Wynton Marsalis on Collaboration

by Madeline Smith

The effort to preserve music education in the public sphere is an uphill battle. And many of us have heard the rallying cry over and over—statistics that indicate music lessons or ensemble experience to be good for young brains and beneficial to the development of social skills. But last week, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis visited Harvard's Graduate School of Education to shed an entirely new light on the importance of music.

On February 7, Marsalis took part in a panel discussion with an eclectic set of Harvard affiliates: Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School, Diane L. Moore of Harvard Divinity School and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Richard Weissbourd and Karen Mapp, all of the Graduate School of Education. The topic was "Educating for Moral Agency and Engaged Citizenship." How do the experiences of a world-famous trumpet player from a humble background inform this conversation?

Marsalis focused on the listening and collaboration that music intrinsically requires. "Music forces you to hold two opposing thoughts in your mind, under the pressure of time: ‘What am I playing?’ and ‘What are they playing?’" Several panelists agreed that such thinking is not fostered by our education system—perhaps teamwork is conventionally upheld as a good habit, but achievement is almost always measured individually.

Marsalis spoke with great admiration and fondness regarding his various fellow band members, many of whom he has played with consistently for many years. He reflected on the actual experience of performance at length, pointing out how much trust is required in those moments: "If you don’t trust them, you no longer hear it as music."

When touring with Duke Ellington’s band, Marsalis worked with several older musicians who were constantly complaining about how loudly the younger contingent of the band played. Marsalis explained how, over time, "Being around these men makes you play softer…you can hear what they’re playing." He contrasted this phenomenon with the typical sound check of today, in which every instrumentalist is listening to a monitor, and probably asking the sound technician to turn up the volume of their own instrument.

Not only should this be a lesson to students, but to teachers as well. "We don’t assume that students can collaborate and bring something to share," Marsalis observed. "We too often assume that we, the teacher or professor knows everything."

When asked what the primary role of the teacher is, Marsalis responded, "You can’t be their psychiatrist. You can’t be their mom…they have something creative in them and something to say…as teachers, it is our job to find that."

Diane Moore pointed out that doing so often presents a metrical dilemma: "The way we measure success isn’t as quantifiable in the arts as it is on a math test…we must challenge the quantifiable framework."

At this point, in the spirit of true collaboration, audience members were asked to turn to those near them and reflect on the points of the conversation, regrouping after a few minutes for comments and Q & A.

"In a band, you’re putting down a name and telling them to improvise…why not in education?" Marsalis proposed. "We just need to not be afraid of people."

Perhaps music, at a fundamental level, can inform our notion of education, even as we strive to have our education system promote music.

[Caption: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Wynton Marsalis in conversation at the Graduate School of Education (photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer).]