Planting Seeds: Cultivating a Healthy Jazz Program

Natalie Wilson • January 2024Jazz Club • January 8, 2024

Adapted from “Five Steps for Growing a Healthy Crop”
Hungry For Truth blog from the South Dakota Soybean Farmers, August 2023

Music educators and soybean farmers share common practices. Just as soybean farmers in South Dakota prepare for growing a healthy crop, so must our music educators prepare for cultivating a healthy jazz program. When one considers where music education begins, the elementary school music program is the most fertile ground for planting seeds of jazz education.

Consider this. Throughout the United States, most elementary schools have a music program where all students attend. And yet, not all elementary students will continue in music throughout secondary school. The exposure to jazz music and activities in the elementary general music program might encourage more students to participate in secondary jazz programs and beyond. Student participation may also introduce their families to jazz who may become aficionados and continue to support the genre. As the farmer sows all the seeds for the crops, not all will take root. The same is in education. Planting seed of ideas creates interest and often develops into a life-long appreciation. The possibility of a fuller, healthier jazz program in this case, is more likely if the following steps are to take place.

Preparing the Program – (Preparing Fields)

Initial preparations begin with the undergraduate music education programs. Future jazz educators need to be reminded of their elementary music experiences. Generally, these memories are far removed from the thoughts of collegiate students who loved their secondary jazz experiences and desire to carry them on in their own careers. However, by introducing future educators to activities, lessons, and other jazz opportunities for younger learners, they may consider teaching at the elementary level. Jazz education will then collectively reach more students through knowledgeable educators and exposure to jazz lessons.

Throughout elementary general music programs, the basic foundations of music are taught. Educators should integrate and use jazz as a vehicle for teaching steady beat, form, listening, rhythms, movement and more. Additionally, while considering multicultural diversity in music and curriculum programming, remember jazz is American cultural music and it should also be included in General Music programming.

Through advance planning, positive experiences and planting these seeds of knowledge, elementary students will have greater potential to continue through their secondary vocal or instrumental jazz programs. At the very least, jazz artists will have greater support in their audiences because the students have gained understanding of the genre.

Monitoring Progress – (Monitoring Crops)

Educators know the needs of our classes/ensembles and are resourceful to provide the best experiences and opportunities. Flexibility is key. Know your students and their abilities. Constantly monitor and adjust during class and rehearsals for guiding students to their greatest potential. 

What can you do if your class is not excited about your choices? Try again with enthusiasm and select a different example. Consider tempo, meter, instrumental/vocal/combination, style: swing, shuffle, Latin, funk, blues, etc. There are so many options within the jazz genre from which to choose. When selecting songs with lyrics, be sure they are appropriate for the age of the students. Just as a farmer would monitor the crop from planting to harvest, monitor the progress of your lesson/activity from start to finish. Seek additional resources to develop the program with a variety of activities.

It is within the daily growth process for both students and educators where we see the developments and adjust accordingly. Keep notes of your jazz activities used in class and build upon them with additional resources. In elementary general music programs or undergraduate music education programs, recognize the students’ acceptance of using jazz examples and build upon their response.

Adapting to Conditions

Regardless of our best made plans, each class or rehearsal depends on the people and the mood in the room. Educators must be prepared yet realize we must be flexible. Jazz educators are especially adept at improvising not only musically, but instinctively as well. This ability to adapt accordingly is paramount. The improvisatory nature of jazz is quite helpful in providing a quick turn when something isn’t quite working. Fill your personal bag of resources to use in this case and lean into your improvisation skills. Secure some listening examples, recordings for movement or steady beat, jazz lesson videos, word search puzzles of jazz artists/terms, call and response ideas, read aloud books, and more.

Rely on your ability to be creative in the elementary general music programs. Our younger learners in elementary school are very good at that. They are adaptable and generally ready to do almost anything that engages their learning. It also is the prime opportunity in their brain development to introduce new things. Therefore, if you can include a variety of jazz experiences, it’s likely the interest in jazz music will take root within more students. Try not to get discouraged if the initial results are not as expected. If jazz is new to your community, understand it may take some effort to hook and engage your learners. Take risks, lean on your strengths, present with enthusiasm, and prepare for wonderful outcomes. 

Timing Outcomes – (Timing Harvest)

Timing is everything when it comes to preparing our lessons, planning for assessments, presenting lessons/performance, or communicating with our target audiences. Secondary ensembles typically have this dialed in via their concert performances throughout the year, which are typically the outcomes from the rehearsals. 

Outcomes in the general music programs are not always based on seasonal ensemble performances. Using jazz as a vehicle for teaching foundational music concepts will allow for multiple outcome opportunities through the year – and sometimes daily. Prepare for long- and short-term outcomes to assess the success of your program. 

Just as farmers harvest and present their crops within specific seasons, elementary educators can do the same. Perhaps prepare a grade level performance piece with jazz influences. Use this as an opportunity to also educate your audience and introduce future programs and/or activities. 

If you prefer a seasonal opportunity to publicly showcase student learning and their jazz repertoire, the month of April is national “Jazz Appreciation Month”.  Sponsored by the Smithsonian Jazz Institute, this is a wonderful time to acknowledge jazz education, by including performance opportunities and to share some jazz history. Invite a local school or professional jazz artist or ensemble to share the stage with you or present a lesson in your classroom. This will also strengthen the vertical alignment of the programs.

Improving for the Future 

The future of jazz education is rooted in a student’s first experience or exposure to jazz. This responsibility lies in the hands of the elementary music specialist as they reach the greatest population of students. Elementary music educators will potentially make or break the student’s musical future. Even with limited jazz education abilities, introducing a few key components within the curriculum will greatly enhance the potential of students to appreciate and participate in jazz.

As we look at the current state of PK-12 jazz education, the greatest opportunity for improvement is to plant seeds at the elementary level. Few general music educators embrace the teaching of jazz within their programs along with their Orff, Kodaly, and other methodologies. And yet, in many ways, the teachings overlap, so there is the opportunity for a nice marriage of approaches. Exposing elementary and future music educators to this possibility through workshops, conferences, collaborations, guest artists, exchanges, festivals, and more will potentially create greater acceptance through their exposure to jazz activities and lessons.

Understand that passionate future jazz educators in undergraduate programs will often desire the secondary experience from which they just came. In looking at the potential reasons why, it likely has to do with their most recent exposure to the craft. If a change is going to be made in jazz education and PK-12 programs, we need also to consider assessing, modifying, and adjusting the undergraduate music education programs. It is there where our future educators gain experiences to guide their interests.


Cultivating a healthy jazz program needs to begin with jazz education programs and elementary general music educators. If the elementary programs do not provide exposure to jazz, then the potential academic level of jazz preK-12 and beyond is diminished. Music educators are continually in a state of learning and growing along with our students. Undergraduate music education programs should be encouraged to include exposure, activities, and options for teaching jazz at the elementary level. 

Educators at all levels must continue to seek new resources, music, and opportunities for our students. We constantly monitor and adjust to reach our greatest potential, just as farmers are with their crops. Celebrate successes, identify learning opportunities, and establish new goals for future lessons. It is important we assess the outcomes from our student experiences and use those to guide and create future jazz opportunities for them. 

From planting seeds of ideas to witnessing the outcomes within our education programs, music educators and soybean farmers share the same practices. Five steps to cultivating a healthy jazz program: preparing the program, monitoring progress, adapting to conditions, timing outcomes, and improving for the future all begin by expanding the educational experiences for all students and instilling examples of jazz with our youngest learners. If we can increase the number of elementary music educators creating exposure to a jazz education, we will be able to cultivate a greater number of jazz musicians and develop stronger audiences who will continue to support jazz with an appreciation that lasts a lifetime.

Natalie Wilson is a member of the Jazz Education Network where she serves on the education committee. 

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