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Covering New Miles at The Bridge

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I press play on my iPod and music fills the theatre at Hugh John Macdonald School. “What is the name of this song?” I ask. A girl in the flute section raises her hand. “Ummm,” she pauses, consulting her memory. “Milestones.”

“Right,” I say, “and who wrote ‘Milestones’?” Another hand goes up: “Miles Davis!”

This is period six, a time when we learn the nuts and bolts of music en masse. As well as hitting the right notes on saxophones and trumpets and guitars and keeping steady on the drums, we talk about musicians with exotic names like “Cannonball,” “Trane,” and “Philly Joe” along with some broader points about jazz like form, improvisation, swing, syncopation. “Milestones” is a big step for this group—up until now our performance repertoire is practiced in small groups after school. But on April 30, the HJM Big Band will perform for the first time.

As the class continues, listening gives way to clapping rhythms. Our feet tap beats one and three as we clap the simple, repetitive melody. Then we switch to beats two and four and imitate the high hat. By the time students pick up their instruments they are familiar with both the three-note melody and the rhythm Miles used for the A section to his tune. This is the most productive way to learn given our unique challenges: students in The Bridge come from all over the world. Amazingly, sixteen different first languages are spoken in our classroom!

“Too easy!” laughs one of t he saxophonists as he plays the melody for me. I have to admit that, although his casual adherence to the key signature leads to a handful of wrong notes, he does sound pretty good. Slowly we add a harmony part. Then another. Before long the whole band sounds pretty good!

Once the class has mastered the first 16 bars we move to the B section: more new notes in two-part harmony along with a rhythmic pedal point in the trombone section. All that’s left then is a four bar introduction and some simple background parts.

Voila! “Milestones”—and another milestone for The Bridge.

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