Listening, literature and community engagement: Wynton Marsalis on music education

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

“But, overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.” —John Coltrane

One of my earliest introductions to jazz music was on The Cosby Show. In episode 6 of season 4, Dr. Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable and Clair Olivia Huxtable, Esq. dine romantically to the sounds of a John Coltrane rendition of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mooda song which, according to Ellington, was written in Durham, NC. In previous episodes, we see Dizzy Gillespie portray music teacher Mr. Hampton and see a poster of Miles Davis in Theo Huxtable’s room—both in season 1. One other poster caught my eye in Theo’s room; namely, that of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Wynthon Marsalis is a composer, bandleader and educator. He is a 9-time Grammy Award winner, the first jazz musician ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the only artist to win Grammy Awards for five consecutive years for musical contributions. Marsalis currently serves as the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and tours with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

In his own words

After a lively and engaging performance at UNC’s Memorial Hall on February 10th, I got a chance to speak with Mr. Marsalis about the current state of music education. He offers the following suggestions to music educators:

1. Help kids develop their ears

“Teachers need to reflect in their teaching. Music is all hearing. They can’t be afraid of the oral method.” In Moving to higher ground: How jazz can change your life, Marsalis writes, “Jazz musicians have to listen and communicate. You have absolutely no idea what the other musicians are going to improvise, so you’re forced to listen” (p. 22). He continues, noting that people follow the music as it is being born, which requires “each person to listen and speak with the same intensity.” Marsalis believes that this development of the ears will help connect students to the spirit of the arts, which he believes is the absolute essence of humanity.

2. Use the literature

Marsalis explains, “The literature is the most important thing, because literature is what you’re playing. And literature doesn’t mean just what’s written. It’s what you teach them. I have a list of 50 essential songs people should know. If you have students, and they don’t know any of your folk music… they don’t know any gospel music… they don’t know any blues… they don’t know any popular songs—and I’m not even dealing with jazz… just all music. If you teach kids, and they don’t know any of that music—they don’t know any American music—you’re not really teaching them anything.”

He continues, “You got Duke Ellington; you got Eric Copeland. You got certain great titans. They should be trying to learn—or prepare to learn—their music. Kids go out to play basketball or football… and they’re 9. They play with the same rules… these are 8-year-old kids… 9-year-old kids. They don’t have to have boundaries. I always make the point to people that play music that when we were 12 and 13 years old, we were butchering Beethoven’s music and butchering Haydyn’s music. It doesn’t make a difference how good you play it; it’s that the literature is going to teach you how to play it. Then, when you’re 14 and 15, you can play.”

3. Build community

Marsalis notes, “The third thing I would say for teachers in this era is that it’s important for bands to be community. You need to play a lot more performances. That three or four performances a year for parents—and brothers and sisters who are forced to go to the concert—no… we’ve been doing that for 30 years… 40 years. It hasn’t yielded anything. You’ve got to get out in malls; you’ve got to get out in picnics, parks, prisons, parades and old folks’ homes. Be in a place where kids can understand the impact of their music; not just some solo competition or football game where nobody is really paying attention to what you’re playing… or the Christmas concert or Easter concert. You’ve got to make it be a part of the overall life.”

Moving to higher ground

Marsalis’ push for a focus on listening, literature and community engagement is by no means isolated to my conversation with him. According to Arts, rhetoric, and swing: The writings of Wynton Marsalis, one of Marsalis’ goals is to shift the paradigms of educational systems so that students can more readily engage in creative, artistic, communal and scholarly pursuits.

In a forthcoming article, Reshaping American Music Education in the 21st Century, Marsalis discusses aims and purpose in music education and the role that stakeholders play. Visit and for updates and more information.

The future of history: Documenting the American South in the classroom

Natalia "Natasha" Smith

Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. As Head of the DocSouth digital publishing program, Natalia “Natasha” Smith manages the sixteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs currently housed at DocSouth.

Along with a wealth of primary resources, DocSouth also supplies teachers, students, and researchers at every educational level with a wide array of titles they can use for reference, studying, teaching, and research.

Resources for teachers

DocSouth resources help students develop inquiry, comprehension, and synthesis skills. Advanced Placement teachers may find these resources particularly useful as they help their students work through document-based questions (DBQs). Sample topics include United States History, North Carolina History, and African American History. As a LEARN NC partner, DocSouth is committed to connecting teachers with materials that enhance student learning.

Sample lesson plans:

Children at Work: Exposing child labor in the cotton mills of the Carolinas

Desegregating public schools: Integrated vs. neighborhood schools

Spirituals and the power of music in slave narratives

Slavery across North Carolina

LEARN NC understands the vital role history plays in shaping the future. To help shape a better future for students, teachers, and researchers, LEARN NC is working to bring more DocSouth materials to its collection of resources. Stay tuned for more updates at the LEARN NC homepage.

Researcher bio

Natalia “Natasha” Smith is Head of the Documenting the American South and the Digital Publishing Group at the Carolina Digital Library and Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at UNC, she has successfully sought, authored, led, and managed eighteen externally funded projects that helped disseminate Carolina research and new knowledge and provide for public benefit. Several of those grants are given by federal agencies, most notably the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. Smith has closely collaborated with cultural heritage institutions in North Carolina, the United States, and other countries.

Visit DocSouth online for more information on using southern resources in the classroom.

Early-career teachers’ perceptions of reading curriculum

Catherine Darrow and Julie Justice

There is a great deal of political pressure for school districts to buy packaged curriculum to increase teaching quality and educational outcome. Since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, Title I funds have been strongly tied to pre-packaged curricula. Curriculum decisions are made by administration and implemented by teachers. As such, teachers must negotiate their own educational beliefs and the curricula with which they are provided. Dr. Catherine Darrow, postdoctoral fellow at FPG Child Development Institute, and Dr. Julie Ellison Justice, assistant professor of literacy at UNC Chapel Hill School of Education, have been researching how early-career teachers negotiate the implementation of packaged curriculum programs in their classrooms.

The research

Dr. Darrow’s and Dr. Justice’s current research focuses on the implementation of “commercial curriculum.” They identify this type of curriculum as pre-packaged curricula and lesson plans that are purchased from for-profit educational publishing companies. These curriculum packages come in many different formats, but can generally be identified as scripted or open. Scripted curriculum is organized in a directed presentation with a strict chronology and can include instructions for the order of the lessons, the materials to be used with the lessons, and transcripts to indicate what should be said in the teaching of the lessons. Open curriculum provides packages of texts, word lists, and other materials that can be used in instruction. Unlike scripted curriculum, there is no suggested sequence or pace.

The research project included ten early-career elementary school teachers all in their first or second year of teaching. Four of the participating teachers did not complete the study. Of the six remaining teachers, two were using a scripted commercial curriculum and four were using open curriculum programs. The participating teachers were interviewed at the start and conclusion of the research and completed weekly surveys about their experiences with curriculum.

Research findings

Teacher as selector, supplementer, and modifier

The early-career teachers often struggled with implementing the curriculum in a way that best addressed the needs of their students. To do this, they selected which aspects of the curriculum to emphasize and which materials to use to best accomplish their goals. These teachers ultimately viewed their own role as being critical to assessing how the needs of their students were being met by the curriculum and how they could improve the curriculum for their students. However, overall, the early career teachers reported that they believed the curriculum they were using was primarily effective for their students.

Influence of the principal, coaches, and other teachers

The early-career teachers’ perceptions of the principal’s attitude toward the curriculum had a great deal of influence on how they addressed the curriculum in their own classroom. If they thought their principal didn’t particularly care for or about the curriculum, neither did they. When the early-career teachers did need assistance or advice with the curriculum, they most regularly went to their fellow grade-level teachers or teaching assistants. They seldom approached their literacy coaches for fear of negative consequences if they were implementing the curriculum in a way didn’t meet expectations.

Perceptions of being monitored

All of the participating early-career teachers felt as though they were being monitored and evaluated by school and district administration; however, they reported that they were seldom asked about their instructional practices and when they were observed they rarely received any feedback. Yet still, the idea of being monitored often influenced the decisions these teachers made about content and materials in their classroom practice.

So what?

As current federal policy requires identification of curriculum plans that will address schools’ courses of study, it is unlikely that commercial curriculum will fall out of favor because these well-known packages can easily fulfill this requirement. It is important that teachers think critically about the curriculum packages they are being asked to implement.

Researchers’ tips

Help early-career teachers learn to approach curriculum materials in a systematic way.
This is a task for both teacher preparation programs as well as practicing teachers. Early-career teachers typically enter the classroom with ideas from their teacher preparation program and then look to their mentor teachers for advice on how to navigate the curricular landscape. It is important that they have a way to approach the many different curricular packages they are likely to come across through their careers.
Don’t be too married to any one curriculum package.
Changes in curriculum are inevitable. Whether it is the result of a change in administration or a change in teaching venue, curricular changes happen. It is important for teachers to be flexible in their own teaching and not become overly connected to any one curriculum package. Teachers should remain aware of the different curricular packages that are available and the different approaches they use. Having this information can help to make the transition to new curricular packages much easier when they do inevitably get changed.
Be critical about what you use with your students.
No one curriculum is perfect. It is important for teachers to critically evaluate how a curriculum package addresses their students’ needs. When implementing a scripted curriculum, it is imperative to not turn a blind eye on the students or the implication of the curriculum. What kinds of tasks is the curriculum asking of your students? How will your students respond to that? What is the end-goal for the students in the curriculum? How does the curriculum propose to get them there? No one knows students like their teachers know them. Teachers have access to this important and valuable information that curricular packages may not take into account.

Researchers’ bios

Dr. Catherine Darrow

Dr. Darrow is the Project Director for the Targeted Reading Intervention (TRI) Kellogg Grant and an Institute of Education Sciences (IES) postdoctoral fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Darrow specializes in developing and employing measures of implementation fidelity in order to understand the degree to which teachers deliver instructional programs and to identify ways to better support teachers in adopting new curricular packages. More information on Dr. Darrow can be found on the TRI website and the Frank Porter Graham website.

Dr. Julie Ellison Justice

Dr. Justice is dedicated to the training of competent, exemplary teachers.  In her work as a teacher educator, she encourages her students to become teachers who are both professionals and learners. Her goal is to prepare teachers who listen to their students, continue to learn about their craft and advocate for their students. Dr. Justice is studying how ideology influences policy, often trumping research, best practices, or any conversations in the professional fields. When ideology drives literacy policy, she believes that some children will win and some will lose. A complete bio can be found on the UNC School of Education website.