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Michigan State University

Music has that rare ability to bring people together despite their differences—whether cultural, religious, or socioeconomic. Jazz, in particular, requires musicians to improvise and communicate without saying a word.

For Rodney Whitaker, director of jazz studies at MSU, his gift for collaboration has made him one of the world’s leading double bass jazz performers—playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea, touring with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and presenting master classes at International Association of Jazz Educators conferences.

So it’s no surprise that in addition to helping make MSU’s jazz program one of the strongest in the country, he has guided hundreds of disadvantaged youths to discover a love of America’s greatest music through partnerships with schools that bring students to campus for jazz camps and workshops.

“I think it’s the mission of all musicians—outreach,” says Whitaker. “It’s part of the tradition of jazz. You have to pass on the tradition to the next generation.”

Even though science can’t measure the magic that emerges as children play their first notes of music, studies show youths who play instruments have greater success in their studies and demonstrate enhanced critical thinking skills.

And music lessons become life lessons as young people learn not only how to play music but how to play well with others. Respecting others and working together in harmony is a critical step in making connections and creating solutions of all kinds.

“In a big band or an orchestra, musicians have to follow section leaders,” says Whitaker. “To make it sound like a section, you have to humble yourself. That’s probably the biggest life lesson.”  Spartan Shield

Turning music lessons into life lessons

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