Jazz Festival Diary #5: Elementary school jazz band director Robert Bickford (MA ’11)

Robert Bickford and the mighty Buckman Heights Elementary School Jazz Band at XRIJF 2016

The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival (XRIJF) is running until July 2. Among the hundreds of musicians gathering for this major musical event are many Eastman faculty members, alumni, and students. Free-lance writer Dan Gross is blogging regularly during this period with reports and interviews highlighting Eastman’s involvement in the XRIJF. Here, Dan interviews recent Eastman alumnus Robert Bickford, the jazz band director at Buckman Heights Elementary School.

By Dan Gross

Robert Bickford (MA ’11), a native of Connecticut, also attended the University of New Hampshire (BM ’05), and is currently the Jazz Band director at Buckman Heights Elementary School in Greece, which made history last year as the youngest group ever to play at the XRIJF. Playing four distinct tunes, all memorized, they received a standing ovation. An article from the Democrat and Chronicle last winter lays out his teaching path: “He began his Rochester teaching career subbing in the city, eventually landing a job at Buckman Heights as a general music teacher for the third, fourth, and fifth grades, where he stayed for three years. He was promoted to the instrumental teacher for the fourth and fifth grade. He now directs the fourth and fifth grade concert band, the fifth grade concert band, and the fifth grade jazz ensemble. In addition, he also supervises some after-school clubs, which he treats as “group practice sessions.” During his past six years in that position, he graduated from Eastman in 2011 with a master’s in music education.

What prompted you to study music education? What were your experiences like in New England, and how did they transfer to Eastman?

That’s a big question. I started off in a very sight-learning based traditional program in 5th grade, and I picked trumpet because I thought it was cool. It was just sort of something I did, my parents kept me going with it through elementary school. It didn’t really feel like I had ownership over until around 9th grade.

I found that if I practiced, I got better, and I enjoyed that; I hadn’t done that before. I started to apply myself more and more different styles, like jazz, but most of my training was classical. I always really enjoyed jazz; listening, seeking out new artists…

Did you grow up with jazz?

No, I grew up with the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. That was my dad, child of the sixties.

But then at UNH, I went for music education, and then studied some trumpet performance, though not as a degree. It was all classical training, but I did play in the jazz band there, and I met my wife-to-be. When we graduated in 2005, she got into Eastman; we were planning on staying in New England, but we thought we would go out for a couple of years while she did her master’s degree, and I found whatever work I could.

I got into the Rochester system, got a one-year sub gig, and then I found general music teaching at Buckman … Then our two-year plan turned into our ten-year plan, because after that, I found out that Greece would cover a lot of my tuition if I went to school, and I needed a master’s. I took classes at Eastman mostly during the summer, but a few during the year while at Buckman.

How did you start with the jazz band?

I started working with a woman named Dina Alexander, who had been doing the jazz band at Buckman for about 22 years. I heard her group play, and I was floored; I was blown away by it.

I remember that morning, when I was in my general music room right next to hers, walking in – this was before school, when they rehearse – and thinking “why is a high school band playing here?” I was really confused!

I walked in, and it was a bunch of 5th graders just wailing with musicianship, articulation, how expressive they were, the tuning… My jaw hit the floor. I said to myself, “What is this?” From that point on, I would not leave her alone, asking her, “What are you doing? What is going on?” She started introducing the idea to me of getting kids to really listen and sing to play what they play, and teach them to improvise at a very young age. I hadn’t done some of those things on my own. I had not done a lot of improvisation, or composition. These were things that I had to learn as a teacher. I dived into myself and I noticed that when I was learning that way, and teaching that way, my own musicianship improved. I found that really exciting.

I started applying that to my own teaching, and got some pretty cool results in the general music classroom. And then (Alexander) left to pursue her doctorate at Eastman, and I took over for her, working with the jazz band and doing a lot of those same things… teaching kids to improvise, and compose, how to listen and understand what they’re playing, both rhythmic and harmonic elements.
For example, we were playing a tune called “Moon River” with these heavy chords… And we were singing along with these harmonies while I was playing at the piano. The difference between having them just read everything down compared to when they can hear all that and sing it, in terms of their tuning and expressiveness, and how musically they play is amazing.

We learn the melody, the bass line, the harmony line, and how to improvise by ear. Then they read their parts. When they read their parts, they learn to sing them. But through all that singing and all that listening they do, they internalize it.

Last year, two days before the Festival, I noticed that most of them were just ignoring what was on their stands. I did an experiment, I asked if they wanted to try running down our program with your stands turned around? They did, and they sounded phenomenal, because all they were doing is listening to each other. A friend of mine had a great quote: “You move into a different realm when your music is memorized.”

Now memorizing the music has just become sort of thing. We did it memorized on Canal Days, and we’ll do it this year at the Fest as well. To them it’s no big deal, but to me, thinking about doing a whole show memorized is terrifying.

You don’t just teach your kids improv and composition… You teach your kids to not only sing their own parts in solfege, but everyone else’s too, correct? How did you develop it, and how did the kids embrace it, singing in a band setting?

I developed it by embracing it on my own. It was never something I had really done. I had to start with some pretty simple stuff, because I had not experienced (singing solfege). I started with folk tunes, learning how to play and sing them by hear. Then, I started teaching them to my students.

Initially, it felt slower. I didn’t have the long view, because I hadn’t done it for very long myself. Now I that I’ve done it, I realize that in the end, what it does — that is, teaching them by ear — it builds their musicianship at an incredible rate. You don’t get results right off the bat, but because they become such good musicians, at the end of a year working with them, you can do things so much faster. The piece we’re kicking off our set with, we started three weeks ago. I threw them “Superstition,” and they nailed the whole thing. I couldn’t do that if it was all sight-based.

Is the composition work you do tied in with your singing method?

Yes, (the singing) is huge for composition.

I say them is that the music we’re creating doesn’t come from our instrument, it comes from that musical part of our brain. We have to have some way to relate what’s coming out of our horn to what we’re hearing in our head. If we don’t have that connection, then it’s just kind of guesswork.

A reed player might be able to hit the right notes, you might be able to do it in the right rhythm, but the tuning is never really going to be there, it’s never going to be expressive unless you learn how to listen, sing, and internalize it. Those are a lot of the concepts that I learned about at Eastman.
A lot of those things that have been profound in my teaching. It was really neat being able to take those classes while teaching. Because in your undergrad, everything’s theoretical… With Dr. [Richard] Grunow and in class with Dr. [Christopher] Azzara, being able to talk about these things and then try it later that fall, and realized it works wonderfully!

I know you didn’t grow up here, but I’m sure you’ve grown to love this city. What is it like for you and the kids to play at the Jazz Fest? How do you get them ready?

Yeah, it’s fantastic, I love it here.

I get them ready by leaving very, very little to chance. Everything is thoroughly, thoroughly planned and executed, so that when we walk in, we are calm and focused. We talk a lot about that.
The experience of going somewhere you’ve never been, and playing somewhere you’ve never been for an adult can be unnerving. For a ten-year-old or a nine-year-old, it can really throw them. We’ll do some simple meditative breathing beforehand, we talk a lot about the procedure of everything. They’re pumped, they’re excited, they’re ready to go last week.

I’m excited to play and share with the community down here all of the hard work these guys have done. I’ve taken my students to competitions in the area, and we end up playing for three adjudicators, and a smattering of parents, which is a wonderful experience as a learning process, because you’re going to get a lot of feedback, a lot of the stuff I’ve probably said, a lot of the stuff that they haven’t heard.
After playing at the Jazz Fest last year, I’ve started to seek out more opportunities to share all the great things these guys are doing with the community. We were invited as the featured artist for the opening ceremony of the Greece District Art Show at the mall in April. It was a blast, playing for hundreds of people… And we got invited to play at the Fairport Canal Days earlier this June.
They’re little professionals at this point in the year. If we can get up there and get everything set up, and I hit go, my job’s done.

Dan’s remaining Jazz Festival posts this week will include interviews with Eastman professors Dave Rivello and Harold Danko, and Eastman alumnus and GRAMMY nominee John Hollenbeck.

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