Best Jazz Programs

March 8, 2017

Sumi Tonooka

By Barbra Weidlein –

Are you someone who lives and breathes jazz and can’t imagine doing anything else in college? If you’re wanting to major in jazz, here are 8 top considerations from jazz faculty, students, and recent graduates for anyone thinking about majoring in jazz or already on their way.

1. Why Go to Music School to Study Jazz If You’re Already Performing?

While some young musicians at the top of their game will make a name for themselves without ever going to music school, careers in music are so highly competitive that musicians need all the knowledge, support, and connections they can get.

According to Alan Pasqua, professor of Jazz Studies at, “Music school increases your chances of being a better musician. It’s a structured environment with other high level, motivated students, that offers networking opportunities and knowledge. It’s a way to become more fluent in jazz.”

Pasqua goes on to say that young musicians who think they can learn what they need to learn, by simply studying with a private teacher, will miss out on everything that happens after the lesson is over. “In music school, the learning is ongoing. It’s so easy to find fellow students to play with, to continue the learning. There are also opportunities to meet so many others in fields that will be important to you in your life.”

2. Choose a Direction

First and foremost: do you want to focus on performance? Or on the history of jazz? Do you want to teach? Or are you leaning toward a career in music industry, with jazz as your focus? Schools differ in their strengths, so a good starting place is to clarify what you think you want to do when you graduate. Richard Dunscomb, chair of the Music Department at Columbia College Chicago, recommends that you research and then ask each school you’re interested in to specify what type of jazz education you will get there.

For performance-driven students, Harry McKenzie, who got his Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies at USC Thornton School of Music in 2012, suggests looking closely at schools “in cities that have thriving jazz scenes, so you can start establishing yourself as a professional player while you’re in school.”

3. Become a Good Improviser

Music schools typically expect jazz students to know how to improvise by the time they audition. But how do you get there?

According to John Murphy, chair of Jazz Studies at University of North Texas College of Music, “Learning how to improvise, and to play jazz in general, is a lifelong pursuit. The best thing you can do is to listen with your full attention to important artists on your instrument (including voice) and on other instruments. Much of the listening we do these days is distracted. Anyone who wants to learn how to play jazz needs to listen with full attention, with no distractions, repeatedly. There’s no better way to learn what you want your tone to sound like, how to feel the time, how to play a solo that tells a story.”

4. Get the Most Out of Your Program

Take responsibility for finding out what you need to learn if you want a career in music. Don’t expect music schools to lay it all out for you. Talk with professors who are also performers or who have backgrounds in music industry, music education, or any area of music you’re interested in. Find out what they wish they’d learned when they were in music school. And, as professionals, what skills/tools they can’t do without.

“You get out what you put in, ” says John Gunther, composer and multi-reed instrumentalist, and associate professor of Jazz Studies at . “Be active and pro-active. Study hard and practice a lot but also look for or create opportunities to play with your peers. Get familiar with other instruments (everyone should play drums and piano!). Be familiar with things happening outside your immediate environment (theatre, dance, classical concerts, etc.). You also have to take care of yourself….sleep, good food, exercise.”

Drew Zaremba, senior jazz studies major at University of North Texas College of Music, spends as much time as possible with faculty to learn as much as he can, and then practices everything he learns. “Your colleagues are an equally important source of inspiration and encouragement, ” he adds, “so finding good dedicated musicians as friends is essential!”

Addision Frei, University of North Texas College of Music junior and an award-winning pianist, agrees. “One of the most important aspects of studying jazz in college is connecting to your peers and establishing strong music relationships. Playing with others outside school is the most helpful way to harness ideas obtained in class and to develop an artistic identity. Supporting peers at local performances is also crucial to becoming a part of a musical community.”

5. Find the Right Teacher

The importance of finding the right teacher can’t be underestimated. John Davis, director of Jazz Studies at CU Boulder College of Music, recommends: “Find a teacher who plays how you would like to play, but who also has been recommended as a good teacher. Unless the teacher/performer can relate ways to practice and play effectively, all you may end up with is a great player who sounds good but who can’t help you sound good. You want to find a teacher who can effectively provide approaches and ideas that will help you grow.”

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