The Jazz Band Leader


Michelle Collay on Student performanceMichelle Collay, director of the University of New England’s Online Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership, expands on insights from her article, “Teaching Is Leading,” in the October 2013 issue of Educational Leadership.

When I was a young music teacher, I needed to learn how to direct a middle school jazz band. Trained as a classical musician, I knew how to stand up in front and yell at the trombones, but the task of leading a jazz ensemble was not in my repertoire. A music teacher from a neighboring school took me under his wing, and soon I was taking my own fledgling group to festivals.

That’s why Larry Cuban’s 2011 blog post, in which he compared teaching to leading a jazz band, resonated with me. Band leaders don’t just stand up in front. They have deep knowledge of the art, technique, and discipline essential to musical performance. They practice and perform themselves. Sometimes they set the tempo and step away from the front; other times they lead a grueling sectional rehearsal. They decide who is ready to solo, which tune is ready for public performance, and when to bring up the volume.

Like jazz directors, teachers lead when they model learning, create small and large communities of practice, ask others for advice, and use many resources to strengthen the learning experience. Small ensembles in a classroom may or may not perform publicly like a jazz band, but their product meets a standard of excellence and their skills contribute to the greater whole. And like musicians, students perform better when their leader is passionate about the craft and creates opportunities for them to express what they know.