By Cindy Long
Most people know Kevin Eubanks from the Tonight Show Band, which he led from 1995 to 2010, but the acclaimed guitarist and composer is also a public education advocate who is passionate about how music can help shape young minds.

Eubanks, who emceed the NEA Foundation Gala on February 8, says he’s the proud product of public schools and a musical family. His mother, Vera Eubanks, was a Philadelphia public school music teacher for 35 years. A gospel and classical pianist, she exposed Eubanks and his siblings to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as to a healthy dose of gospel on Sundays.

After leaving the Tonight Show, Eubanks — who studied music education in college –became the Artistic Director of the Jazz in the Classroom program for The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he visited public schools and worked with music students in Los Angeles, Chicago and his hometown of Philadelphia.
NEA Today recently talked with Eubanks about teaching and music education.

From your classroom experiences, what have you learned about teaching?

I’ve learned that the most important thing is to establish a level of trust. Teaching is so much more beneficial and efficient when you’re not afraid of each other. Opening up the channels of creativity only happens with trust. I think it’s the basis of good teaching.
Educators also need to make kids understand why they’re there; to help students make the connections between school and beyond. Once they see the connections between school and their family, their community, their city, their state and their world, they start to understand that they have a role to play, and that it begins at school. It gives them a natural sense of responsibility that they should contribute in some way. That empowers them and gives them the motivation to want to learn and to try harder.

Why should we preserve music education in our schools?

First, I don’t like to separate out “music education” from education in general. I just don’t see the distinction between music and the core curriculum. One of the reasons it’s always cut is that it’s perceived as an elective type of education that’s fun and creative, but it’s also a key component of the core curriculum.

There’s science in sound. There’s math in compositions. There’s poetry in lyrics, and there’s a long, rich history to music. What’s more, students of music learn how to take direction, to come together as a group to collaborate, and to follow a leader. Everything core education subjects are supposed to prepare you for is inherent in the arts from day one. The arts brings all of the core disciplines to together in one song, or one dance, or one painting. What could be a more perfect curriculum to have in a school? And the best part is that sharing your art with others is the whole point.

How does the process of learning how to play an instrument benefit individual students?

Kevin Eubanks performs at the 2013 NEA Foundation Gala on February 8.

When a student takes an instrument into a room and sits down with it, he has to solve a problem. He’s trying to get his fingers to do something new, or he’s trying to hit a note or strike this chord or that chord, and it’s a struggle. But the student goes into that room for an hour every day and works on it. After a few days, he solves the problem, and that feels really, really good. It builds confidence. The student learned to focus, to not give up and to continue down the path until the solution arrived, which it always will with time and practice. That lesson can be applied to almost anything in life.

How does participating in a band or choir help students become critical thinkers?

I’ve been to many schools where there was a band or a choir or an ensemble that was worried about an upcoming concert they were completely unprepared for. They’d chosen music that was too difficult and there was no way they’d be able to perform it successfully in time. Some people wanted to cancel the concert, but I showed the students that they simply had a creative problem and that it could be solved with more creativity.

What I always do is go in and listen to everything twice –sometimes nerves can make the first round sound a little sloppy. After listening to it twice, I point out what sections sound good, and what sections aren’t quite ready. I explain that we’ll focus only on the good sections. Soon, after they get a handle on them, it becomes the source of their collective confidence. “We sounded good!” they say.
So we continue to cut the tricky passages, expand the good sections, and repeat. At the same time, I ask for volunteer soloists, and for someone with a big mouth who is willing to introduce the band and say a few words. The introductions always put everyone at ease – the band as well as the audience, and then everyone starts to have a good time. At the end of the day, if it’s not a fulfilling, good experience, nobody wants to do it again.

But the main lesson they learned is that they can attack a creative problem with creativity. They didn’t have to follow the music exactly as it was written – they could try something new, and break it up with solos and the introductions.

That’s when real progress is made in education, when we encourage original thoughts and creativity and students learn that it’s OK to find a new approach. We want them to always be able to raise a question, try something new, and be confident enough to know that any question or new idea is welcome and worthwhile.

After teaching in schools from very different parts of the country, what have you learned about students and what do you hope for their future?

One thing that I don’t think is stated enough is that kids who come from a particular environment or economic group have the very same problems of kids who come from a different group or environment. We all tend to share an ignorance about what happens on the other side of the fence, whether it’s a million dollar fence or a ten dollar fence. We don’t understand each other. One of the most important elements of education is to get our students outside or their own fences. My hope is that education will bring those fences down and take down the barriers of fear and ignorance.