“The Tool I Wish I’d Had In High School”

Playbook aims to bring the conservatory experience to every student

Watch Sammy Miller demonstrate Playbook on the JEI YouTube channel.

Sammy Miller is a Julliard-trained and GRAMMY nominated drummer whose band Sammy Miller and The Congregation has headlined at the Newport and Umbria Jazz Festivals, and opened for diverse performers ranging from One Republic to The Blind Boys of Alabama. Sammy spent the long months of the COVID quarantine thinking about the work in schools that had always been a part of his tours.

“In every city we’d go to, we’d spend about an hour in a school, as much time as we could before performing. But then we would leave and deuces, like now you’re on your own. And so we dreamt of coming up with a way to bring the conservatory training that we all got at places like Julliard and Oberlin for K-12 students.”

When gigs dried up during the pandemic, Sammy and his band had the time to develop something they’d been talking about ever since they’d first gone on the road: an application that would provide mentorship and training long after the band left town. The result is Playbook, a web-based tool that combines play-along charts and individual instruction, tailored to a variety of skill and experience levels.

Playbook begins with a screen that provides a big band arrangement and charts for a standard, such as “You Are My Sunshine.” The student or director can use the online mixing console to listen to each part, or to fill in instruments not present in class. Charts are provided, along with the full concert and transposed scores. Sammy recruited friends from both inside and outside his band to provide individualized instruction.

“Grace Kelly is here teaching alto saxophone, Alphonso Horne teaching the trumpets,” Sammy explains. “These are incredible musicians that students may have seen on YouTube or Instagram.”

Each tune is also accompanied by the history of the tune or artist associated with it, including links to historic performances, so students can appreciate the cultural context of the music they’re learning to play.

Sammy says the core of Playbook is to not just teach notes, but pass on the history, passion, and creativity of jazz to young players.

“I wanted to just sort of democratize that whole experience and make it very accessible, very inclusive, and get students excited about not just playing parts, but being creators and being creative. The things that attracted me to the music is that it’s a history of people who were innovative and doing things their own way and doing it with love. And so that’s the thing we try to share, to be inclusive, and be kind, and be welcoming. So for students who are learning, then they become better performers.”

Playbook is browser-based, no special software is needed. Students can use the materials on a laptop, Chromebook, iPad, or their phone. Who is it for? There are pieces for beginning band, middle school through high school, and also more advanced charts. Students can work through the pieces on their own, or the whole band can play along. The application can also be a valuable tool to fill in the gaps for instruments a director doesn’t feel as confident on, particularly for the rhythm section.

Playbook offers a 30-day free trial, and pricing begins at $6/month per user. Visit www.ThisIsPlaybook.com or contact Sammy Miller for a demo, sammy@thisisplaybook.com.

Published by Dennis Green

Middle-aged public radio manager, occasional writer and stage performer. You can find me at the Washington H.S. pool many mornings at 5:30am.

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