From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
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Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Jazz of Teaching

Quite awhile ago, a former student suggested I write a piece on the physics of jazz. I decided not to, because a session with that title was scheduled at a then upcoming American Association of Physics Teachers national meeting. But his suggestion started me thinking.

I’ve listened to jazz for a long time. Take a look at my music collection, and it’s obvious I like jazz, and the more I thought about the student’s suggestion, the more I came to believe that I might be a jazz teacher; that is, I think I approach teaching the same way a jazz musician approaches music.

When I began teaching so many years ago, I always prepared lecture notes, but I’ve always encouraged questions from students. Today, I use notes for just one lecture a semester. That’s when I show students the solution to Schrödinger’s equation for the hydrogen atom. The math is too intricate to me not to use notes.

Duke Ellington Big Band
CREDIT: Unknown
I liken lecture notes to a musical score, but just because there’s a score, doesn’t mean a musician must play the notes as written. 

One of the oldest forms of jazz is swing.* When jazz was becoming more popular in the 1920s and became of mainstay of dance bands, it became necessary for arrangements to written down, but improvisation remained an integral part of the numbers.

Listen to Duke Ellington’s band play Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. Catch tenor sax player Paul Gonzales’s solo.

CREDIT: Columbia Records
Hard bop is probably my favorite form of jazz. Hard bob arose from bebop. In bebop, musicians improvise on the chords instead of the melody. With hard bop, there is usually a well-defined melody, many times a quite simple one. The rhythm section were released from keeping time.

What I usually do in class is come in with an idea of what I want to cover that period; that’s the melody. The depending on what students ask, I can deviate from that. Even get entirely away from the topic and discuss other related physics.

When it comes to hard bop, you can’t get any better than Miles Davis.

John Coltrane
CREDIT: Francis Wolff/
Mosaic Images — Corbis
Occasionally, I’ll come into the classroom, and students will start peppering me with questions. My favorite time. In my Physics 120 course, Physics For Everyday Use, I feel free to completely ditch my plan for the day. So when the students start throwing off-the-wall questions, I can go right off with them.

When you listen to avant garde jazz, you will have trouble differentiating what is composed and what is improvised. In fact, many listeners might not hear music; avant garde is an acquired taste. Listen to John Coltrane’s Ascension.

Jazz Professor.

* My source for the musical discussion is the All Musics Guide: The Definitive Guide to Jazz.

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