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Q&A: ASU's Michael Kocour on teaching jazz



Photo by Tim Trumble


ASU Associate Professor Michael Kocour (above) is the director of jazz studies in the School of Music, in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. He's also a musician who's been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the most sophisticated pianists in jazz.”

Kocour has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in February he returned to Chicago -- he used to teach at Northwestern -- to play a couple of critically acclaimed shows with saxophonist Benny Golson. 

Review: Benny Golson enchants at Jazz Showcase

Review: Benny Golson, Mike Kocour at Jazz Showcase, 2/6-9

Recently, we asked Kocour some questions about the teaching of jazz, which filmmaker Ken Burns has called "the only art form created by Americans, an enduring and indelible expression of our genius and promise."  

Q: Compared to other forms of music, what does the study of jazz add to the curriculum?

A: More so than most music students, jazz studies major are required not only to perform music but to improvise and compose music as well. They study in a curriculum in which they are evaluated regularly as performers, improvisers and composers -- all three.

Q: What does it teach musicians about music and about themselves?

A: It is likely that each student in the jazz studies program would have a different answer to that question, but in general I would say that jazz students get quite a bit of experience with authorship, whereas most other music students (with the exception of composition majors of course) get considerably less. Jazz students play their own music and the music of their colleagues in the program. And even when one of our jazz students is playing an Ellington tune, they are expected to add something of their own to the performance of that tune. Every day our ASU jazz studies students create music that is unique -- music that is a product of their own experience.

Q: How does the study of jazz complement what the students are learning in more traditional music classes?

A: From my own experience, I find that actively composing and improvising makes me all of the more interested in the timeless works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinksky, etc. Creating my own music simply makes me more curious about the decisions that these great masters made. When studying music history, we gain a better understanding of the music of our time and our culture by learning about how great music of the past was a reflection of the time period when it was written and the culture from where it came.

Q: Does the fact that it’s uniquely American play a role?

A: I think that it does. Jazz music is the “mother tongue” of so much music we hear today. Elements of a jazz and the blues are woven into the fabric of music from all parts of the world–both popular and “concert” music.

Q: During concerts, you direct for a period and then walk away while the students continue playing. What does that kind of interaction teach the students?

A: I only direct the band when it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes I’ll have a student from the band direct or give the cues. The students need to learning self-reliance, and besides, it’s their performance, not mine. 


Photo of Michael Kocour by Tim Trumble.


Design Student Abroad: Singapore, where to begin?


By Taylor Loutsis, graphic design student in The Design School

taylorloutsis panorama1

My time spent exploring Southeast Asia, and studying and interning in Singapore will remain very close to my heart. I have fallen deeply in love with the stunning SE Asian cultures after backpacking two months through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia (video of trip here) prior to studying in Singapore. This has been, and very well could forever be the most influential period of time having the most profound effect on my photography, design work, and myself.

BorabudurFrom eating the spicy foods of Bali to walking the mysterious Temples of Angkor Wat, from interning at one of the top design studios of Singapore–arguably all of SE Asia to volunteering at a health clinic providing free services in the slums of Bandung, Indonesia; my experiences have touched every imaginable adventurous, emotional, spontaneous, and adrenaline-seeking nerve in my body. The collection of experiences locked away in my brain and in the photography on my hard drive will be what I will fly away passionately missing most from my time here. Experiencing both the academic and professional industries of design in Singapore certainly added depth to my time here, especially due to the projects I acquired in the classroom setting.

My courses at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), specifically, Art, Design & Media (ADM) were a bit substandard in comparison to ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and The Arts’ curriculum and standards. The culture here does not endorse heavy, critical constructive criticism of student work like ASU, and due to this, the feedback from professors was not to the quality I had hoped for. However, the freedom is what made up for the lack of feedback. Exchange students had visible freedoms to explore beyond the class project guidelines set for Singaporean students, allowing me to have a plethora of time to explore my interests and passions. I soon began morphing projects inspired by my surroundings of Singapore, not related to the course, into class projects. Due to the freedoms, I will be leaving Singapore with:

–branding three lines of Chinese (Peranakan) jewellery in collaboration with a product design student,
–writing a 105-page book with my photography documenting the possible psychological effects high-rise housing architecture has on Singaporeans (my personal hypothesis),
–branding of a local café, and
–rebranding of a rural region called Kranji Countryside of 22 farms in Singapore.

Each one of my projects added a new substantial layer of cultural knowledge richening my time abroad. I am left speechless from the opportunities I have had here, in addition to professional exposure.

I landed an internship with Hjgher design studio. During my time with Hjgher, the studio had decided to take-on a three-month project (U Factory) curating local art, design, culinary, bookbinding, wood craft,  and virtually all avenues of creativity. This allowed for me to mingle with local art and design professionals leading to relationships and connections I will certainly maintain after I return to America. To see how the in-house creative processes play out into final tangible design projects involving Hermès, Chanel, boutique hotels, and local cafés was a dream come true.


The professional, academic, and adventurous experiences I underwent were remarkable, and quite frankly I am wondering if there is anything I had missed. I will certainly be leaving shortly with a feeling of completeness, a feeling of knowing I gave it my all. I will be flying away with a far richer understanding that anything is possible with persistence, the right mindset, alignment of priorities, and simply following your gut. I loved my time abroad, and by being the first design student of the Design School within Herberger to study abroad over a semester, hope this door of opportunity to study abroad remains open for future design students.

Thank you to all who played a part at some point in my time here, each of you know who you are, lah.

Thank you,






So your son or daughter wants to be an ART major?!


by Adriene Jenik, director, ASU School of Art


As another academic year fast approaches, I am assisting faculty and staff with final preparations and composing my remarks to welcome new ART students to campus. I can picture their excited faces, and just as clearly, their parents’ worried expressions. With the excitement of college also come concerns about its cost. Majors and degrees that don’t seem to directly track into high paying jobs are perceived as less desirable. Since it is now almost impossible to complete a degree without incurring some student loan debt, the ability to pay off that debt is a factor in choosing a college major.

Given this, I’m not surprised that I am increasingly asked “What’s the value of an ART degree?” The question is popping up with more and more frequency, and this seems a good time to put my answer in writing.

It is important to know that pretty much everything we wear, sit on, look at, hear and touch was created with input from a creative professional, a field to which artists belong. The design on your t-shirt, the icons on your smartphone, the label on your peanut butter, the experience of your favorite amusement park ride, and even the effective TV advertisement encouraging you to study one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, engaged artists’ hearts, minds and hands in their making. With the growth of computer based social networks and applications as a throughput for all kinds of human exchange – including education, medicine, shopping and friendship – the computer interface mediates our lives. Artists and designers, in this way, will be framing our core life activity for decades to come. 

Sure, you might allow that “digital arts” (which happens to be my own field), have some use. But not painting and drawing, or sculpture – not to mention, ceramics or printmaking.

Although these may not translate into more traditional looking “jobs” for graduates, in fact, they prepare students exceptionally well for life in the 21st Century. Below are a few of the key proficiencies acquired by all ART students during the course of pursuing their degree - each of which is critical to success in navigating our future job market.

ART students learn to TAP INTO CREATIVE FLOW

The sketchbook-toting ART student may be a cliché, but that sketchbook (and the contemporary digital equivalent) is really a capture source for an outpouring of creative flow. Ideas for projects are sketched or notated, collaged and outlined – invariably each assignment yields more ideas than can be carried through at that moment – a surplus of visual and thought concepts exist that can be returned to again and again. Most importantly, having been required to brainstorm project ideas on a regular basis, students understand the conditions they need to maximize their creative energy and can readily activate this important 21st century skill. 

ART students learn to SYNTHESIZE

Unlike many undergraduate degrees which require students to analyze, interpret, deduce and breakdown a subject into smaller parts for closer examination – undergraduate artists are regularly asked to bring together complex and often contradictory ideas into a larger whole. The successful artwork is a balance between form and content, so artists bring in ideas and learning from other fields of knowledge and regularly transform them into something new, paying close attention to the historical, cultural and symbolic context of their chosen medium.

ART students do RESEARCH

A ceramics student, in order to create a contemporary figurative warrior sculpture takes time to study historical images and objects from indigenous cultures, reads historical and contemporary accounts of warriors and perhaps even composes written reflections on the meanings of a warrior, war, and resistance in her life. She considers appropriate materials, glazes, and firing methods that emerge from this conceptual process to emphasize her idea. In many educational fields, this type of original research is not expected of students until upper division undergraduate or even graduate classes. In an undergraduate ART degree, students are expected from the first day of their freshman year to develop original research projects – their artwork.

ART students learn DISCIPLINE and FOCUS

Once classes commence, I walk through the ART buildings every few weeks and look in on the classroom activity. The level of focus of the students as they work on their projects, especially as the end of the term nears, is intense. Students learn not just by looking or reading, but by experimenting, trying and trying again and then again to get better and better at their chosen medium or expressive process. They see progress occur in increments over time, as they accumulate techniques and iterate versions of an idea or object. For example, a printmaker might make multiple “proofs” of each layer of a multi-layer print – trying out different ink viscosities, pressures, and colors; different papers (colors, transparencies, textures) before the final finished product is ready to be editioned. By the time they are ready to exhibit their culminating artwork, they have not yet “mastered” their chosen medium (this can take a lifetime), but they have a visceral understanding of the time, tenacity and ongoing disciplined practice it takes to get really good at something.


The primary pedagogical contribution of the ART classroom is known as the critique. Here, students and faculty critically discuss and analyze student work. This process can be both brutally soul-crushing and powerfully nurturing, depending on the philosophy and sensitivities of the faculty steering the discussion and the particular dynamic of the individual class. Regardless, students become familiar with exposing themselves to criticism, discerning what critical feedback is of value to them in their practice, and learning how to interpret and respond to the work of others. They also become comfortable with disagreement and debate and are capable of advocating for their ideas in a group. One can see how this would be of value in any work setting that involves team work.


Many students become more resourceful during their college years - eating ramen noodles to sustain themselves on a limited budget – but ART students are guaranteed to learn this important life skill. Materials and class fees are expensive (considerably more than textbooks for an ambitious student), and time in a specialized studio must be planned in advance and then utilized to the fullest. A valuable shared resource like a laser cutter or large format photographic printer will be in high demand at the end of the term, and materials may be charged by the inch. Artists learn how to make the absolute most of what they have at hand, inventing new uses for common, cheap and even discarded materials, and learn how to maintain their tools and take care of equipment to last for years.

ART students learn how to see beauty and possibility in spaces that are considered derelict or are otherwise abandoned by others. Countless examples of “reborn” neighborhoods in cities around the world[i] are the result of artists moving in and making an area that was once considered uninhabitable into a special destination. ART students also learn the value of human resource and community as they regularly collaborate and support one another when a project outgrows the ability of the artist to make, move, or hang it themselves.

ART students learn how to SCOPE and SCALE

By the time they graduate, students understand the need to scope and scale their ideas to fit their time and budget and even a client. They learn these skills through the ongoing practice of transforming their ideas into realized projects. During their first years, ideas regularly strain the confines of the short assignment period, or can fall short of what is expected for a more ambitious end of term project. But by the time they receive their degree, students understand that most projects can be scaled way up or down (in response to a windfall commission opportunity or an unexpected added expense), and ideas need to be scoped with the audience and display context in mind. A display of work in a pedestrian traffic corridor allows for a different level of attention than an exhibition mounted in a more traditional exhibition space that supports contemplation. All ART students produce, as a requirement of their degree, a culminating exhibition of their work and learn the details involved in preparing, designing, mounting and publicizing a professional show. This involves attending to all details, including securing of specialized facilities, equipment, and permissions.

ART students learn in INTIMATE SETTINGS

ART students have SMALL CLASSES. Studio courses are regularly capped at less than 20 students due to equipment access and/or safety issues. Most upper division courses are taught by full-time faculty, caring active artists in their field. For the student who enjoys close interaction with and mentoring by talented professionals who are seasoned teachers – you can’t beat an ART major. As one ART student who recently graduated enthused, “I can walk down the hall and four professors know me by name and can talk to me about the work I just exhibited…who would have expected that in a big University?”

In writing this, I’m not trying to convince you that if your child is interested in engineering or business or medicine they should study ART instead. But I hope that if you or your child are genuinely interested in ART you will not be discouraged from pursuing this path out of concern you won’t be able to support yourself or that your child will end up in your basement for years afterward. Studying ART is serious preparation for the creative, critical, and resource demands of the 21st century environment and workplace.

If you can step back, take a deep breath and imagine what lies beyond the horizon of the current job market, I hope you might consider one final point. According to the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP)[ii], ARTs alumni have reported overwhelmingly that they are gainfully employed and content with their lives as contributors to the public good.[iii] If you ever said to your child that all you want is for them is to live a happy and fulfilled life, then I’m pleased to tell you that supporting their choice of an ART major will help them achieve this ultimate goal.


[i] In New York City alone there is SoHo, the East Village, Chelsea, D.U.M.B.O and countless other now sought after neighborhoods that were made special by artists moving in and getting busy.

[ii] http://snaap.indiana.edu/

[iii] 87% - a much larger percentage of contentedness than in most other alumni groups reporting


Is Digital Culture for you?



digital culture

Have you wondered if an interactive gaming system could be used not only for entertainment but as a tool for rehabilitating physical disabilities
or fighting diabetes?

Have you thought that a smart phone could be even smarter, potentially sensing environmental changes and anticipating and intuitively responding to local emergencies?

Have you wanted to create a virtual bridge among various cultures and
styles of design and the arts that allows people to experience the world’s creative offerings regardless of their location?

At the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts we’ve created the only interdisciplinary Digital Culture BA program in the nation where students and faculty explore new media and digital experiences in an educational environment unlike any other in the nation.

Our Digital Culture undergraduate program was created recognizing that we exist in a world that is based on digital assistance from the computers we use to our phones and entertainment devices, cars and household appliances. Users drive the development of the next-generation applications and tools as much as developers. Aesthetic, emotional and intellectual engagement – all elements of a design and arts experience – are as integral to the continual evolution of our digital world as actual product functionality.

Digital Culture provides students with a contemporary liberal arts education that gives them a set of skills that will be highly desirable in the workplace over the next 40 years,’’ said Thanassis Rikakis, professor and director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. “The proficiency-based approach means students connect courses across academic disciplines instead of by traditional methods such as course prerequisites.”

The program’s curriculum was designed to prepare students to develop new media systems for cultural practice and combine this knowledge with critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be able to create what has not yet even been conceived.



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