IN JAZZ, playing (or going) “outside” refers to when an improvising musician leaves the harmonic progression or tonal center of a song, creating dissonance, new textures, or shifting tonalities. The soloist temporarily leaves the confines and expectations of the familiar structure and searches to express something new and unpredictable.
The improviser can explore this territory for as long as they wish, returning to the “inside” as a resolution–harmonically, melodically, or formally. In the process, the musician has stretched their ears and played something new and in-the-moment; the listener has experienced something deviant and unexpected. Every participant is changed by this brief experiment.
For the GDS Jazz and Creative Music program, the concept of going outside captures our approach to how we play and where we play. Since 2015, I have invited students to reach out to their peers in the program and form small groups to participate in jazz festivals and performances around the country. In doing so, I have asked them to leave the comfort zone of School to interact with new environments and new people in about half a dozen cities a year–most recently Orlando, where we attended the Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference.
When I say “we,” I’m referring to the contingent of musicians in the program who choose to travel. The program consists of five curricular ensembles with a total of 70 students: two lab bands, a chamber ensemble, a large ensemble, and an Upper Level band (currently called Soggy Closet) for seniors. I cannot require these students to go out of town for all our trips, which is why I let them arrange their own smaller groups for travel purposes. I register them for the events, and watch them perform. I want them to have ownership of the performance and engagement with the judges and audiences.
Don’t get me wrong. The classroom is a safe space to learn, create, take chances, and fail. The bandstand is no different. But attending rehearsals two to three times a week and performing for friends and family creates an insular environment. It is important for students to leave the confines of home and evaluate themselves on a large scale, holding themselves to standards set by their heroes on the records and finding out where they fit in the big picture and the global community.
By going outside, students learn to apply skills learned in the classroom to their own, self-guided ensembles. They choose like-minded bandmates, select a repertoire that reflects their approach and taste, and create arrangements that display their understanding of jazz practices while highlighting their personal style. They learn to live life on the road, room with their peers, and appropriately pack for themselves and their performances–bringing music, instruments, spare reeds, strings, and other necessities. They attend masterclasses with professional musicians, hear local high school and college bands play, and place themselves in the spotlight by leading their own bands in public and adjudicated performances.
Feedback from outside the GDS community can be an exciting and affirming event, or it can be soul-crushing when the performances do not go as planned. And that’s how students learn some hard truths about being a musician.
A certain investment and energy is needed to traverse long distances and play for people who don’t know who you are. They don’t know that you have driven 12 hours the day before and couldn’t rehearse. They don’t care that you play three instruments and crush it in class. So young musicians have to grapple with key issues: Do I know what I’m doing? Can I succeed in an unfamiliar place? Can I capture the energy from the audience and express my artistic vision in real time?
As with music, going “outside” to perform takes confidence, preparation, and conviction. The student must be unafraid of failure and commit to the journey. The beauty of this music and life as an improviser is that nothing is permanent. You get another opportunity to create.
Drums • Feedback from the Outside
Cameron Salehizadeh ʼ23
Soggy Closet, Upper Level Band
As a freshman in 2020, our student-led ensemble had been playing together for only a few months before we went to the Elon Jazz Festival [at Elon University]. I remember we were in a big theater–me, a saxophonist, a pianist, a bassist, and a vibraphonist. We played three songs, and afterwards, the judges gave us feedback for about 30 minutes and a number score. We were beginners, and the professional musicians gave us an earful.
They weren’t mean; they were just honest. I was one measure late on my entrance to the song “Tenderly,” and I assumed they wouldn’t pick up on it. But they knew immediately and called me out on it during the feedback session. Obviously, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. It hurt in the moment. Back then, I felt dispirited and almost dejected.
Now, I’m more thick-skinned to some extent, but I’m also more eager to get feedback. When we went to Orlando in January, we had the same format, and we’d obviously improved a lot in the past few years. But I was happy to hear from the judges and really want to incorporate their feedback into my playing.
Having that kind of critique no doubt has helped me grow. Continuing to stay where I am as a person or a musician means I’m not evolving. Now, I understand that there’s nothing that compares to the general thrill I get when I compete and play at the utmost edge of my ability.
Vibraphone * Cello * Flute • Life on the Road
Jaia Wilensky ʼ23
Soggy Closet, Upper Level Band
In Orlando, the 15 members of our band [Soggy Closet, named after the band’s old, tiny practice space] were split between apartment-style villas, and we couldn’t find anywhere to practice because all the practice rooms were being used for clinics. We went to one of the villas and practiced there. We had no drum set with us, so we pulled out pots and pans. Two of our managers held them and our drummer played on them. It was definitely a team-building experience.
Last year, during one of our class performances, we messed up on a song, and one of our players took over the ending and did this really beautiful solo on the piano for a minute straight. One of the things that’s really helped us is that we know each other well now. In Orlando, a judge wanted us to make a riff based off of the melody that some of us were playing. Other members were asked to latch on to that riff. We knew instinctively who to listen to and who to latch onto. We know how to pick up for each other.
It shows that we are able to lean on each other and figure things out for ourselves.
Guitar • Where They Fit
Max Mendelsohn ʼ22
Majoring in Music Business at New York University
I was torn about whether to pursue music in college. It’s one thing to play music and learn about it in school, and it’s another to make it work in real life. I’m guessing it’s hard to find someone who isn’t at least a little nervous about fully committing themselves to music because it’s such a challenging career. But part of what made me want to commit is how much I loved the experience of being on these trips to different cities and immersing myself in that world.
One memory that stands out is watching Wynton Marsalis rehearse with his big band [The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra] in New York City. It really made me think about how my own band practiced back home. They had a band leader, and they were attacking different sections systematically. Everyone came prepared. It was a blueprint of how rehearsals should go. What I enjoyed about that experience is that I felt like I was getting a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like to be a musician.
The other fascinating element was watching the music network. Brad has so many friends in the jazz community, and watching him has taught me that you have to put yourself out there, meet other people, and learn from them. I’m trying to do that now that I’m doing gigs in real life and meeting so many other artists.
My big takeaway from all these trips is that the key to making it work in this business is to love the music. That’s what keeps you engaged and interested. That’s at the heart of everything.