A sweet note
Noblesville High School teacher Bethany Robinson named Indiana Jazz Educator of the Year
As a sixth grader, Drew Ahlbrand began his musical career in Bethany Robinson’s concert band. Now, the Noblesville High School sophomore bass trombone player is playing in Robinson’s top jazz band.
“She’s helped me grow as a musician and she’s made it fun,” he said. “At the beginning of each class we dance around to music. It gets the blood flowing but even more it helps us learn the rhythms.”
In 2011, Robinson used her Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant to attend a band director academy in New York City with Wynton Marsalis and where the unorthodox idea originated.
“That changed everything because it taught me a whole different concept of teaching students to love music,” she said. “Jazz itself started as a vocal art form and started as a dance form. That’s been the biggest difference in my classes the later part of my career. In the first part I was trying to get them physically engaged to the music by singing and dancing and then they start making connections to the music permanently and then it starts coming out of their horns.”
For her unique way of cultivating students’ passion to music, Robinson was recently named the Indiana Jazz Educator of the Year by the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.
“I was really surprised and just really excited,” she said. “My first thought was how great this is going to be for the school, community and the students I teach. I didn’t know my name was up so something like that so it was quite a shock.”
Robinson is in her 10th year teaching at Noblesville Schools. She began as teaching general music and choir at the intermediate school and has been at the high school for the past nine. She teaches jazz band, concert band and music history and theory and serves as assistant marching band director.
“My job is trying to get them to love this uniquely American genre of music,” she said. “I would say baseball and jazz are probably the most American. A lot of things we have in our lives are borrowed from other cultures.”
Robinson said her love for music came naturally.
“We had a lot of music exposure growing up,” she said, adding that her mother is a church musician, choir director and piano teacher. “My dad is a bass player
Robinson began playing piano in kindergarten and was a flutist in concert band but when she was trying out for band in middle school she learned there were several good piano players.
“There was one kid across the room playing bass,” she said. “I went up him as asked, ‘How long have you been playing bass?’ He said, ‘I started yesterday.’ I ran and asked my dad, ‘This kid has only got a one day head start on me, will you teach me how to play the bass?’ There were six piano players and one bass player. I felt like my odds were better.”
Robinson said her dad helped but she was mostly self-taught and used her knowledge of other instruments to learn the bass.
“It became the instrument I really feel in love with,” she said. “I played the electric bass for several years and picked up the upright.”
Robinson started the jazz band class five years ago and for the 2015-16 school year, she will teach four sections.
“I don’t know of another school in the state that teachers that many besides one other,” she said. “A lot of kids, rightly so, listen mostly to the popular music of the day. To try and help them create a love for 1940s and ’50s swing music is a really interesting path. They don’t automatically love this stuff; you have to help build that into them. One of the most rewarding things is when you see the kids start to love that.”
NHS senior Wyatt Searcy said, “This band program is growing so much and will continue to grow to great things because of her. I think she’s going to be something big in the jazz world someday.”
From student to colleague
Eric Thornbury, director of bands at NHS, previously taught Bethany Robinson for three years before working with her in Noblesville. Robinson served as his drum major while she was a student at Kokomo High School.
“She was always an outstanding student and musician,” Thornbury said. “She was the All-State Jazz Bass player her senior year of high school and was heavily recruited to study in college.”
Thornbury said he had hopes Robinson would go on in music, but if not he knew that it would always be a part of her life.
“She was too talented and enjoyed playing too much for music to be a part of who she is. I was not surprised and very happy to find out she switched her major in college to music education,” he said.
Thornbury said Robinson is an amazing colleague to work with.
“She is strong in areas where I am weak and she and I make a great team,” he said. “She takes care of all things jazz and it is great to have someone focusing on that part of our band department.”
Robinson also assists with the concert bands, pep band, marching band and is willing to do whatever is needed for the program.
“I couldn’t ask for a better colleague to work with,” said Thornbury. “She was a lot like that as a student too. She was the kind of drum major that did whatever the band needed and she cares deeply about the students and programs she works with. The amount of effort she puts in because she cares so much about the students is what really sets her apart.”
When he learned about Robinson winning Indiana Jazz Educator of the Year, Thornbury said he couldn’t think of a more deserving teacher.
“Bethany pours her heart and soul into teaching students jazz,” he said. “She is immersed in the jazz culture herself and she does everything right in her approach in the classroom. But then she goes way above and beyond the call of duty in what she brings to not only our jazz students at Noblesville but even for students in Hamilton County. She collaborates with other directors and professionals in the jazz world, brings in so many clinicians, professionals to work with the kids and share their experiences. She takes them to jazz concerts and to see professional musicians in the area. She is absolutely deserving of this honor.”
Meet Bethany Robinson
Birthplace: Bowling Green, Ky.
Education: Kokomo High School and bachelor’s and master’s in music from Olivet Nazarene University.
Memberships: Indiana Band Masters Association, Indiana Music Educators Association, the Indiana Jazz Educator’s Association, and has been an adjudicator for the Vaughn Scholarship Competition.
Favorite bands: Esperanza Spalding, Count Basie and Haim.
Venues she’d most like to perform at: The Palladium (Indianapolis area) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (United States).
Who she’s love to perform live with: Wynton Marsalis and the John Mayer Trio.
Bands she is involved with include: Sara Scarbough, The Nickel Plate Jazz Orchestra, Blue Door Jazz Trio, Shred Zeppelin and monthly at Grace Community Church.
Jazz album she recommends you listen to: “The Birthday Concert” by Jaco Pastorios because it is the rock/funk version of jazz.
Personal quote: Practice makes permanent.