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CanU Jazz Academy: Playing with Fire

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Once a week, a group of around fifteen ten- and eleven-year-old kids from Sister McNamara and Ryerson schools troop into the Music Annex down at the University of Manitoba for the CanU Jazz Academy. Students from the Jazz Pedagogy course are their Jazz Buddies, and under Steve Kirby’s watchful eye, we get a hands-on opportunity to share the teaching practices we’ve learned over the past four years.

Every three-hour CanU session is nothing short of amazing. We usually begin with a few minutes of free play where the kids can choose to play drums, bass, guitar, piano or sing without any structure. These few moments sometimes may seem like pure uncontrollable chaos, but it gives the kids an opportunity to explore musically and try new instruments.

After free play, we have class activities that change from week to week. These activities give us a chance to talk as a group about song structure, lyrics, rhythm, melodies, and experiment with on-the-spot composition. After group activities we have a quick meal, and then move into small group lessons where the Jazz Buddies coach the students on various instruments. We end each session by having a group playing experience where the Jazz Buddies and the CanU kids come back together and perform the songs we have been working on together.

One of the greatest experiences as a teacher is being able to witness the beginnings of passion and love for music in the children that we teach. They come to class each week full of great questions, and receive insight from the university Jazz Buddies who are driven and passionate about what they are doing. The small group, the individual coaching, and the chance for beginning musicians to play with those of us who are beginning our professional careers, is the perfect formula for anyone who is starting out in music. These kids learn so fast, and you can see in each one of them the creative sparks powered by music.

It’s hard to believe, but we have been able to take this group of CanU kids, most of whom are playing instruments for the first time, and in just a few short weeks, teach them to play guitar, bass, drums, piano, and sing popular songs they chose themselves. At the very beginning of December, a group of them performed in front of a packed theatre with about 700 people. This experience was incredible. Not only were we able to see them get past their pre-concert jitters and warm up to the audience, but after the concert was over, their confidence grew tremendously.

At the beginning of March, the CanU Jazz Academy, both kids and Jazz Buddies, will perform for the wrap-up of the entire CanU program. When you gather kids from all the other CanU streams, plus parents and siblings, the crowd will be huge and deafening. I can’t wait to see our young jazz musicians rise to the challenge and thrill everybody with their music!

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