News Go behind the scenes with Omaha Performing Arts

Q&A: Meet Shawn Bell, our new Jazz Academy teaching artist

Posted On Nov 12, 2018, 16:19 PM by Courtney Mattern

Jazz Academy teaching artist Shawn Bell leads a jazz clinic with students at Papillion Middle School. 

We’re jazzed to announce our new Jazz Academy, an education program for Omaha area middle schools!

It’s no secret – we love jazz at Omaha Performing Arts. The art form is uniquely American and embraces creativity and improvisation in ways no other type of music does. We’re committed to bringing world-class artists to Omaha through our Jazz Series and at Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing. Our Education and Community Engagement programs foster a love of jazz music beginning with WeBop for toddlers all the way up to our annual Jazz Summit for high school and college students.

The Jazz Academy will reach a whole new age group and provide further educational resources to our community’s schools. We’re excited to welcome trombonist and music educator Shawn Bell as our lead teaching artist for academy.

With degrees in Jazz Studies from Western Michigan University and Northern Illinois University, he’ll bring his deep knowledge to area middle schools – equipping teachers with new skills and inspiring our region’s next generation of jazz musicians.  I caught up with Shawn just as he was kicking off his first in-school clinics to chat about the new program and why bringing jazz education to young musicians is so important.

Q: What makes the Jazz Academy special?
SB: Through the combination of services offered, the Jazz Academy will address the challenges faced by both students and teachers. This holistic approach will give students and teachers a common set of approaches that can lead to success.

Q: Why focus on middle school students when it comes to jazz music?
Middle school students often have an open-minded attitude toward their musical development. This includes trying new things, such as playing Jazz. Most seventh- and eighth-grade musicians have only been playing for one or two years and are still developing technique on their instruments. Introducing these students to different styles, and more importantly, to the concept of improvisation at this early ag helps them feel like these elements are a natural part of music-making. This translates to their playing and listening habits in high school and beyond.

Q:  What are you most looking forward to as a teaching artist for OPA’s Jazz Academy?
Working with a large, well-respected organization like Omaha Performing Arts will offer me the opportunity to reach students and teachers in ways that I couldn’t as an individual musician.

Q: What do you hope students and teachers will gain from the Jazz Academy?
I hope all students and teachers who take part in this program will get practical strategies they can implement in their own schools. In addition, I hope to demystify jazz education for both students and teachers. Teachers often tell me they don’t know where to start when it comes to teaching jazz. While different approaches are needed when compared with performing and teaching “classical” music, a clear educational path does exist for students and teachers who want to excel in Jazz.

Q. Why did you decided to become a jazz teacher?
SB: Arts education offers students the opportunity to gain tangible benefits, such as increased discipline and work ethic. More importantly, arts education has intangible benefits, such as allowing students to develop their creative impulses and ability to express abstract ideas. Jazz is well-positioned in the realm of arts education in that it encourages individuality and innovation within an established tradition. Helping students see the connection between the great players of the past, music of today, and music of the future is the most exciting part about working with young jazz musicians. I’m excited to launch the Jazz Academy this year and looking forward to making this program an important part of the music education environment in Nebraska.