Lumen Scholar studies jazz improvisation & learning a language

It’s a common thought in educational circles that learning to improvise with jazz is a lot like learning a foreign language. Elon University senior Kaitlyn Fay wanted to find out how, and her undergraduate research is the first to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

The music education and music performance double major from New Milford, Conn., set out two years ago to illustrate the benefit jazz education can be to academic studies. How? Skills involved in learning improvisation are closely related to those involved in second language learning, from listening, to building a vocabulary, to practicing the language itself.

It’s been a long process for Fay, who grew up playing the flute until an interest in her middle school jazz band led her to pick up the saxophone. She traveled to Kentucky and Connecticut for workshops that helped with her project design, and she regularly commuted to A.L. Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough, N.C., last fall to collect data.

Under the guidance of assistant professor Matt Buckmaster, her Lumen mentor, Fay found that her research not only illustrates the improvisation/language connection, but it also sparked a desire to pursue graduate studies after the completion of her Elon education.

In addition to her undergraduate research, Fay has taken part in the Fire of the Carolinas Marching Band, Jazz Ensemble, Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Combo, elan, Chorale, Saxophone Quartet and Flute Ensemble. She also has played for several Department of Performing Arts musicals such as Sweeney Todd, Nine and Kiss Me Kate, as well as student-directed musicals, including Assassins and Little Women.

She is a charter member and the current vice president of Elon’s chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon, a professional music fraternity, and is a charter member of Elon’s chapter of Tau Beta Sigma, the national honorary band sorority.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Fay recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to share details of her work.

What led you to explore the relationship between jazz improvisation and learning a second language?
I knew I wanted to do something with jazz. Out of all of my music studies, jazz is the thing that has been the most difficult, and in that way, the challenge I’ve wanted to overcome. … A lot of people have said that learning to improvise in jazz is a lot like learning a second language. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It is like a language. There’s a vocabulary to it. When you’re playing with other musicians, there’s a conversational context. You have to say things that make sense in the conversation. … In a jazz playing setting, there are licks that other people recognize, shapes like chord outlines, and ideas that musicians can take cues off each other. Also, the listening skills are so similar. When you’re learning a new language, you need to be submersed in it, getting used to the sounds, and what it sounds like for you to be speaking it. Thinking about those similarities, I sort of had a light bulb moment and said ‘how about this.’

Jazz education in the classroom hasn’t always been taken seriously. When did that become an area of research interest to scholars in the music education community?
Well, it’s interesting. The people who brought jazz to the classroom were musicians who learned it out on the street, people who did it the old-fashioned way and then started making books and ways to train students in improvisation. More music educators are becoming jazz musicians as well. It’s a part of the field of music education that’s breaking out right now. More people are paying attention to it, realizing it’s new, and there’s so much that can be explored.

What are you doing in your research?
I wanted to see if I could illustrate the similarities and skills between learning to improvise and learning a second language. It’s one thing for a music educator to speculate that it’s like learning a second language, and it’s something else to say, ‘These are the skills used in this, and these are the skills in that. They’re actually quite similar and could they possibly be connected.’ If a student improves his skills in one area, does that automatically transfer over and help him improve his skills in the other area?

How do you measure that?
For the research, we did a pretest in Spanish language skills and in jazz improvisation skills. The Spanish test was designed by the Spanish teacher at the school where I was working. I told her what I was looking to have tested and she helped me. It incorporated listening skills. She would speak a passage to the students, and they had to circle the correct answers. They had to read the answers. It was listening and reading comprehension, and all of that required vocabulary skills. … For the jazz, they had a paper test that involved basic music theory, basic skills involved in playing, notation that they needed to be able to read and recognize, and certain terms that they needed to be familiar with. That also included a playing test, where I gave them a simple tune to play, and then they had to play the melody, and then go back and improvise over the chord changes. These tests were used to gauge their progress from the beginning to end.

We did see improvement, because it was over an eight-week period when they were in their Spanish class, and I was doing workshops with them to help them improve their jazz skills. After the fact I did an interview with each student and with the Spanish teacher, because she had a better perspective of their progress in the Spanish class. The students had a very positive response.

What were some of the responses?
I asked, ‘What would you have done differently if you got to do this again? What would you change about the experience?’ One student was so sweet. He said ‘I wouldn’t change anything. It was great. Maybe I would have practiced more!’ He said that within the jazz ensemble in the school, they don’t get as much of an opportunity to improvise because it’s such a large ensemble, the teacher wants to get as many students as possible to participate in the playing. So they don’t get that chance to improvise. He really liked that opportunity.

How did your passion for music develop? You’ve said you learned the flute and jazz came later with the saxophone.

My mother is a music educator. She’s been a middle school chorus teacher and, I think, this is her 23rd year. Once upon a time, she said, ‘Hey, why don’t you be a music teacher?’ I said ‘oh, no!’ A few years later I came to the realization that that really is what I want to do, what I feel is my calling. So I grew up with a musician for a mother, and my dad also sings. It’s just always been something I’ve been doing.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a music educator?
I think it was about ninth or tenth grade in high school. I’ve always had a knack for every subject in school, so it was sort of like, ‘Hmm, what do I want to do?’ I realized that music is the thing that I love. It’s not just something I’m good at, it’s something I know I couldn’t live without. … This is kind of silly, but when I went home in high school, if I didn’t want to do my homework, I’d sit down at the piano and play for an hour. I wouldn’t sit at a computer or watch TV. Music was the next option. It’s always been something that I come back to. That, and in high school, I realized that helping people is also something I really love to do. I would tutor students in my other classes, in music theory, and I loved helping other people grasp that understanding.

How did you find Elon, and what led you to come here?
My guidance counselor said, ‘Hey, why don’t you look at Elon University?’ Conveniently enough, the first college fair I went to, there was a table for Elon. The admissions representative that I spoke with was so friendly and inviting. She was very convincing!

What about her presentation convinced you that you wanted to apply?
A lot about Elon fit what I was looking for, a small- to medium-sized school, a suburban campus, the focus of the faculty on students, the attention, the small size of classes. When I visited Elon, that’s when the love-at-first-sight happened.

How has the Lumen Prize help you with your research? Would this have been possible without it?
I could have done this with fewer funds, but it would not have been as enriched as it was. The summer after I was awarded the Lumen Prize, I got to participate in a lot of really cool experiences. I got to go to the University of Kentucky at Louisville for some workshops with a famous jazz improviser the famous jazz improviser, Jamey Aebersold, who has a very large series of books on learning to improvise. It was neat to go and meet him, to hear his method from him. That helped me gather some ideas on how to design my workshops. I didn’t go and take someone else’s outline for what jazz workshops should say. I designed them myself from scratch.

Also that summer I got to visit and observe a bunch of workshops at a camp called the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut. That involved more travel expenses. Those things would not have been possible if I didn’t have the funding. I had to work at a middle school that was 45 minutes away, and because of my major I’m so busy that I can’t have a part time job, so if I didn’t have that funding, no gas! I also had materials to buy. I made a couple of CDs for the students during workshops to have things that they could listen to, more jazz examples. As a short answer, there’s a lot that would not have been possible, and it just wouldn’t have been as enriched.

What are your plans for after Elon? Are you going straight to teaching or do you think you might pursue a graduate degree?
I recently realized that I would really like to go right into grad school. I like school. Good thing I’m going to be a teacher, right? I do love learning, so I do want to make sure I have absorbed as much as I can before I go out there. I want to be the best teacher I can be. While I do know I could make it if I went right into a career, I want to take that next step and get more knowledge and learn from more people. That’s how you broaden your horizons. You find more professors, more people to study with.

Do you think you will continue this line of research?
Possibly. What I want to do in graduate school is a master’s in music education with some sort of focus on jazz. However, that sort of track doesn’t quite exist yet. The schools I’ve been talking to say I’ll sort of be designing my own program as I go. That’s exciting, too.

Do you see yourself teaching at the K-12 level, or possibly going to the college level to teach?
I definitely could see myself teaching at the college level eventually. Not right away, though. I’ve spent the last three summers as a camp music teacher for children ages 3 through 14 and I love it. I don’t think I could teach elementary school, but I do definitely see myself working with children for some part of my career.