Marciac is a small town of some 1400 souls set in the Gers in the South West of France. Thirty three years ago, Jean Louis Guilhaumon, at that time teaching in the College in Marciac, had the idea of starting a Jazz festival. The rest is history. The Marciac Jazz festival (held at the beginning of August) is now one of the best known in France, attracting the highest level of performer from all over the world.
However, the festival has had a more profound effect upon the community than those crowded two weeks, as my visits to the college at Marciac illustrated. I talked to the Principal, Christian Pethieu, at some length, and also sat in on some of the classes for the students, and found the experience illuminating and invigorating.
In France, College covers the four academic years from the ages of 11-15, after which time students attend Lycée where they study for theBaccalauréat.
In 1993, the Marciac College had a population of about 90 students, in other words, hardly sustainable. The then Head and his supporters applied to the Jazz festival to help them fund what is now known as the AIMJ (Atelier d’Initiation de Musique de Jazz), a specialist option for the college. Sixteen years later, the school has 211 students, about 50 of whom take the option in Jazz. The college also has an internat (a weekly boarding section) since the music students are taken from all over the region.
In order to qualify for the AIMJ, the students must be coping very well in their ordinary academic subjects, since the AIMJ does not replace any of the other parts of the curriculum, it is in addition to it. While their contemporaries are doing homework or using the library, the Jazz students are taking part in their music sessions. They have to find the time to complete their projects or finish their homework out of school hours. Learning about music is no soft option.
To Christian Péthieu the musical speciality of the College is more important than introducing young people to a new skill; it is at the heart of what he sees as his mission as Principal. The years at College are crucial. It is the social benefits of playing music that are of interest to Christian Péthieu.
M’sieu Péthieu tells me, “When the pupils arrive they are little children, and after their time in College they are adolescents, with all the accompanying challenges. We can leave a trace, make a real difference to them.” One of his definitions of becoming adult is learning how to manage frustration. Participation in the arts helps the individual to build these skills in a lateral and participative manner. In order to play together, it is necessary to listen actively, to concentrate, and also to trust your fellow performers; these qualities are more important than musical excellence. Few of the graduates of the College go on to make a living from music – this is not the aim of the AIMJ. Human interaction is key. “These young people are going to replace us,” he told me. “We have a responsibility to equip them properly.”
To Christian Pethieu, Jazz is the perfect form to make use of the beneficial effects of learning music, for not only do you have the discipline of learning interdependence – chords and rhythm – but there is the magic touch, the possibility of improvisation. To him, this is the extra offering of Jazz, the opportunity to be truly creative.
Christian Pethieu’s enthusiasm for the Jazz option is infectious. When I asked him if he was musical, he laughed. He doesn’t play any instrument, but through sport, especially football, he became interested in all things Brazilian, which led him to Stan Getz, and Jazz. He also told me that he had learned a great deal from punk music. It gave him the belief that anyone could play anything! This is another of the cornerstones of the music option at the College, not the possibilities of punk, but the idea that anyone can play if they are sufficiently motivated.
I sat in on sessions for the music students for the sixième (11 year olds) and the cinquième(12 years old). Since I have little or no musical ability, I had no idea what to expect. How do you start teaching the rudiments of Jazz to an 11 year old? By providing berets and dark glasses?
In Marciac, you teach Jazz as you would any other subject. You start with the principles, you explain notes and chords on the whiteboard, you teach them different sequences, you continually ask them questions about what comes next. At first it seemed somewhat academic and far from active music to me. However, when I dropped into the class half an hour later, the pupils were already putting together those squiggles from the board, and were playing the beginnings of a set.
In the cinquième class, the students began by talking about their ‘plan’, they agreed their roles and parts. They appeared casual, at times disorganised, then all of a sudden, this motley group swung into a confident and pacey rendition of Summertime. Most played at least two instruments, switching from guitar to drums, piano to voice, sax to clarinet with little apparent difficulty. I witnessed in action some of what Christian Pethieu had described to me as the mission of the college, discipline and shared creativity. The distance those students had travelled in a year, their skill, their ease with the music was truly impressive. Of course there were those who were ‘naturals’, and others who found the experience more difficult, even stressful at times, but as a group they managed to play together convincingly. Their teachers expected much from them, they heard those who were struggling, encouraged those at more ease to try a little improvisation. They were exigent, encouraging and demanding at the same time.
Cara Lynch came with her family from Ireland to live in the area four years ago, she and her younger sister Emily both qualified for the AIMJ. Emily is in her first year, and Cara in her third.
Both sisters were matter of fact at what they had accomplished. It’s an achievement for any student to be accepted for the AIMJ, let alone for those whose first language is not French.
When I asked how they had managed, leaving friends and family, adjusting to a new language and culture, they shrugged their shoulders. “It wasn’t so bad,” they told me, then thought again. “Well, it was at the beginning, but you soon adjust.”
The strictness of the regime in the College offered security when they first arrived, although now Cara is beginning to find the structure irksome at times. She wants to try new ideas, different ways of doing things. Listening to her talking about some of the music she was encountering, and wanting to try, I could hear Christian Péthieu talking about the importance of discipline as a base for creativity. Cara certainly demonstrated all the confidence and motivation that he had described to me as being the result he wanted and expected from the AIMJ.
Without the AIMJ, it is likely that the College at Marciac would have closed, depriving the town of local education for those aged between 11 and 15. Not only has the Jazz festival enriched the lives of those attending the College, but also the town itself. During the winter there are monthly concerts from visiting musicians, and the commune this year has embarked upon the construction of a new music centre to accommodate and encourage more performances. The town also boasts two art galleries with studios attached, used by the College as part of their arts curriculum, and there is a cinema – not bad for a small community.
The college, the galleries, the cinema, the concerts, all attract visitors to Marciac which perhaps unsurprisingly also has several restaurants. There’s nothing abstract or airy-fairy about the effect on the town, it means employment and income.
Text & photos: ©Clare Doyle, July 2010