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How to Make a Good Band Better

By Dr Jared Sims

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Many of our students are drawn to jazz because of the complex rhythms and the excitement of the live performance experience. Beyond the aesthetic level, the performance of jazz requires a keen ear and balancing a musical intuition with knowledge of theory and an ability to play an instrument well. Jazz occupies a unique place in society as a genre of music pioneered by African-Americans and one could assert that the music is a reflection of civil rights – specifically, the inherent equality and individuality of each of the performers. The music, itself, presents unique challenges in the classroom because of the interaction and interpretation that is required of the students.

The Teacher’s Homework

Teachers need to have some specific skills in order to be effective as a conductor of a jazz ensemble. First, and perhaps most importantly, teachers have to have a strong grasp of the swing style. This comes from listening to many recordings and knowing how to demonstrate the style on his or her instrument. This can be a very difficult process for some people, so I recommend the Lennie Neihaus Jazz Conception books and the Jim Snidero Jazz Conception books can be very helpful, as well. Specifically, these books are a good reference for articulation, which is an integral part of jazz style.

In addition to knowing elements of jazz language, teachers need to know at least a few simple jazz tunes (preferably by ear) and they need to know how to read lead sheets. Teachers need to know jazz harmony well enough to spell the chords and have the rudimentary knowledge necessary for providing simple piano voicings or bass lines to students. The teacher needs be prepared to coach both horn sections, as well as rhythm sections. Ideally, a director needs to be able to play well enough to demonstrate how to play phrases in a jazz style. Directors also need to know and understand the rhythm section and the roles of each instrument.

Teaching Improvisation

Jazz improvisation can be overwhelming for the beginner because it is really two different skills: the first is playing by ear and the second is creating jazz phrases using an idiomatic jazz style. One of the most helpful approaches to learning jazz improvisation is to start a student playing by ear and then add the jazz component as a separate skill. Have young students learn simple melodies and transpose them through various key areas.

Many jazz teachers find success with teaching the entire band tunes by ear. These tunes could include various blues heads or tunes like “Blue Bossa,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” or “Little Sunflower.” A helpful activity would be a call and response with the teacher playing a two bar phrase and the band responding in tempo. In general, call and response starting with two or three notes using a minor pentatonic scale is a great starting point.

The best bands not only have good soloists, but more importantly a full band of students that understand the idiomatic concepts of jazz style. The entire band needs to know how to take a solo even if the strongest players are featured more often in the concerts.

Effective Rehearsal Techniques

Many bands make a mistake before the rehearsal begins. For whatever reasons, big bands often set up incorrectly. The rhythm section needs to be in close proximity in order to hear one another, be able to see one another, and to lock up and play together. Horn players need to be lined up to hear one another and create a unified sound. Teachers need to realize that setting up a big band incorrectly is analogous to having an band with tubas in the front row and flutes in the back. For strictly rehearsal purposes, an alternative to a traditional setup would be to have the students set up in a box facing inward with one side being the rhythm section while the three other sides would be the sax section, the trombones, and the trumpets. The advantage to rehearsing in a box is that the trumpets and trombones can better hear the saxophones, which results in the brass better understanding the full composite of the music that is being played.

The role of the director of a jazz ensemble is much different than a concert band or orchestra conductor. After the count off, the bands will play better if the horn players are listening to the rhythm section instead of watching the teacher conduct a pattern. Most bandleaders tend to only give a four beat conducting pattern when the band gets extremely loud or other times when the players cannot easily hear the rhythm section (playing in a room with bad acoustics!). The most important duties of a jazz band director include starting and ending the tunes, outlining the forms of the tunes, and efficiently managing rehearsal time.

One of the most important aspects of leading a band is finding tempos for various tunes and counting off with the energy that reflects how the band will play – either to count off in a delicate, aggressive, or other manner. There is no “correct” tempo – the band should play at a speed that allows for all of the parts and the articulations to be clear. During the tunes the director needs to be engaged with the entire ensemble in order to help cue forms (especially during solo sections) and to do things like check the balance and police the accuracy of the individual parts.

An example of a stage plot for a full jazz ensemble

Many bands spend too much time in rehearsal just playing charts from top to bottom. Directors need to oscillate between running small chunks of music and running large swaths of material. The horn players respond well to repeating an eight or 16 bar passage of music because of the inherent difficulty of playing passages within sections with accuracy. Rehearsing short segments of music allows the horn players to tighten up the sections, nuance the balance of the parts, refine the precision of the technical passages, and to better hear the composition. The rhythm section needs longer passages of music to understand the overall arc of the music dynamically and in order for the players to be fully aware of the context of the various parts of the composition and for the drummer to know how to set up the horn players. The band will sound best on a traditional chart if the rhythm section has a clear grasp of where the climax of the tune happens, how to arrive there dynamically, and how to resolve.

In addition to just rehearsing scores, directors also need to contemplate other ways to learn music during rehearsal time. The activities might include working on improvisation skills, addressing jazz theory and how it relates to improvisation, listening to recordings, as well as recording the band and listening back.

There are tunes that young ensembles could learn by ear such as “C Jam Blues,” “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Manteca,” “Now’s the Time,” “So What,” and others. Teachers/directors could play the pieces and teach the band note-by-note and phrase-by-phrase. Challenge the strongest and most experienced players in the band to create backgrounds for solos and teach even more difficult tunes to more advanced bands.

Some of the best band programs teach students to read lead sheets and to understand the harmonies of the pieces. Challenge the students to learn the scales and arpeggios. Many high school band teachers neglect to require students to play scales but this is a fundamental key to musicianship and musical awareness that students need to have in order to succeed and to become better players. Also, in addition to major scales, we need to challenge our best students to know other scales or modes that are necessary for jazz such as dorian, mixolydian, locrian, harmonic minor, altered, diminished, et cetera.

Many teachers are frustrated that their students are not listening to recordings outside of school. Perhaps we need to reinforce our listening expectation by playing recordings for students in class. Listening to a recording while sitting with the corresponding sheet music can be engaging. Often when a band is not sounding great on a chart, a good solution is to play the original recording, have the students follow along, then invariably the performance of the chart is immediately better.

Another great rehearsal technique is to record the band, listen back, and have students offer constructive feedback. Students learn the importance of playing things correctly every time (not just in the live performance) and they hear their parts within the context of the entire band. The balance of the entire ensemble is just as important as the precision of the parts. We need to hear the rhythm section balanced such that all of the instruments are heard clearly. In addition, the rhythm section needs to play dynamics that reflect the dynamics that the horn players are playing. Simply put, the drums should only be loud if the brass section is playing high and loud, and we need to be able to hear all of the horn parts supporting the lead players.

A really wise thing for a director to do is to watch the clock, so it is possible to end the rehearsal with a strong piece that leaves the band feeling great at the end of an exhausting rehearsal. This leaves the band confident that their hard work is paying off and ending a rehearsal well can set a positive tone for the start of the next rehearsal.

Choosing Music

Many band teachers simply do not have students playing enough music. There are many high school bands that play three tunes at a festival and spend much of the year working on those three tunes. The students (and the teachers!) get tired of the tunes and earning a high score (or “winning”) can become the primary focus of the ensemble.

Our students will play better, understand the music better, and be more excited if we simply have them play more music. Students will gain more of an understanding of jazz style and phrasing learning several charts instead of over-rehearsing a small handful of tunes. Also, to expand the students’ knowledge, the band could learn music in rehearsal that would not be played in a concert or a band could sight read an easy chart just to have a well-rounded understanding of phrasing and an overall aesthetic.

In addition to overall difficulty, some of the things to think about when selecting charts to perform include: brass ranges, instrumentation, possible featured soloists, and a variation of grooves and tempos. When students audition, in addition to ordering the players in chairs, we need to figure out which brass players have lead chops and we need to know an idea of what the brass ranges are. When picking up a big band chart for the first time, we should immediately peruse the lead trumpet part to determine the feasibility of executing the parts. Similarly, it does not make sense to play a chart that features a player that is new to jazz if there are more experienced players in the ensemble.

Many bands struggle with an imbalance of parts, which often means that we have too many saxophone players and too few trombonists. An instrumentation that is unbalanced leads to an overall sound that is not reflective of the traditional big band sound and ruins the integrity of the sound of the charts. We have to recruit more trombonists at every level and we simply need to cap the number of saxophone players in a big band. Some schools rotate the saxophone sections in and out for each tune when there are more than five players and the director does not want to turn students away from the program.

Many band teachers ask about where to find music and what to choose. I suggest ejazzlines.com, J.W. Pepper, and Marina Music and a combination of their posted recordings and/or a quick YouTube perusal can help a band director decide whether the chart is right for their band. Some of my favorite composers for young bands are Dean Sorenson, Gregory Yasinitsky, Rick Hirsch, Mike Tomaro, Matt Harris, Terry White, and Bob Washut.

Listening

Listening should be motivation for all of us to practice, learn, and expand our skills as musicians. Students appreciate having a playlist for listening to the repertoire from class because this gives them a chance to hear the overall sound of the pieces, the inflections, the solos, the grooves, the balance, and how the melodies are played. I have experimented with sharing YouTube and Spotify playlists and this has been beneficial for students to better understand how their parts should sound as well as what they need to practice.

The Essentially Ellington competition has served to promote the music and to excite a lot of students and teachers, but I would recommend to have students explore several different big bands and be able to draw comparisons between recordings. Some records that students should hear include:

  • Basie Straight Ahead (Count Basie)
  • And His Mother Called Him Bill…. (Duke Ellington)
  • All Smiles (Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland)
  • Basle 1969 (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis)
  • This One’s for Basie (Buddy Rich)

Students need to hear combo recordings as well to investigate how instrumentalists build their solos. Young jazz players also need hear how rhythm sections fulfill their individual roles and how the rhythm section and soloists interact musically. Some records that exemplify great grooves and strong solos include:

  • Soul Station (Hank Mobley)
  • Four (Wynton Kelly Trio with Joe Henderson)
  • Walkin’ (Miles Davis)
  • Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio
  • The Sidewinder (Lee Morgan)

Challenges and Recommendations

In addition to maintaining a standard instrumentation, a serious challenge is simply having female students in jazz programs. As it stands, the low percentage of young women in high school and college jazz ensembles is completely unacceptable. We need to start kids playing jazz at a young age, we need to encourage young women to play all of the various instruments, and we need to feature young women as soloists and lead players.

Another tough challenge is cultivating a strong rhythm section. Many public school music programs are still operating in the 20th century music model in which everything is band-centric, which results in jazz being relegated to extra-curricular status. There are still high schools that still adhere to the preposterous notion that pianists, guitarists, bass players, and drum set players should be required to participate in a high school marching band in order to participate in the school jazz band. Students that play rhythm section instruments often do not participate in high school band programs and the jazz band rhythm section suffers.

As a matter of fact, many schools have egregious scheduling that relegates the jazz ensemble to extra-curricular status because the ensemble meets before or after school. Teachers and administrators need to prioritize jazz as a legitimate learning activity and not just a performing ensemble.

Around the country, many music education degree programs do not address jazz whatsoever, so public school teachers are deemed qualified despite having an embarrassing lack of skill in the jazz area. College students need to anticipate this discrepancy and listen to recordings, participate in jazz ensembles, and take private jazz lessons. Struggling music teachers need to go back and do their homework to develop rudimentary improvisatory skills, study the roles of the various instruments within the music, and figure out how to communicate concepts to the students.

In general, we need to rethink what virtuosity means. In classical music, virtuosity is clear: a display of technique and an ability to perform rapid passages with great precision. Within the jazz style, virtuosity is different because it represents the connection between the instrument, the ear, and the mind. Virtuosic jazz players might play very quickly at times, but additionally are expected to have the melody and chords committed to memory and have the ability to hear chord tensions and advanced harmony.

In order to normalize improvisation in the classroom, we have to give the students permission to make mistakes as they work to connect their ears with the instrument. In my opinion, students are afraid to make errors because their core educational curriculum and the associated standardized testing penalizes them for errors. We have to create an atmosphere in which students embrace the musical mistakes that they make as a means of moving forward in their own learning process.

Most importantly, our biggest challenge is to keep the students loving jazz and music making. We know that regardless of what their careers will be that we want for them to have jazz and live music be a part of their future. In addition to a barrage of daily listening, we should bring in special guest artists to perform and to share their approaches to music making. We also need to seek out concerts that we can bring students to see. The live music experience is at the core of jazz and understanding the meaning of the music. Seeing live jazz music unfold is like watching a visual artist create a masterpiece in front of our very eyes. We need to find ways to continually find, celebrate, and share the magic of music making!

Dr. Jared Sims is the current director of jazz studies at West Virginia University. His seventh solo record of original compositions will be released in 2020 on the MCG Jazz label and features Matt Wilson, Rufus Reid, Reggie Watkins, and Cliff Barnes. He has performed throughout the United States, Europe, South America, India, and Southeast Asia. 

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