John Wojciechowski has been widely recognized by music critics and colleagues as a world-class Jazz saxophonist. In 1996, John was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz competition and in 2016, he was voted as a “Rising Star” in the Soprano, Alto, AND Tenor saxophone categories.
These accomplishments by themselves speak to a vibrant performance career, but John is also a very talented and thoughtful full-time Band Director in the Chicago suburbs. In my first few years as a teacher, I took a day off to go observe him teach along with his colleagues Brian Wis and Jim Stombres. It stood out to me that John and his colleagues had a very different and student-centric approach to music that made their program stand apart from other more competition and award-centric programs in their areas.
I contacted John with some questions so that he could shed some light on his philosophies of Music Education, his goals as an educator, and his techniques for building a high-quality high-functioning program at his school.
|MH: What is your role at St. Charles and how has it changed or evolved since you stopped teaching Orchestra?
JW: I am now teaching Freshman Woodwinds (this section meets at the same time as the Freshman Brass and Percussion so we can combine for combined band pieces, etc), the two auditioned Jazz Ensembles and AP Music Theory. I am also now serving as the department Lead Teacher.
MH: Since you have classes in Jazz Band and Concert Band, what kinds of things do you do to teach “musicianship” during class?
JW: This is a two-fold answer. My colleague, Brian Wis, has developed a whole set of iPad apps that address basic music literacy. One app, “Note Names”, works on note recognition, enharmonics, key signatures and scale spelling. “Rhythm Reactor” is a rhythm dictation app. “Rhythm Tapper” is a rhythm performance app. “Interval Mania” is an ear training app. Depending on the class and the level, we spend 1-2 days per week just working on these skills. What makes these apps unique is that the teacher can set performance and grading criteria for the students to meet and every student’s performance is dumped into a google spreadsheet where there is some accountability for the student as well as the ability for the teacher to track the progress of each and every student over time.
As far as the musicianship topics such as tone, phrasing, articulation, ensemble, etc. I play with and for the students a lot to demonstrate these important concepts. I think demonstration is a really powerful tool that I don’t see a lot of large group educators take advantage of the way a private teacher would. I think that it’s far more powerful, efficient, and frankly effective to show how to do something than to explain it.
MH: As you work on fundamentals during class, what other skills (musical or personal) would you want a student to have after graduating from your program after 4 years?
JW: The longer I’ve been doing this, the more I’m realizing that teaching kids the craft of the daily grind as it relates to being successful is more and more important. Especially since the direction in education for the last 10 years has been “bite-size success.” Kids don’t necessarily know how to deal with failure or that sometimes getting better is a slow and tedious process. So I try to teach that to them through a lot of the things that we do everyday. There’s also the concept of trying to achieve perfection in something- you never actually get there, but you never stop trying.
Another important concept in what we do is the idea of sacrificing your own goals for the good of the ensemble. That’s what makes Jazz so great: in a concert band it’s difficult to establish your own identity within the confines of an ensemble. But in a jazz group, you learn the importance of the ensemble, but then once you improvise, you can make a more personal statement. Of course, conceptually my idea of great improvisation is one in which the soloist and the rhythm section are involved in a dialogue which in and of itself is another form of ensemble, but that can be pretty difficult for a beginning improviser.
As far as musical goals, I would want a student to be familiar with identifying various forms, being able to recognize what they’re hearing, being good readers, etc. All of the stuff that makes a musician a “good musician.” But, like I said earlier, those are just becoming tools for me to teach kids how to be successful people. We’re using the craft to teach the process of getting good at something. Most of my kids aren’t going to be professional musicians, and that’s okay. I want them to be able to listen to and love different kinds of music and know what it takes to be good at something.
MH: Since we are on the subject, what kinds of things do you do to practice improvisation, specifically, with your class?
JW: You would think that I would do improvisation with my concert band kids- it’s something that I should do but have never really done it. That should change. In terms of my jazz band kids, it’s changed over the years and I really have never fallen into something that I thought was truly effective for a large class setting. What I’ve taken to lately is creating a page that has the chord changes with the 3rds and 7ths of each chord and then we go through and play through the guide tones to try and learn to hear what’s happening harmonically.
But honestly, I really believe that if a student is going to learn to become an improviser, then they’ve got to put in the work by themselves and a 45 minutes class period isn’t enough to learn the language. For the kids who show an interest in it, I select pieces that have a recorded solo that I can instruct them to go and transcribe that solo and use it when we play the chart. Once they’ve done that with a couple of solos, then I encourage them to start branching out from those transcriptions and usually by then they start putting the pieces of the puzzle together for themselves which is really how you’ve got to learn how to do it.
MH: What is your philosophy in choosing quality literature for your ensembles, and how does that affect your selections?
JW: Literature is everything- I spend way more time looking for the right music for each ensemble than I do anything else. Unfortunately, I can’t really be specific about how I select music because I try to look for music that is just a bit beyond where the students are musically at any given time and that changes every year with every ensemble. But, by choosing music that stretches them, but still allows them to have the free brain space to focus on their individual sound, listen to the rest of the ensemble, focus on dynamics, articulation, phrasing, etc. I find that each students musicianship grows. The pitfall is “challenging” the students with music that is so difficult that they’re frantically trying to play the right notes and rhythms and don’t have the ability to focus on all of the other things that go into making good music.
MH: What’s something you would want to improve about Music Education as a whole?
JW: To me, it’s all about the repertoire. And I hear a lot groups doing rep that’s not right for the ensemble they’re teaching. Most of the time, it’s too hard so the kids are frantically trying to get the right notes and rhythms. There’s no free brain space to address the other fundamentals of music (intonation, phrasing, blend, etc.) It’s hard to find music that moves the goal post only 5 yards down the field so that the kids are challenged but can learn the music and then work on these other concepts I’m talking about. I probably spend more time searching for the right lit for each group then I do any other single thing. I think it’s that important and I’m not sure that a lot of other teachers do that.
MH: If you had all of the time and energy in the world, what’s something you would want to improve about your own teaching?
JW: I wish I could spend more time with each student as an individual. Some of these kids really need that one on one attention and there’s just not enough time to get to all of them on a regular basis.