Jazz Band Discourse Community

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Posted on 11 Apr 2013 23:49

Jazz Band Practice: Defined as a Discourse Community
Zeyad Saleh


The research done shows the reader that even band communities can be considered as discourse communities. The purpose of the study was to determine whether or not a musical community can be considered a discourse community and to show how a band interacts to achieve a common goal. The beginning consists of defining a discourse community and generally bringing up two different types of study, such as John Swale’s research and Sean Branick’s research. The methodology was done by interacting with a band for one session. Then the results were described by describing, as a narrative, what happened during the session. The results were then compared to what Swale’s and Branick researched. This is just the beginning of research done on musical communities. Therefore, the research can expand to further topics relating musical communities to discourse communities.


A discourse community is a community of people who work together to achieve a set of common goals. Discourse communities are studied so that different communities can be analyzed. It is important to know how a community functions in order to succeed. The way different communities function can show us a lot about how to act in a group or how a community can function to become successful. For example a failing community can be compared to a succeeding in community to see how the two groups function and what actions should be done and not done in order to make a community prosper.

Much research has been done on discourse communities. One researcher, John Swales, identifies a community as a discourse community by determining whether or not they follow six specific characteristics. According to Swales, if a community has a set of shared goals, has different ways to communicate, uses different forms of communications to announce important details or announcements, have different genres of literature and communication, has a specific lexis, and finally, has a members who have more authority than others, then it is considered a discourse community. Swales did research on different communities to determine whether or not they were considered discourse communities. Another researcher, Sean Branick, researched how literature is important in a discourse community. He discussed written literature but also body and mental language.

Usually when one speaks about discourse communities, they think about academic, business-related, sports-related, or online related communities. But, what about bands or music groups? Are they considered discourse communities?? Do outsiders consider band members to be part of discourse community? What do the band members think about the actions they did in the community? But a topic that is rarely studied is whether or not members of a band, while in the band, consider themselves to be part of a discourse community? Since most studies are not focused on musical communities, this study will determine whether or not musical communities can be considered discourse communities. Specifically, the community of the Bronx H.S of Science Jazz Band will be examined.


At first, I thought the best way to do my research was to interview a friend who was still in it. But after a few questions, I realized that this was actually a total waste of time and threw all the questions out. Instead, I decided to visit them personally on a practice day. They did not know I was coming. Not only did I watch them practice and have a normal jazz band practice session, but I also became part of the band and did everything they did. I used many personal experiences. The actions done while visiting reminded me about all the things I did when I was in the band and I took note of everything I remembered. The analysis of the results came from the actions that happened during the band rehearsal. To make sure I took note of every action done during this session, I had a notepad and pencil and took notes of everything that happened. This was done so that I did not waste time deciding what was important and what was not. Later on, prior to writing this piece, I crossed out what I didn’t feel was important and left what was important. To determine whether or not an action was important, they were rated based on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most helpful in analyzing the band as a discourse community and one being the least helpful. Anything above a rating of 5 made the final cut. This list of actions was used to determine what to talk about in this piece.


As I watched a normal practice day of the Bronx H.S of Science jazz band, I realized a lot of things about the jazz band community. As an observer, I noticed a lot of things that I did not realize when I was actually in the jazz band. The first thing I realized was that an alumnus, one who had been in a jazz band before he graduated, was always welcome back without a problem. That is only if the band still had members that were in the band when the alumnus was in the band. If the alumni graduated and came back 5 yrs later, when the members he knew also graduated, then he would not really be welcomed because no one in the current band knows him. In my case, I went to visit this year, only a few months after I graduated. There were still members (current seniors, juniors, and sophomores) who I knew and therefore welcomed me. The newcomers, who only knew me from the stories the others told them only asked if all the stories told were true.

The first thing that happened when I went to visit, was a huge cheer that came from the band and the conductor, a young teacher, approached me for a hug. I was one of his favorite students because I was known to be a prodigy on the trumpet and made most of his visions for the band possible. I was the trumpet leader, making me the leader of the whole band. I had the responsibility to make sure the band was on the right track and that no one was slacking off. As band leader, I had more authority than everyone else. I was able to pick more songs to show to the conductor for us to play and I was in charge of controlling the band during solo periods, such as improvisation periods during a song. As I went to my disciple, the trumpet player who was one seat under me and who learned mainly everything from me, I was pleased to see that he took the role of being the leader of the band. He urged me to take out a trumpet and to lead the band during one of the songs I chose, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. I urged him that he was the leader now, but for old time’s sake, he convinced me to take charge with the song.

As this happened, I remembered the lexis that we had and all the ways we communicated that only the band knew the meaning. I said, “Let’s start to the top and at measure 27, we’ll do repeats for improved solos for 16 bars. Remember to make the crescendo visible and make sure the notes in the beginning weren’t too staccato and bounced a little for a funky tone” As we got to measure 27, the band knew the drill. Whoever wanted the solo would make eye contact with me and I would make sure I saw everyone. I would point at who’s turn is next during the solo and that player would do his solo. When I wanted the solos to be done I would do a rotation with my finger in the air, which meant that I was the last soloist and the piece would continue on from there. In the middle of the song I noticed that we were speeding up and tapped my finger on the stand three times. The band members knew that meant to follow the drummer’s tempo. This lexis came to us by common sense. We did not know that we were making our own kind of communicating system. We did not realize that this is what was happening.

As I continued to observe, I noticed that nothing has changed besides the new members. Even if there were new members, they were treated like every new member was treated when I was in the band. The freshmen were still picked on, not in a mean way, but in a way that we all thought was fun including the freshmen. I remember when I was a freshman and enjoyed the puns. “ Hey bud, is that bass too heavy for ya! Come on man strum the stringers faster.” That was only one of the jokes I heard when I was there. Although you had to audition to get in, the new members were always welcomed and never frowned upon. The decision to let a player in was always the conductor’s decision. Even if the band leader had a lot of authority, the conductor had more and always had the final word.

I remember playing one song, and the last measure consisted of bunch of screaming high notes that were supposed to be done using a flutter tongue. It was one of those moments that I used to shine in a concert. I looked at my conductor and he had his arms wide open. I knew that meant he wanted a big finish, even if he knew I had not played since I was in the band. I hit the notes with great precision. The whole band clapped and the conductor said, “I knew you still had the chops to do it.” My former mates praised me and said “Zeyad you are still “The Wild One”, a nickname given to me my sophomore year. Even though it seemed like this practice day was more of a fun day, it really wasn’t. A concert was coming up, and the songs that I played were songs that they were doing for the concert. So it was a huge practice for them, because I was showing them how it should be done. Speaking about concerts, concerts were always known to be the common goal to all the members. Every member strived and practiced to make sure they knew their parts fully for the concert so that they would not let anyone down, and at the same time, entertain others with what they loved doing. Although this was a major shared goal, the most important shared goal was to prosper as jazz players and music players overall.

The second half of the practice was used to look at future songs. There were a couple of known sites for musicians to look at sheet music. Sheet music was basically a genre. It was the pieces of paper or booklet where we read our music out of. We would listen to potential tunes and interesting ones were bought. I remember at the end of the practice, with no control over myself, I asked the freshman to take our folder with the sheet music and put it away. It wasn’t to be mean to him, but it was just a thing all new band members had to do. Sheet music was not the only genre though. We had a google doc filled with songs that were recent and just came out that sounded fun and good to play. Sheet music would not be out. So we would use computer software to compose the songs ourselves and then play them in class if they were good enough. Of course, that decision was made by the conductor.


According to Swales, a discourse community has to follow six characteristics in order to become a discourse community. The first point is having shared goals. In this case, the shared goals are the concert and becoming better musicians. The members work together to achieve these common goals. They make sure everyone knows his or her parts and whenever needs help, help was given. The second point is mechanisms to communicate. One way is the google doc and facebook page for the band was used. For example, if a decision that sunglasses were going to be used in a song on a concert, the facebook page would remind everyone to bring in the accessory. There are also different genres of communication. For example, body language was used during a song. Hand notations during a song will be used to send a message to the other band members. Another point is that these communications are used for a purpose . In this case, they did. Body language was used to communicate during a song, facebook page was used to notify the members with important details, and the google doc was used to expand our knowledge of songs available and to communicate in general. Another point is having a set of genres. One that all group members understand is the body language. Even new members catch on after the first week. Also, sheet music can be considered a language. The fifth point is having lexis. We do have lexis. This could be the musical terms we use or even the body language we use, such as crescendo or the finger rotation in the air. The sixth point is that there is a difference between older members and new members. Older members did have more authority and were more open in the band. There was a role that the band leader played and a conductor. The section leaders had the responsibility to make sure the members in the section new the parts. Any problems were to be reported to the conductor so that he can deal with it.

According to Branick, a discource community has many different types of literacy ranging from actual literature to the leader’s ability to read a player. Branick uses the example of football coach community. The coach had a playbook that consisted of all the plays he knew and the players were expected to know. If the coach yelled out a play to be used, the players were expected to know what to do. The coach also had to be able to read the game and know what to do in certain situations. The coach needs to also be able to read the players and know how to motivate them and put them on the right track. For example, if a player had a few bad games and lost confidence, the player would need to know the player on a personal level to be able to motivate him and make the player gain confidence. Compared to football coach community, a jazz band community is the same thing. We had folders filled with sheet music and we had the responsibility to learn the songs in it. It is just like the football playbook. If the conductor told us to pull out a song learned before, we were expected to know the song only minor errors were accepted. The conductor had the responsibility of uniting the band and making sure we are all playing it correctly. Just like how the coach needed to know the player to be able to read him and motivate him when needed, the conductor and the band leader had the responsibility of knowing who was slacking in learning their part, figure out if it was because of a personal reason, try to help solve the personal issue holding him back, and then make sure the musician is back on the right track. The conductor and the band leader had to make sure the players knew their parts so no one would be disappointed in the concert.

Recommendations and conclusion

As a person who was in a jazz band, but is not currently in it anymore, an observer, I can see how the jazz band is a discourse community. But, members who currently are still in it, do not realize it and just think what they are doing is just needed things to make the band prosper. According to Swales six points, the jazz band is indeed a discourse community and follows the characteristics perfectly. Therefore, no changes in the definition of a discourse community are needed.

For further research, one can not only study what happens in practice, but how the members interact outside of practice. Do they meet up on their own and have playing sessions with each other? Are they best of friends outside of the band? Another step is to study them during a concert itself and see how they interact and how the jazz band functions then. To see whether or not the characteristics of a discourse community can be followed outside of the practice room can be a research topic to be studied in the near future.

Works Cited

Branick, S. Coaches can read, too: An ethnographic study of a football coaching discourse community. (pp. 556-573).Print.

Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community." Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990.(21-32). Print.

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