Arts and Entertainment

Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians take program to central Pennsylvania schools

Musicians associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Jazz for Young People” program recently visited schools throughout central Pennsylvania to present the educational concert “Let Freedom Swing.” The musicians combined American history with live music to provide an interactive experience grounded in the truest form of American artist democracy: jazz. Credit: Laura SullivanAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To enrich young students and expose them to the beauty and complexity of music, storytelling and history, musicians associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Jazz for Young People” program visited a total of five schools in Centre, Clearfield and Huntingdon counties to present the educational concert “Let Freedom Swing.”

The musicians combined American history with live music to provide an interactive experience grounded in the truest form of American artistic democracy.

“I am especially thrilled that we are taking the artists into more rural districts and schools, primarily because those schools often don’t receive opportunities like this,” said Jara Dorsey-Lash, associate director of development for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. She noted that a core mission of the center is to initiate community involvement and public education by providing connections with artists.

The visit from Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians could teach students who have never been to New York City about what artists in large cities are doing and allow them to realize the scope of the world and realm of possibilities available to them, Dorsey-Lash said.

“American music is our country’s gift to the world,” said Justin Poindexter, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director of School and Community Programs. “It’s important for young people to be exposed to these forms of music because they tell the story of our country: where we have been and how we can approach the future.”

The half-dozen musicians were “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm we received from the students, as well as faculty and staff,” Poindexter said.

Danielle Yoder, principal at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in State College, said her fifth-grade teachers “immediately jumped at the opportunity.”

The teachers were excited to allow students to witness a program that included the band and orchestra instruments familiar to them, Yoder said. The program gave teachers an opportunity to expand their curriculums by adding connections to live performance. Also, the visit supported the school district’s missions of diversity and inclusion.

“I believe there is so much value in educating students in music and helping them connect music to history and to their lives,” Yoder said.

Johanna Steinbacher, director of seventh- and eight-grade and advanced bands at Boalsburg’s Mount Nittany Middle School, assisted Laura Sommers, itinerant support teacher at Mount Nittany, in preparing for the State College visit. She said she hopes students gained a deeper understanding of the role jazz has played in both the past and present of the United States.

“Music education is a vital component of our school community,” Steinbacher said. “For so many of our students, music is a way to communicate, to connect with others, to connect with themselves, to express that which can be difficult to express [and] to meet new parts of themselves and new parts of the world.”

Sommers has partnered with the Center for the Performing Arts to expose students to music and other performing arts since Medora Ebersole, the center’s education and community programs manager, invited Sommers’ special-needs students to a matinee.

She has provided theatrical opportunities for students in her social communication skills group, which is co-taught by speech and language teacher Dani McIntyre. The students learn by playing theatre games.

“Music education plays an exciting role in my students’ lives,” Sommers said. “For many of them, their participation in band, choir or drama provides opportunities for participation in school-wide activities where they can interact with peers while building on their strengths and interests.”

The “Let Freedom Swing” program consisted of interactive lessons about jazz. Musicians taught students the elements of jazz and how the artists improvise. The group compared improvisation to conversation to explain, in simple terms, how jazz musicians are able to create so freely.

Caleb Schrauf, a student at Easterly Parkway, said he liked the group’s way of teaching about teamwork by explaining how they cooperate to produce a cohesive sound.

Schrauf also liked a food analogy the group used to explain the necessity of multiple ingredients to make a recipe taste good, just like there are multiple “ingredients” needed to make jazz sound good.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians made a connection to Black History Month by playing songs by artists including Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong and explaining the contribution each musician made to the world of jazz.

Some students danced with the musicians. The program culminated in an immense line of almost every participating student dancing around the gym.

“Not all of our children are afforded the circumstances that allow them to attend concerts,” said Monica Wagner, a fifth-grade teacher at Easterly Parkway. “Being able to bring these experiences to them enriches their lives in ways we may not even know for years to come.”

Wagner said her students had been discussing jazz and blues and their relations to U.S. history to prepare for the concert. The music helps to connect students to the story of the United States, as well as providing exposure to the benefits of music. Her students have learned through these lessons how listening to and playing music is a “tool for expression” and a “release for emotions,” she said.

“The music was great, and I loved all the instruments. I play two of the instruments: bass and snare drum,” said James Bowman, a student at Easterly Parkway.

It was exciting to see jazz musicians at his school, said Bowman, who had been used to learning more of a rock style in his music lessons.

“Performing for young people reconnects us with the awe and raw excitement of hearing music in our youth,” said Bria Skonberg, a trumpeter and vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. “For many students, it’s their first jazz concert, so I truly want to make every note and moment count.”

“They are not just kids, they are young people who will grow up, and the skills learned in music education far transcend just musical studies,” Skonberg said.

Last Updated April 15, 2021