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A Semester of Improvisation

As we waited in the Mayor’s Reception Room for our guests to arrive for the #VoteThatJawn celebration, Philadelphia’s Clef Club Junior Jazz ensemble played a bouncy, traditional jazz tune, reminiscent of the swing era. The ensemble of three included two high school freshmen: Nicole Ware and Justin Griggs. Led by the steady notes of the bass played by their instructor, Richard Hill, the young musicians’ improvisation filled the room. Nicole’s black dress was peppered with large music notes and treble clefs. She sat behind a cobalt blue drum set, energetically hitting the hi-hat. Justin sat nearby, behind a keyboard, adding melody to the sound. Hill, a middle aged man with tall burnt-orange hair, stood between the two with his bass, shifting his eyes from Nicole to Justin and back again. The three played in unison, with a subtle spotlight alternating between Nicole and Justin as their improvisation broke from the background.

As his students took turns soloing, Hill offered them a small nod of encouragement. I played electric guitar in my high school’s jazz band, so the Clef Club’s lively, unpredictable sounds were familiar. They made me remember the music and my bandmates: the sounds of our seven instrument cases unlocking, music sheets opening, chairs adjusting, and the faces and instruments of my bandmates as I watched them improvise one by one. I found myself moving briskly, my head bouncing up and down, my shoulders dipping from side to side, fingers snapping. It was the day after the midterm elections, and we had lots to celebrate. #VoteThatJawn’s mission was accomplished — we’d shared information among groups who had registered new voters and gotten them to the polls the day before.

Witnessing this interaction was a moment of clarity for me. I realized that Clef Club’s Junior Jazz ensemble’s mission was no different from the youth-oriented missions of SafeKidsStories and #VoteThatJawn: to amplify youth voice. Here we were, students in a Creative Non-Fiction course, dancing to the sound of our mission, to the expression of young, inventive minds. What I hadn’t realized until this point: we college students are young people too; our voices were also amplified through #VoteThatJawn and through Lorene Cary’s guidance, a guidance similar to what Hill offered Nicole and Justin, a guidance under which we were safe and encouraged to improvise.

Just as the guitar, piano, bass and drums provide a flexible structure on which jazz soloists can venture in various directions, #VoteThatJawn and our three-hour-a-week class allowed for improvisation. Over the past several months, Ms. Cary provided a steady network of support from which she encouraged us students and the other young people behind #VoteThatJawn to shape the initiative, to change its course depending on the morning news, on the mood of the afternoon, or on whatever we, the young people that this initiative targets, believed needed attention. As an engineering student, I spend plenty of time working on projects, but never without a concrete plan, a timeline of project milestones, a list of resources needed, and a known project architecture. In my engineering courses, I am encouraged to create only after careful thought and analysis; engineers are responsible for preventing faults and failures.

The flexibility that I have felt this semester through #VoteThatJawn and through Ms. Cary’s guidance stands in refreshing contrast.

But flexibility doesn’t mean sloppiness. Being allowed and encouraged to improvise in this project reminded me of what I once knew in high school: great improvisation looks easy and natural, but improvisation is difficult and often uncomfortable to learn. To improvise, you must first master many scales, be comfortable switching back and forth between them, and know how different combinations of notes sound together. You must also know how to diverge from these scales and deviate from the beat while still maintaining some level of consistency. Then to think on your feet, you must be willing to make mistakes, and you must be okay performing a piece that has never before been practiced or performed. In this sense, #VoteThatJawn challenged us students and the other young people backing the initiative; #VoteThatJawn asked young people, like the musicians of any good jazz ensemble, to improvise, to support one another as teammates, to realize and act upon our individual ability to shape a larger group, and to give each young voice the amplification that it deserves.

Elena Tomlinson is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Her greatest passion is empowering younger students with technical skills and confidence. She organizes Tech it Out Philly, a free program that teaches Philadelphia high schoolers web development and social activism.

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