four classes, beginning with Improvisation at 10 am, jazz combo at 11.30 am, piano master class at 2 pm, and big band at 3.30 pm. After all that, we had faculty concerts from 5.15 pm – 6 pm, and then dinner or a concert rehearsal. The days were certainly long, but the questions from students, smiles on faces, and “thank you teacher” as they exit, make it all worthwhile.
Some of the greatest challenges during the week came with my jazz combo. I am generally given some of the youngest and least advanced students to work with, which I prefer to more advanced students. I also ended up with a wide range of abilities among this group due the sheer number of students, so some were much more advanced than others. I was also presented with a roadblock in that the only drum set in my room was an electric drum set, which sounds great in practice, but is actual the worst. Actually, it sounds horrible in every sense of the word! In the end, I was able to scavenge pieces of a drum kit and decided to take a New Orleans approach to the ensemble, which ended up working great.
The language barrier came up in this class when I discovered that only two of the students spoke English. Thinking I would have help in translating the lessons to the Thai language, I discovered one of the students was from Hong Kong, and the other from Nepal. None of the Thai students spoke English, and none of the English speakers spoke a lick of the Thai language. Music, however, is somewhat universal, and I was able to teach through singing and common musical terms.
The second challenge was that my large ensemble, called the Zebra Ensemble, (a term from Dan Herle at North Texas) consisted of 13 piano players, two drummers, and two bass players.
In the end, I tend to thrive in these challenging situations. I have found myself to be resourceful and adaptable in arenas that others would find challenging. In fact, I seek these situations out and use them as a way to continue to improve my teaching. Being curious and willing to take risks is something that has served me well. After all, the place of being uncomfortable is where we tend to learn the most, and one doesn’t learn by staying in the same lane.