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NCCU Jazz Vocal Ensemble Presents to Fifth Grade Students


Thanks to the generosity and support of the Public School Foundation and the Grassroots Arts Program of the Orange County Arts Council, a celebration of jazz vocal music was presented virtually to fifth grade students in every CHCCS elementary school on April 21. The eight members of the North Carolina Central University (NCCU) Vocal Jazz Ensemble spoke in pairs and solo for three full hours, providing consecutive half hour sessions to engage, instruct and entertain the students.

NCCU Jazz ensembleManny Martinez, a first year master’s student in NCCU’s department of composition and arranging, spoke to Carrboro Elementary School students in Veronica DeBartolo’s class. Although it was his sixth session of the morning, he didn’t skip a beat, as his smile lit up the screen. Having returned to graduate school after teaching school chorus, Martinez said, “Being in front of students again is really a highlight of my day.”

Morris Grove Elementary School Music Teacher, Lois Jarrell, said, “My students and I are so grateful for the experience we had with the NCCU Jazz Vocal Ensemble! With the pandemic, this particular group of students have missed attending traditional live performance opportunities in both fourth and fifth grades that they have looked forward to since kindergarten. They were so excited to have the chance to listen to a virtual performance and engage with the ensemble members in such a personal way!”

Erika Pawlowski, Carrboro Elementary School Music Teacher, said, “One of my favorite moments during the NCCU virtual field trip was when our guest asked the students to say the phrase ‘bippity boppity boo’ but to make it their own. I was pleased to have several students volunteer and take that risk. Some were hesitant, but some truly made it their own by first saying it, but then actually making up a tune and singing it slowly.  They were so brave and I lnccu jazz vocalistoved seeing their proud smiles!”

“My students were very interested in the virtual choir video performance we watched of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble singing, ‘Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing’,” Pawlowski said. “My students asked our guest how long the editing took for the virtual choir. I love the connection our presenter made for the fifth graders. She said it's about knowing and recognizing strengths in others—who has what skill set, like who has the knowledge needed to edit the virtual choir.  And she reminded them that it’s not just in music that you have to cooperate; it’s on a sports team or in a classroom or while playing with your friends. Participating in music helps you in so many ways!”

The music teachers had prepared the fifth graders for the interactive experience by teaching their students about elements of jazz, the vocal ensemble and introducing them to the recorded performances. That allowed them to spend most of the sessions on questions and discussions.

Jarrell said, “One of my students shared, 'I loved when we were able to interact with the jazz players and ask them questions!' Through the Q&A session, they developed a stronger appreciation for the amount of work it takes to study and prepare as a musician and could see the passion and love of music each of the ensemble members possessed. The ensemble members related so well to the fifth graders and did an amazing job using what students learned about jazz while preparing for this session and connecting it to the new information they were presenting. They were fully engaged from start to finish!” 

CHCCS Arts Coordinator, Dr. Brenda Whiteman said, “Fifth grade students are making choices whether to continue with music as an elective option in sixth grade. Originally, the annual fifth grade concert was a symphonic band concert, performed by our own high school ensembles.  However, fourth grade students attend performances by the NC Symphony, so it wasn't a significant contrast.”

“We introduced jazz as the fifth grade concert five years ago, because it is an African American form, and it has significantly shaped all American music. As an important part of American history, it connects easily to the fifth grade social studies focus on U.S. history. It is also a really different approach to music making because it includes an element of improvisation. It is very different from the traditional classical approach, which is played exactly as notated on the score.”

Whiteman said that feedback from the music teachers was that they would really like to incorporate a choral component. “Vocal Jazz gives a really nice contrast to the fourth grade NC Symphony experience,” she said. “We are really fortunate to have NCCU in close proximity to our community, and Professor Lenora Hammonds has shown a great interest in working with us.” 

“The ensemble was scheduled to do live performances for all of our fifth grade students at East Chapel Hill High School in March 2020,” said Whiteman. “We had spent so many years working toward this experience, that I didn't want to let it go entirely.  Fortunately, the Orange County Arts Commission and the Public School Foundation supported us in offering the programming in a different format.”

Amy Evers from Seawell Elementary School said, “The presentation was fantastic -- it was as if the kids had backstage passes to chat with, and get to know the performers. The NCCU students were engaging, knowledgeable, and seemed to genuinely care about what the kids had to offer. It was an awesome experience for everyone. I hope we can do it again every school year."