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Music Education Alumna Addresses Arts Education Access Gap

Written by Erik Caswell
1/30/2016

Allison Russo '11. Photo by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio

Ithaca College alumna Allison Russo ’11 is teaching 12- to 18-year-old girls that jazz isn’t a boys-only club. These days, the world of jazz—with all its brassy power, scattered improvisation, and soulful self-expression—is about “chica power.”

Getting Girls into Jazz

Russo directs the Chica Power initiative of Jazz House Kids, a community arts education organization based in Montclair, New Jersey. In a broad sense, Jazz House Kids dedicates itself to “bridging the arts gap” between schools in economically stratified communities by providing resources for music education to underfunded districts.

But Chica Power is a program aimed specifically at bridging another kind of gap: the one between male and female participation in jazz music, which is considered a male-dominated genre.

While researching for her master’s thesis at Boston University, Russo says she encountered a “horrifying” theory regarding women and jazz music. The theory was that girls were taught from a young age to refrain from expressing qualities that jazz music encourages. “Jazz is not a subtle thing,” Russo explains. “It’s very noisy and crazy and sloppy, and girls just aren’t socialized to be that way.”

Chica Power allows girls of all backgrounds to come together during a five-week course to receive instruction from an expert teaching artist. In this welcoming environment, the girls can learn to improvise and solo on their instrument of choice more comfortably.

At first, Russo says, girls in Chica Power physically recoil upon hearing the dreaded “i-word”: improvisation. During their first classes, the girls are often reluctant to play alone and apologetic of their performance afterward. Russo’s job, as a director and sometimes-teacher of the program, is to help empower girls through the individualized expression jazz improvisation allows.

And those efforts are proving successful. After hoping for 25 girls to apply for the program this year, Russo says Jazz House Kids received double that amount. Fifty girls will be tapping into Chica Power when the program restarts this spring.

Mentoring Professional Musicians to Teach

But directing Chica Power is just one part of Russo’s job as manager of education and school programming at Jazz House Kids. In addition to in-house programs like Chica Power, the organization provides resources for jazz education programs in several Newark, New Jersey, public school districts. Primarily, Russo acts as a professional development expert for the organization’s teaching artists, who often have incredible credentials as professional musicians but not necessarily as educators.

“They’re jazz musicians, so they sometimes don’t know how to talk to kids,” Russo explains. She meets with school administrators, teachers, and the kids involved in the program to get a sense of how the classroom is run. Then she provides teaching artists with suggestions for improvement.

Classroom visits, she explains, are as much about encouragement as they are evaluation. “I try to be in there to let kids know that I’m here for them, too. I’m not just their teaching artist.”

Finding a New Way to Help Students

Russo’s background as a music educator pervades her responsibilities at Jazz House Kids. During her time at Ithaca College as a music education major, she student-taught for a middle school band. After graduating and earning her degree, Russo worked for three years as an Ithaca elementary school band director, teaching more than 130 students per year.

So making the transition from educator to administrator was difficult for Russo. “Being a teacher is a very large part of my identity,” she explains. Although she still helps create classroom conditions that allow students to love learning, she sometimes misses the direct involvement with students.

But Russo says the reward of working in her new position can be just as great.

As part of a Jazz House Kids program that provides free instruments to school districts that cannot meet their students’ demands, an event was held at a school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Russo attended to see the results of her organization’s hard work. The school in Elizabeth had only eight instruments for the 40 kids who wanted to play in the band. Jazz House Kids gifted an additional 27 brand new instruments to the school for the students to use, and these students were overjoyed.

“It was the most perfect day!” Russo says. “Seeing them literally hug their instrument cases and hearing them read their thank you notes like, ‘Thank you for making our band bigger! I’m going to practice every day!’ was a beautiful thing.”

Moments like that remind Russo that she can help students now as much as she did in the classroom—sometimes even more so.



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