Jeff Coffin is a Give A Note Artist Ambassador. During a presentation at John Overton High School in Nashville, TN in March 2020, Jeff said, “Music education strengthens community, music education brings students together, music education provides a safe place for self-expression, music education promotes complex problem solving, music education encourages students to create, music education inspires our students to support one another.” Watch the full video.
To celebrate National Jazz Appreciation Month, we asked Jeff to share some of his experience with the musical form and how its unique qualities have impacted his life and career. Give A Note is dedicated to transforming music education through innovation and tech and empowering educators to impact students through learning music in school. We’re grateful for Jeff’s role as our Ambassador and thrilled for his dedication to helping ensure access to quality music education for all students.
Written by Jeff Coffin
What is improvisation? Well, it depends who you ask. It comes from a Latin root “improvisus” and it translates as “unforeseen, unexpected, or surprise”. As many do, this word contains the spirit of the action in it. We improvise all the time, walking, having a conversation, whistling or humming a little melody, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, exploring a creek or the woods, etc. We ALL do it, we may just not realize that’s what it’s called.
In conversation, we use a series of sounds (letters) and phrases (letters put together to create words and sentences) to form thoughts and convey ideas and emotion. In music we use sounds (notes) and phrases (notes strung together over chord changes – although sometimes there are no chord changes) to form thoughts and convey ideas and emotion. So, as you can see, music has the same fundamentals as a language. It IS a language…one that is spoken the world over. You may not speak Japanese, or Polish, or Spanish, or French, or even Lithuanian, but if you speak the language of MUSIC, you have a family everywhere you go!
Improvisation has been at the forefront of what I do since I began to play in 5th grade. I had a great teacher in a small town called Dexter in the middle of Maine. He encouraged me to mess around on the instrument and to find melodies and to have fun ‘playing’ music.
I’m eternally grateful for his guidance – I was improvising and I didn’t even know it!
Since then, I have gone on to have a life of music and creativity and I’ve toured the world with saxophone in hand with the likes of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (from 1997 to 2010) and Dave Matthews Band (from 2008 to present). I have met musicians from around the globe from cultures I didn’t even know existed. One of the commonalities is that most of them consider themselves IMPROVISORS! We speak a common language…Well, mostly, since there are other cultures that have very intricate rhythmic and harmonic complexities – but those can be overcome by knowing how to listen and play well with others.
The internet has certainly opened up the world of music and has allowed many people to find music they never would have previously. Learning how to play another instrument is as easy as moving your fingers on a keyboard to find a lesson from a master. It’s pretty amazing.
Being a musician has allowed me to connect with people around the globe and to talk about life, politics, food, creativity, art, economics, how people treat their poor, health care, the disparity between wealth and poverty, community, outreach, and so much more. I have learned so much more than music from being a musician. I have learned about life and how other people live it. Being a musician has taught me the art of listening to other people – something many people need to do some serious work on in my opinion. I still have a long way to go but I’ve worked on it for years and years and I have to admit, I’m pretty good at it.
As an educator, I’ve presented well over 300 clinics and workshops around the world, and I’ve been on faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, where I live, since 2015. I get to tour and I get to teach – it’s amazing! I teach improvisation there and having worked with many instruments, not just saxophonists, I have come to believe that EVERYONE can improvise!! You may not turn into Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane but that’s not the point. The point is to express yourself in another language and that takes some time.
I have recently released an app on the Apple store called CONNECTING THE DOTS, which takes musicians of all ages through a revolutionary but very simple process of understanding chord changes and how to begin the process of improvisation through ‘call & response’. If it was printed, each instrument specific book would be over 1000 pages long. By using technology, we can expedite and consolidate so much and make things so much simpler and have a greater achievement level than ever before. It’s certain to change again in a few years but technology builds on itself and always has.
Playing and learning music helps solve problems.
Not only does it help us to understand how to create together, it also gives us the tools to express ourselves and to feel like we belong with a group of people. We become family outside of our families. As a collective, we have to figure things out by listening to one another and sometimes that presents its challenges. But through the support of others and with some good critical thinking skills we make it through ok. For young players, these skills take the form of conflict resolution. Every relationship has some form of conflict in and with music we are taught to listen in order to resolve said conflict. We ‘play’ to resolve conflict. Isn’t that a beautiful idea!?!
Music has continued to change my life and my outlook and my perspective year after year and I can’t imagine my life any other way. I’m grateful beyond measure that I get to do what I do with the people I do it with and I look forward to hearing what comes next…
Learn more about Jeff:
Ear Up Records
IG: @JeffCoffin | FB: @JeffCoffinMusic