Teacher Talks: Victor Lin, Head of Jazz Studies

With a doctorate in music education, a masters in Jazz Studies, and years of experience as a professional jazz pianist on the New York City jazz scene, it’s no wonder that Victor Lin’s teaching style is all about building skills — but not just the ones you’d think. Victor’s students learn more than how to play instruments; they learn to be better, more caring people. 

As his students play together, they learn to support each other as musicians and as peers. With a strong ethos focused on community, Victor uses music as a vehicle for building a foundation of empathy, making it possible for students to connect with one another and engage in nuanced conversations around the history and implications of the jazz music they play. 

Music as a Vehicle for Conversation:

I teach History Through Popular Music as well as Race, Culture, Music in 21st Century America. These classes are my attempt to advance the conversation at Calhoun around race, diversity and history through the lens of music. In the Jazz Department, our goal is to try to get kids to see the history behind what we're playing. You have an obligation to understand where the music you’re playing comes from and think about the entire human experience — that other people might have an experience completely different from yours.

Victor Lin, Head of Jazz Studies

Jazz at Calhoun: 

There are over 60 kids in the Upper School that are involved in jazz — that's close to a fifth of the school— and there are nine bands. That’s how in demand playing music is for our students! 

Jazz is the hardest and the most universal style of music. If you understand how to play jazz from its core, you can play a lot of other music. You can create a piece for hip hop, rock or funk.  

What you learn from music is that there are no shortcuts. You have to prepare and learn the discipline that's involved. You also learn how to work in groups, how to let someone else lead. You have to embrace its communal aspect. Yes, you can study on your own, but you can also study with others and take advantage of what they know. 

My job is to empower people to realize who they can be and to see the power in doing that for others. The number one thing students learn is how to support someone else. To me, the best musician in the band needs to use their confidence to empower the least confident one. A band does not function as a vehicle to highlight one individual. In our department we ask, "What's your job?" The answer is “to make everybody else better.” So, how do you make someone better when you’re in a band? How do you support someone as an audience member, classmate — as a human being? Asking those questions, you start to learn all the ways in which you can actually make people stronger. Students learn how to take the focus off of themselves and turn it to someone else. You can't be in a band and be self-absorbed. 

I want students to have compassion, empathy and the ability to take action to make people feel welcome. Those skills stay with you forever. When kids don't think they're good enough to play, they don’t play, which is a shame. What if instead of telling them they weren’t good enough, you made them part of your team?

Summer Jazz:

The Summer Jazz Workshop is a week where student-musicians spend time together learning and connecting with the Calhoun music community. A tradition of ours is that at the end of camp we gather in a big circle and go around saying something we appreciate about one another. Creating an environment in which those interactions happen is the main goal because if you don’t build strong relationships, then you can't have those conversations about race, gender, etc. — all these loaded topics intertwined with music.

Calhoun’s Annual Jazz Fest:

The goal of Jazz Fest is to create a space for people to come and watch the people within our community perform. We feature Calhoun student bands, student bands from other schools, and faculty performances. In the future, I’d also like to bring alumni back to play. Everyone can come and participate in any part of the day.

Calhoun’s Influence:

[Teaching at Calhoun] has definitely made me better at playing a lot more instruments, and it’s brought my level of musicianship a thousand times higher. My time at Calhoun allowed me to realize that successful jazz education is about empowerment, encouragement and empathy. The measure of success is not in whether students can perform in the “right way,” but in whether the relationships and friendships that are forged through the making of this music continue to develop and strengthen. That is what lasts. 

My gift is not only to teach students to excel at music, but to use whatever musical talent I have to allow students to feel safe taking risks with one another. How has Calhoun made me a better musician? It's made me a better person. If you're a better person, you're automatically a better musician.

Teaching Music Through Distance Learning:

It has been amazing to see how students have adjusted to meeting in virtual spaces. All of the student combos have been meeting regularly with their instructors to learn new things and doing so with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, energy and interest. Seeing their in-class dynamics replicated in an online classroom is a testament to how committed Calhoun jazz students are to continuing to make each other better. It has been one of the most satisfying things I've encountered as an educator.