Teaching Jazz in the ‘Classical’ Lesson

May 1, 2017

Students are often introduced to the wonderful world of improvisation in middle- or high-school jazz bands. However, in most programs, there is only time to scratch the surface. Aside from one-on-one help with a hip band director, many students are reliant on their private instructors to provide jazz guidance. However, the pressures of preparing region band etudes, solos, and basic technique weigh heavily on time. For younger students, how do we balance it all?

Organization is the Key

For most private teachers, time management of lessons is the answer. Think of each lesson as a pie cut into different-sized portions. One slice is warm-ups and tone, another sight-reading, another scales and technique, another etudes, another lit, and another is improv. While that may seem like a lot to accomplish in one lesson, the private teacher should regiment the lesson along those lines, according to the priorities of the particular part of the year. If a region band audition is close, the time on the etudes goes up a bit. If a performance is close, time spent on lit will be a bit more. However, there’s always time for jazz.

Pulling Double Duty

In the “classical” lesson, the private teacher should try to make every item of study have as much impact as possible. Work on tone should be done on both the concert and jazz set-ups. While particulars of style and articulation change, the fundamentals of a great sound are largely the same. Likewise, the technique area should be tilted towards jazz. Along with basic major and minor scales, young students should be introduced to pentatonics, blues, and other scales that can be used in elementary improvisation. Exercises should be played in both concert and jazz style, giving students a chance to explore differences between classical style, swing, and “straight-eighth” rock and Latin style.

While etudes in both classical and jazz style should be alternated with the student, the only aspects of the lesson that should be walled-off should be the classical literature and the improvisation/jazz style-matching portions. All performers should be capable of performing in any style required, but that means that there should be clear delineations in the student’s mind. Performing a classical piece with jazz phrasing and style is as harmful to their futures as performers as being unable to play with appropriate feel in a combo.

What to Study

For many students, jazz can be an overwhelming concept: There is so much that one must seemingly learn to even be a passable improviser. A good first step is, of course, the blues. However, the traditional “learn a blues scale and go” formula can be harmful: The student learns nothing about playing the changes of a tune. Instead, the student should be taught some simple pentatonics and taught to follow the changes. Once this is accomplished, the blues scale can be introduced with the understanding that phrasing and harmony are incredibly important.

From here, one can go in a number of directions. The blues offer a fertile field: In a fairly tame place, students can be introduced to a number of different possibilities of scales that can be played over any of the given harmonies, yielding a far more easily-understood result when switching to more complex harmonic schemes. From here, simple modal tunes should be introduced, followed by simple ii-V-I songs. Patterns can slowly be introduced. Throughout, play-alongs and midi backing tracks should be used to help a student understand stylistic elements of jazz and how to respond to a rhythm section.

In addition, equally important is tone and style matching. While transcription can be introduced later, even the youngest student can learn from the masters from the many quality transcription collections in existence. Instead of playing the music straight off the page, however, each transcription must be paired with its original recording, so that the student can mimic every articulation and inflection of the master. While the ultimate goal is not to sound like the recording, decoding and understanding the style of the greats is essential to developing a personal sound and style for any player.

While it may seem difficult at first, every student needs to be introduced to improvisation to be a truly complete musician. For those who wish to pursue their instrument further, some real skills should be developed. While lessons are often busy and deadlines are always looming, every student can receive meaningful jazz education in the “classical” lesson.

Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of music at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Dr. Allen has performed and lectured around the world and his writings have appeared in many scholarly and music education journals. Dr. Allen is a Conn-Selmer artist-clinician and performs exclusively on Selmer Paris saxophones, mouthpieces, and reeds.

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