I love jazz. There is such an energy and freedom to the music, and it has this capacity for plugging directly into my emotions. The same piece can move me on so many levels. I can experience it raw, or I can process and analyze the intricacies of the music’s structure and the performer’s subtle interactions.

Last week I attended a performance by the great Barry Miles, accompanied by Bob Shomo, Tim Lekan, and Paul Hannah. The quartet played a variety of numbers, and I was blown away by the way they completely inhabited each piece they played and brought the audience inside with them on the journey.

At some point during the concert, though, I became aware that my mind was beginning to do its split attention trick. I was immersed in the jazz, but at the same time I started thinking about how much teaching is like the performance that was going on in front of me.

Jazz is hard to define, but one of its core elements is improvisation. Each piece began simply, piano and bass building the chord structure on top of the foundation set by the drummer, and the sax player weaving a melody around this framework. As the piece moved on, though, the roles of the combo slowly and subtly shifted. The four men would trade responsibilities, shifting from melody to support and back again. Sometimes one of them would take off on an extended solo, riffing on the ideas in the melody and playing with different sounds and how they interacted with the chords. Sometimes they would deftly toss little motifs back and forth to each other like jugglers, the music creating intricate, layered patterns.

The music always seemed to become more and more chaotic and unstructured as it went along. As the chords and rhythms got more complex and the melodies strayed further from where the song began, I often got lost in the beautiful jumble of sounds. What amazed me most was how the musicians seemed to lose themselves in the experience, too, but always, without fail, they came out at the end of the piece in the same place at the same time, somehow tying it all together in a way that was totally satisfying and seemed completely inevitable.

I realized (in my analytical brain) that even though the music seemed (in my emotional brain) to have lost its way, that at no time did the musicians ever forget either the foundation they set up at the beginning or the goal towards which they were moving the whole time. Even though we in the audience may have felt like we were lost in an exquisite anarchy, the musicians knew exactly where they were the whole time. This was driven home to me at the moment when the musicians, all four improvising at once and apparently going in completely different directions, landed without warning on the same note at the same time. It was like watching a kaleidoscope where all of the colors and shapes are swirling around and suddenly form a recognizable picture out of nowhere.

Good teaching should always be like this. The teacher and students should always start in the same place and know where they are going, but in the midst of the learning process (activity, lesson, unit, whatever) can wander and improvise and go where their ideas and instincts lead them, but keeping that end goal in view the whole time, aiming to land on that final note and together wrap the package up in a satisfying and understandable (and even perhaps inevitable) way.

Another aspect of the concert that struck me was how the four musicians interacted. There was a clear leader the whole time: Barry Miles. He selected the music, he started each piece, set the tempo and feel, and guided the group through the song to the end he devised. Yet the whole group worked as a team. Barry stepped back and let the other musicians play their parts, and at times he dropped out completely to allow someone else to take over. They each sometimes seemed to pull away from the group, doing their own things, but they always came back to where the rest were heading musically. What was especially interesting was watching their eyes. The four of them watched each other intently throughout, making eye contact frequently. It was clear that this was how they were staying connected and communicating. It was also clear that no one in the group was more important than any other–including the obvious leader. In the midst of the song, all four had very different but equally important roles, and they all respected the necessity for balance and supporting each other.

I thought about how I wanted my teaching to become more like this. Yes, I’m the teacher, and I need to start the learning process, set the goals, determine the structure within which the learning will take place. But once the song gets going, I want to step back and let my students shine. They each need their space to have a solo, they each need an opportunity to support the others, and it’s my job not to keep the piece tightly controlled like the conductor of an orchestra, but instead to pay attention to where the group is heading, to keep the goal in view, and to help each member of the class stay in tune with all the others and help them all land on that final chord at the same time.

Finally, the last thing I noticed about the group was that while they were working very hard and were intensely focused the entire evening, they were having fun doing it. There was a joy and satisfaction on their faces during every song. They were exhausted at the end of the concert, but at no time did any of them seem to lose energy. If I can do that for my kids: give them experiences where they pour themselves into what they’re doing, work hard, and come out on the other end with joy and satisfaction, then I’ve done my job.