University of Auckland: Jazz students in lockdown blow teacher’s socks off

If there is a silver lining to the 2021 lockdown, Dr Olivier Holland, from the School of Music, has seen it in a record-breaking number of A-plus jazz music compositions by Stage 2 students this semester.

“This year’s cohort absolutely killed it, with compositions that are exciting and innovative, and I would say are of international quality,” says Dr Holland, an educationalist, composer, and bass-player. “And this, during lockdown!”

“They blew my socks off. Their compositions were phenomenal. And many of these students are only 19.”

While he isn’t able to provide research-based evidence of why his students produced such outstanding results in lockdown, he has a few theories.

One is that he adjusted the aural training component of the course from being partially to entirely solfege based. Solfege is a music education method used to teach aural skills, pitch and sight-reading of Western music, which he used to teach and test his students in jazz composition.

As he explains, most aural training commonly is recognition-based; students would be played a rhythm, a chord, a melody and so on, and they would have to notate it. But that method is also vulnerable to cheating, and answers could theoretically be shared with other students.

“But with solfege, they have to sing their answers,” he says. “It’s harder to cheat if they have to sing it themselves. Even non-singers had to learn how to do it. It didn’t have to be pretty but had to be accurate.”


This year’s cohort absolutely killed it, with compositions that are exciting and innovative, and I would say are of international quality …and this, during lockdown!
Dr Olivier Holland
School of Music, Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries
He also believes solfege had a liberating effect on students’ creativity. “Singing makes a strong connection to the brain and helps students to verbalise their ideas.”

He was also delighted with how students expressed and drew on their different cultural and musical background, and how evident those were in the sounds of their very individual compositions.

Students in their second semester focus on teaching composition by topic, applying different concepts in their compositions. They might, for instance, be required to create a ‘question and answer’ effect between the melody and bassline in their composition.
“That allows students the freedom to express their individuality within a given framework. Given students come from different cultural and musical backgrounds, the composition often has had a ‘cultural fingerprint’,” says Dr Holland.

“We have students from the various cultural backgrounds, such as the middle East, Pacific Islands, students with a classical music background, and because the composition assignments didn’t impose any stylistic limitations, these influences were invited in, which in turn led to amazingly innovative music.”

It has been a challenging year, for both staff and students, he agrees, but he encourages students to think of lockdown as an opportunity rather than a loss.

“One of the biggest learning outcomes, is that they can demonstrate that they are able to work under circumstances that are constantly changing. The ability to be flexible is becoming the new normal and we are teaching and learning under this modality today. Things might change tomorrow, and we have to go with what’s happening on any given day.”

Students haven’t been able to play together as a group, which both staff and students have missed dearly, but on the other hand, they have learned how to produce a professional standard recording, developing different skill sets in response to lockdown.

“They do miss playing a live set, but I have reminded them of how much there is to be learned from a recording. Being able to produce a polished recording is a skill very relevant to the music profession.

“When students have had to come up with the latter, in which they had to play, with the best tone, the best time, the best phrasing as they possibly can, the quality of the detail has to be so much better – because a recording, in contrast to a live performance, is there forever.

“I told students that they’re not missing out. We are learning differently and shifting the emphasis for a time.”

The results speak, even sing, for themselves he says. “I’ve been faced with giving many students A-pluses, and gladly so.”

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