This article is copyright 1993 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the Northern Illinois University Faculty Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 2, March/April 1993. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Failure's Rewards: Risk in Pursuit of Learning
by Antonio J. García

1992 Undergraduate Teaching Award Recipient, Northern Illinois University


"Look at my grey hairs, my heart attacks....Don't teach. Do anything but teach!"
--my high school band director, senior year

"You're a smart kid; you work hard; but you can't swing your way out of a paper bag."
--my college jazz instructor, sophomore year

"Look, I don't want you to jump out of a window or anything; but I've taught you all I can--and you're still not getting any better."
--my college classical instructor, sophomore year


I am continually surprised at how students think their professors always knew their own career goals--and always successfully pursued them. I had no interest in teaching when I was in college; I had yet to teach myself out of my own problems! My collegiate jazz performances were quite frustrating. Playing the trombone itself was a challenge due to asthma and allergy concerns. Despite much commercial success playing shows and in bands, I considered quitting music twice. Even after I graduated from Loyola University of the South with a Bachelors degree in Jazz Performance (with highest honors, no less), my professors couldn't write me a recommendation for graduate school as a jazz player; for I had not demonstrated any consistent grasp of the art. And they were right.

Shifting my primary focus to writing jazz, it took me two tries to get into the grad school of my choice. Sure, I learned later there were only two openings; but I simply was not ready for the program. When I did emerge from the Eastman School with a Masters degree in Jazz Composition, I had finally begun to mature as a player and writer--at the ripe old age of twenty-six! I had also discovered, via a graduate assistantship, my love for teaching. I applied to a dozen places for a full-time, university position teaching jazz and interviewed at several institutions, including Northern. But NIU turned me down, preferring to retain a fine instructor already on the faculty. When he left a year later, I applied again and was hired. So it even took two tries to land my current position as Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern! Once here I had to make repeated attempts to get certain articles published; I met with much resistance from established authorities. Only a few years later, the leading journal in my field offered me its editorship.

Yet such multiple attempts are not unusual when meeting a challenge; many of you reading this may already be reflecting on your own, even more jagged path to your current career. Every relative failure led to greater success; and that road led me to be a far better performer, composer, author, and producer. When I realized I was able to solve others' musical problems as I had my own, I began to enjoy the idea of perhaps taking teaching as my career.

In this day and age, students are expected to be "wunderkinds" by age eighteen--especially in music--or many observers consider them to be "washed up." There is always great publicity surrounding the next "young sensation." Yet art is a deeply rooted expression; and our valued "idols" reached greatness past 40 (or passed on along the way)! We have not yet witnessed the full potential of a Wynton Marsalis, as expressive as he may be. And my students are stunned to hear from me that in his high school years he had to struggle to improve his music reading, tonguing, range--I was there in New Orleans to see it. Our teachers did not give up on either of us, nor did we disregard their view of the seriousness of the problems we faced.

More than ever, students today need the reassurance that they are not the only ones to face--or be overcome by--the challenges of pursuing their dreams. Prof. Charles Larson, a 1991 recipient of the teaching award, told in his NIUFaculty Bulletin article that year of the value of sharing "failure stories" with his students. Not only are such moments meaningful to the class on a personal level, showing my own vulnerability, I find the students are usually stunned with disbelief at the notion that I slogged through the daunting trail they are climbing.

Pedagogically, I use "failure stories" to amplify the practicality of the demands of the class. Jazz Arranging students despise copying out each musical note meticulously for each player of an ensemble and always crave short cuts. But when they hear how I was "chewed out" in public by a major musician who had just been embarrassed--also in public--by being unable to read my impossible notation, they think twice before living through the same fate. The Jazz Lab Band often prefers not to spend admittedly drawn-out periods learning how to play music without seeing any written parts in front of them. But when they hear how dysfunctional I was the first time I showed up at a big band gig to see no music stands within the set-up, they understand part of my reasoning. Individual students seeking assistance playing their instruments cannot believe I experienced the same "brick walls" they face; yet now I can often show them how to solve their concerns. And in Music Industry class, well, the stories of learning by fire are constantly re-lived by me and my guest lecturers from the field; and the students' evaluations indicate their eyes have been opened to a "major reality check."

My students generally view me as being a fairly wacky, Steve Martin-ish kind of guy in the classroom--except for my tie. I have always worn a tie to classes, despite assurances from a number of colleagues that I would soon desist. Originally it served two purposes. First, it distinguished me visually from my students, as they were frequently my age or older. Unfortunately, this is less needed now. However, I still occasionally field from visiting parents the question: "So, when will you be graduating?" The other contribution my tie offers is that it helps keepme awake on my long schedule; hence my students once named one of my more mystical-sounding compositions "A.J.'s Magic Tie."

Perhaps the tie keeps my students less expecting of my pedagogical antics. I have been known to break into song, do imitations, shout at the top of my lungs or whisper intently, even fall on the floor in mock seizure to illustrate a point. I am as likely to quote George Carlin as Miles Davis, perhaps more apt to draw upon a "Star Trek" episode than a theoretical dissertation. But I have also refused to contribute anything to a given class period except noting on the board the students' input regarding the issue at hand. The silence is telling, and it is refreshing to hear it give way to expression. I am willing and able to walk away from my ensemble while it is playing--in rehearsal and especially performance--in order to observe and allow them the experience of proceeding without my leadership or interference.

I make extraordinary demands on my students, but not unnecessary ones. I present them with the knowledge that they must soon meet these challenges in their careers, if not in the classroom. They believe me because I consistently demonstrate in my own artistry that I, too, remain willing to take on the extraordinary demands I require of them. The NIU Jazz Lab Band, which I direct, has adopted the motto, "We're Out of Our Minds"--to accept many of the artistic and deadline challenges we embrace. But not to do so would be to lessen the growth experience, for them and for me.

When I first arrived at Northern, the outside door of the office I inherited had some rather ugly stains and scratches from previous postings. Though a confirmed news junkie, I recalled that in graduate school I rarely had the time to read the paper, much less watch the news. So I decided to inundate my door with news clippings related to the music business, hoping that I could illustrate to passing readers the practical importance of what I and others were teaching them in school. To get their attention (and because I had no bulletin board), I got my neighboring colleague's permission to "spill" my clippings further onto her door, plastering articles on musical copyright cases, IRS hassles, agent and manager horror stories and successes, polls and surveys, newsy artists, and the like. It was not long before I had generated a great deal of interest from students and peers--and a complimentary bulletin board to replace the need for my neighbor's door. I do not have as frequent opportunities now as then to update the postings, but I cannot underestimate the positive effect this "news" has had on various individuals trying to justify their academic student existence. It is important to tie studies into the "here and now."

So, why take a twenty-percent pay-cut in 1987 to leave an at-last-promising musical career in New Orleans to teach at Northern? Why move (with only two weeks' hiring notice and no contract) to DeKalb to implement a new Jazz Performance emphasis with new courses, no syllabi, and no texts on order? I did not even have a place to live for a month (since the largest freshman class in NIU's history had rented every liveable site in the area) and boarded at the Chair's house for two weeks and at a colleague's house for a third while apartment-hunting. It seemed crazy enough at the time.

But the attractiveness of teaching jazz, as would be the case in many disciplines, is the opportunity to show students not what to say, but how one can say it, offering them a myriad of vocabularies without forcing any one option. And the ultimate challenge is to stimulate the students' expressive content--their "messages"-- encouraging artists to search inside and discover what they wish to communicate to the rest of us. On a daily basis I witness these creative minds unfolding, strengthening, exceeding either of our expectations. Such is my greatest reward as a mentor--not a bad gig!

Delivering the artistic message requires the axiom that risk-taking, if based on an informed perspective, is essential to expression and progress. To a musician, that is no small feat. I regularly observe students exhibiting the exact same "symptom" that kept my progress so slow for so many years: the refusal (or inability) to accept the possibility that different does not necessarily mean wrong.

Consider the following scenario. A wind-instrument player is unhappy with her sound and seeks my advice. I observe her performance and suggest an alternative approach which solves the problem. Yet she is uncomfortable. "It feels wrong," she offers. "It feels different," I suggest; "do you like the new sound?" "Oh, yes," she replies. "Well, then, judge by the sound--different does not necessarily mean wrong!" It makes incredible sense that perhaps a better result demands a revised method and thus a new physical sensation. And yet we are all creatures of habit who subconsciously wish to improve only if the methods are comfortable. Of course, once the new methods are successfully integrated, they can become second nature!

This concept is related to the roots of jazz as well, for the very nature of jazz demands that spontaneity--individually, and as a response to one's musical and social environment--thrives at the core of the musician's artistic message (i.e., the improvised solo). Yet I find that what the youngest students want more than anything else is to be comfortable in their jazz-playing--not just comfortable in the sense that they feel capable of meeting the demands of the moment, but rather that they feel assured as to what those demands will be and how they will respond so as to remain outside of the borders of potential failure and feel the same. Such a viewpoint usually leads to a bored and frustrating existence for a jazz musician. For to pursue jazz is to crave the unknown: unknown demands, unforeseen responses, and perhaps most of all, the unexpected evolution in your own sensations and those of your surrounding musicians and audience!

The risk-taking concept is now slowly re-emerging in the public eye; and the role of musical training in the development of informed risk-taking, originality, and virtuosity cannot be denied. If we want our future leaders and co-workers to be innovative, motivated, disciplined, cooperative in teamwork, and poised in their leadership, studies have repeatedly shown that a musical upbringing is a most positive influence. Perhaps my most memorable, unexpected experiences in my six years at Northern stem from my work illustrating the many parallels between musical and business-management skills to national and then international executives of Motorola, Inc. It seemed as though my entire musical business life (and junior management work experience) was intended to focus on that single issue. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Prof. Ron Modell, for responding to that opportunity and offering me such a pivotal role. All artists and educators must speak out to highlight the practical value of the arts in the community--and thus defend the need for music education at all levels. This is not some frill, expendable as a luxury; this is a basic educational need which encourages and develops the skills society respects and demands! Just ask the hundreds of Motorola executives who agreed with enthusiastic, standing ovations.

I recall the furor that followed then-Governor Bill Clinton's appearance playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show during the campaign for the presidency--and playing some form of jazz! A later "This Week with David Brinkley" ABC-TV broadcast included noted columnist Tom Wicker's comments that it seemed "undignified" and "inappropriate" to see and hear a presidential candidate "wearing dark sunglasses playing jazz on the saxophone" on late-night television (or words to that effect)--and NO ONE, not even Sam Donaldson, defended the appearance. What is the problem? Had he played classical piano and left the shades behind (in the image perhaps of Richard Nixon), I doubt any fuss would have been made. I personally would be happier if he had played the music of Duke Ellington on the trombone, but I think it is terrific that the leader of the free world enjoys America's indigenous art form and attempted to emulate it within his renditions of "God Bless the Child" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on national TV. I imagine many young people will be inspired by the President to pursue musical training themselves. Regardless of political affiliation, the experience should have a positive effect on our youth! I would be delighted if our leaders revealed their love for all the arts--and pursued their favorite arts as best they could.

Looking back, I am sure that one major reason I chose music as a career was because I knew I would never completely master it. But the continual pursuit of expressiveness is worth the errors along the path. And in choosing a university teaching career, I hoped not only to help others but also myself. I hoped that by surrounding myself with artistic students, peers, and guest artists I would achieve a greater focus on my own musical goals, a focus perhaps not as possible in the "outside world" in which I primarily worked for a number of years. So far, this has been true. Despite the obvious college workload which expectedly reduced my external performance and composition schedule from that which I enjoyed in my private, freelance career, my artistry has indeed matured--and at a rate faster than I believe it would have if I had remained entirely "on the outside." For that gift I thank all who have crossed my path here.

When I received the nomination for the teaching award from the School of Music students in 1991 and again in 1992, I was stunned. Yet I was and am most pleased that they view me as their friend and ally. My colleagues have echoed similar sentiment, and I am both proud and humbled to represent such a hard-working, dedicated faculty at the School. I am honored by and grateful for the many letters of support over the last two years--and inspired by them to do better.

Don't forget to tell your students how YOU were not an instant success!


"My biggest attribute has always been turning negatives into positives."
--Michael Jordan (Chicago Tribune; October 17, 1992)


_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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