School Outreach in South Africa: Stirling High School

Stirling High School is a government school in East London and the educational home of over a thousand students in grades 8 to 12. Stirling High encourages students to develop holistically, so its students typically participate in academics, sports, cultural activities and pastoral projects. Music education is nestled under the cultural umbrella. While the emphasis is on classical music tuition, Stirling High also boasts a nationally recognized jazz band. Spend a little time on the school’s website and you will discover that the Stirling High School Jazz band is considered the premier school jazz band in the country. This is not an honor to be taken lightly, and Stirling High School can be proud of what their music department has achieved.

After a brief meeting with three of the school’s music teachers, I accepted the invitation to sit in with the jazz band at their rehearsal later that day. This accomplished band is directed by teacher and saxophonist Alan Webster, perhaps best known for his role as director of the Standard Band Jazz Festival. During the jazz band rehearsal, I had the opportunity to sit in and demonstrate both the solo and lead aspects of big band performance, while also observing the young musicians in action. When Mr Webster asked me to share my observations with the band, I had to admit that they were doing just about everything right. The only room for improvement lay with some students needing to exaggerate the dynamics, phrasing, and articulation. I must commend Alan Webster on employing the circle arrangement during the rehearsal. In this arrangement, the students stand side-by-side forming a closed loop and facing inwards. This arrangement encourages the band members to watch and listen to each other, and ensures that students can actually hear each other throughout the rehearsal.

I later returned to Stirling High School to conduct two more presentations: a Jazz Improv Workshop and a Brass Master Class. The Jazz Improv Workshop involved the students of Donné Dowlman’s jazz improvisation class. Ms Dowlman is East London’s first call bassist, and the school’s instructor for jazz improv and the band’s rhythm section. The school’s trumpeters and trombonists attended the Brass Master Class. The brass section is under the instruction of teacher and fellow trumpet player, Leonard Brandt. When we met, Mr Brandt informed me that he had been using my books for a number of years. It is always a pleasure to cross the paths of people from all across the globe who have discovered my materials and put them to work.

Jazz improv requires a rock-solid foundation in technique. Having already jammed with the jazz band at their rehearsal, I had a good feel for what the students were capable of. Since many of the students in the jazz band appeared well grounded with an established technique foundation, I chose to focus Stirling’s Jazz Improv Workshop on another important aspect of improvising: letting go. Yes, the technique and theory are very important, but when it comes to making music in jazz improvisation, it is even more important to forget all of the exercises and just play. Jazz sounds best when it is played by ear, and not by our brains.

I returned to Stirling High School one more time to present the Brass Master Class with Leonard Brandt’s group of musicians. We arrived a little early for the class, so I had the opportunity to play a few duets from my book, Celebrations, with Mr Brandt while we waited for the students to filter into the room.

The Brass Master Class began with a performance of Wilhelm Scheidt’s “Canzona” by the trumpet quartet. Since endurance was the one aspect of the performance that all the quartet members admitted needed some work, I decided to keep the focus of the class on endurance. Any brass musician knows that endurance, or the lack thereof, can make or break a performance. This master class concentrated on two topics relevant to brass musicians at all skill levels: how to get the most out of the endurance you already have, and how to gain more endurance.

Thank you again to Stirling High School’s Music Department for hosting the Jazz Improv Workshop and the Brass Master Class. If you are reading this and you represent a school that is interested in hosting a workshop, clinic, or master class, do send us an email. You are welcome to use the contact form on this blog or find additional contact details at We look forward to keeping you informed of future visits to your area.

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