Teaching: on the front line

January 10, 2003

What is your experience of teaching in higher education? Our new column asks teachers how they manage .

Name: Frank Griffith

Age: 43

Job title: Jazz and popular music lecturer

Job description: I teach performance, improvisation and other music skills - theory, arranging, orchestration - and supervise work placements and composition and dissertation students. I organise concerts in the university and the community.

Salary: £26,000

Degrees: BFA (City College of New York), MMus (Manhattan School of Music).

Experience: I have worked for 25 years as a freelance musician in New York and London and studied privately with some top names. I play tenor sax, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax and flute. I accompany students and singers on piano and often use the piano as a teaching tool. I first taught part time at City College of New York in 1985 and really enjoyed it. I moved to London in 1996 and within six months had a job running a jazz school at Richmond Adult and Community College. I was "promoted" to my full-time Brunel University post in 1997.

Hours spent teaching: About ten hours a week.

Hours on research: Normally one day a week. This year it has been two-and-a-half.

Hours on red tape: How long is a piece of string? Much more than ten hours a week.

As admissions tutor, how do you choose students? Only a portion of applicants are popular/jazz performers, many are classical musicians and singers. We have a fairly wide range of experience at Brunel. I look for musical talent, aptitude and flexibility. While their performance abilities should be equivalent to grade six to eight level, we also expect reasonable knowledge of music theory and an ability to communicate clearly and intelligently on paper. We are not a conservatory and having a strong academic base (a norm for a university degree) is a necessary component of what we have to offer. All the above are usually detectable through a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service form, and do not require an audition. In some isolated cases, though, especially mature students who might not possess conventional qualifications, we and the student might benefit from an opportunity to meet, hear them perform and have an informal chat.

Teaching bugbear: Perpetual requests to update or modify strategies, plans and benchmarkings and so on. University management seems compelled to ask for reports about reports, and treats us as if we were the students. If we ask for something - often essential to do our job - they require reams of documentation and rationale. Computers have shifted copious amounts of admin on to lecturers.

Teaching pleasure: I have always felt very privileged to be teaching something I love so much. When I play along with students, whether in an improvisation class or at a big-band rehearsal, I don't feel as if it is teaching per se . The opportunity to earn money by conducting warm air through a pipe is one not afforded to many people. While lecturing on composition and playing excerpts of Bach, Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix to students, I feel I am sharing something, like hanging out in someone's home. But one-to-one instrumental tuition is still essential for any aspiring performer. It allows the teacher to be honest and intimate.

Top tip: To constantly impart the excitement and love you have for your subject to the students. It does not matter how simple or basic the piece or lesson. I had the good fortune to study Bela Bartok's music with an eminent Bartok scholar, pianist Philip Evans at the Manhattan School of Music in 1986. In his introduction, he said the point of the class was to demonstrate Bartok's music so we could learn to love it. A student will often appreciate and accept what you are banging on about if they are convinced that you are sold on it too.

Career high points: Two solo CDs, The Suspect and Frank Griffith Nonet "Live", Ealing Jazz Festival 2000 , on the HEP label. I've also featured on CDs by Joe Temperley, John Pizzarelli and Dave Stryker. Played with Mel Torme, Mel Lewis, Ron Carter, The Buddy Rich Big Band and The Glenn Miller Orchestra. Arranged for Lionel Hampton, Jon Hendricks and Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. Finally, composition commissions for the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Kingston Borough Council and the city of Coventry.

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