Grading creativity

Antonio Garcia discusses his new book, “Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading”

Grading creativity

Having lived his first 25 years in New Orleans — which played a pivotal role in the development of jazz — before moving to New York and then Chicago, Antonio Garcia has followed the jazz trail his whole life.

In 2001, Garcia left his faculty position at Northwestern University to join the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is now director of Jazz Studies

He was impressed with the faculty, students and staff, as well as the city of Richmond.

“I could see how my jazz students here would have similar opportunities as I had while attending college in my native New Orleans,” Garcia said. “We have a rare ‘school without walls’ here at VCU Music, where students can gig in Richmond, realize that their faculty are not lying to them, and then take their studies all the more seriously, eventually graduating with academic knowledge, professional experience and business savvy. To me, it’s the perfect recipe for someone wanting a career in jazz and commercial music.”

To me, it’s the perfect recipe for someone wanting a career in jazz and commercial music.

Garcia has written, edited and contributed to numerous publications and has published countless compositions for big bands, combos, vocal ensembles, orchestras, wind ensembles and more. His new composition for big band slated for January publication will be performed throughout Illinois next year, leading to Garcia guest-directing an all-state high school jazz band through it in January 2018.

He recently discussed his latest book, “Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading,” with VCU News.


How did you become interested in jazz? When did you know you wanted to pursue it professionally?

We didn’t have a music program at my elementary school. And, though I was in high school band, we didn’t have our own jazz band until my senior year there. But I caught the jazz bug and decided to major in jazz studies in college — even though I knew very little about it, really. I was a very late bloomer.

And though I developed well enough as a trombonist to read music really well early on and gig in the city as many as 30 nights a month some months while a full-time college student — often backing such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Gladys Knight and George Shearing — I was a lousy improv-soloist. It wasn’t until years later, in graduate school, that I finally got my jazz-soloing together. Soon after, I realized that my own journey to overcome breathing problems, stylistic issues, compositional blocks and improvisation challenges had prepared me quite well to assist in solving others’ such concerns, and that jump-started me on my full-time university teaching career. Next year will be my 30th!

How did “Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading” come about?

Many years ago, on a plane, I was reading a music journal when I came upon a letter to the editor from a graduate assistant of mine. She asked why a recent article on grading students in music ensembles focused so much on attendance and attitude, and so little on musical content and progress. And as I reflected on the topic of assessment with my Master of Music in Jazz Pedagogy students at Northwestern thereafter, I realized that many jazz educators had not yet addressed the issue of grading a jazz improvisation course, much less providing any resources for the next generation of teachers. The matter had never even surfaced during years of international curriculum committee dialogues I had shared, nor had the topic been the focus of any book or conference presentation that I could uncover. Yet if grading music in general in any creative, credit-bearing course is any challenge at all, how much more daunting is it to grade something as personal, even as amorphous, as jazz improvisation? That set me on to my research.

This work encompasses 20 years of research. Was it always your goal to publish a book on this topic while researching it?

Tony Garcia.
Tony Garcia.

I’d projected only an article, but the research yielded too much valuable information and insight to fit in an article. Most of the external research took place during the initial 10 years. I contacted some of the participants again later on to confirm that their placed views were still valid, while finalizing my own statements on the subject to include in the book. And it took many years to find a proper publisher who would present it as I would like. I’m absolutely delighted with Meredith Music, which not only issued the book at a most affordable price for the current and future music educators who will find themselves teaching jazz improvisation courses, but also included the superb photos I’d provided of VCU jazz students and faculty, often engaging with our jazz colleagues from the University of KwaZulu-Natal during our three-year exchange program.

Why is grading jazz improvisation so difficult?

First, there’s a big difference between assessing and grading. We all assess daily when we hear music, in or out of the classroom: What do we like or not like; what level of quality is present or not? We could be listening to music at a party, much less in a concert hall, and making that decision. But placing an academic grade on the musical product is a whole different question. What constitutes an A, a C, an F? That’s an area few musicians really want to tread through — and it’s a potentially litigious area as well, ripe for student grade-appeals.

Secondly, any elements of the course that the teacher states in the syllabus will be firmly graded tend to be the elements to which the students will pay the most attention and devote the most study. They want an A in the course. So how you as an educator list your grading structure in the syllabus largely informs your students’ view as to what they believe you think is important — whether you want that or not. So deciding an appropriate grading structure for any course really should be based on the priorities you have within your teaching the content of that course.

It’s fairly easy to assess and grade the nuts and bolts of jazz improv — how well the students know their chords and scales, for example. But chords and scales alone do not equal fine improvisations. So is it practical, much less motivational, toward student growth in the subject to grade students mostly on what’s easiest to grade?

On the other hand, if you venture into grading a student’s creative output in some manner, the question arises as to whether or not you’re evaluating the musician's creativity, whether it’s appropriate to do so, and whether it is even possible to evaluate creativity. Again, these are areas into which jazz musicians tend not to want to wander. Yet, with jazz planted in the curriculum, grading is required, and students do deserve a summary as to how their work in the class will be graded.

How is grading jazz improvisation different from grading other genres of music?

Virtually all other forms of music regularly taught in school are first written down and handed to the students, who then read the sheet music with the goal typically to re-create that source music as accurately as possible. Jazz brings improvisation into the mix — music being created spontaneously that is not written down and so cannot be compared to anything captured on a sheet of paper at the time. The music educator teaching jazz improvisation can no longer base the majority of a student’s grade on that student’s ability to read and re-create that page of music. There are parallels to attempting to grade students in a creative writing course or visual art course. However, those pursuits are more rarely improvisational, and even when they are, they are captured in physical form. Even a recording of a jazz solo pales compared to the live delivery.

What would you like to add?

I see this book impacting jazz educators’ teaching priorities as much as their grading structures, as they have a circular relationship. The best educators are always seeking means to improve, to better reach their students, and I am hopeful that this book will prompt positive growth in many educators’ approaches to teaching jazz improvisation. It certainly has bettered my approach!

For more information about Garcia, visit


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