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The Jazz Effect: A story of Access to Music Education

Jazz - as a genre but more so a practice - has been a key part of my musical journey thus far. Through jazz, I was able to access higher levels of music despite my background, and I think it’s important to talk about the reasons for that. Unfortunately, and especially at a place like Oxford University, it is far too common to be ostracised from an institution’s musical community because you don’t play an orchestral instrument at a particular standard, and I long for the day that changes.

My musical career officially started at 13 when I was offered free piano lessons (followed by GCSE Music) at my high school. As a person from a severely disadvantaged background, this was life-changing for me, and I am eternally grateful for this opportunity that many do not get. Though this experience was key to my development, I found that I was still stunted by a simple lack of a piano to practise on. At this point in my life, I was also dealing with severe depression as a result of my circumstances: with music acting as my only lifeline, I had to pause and cling to the one thing I still loved. All this formal training, sheet music and playing the notes perfectly and robotically was getting to my head, and I came very close to quitting entirely.

Sami Jalil

Lost in a sea of notes, worries and pain, I asked my dad for a guitar and started teaching myself. I felt freed by the ability to just jam and sing a tune without worrying about whether the sound matched the dots on a page. With no teacher breathing down my neck, I could finally express myself. I was singing in casual high school choirs and spending my entire lunch breaks in the practice room: I lived and breathed melodies every day, and it felt like I’d fallen in love with life for the first time.

Funnily enough, I used to claim that I hated jazz. I had this strange moment in my youth where I felt like I was boring for liking all kinds of music, so I chose one to “hate” and it happened to be jazz. But my true love for jazz came to fruition when I started sixth form. My sixth form also offered free instrumental lessons to A-level Music students, so I felt it was obvious for me to pick piano. Just before I was due to meet my new piano teacher and rip my hair out trying to understand sheet music again, I had a life-changing encounter. In a rock band rehearsal when introducing myself to the drum teacher leading the session, I mentioned an interest in jazz because I really enjoyed playing this one piece from my Grade 5 exam with a swing feel. Somehow, in that moment, the drum teacher at my sixth form saw something in me. A spark lit up in me as he asked if I’d be interested in jazz piano lessons.

I debated starting jazz piano lessons because I was warned in high school that they were too specialised and that I shouldn’t narrow my options this early (which I now realise is such bad advice!). I was hesitant to change my path, and I got advice from so many different people to try and make my decision but couldn’t come to a conclusion. Eventually, I decided that I needed some kind of change. Maybe jazz piano could open some new doors for me - and that it certainly did.

There is this obsession with classical training and sheets within Western music, and sometimes people forget that other ways of learning exist. My jazz piano lessons and playing in the college jazz band opened up a whole new sound world for me, one that was free and beautiful and made me feel exactly how I wanted to feel when performing. I remember my jazz band teacher saying that rhythm is more important than notes, then bashing out random keys to the rhythm of “Happy Birthday” to prove his point. I was shown a new way to look at music - one that embraced different ways of learning whilst respecting the art of making music. I don’t understand when people get offended by this way of thinking about music: people compose music all the time by experimenting and playing the wrong notes so that they can choose the ones that feel right. Why is it wrong to play music for the sake of it?

I think it was quite natural for this to inspire my current love for free improvisation. It’s the ultimate manifestation of democracy in music: wrong notes don’t exist, and everyone gets to contribute a little part of themselves. I’m about to start an ethnographic project exploring the use of free improvisation in sixth form education, mostly because I wish my younger self knew that their music was just as beautiful as a concerto. I can read sheet music fine, and I could invest the time to get better, but it feels so much more natural for me to just play.

I know that there is a limited amount that can be said about access to music education in one short article, but I hope that my story may somehow spark a conversation about access to music - even if it’s just one. If we keep talking about the inaccessibility of music education, and if each of us does our part in the fight, maybe one day a young musician won’t quit because they aren’t being given the resources they need. Jazz and improvisation were the way that I found myself through music, but for you and all the other musicians out there, it could be anything. I respect classical musicians and appreciate the time they put into their craft, but classical music should not be the only option available.

We can make change: we just have to do it one step at a time.


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