Music Education Week 2010 Recaps: Jazz Academy, Part 1

| August 2, 2010

On Monday and Tuesday June 28-29, 2010 I attended selected sessions of the Jazz Academy. As a pre-service music educator and a veteran of grades 8-12 + higher education jazz programs, I was excited to learn more about how to guide students towards getting a better understanding of this genre of music. I haven’t had much personal experience with this topic so these sessions were the first of my educational career!

I’ll be breaking down the sessions into three general posts regarding the Jazz Academy. This first installment deals with how to begin getting the most out of your ensemble through incorporating licks and increasingly-advanced blues progressions as well as motivating your students to strive for improvement in their improvisation.

Dr. Wayne Goins presented “Good Musicians Borrow, Great Ones Steal,” a session that emphasized teaching your students the importance of listening to and learning from jazz greats through the incorporation of their musical ideas into your students’ improvisations. While it may seem counterintuitive to encourage your students to not create and play solos that are made up of entirely their own musical ideas, using licks in your jazz program can help your students develop active listening skills, learn how respected musicians craft solos that work, and create a foundation of improvisation ideas upon which they can build expand their musical vocabulary.

If you’re having trouble understanding the validity of such an approach, think of it in terms of cooking: while a new cook could just make up a recipe to serve at a dinner party, there’s no guarantee that it would taste good and garner a good reception. On the other hand, the use of a time-tested recipe would guarantee a good time at the dinner party and the cook could alter it to his or her needs, then store it for future use or inspiration.

Licks are more valuable as educational tools than jazz method books because they have stood the test of time. Look to solos in jazz standards and encourage your students, when appropriate to their level and experience, to transcribe. The straight melodies can also be useful inspiration as well.

While there is always a possibility of your students resisting exploring their own musical ideas due to relying on licks too heavily, as a teacher you can encourage them to use the licks as a springboard for their own creativity. Another way to think of this process is to compare it to language acquisition: babies first begin speaking by imitating the sounds their parents or other individuals are making, then use these first utterances to learn how to communicate.

Have students listen to the portion of the music they are attempting to learn over and over, with their instrument nearby or in their hands. Once they can play through it flawlessly, students can then begin to build their musical vocabulary through modifying and extending licks in a variety of ways:

  • Transposing the lick into all keys, both major and minor.
  • Alter the lick rhythmically by changing the duration of notes to create different musical expressions.
  • Move the entire lick up or down an octave, or just modify certain notes to adjust the contour of the melodic shape.
  • Add or take away flats or sharps to adapt the lick so it can be played over a variety of harmonic progressions or so it can fit a specific scale (e.g., modes, diminished, whole tone).

Teach your students that a good solo has a perfect balance between borrowed licks and original ideas, but a student can take their solo to the next level by really timing and executing the lick perfectly. This requires the student to think seriously about how the lick fits over the changes of the tune and how to segue from one melodic idea to another. The actual execution of the lick also is another opportunity for each student to express themselves. Every student brings their own musical influences and interests to their playing and, thus, two students could take the same lick and integrate it into their playing in completely different ways.

Dr. Goins then began discussing, with the help of contributions from the academy’s participants, specific techniques for encouraging this type of personal musical development with your students and ensembles. One thing that was heavily stressed was the importance of teaching students how to aurally transcribe and/or imitate music as soon as possible in order to have them begin learning from the jazz masters early on. In order to facilitate this, consider making lists of recommendations for each of your sections so they can listen to classic representations of their instrument. In the actual rehearsal setting, never underestimate the power of singing through melodic lines or solos.

Some student activities based on licks include:

  • Make a worksheet for space for students to write down their licks in standard notation, along with two or three “transformations” (rhythmic, melodic, etc.; see above) of the lick.
  • Make worksheets for students to transpose their licks into a variety of keys.
  • Have students share their licks with a partner so they can learn twice as many musical ideas.
  • Have students pick a favorite lick and use it in a sort of get-to-know-you game, encouraging each student to play their lick when directed to by the teacher.

Of course, there are many other ways to incorporate licks into your curriculum. Doing so can initially push your students out of their comfort zone as they learn how to navigate the work of jazz greats, but eventually as they begin to explore time-tested ideas and learn how to craft their own solos, the work invested will pay off!

Dr. Goins also presented a session called “Gradually Learning To Master the Blues: A Twelve-Step Program” on a series of blues scales that can help bring your students’ playing to the next level. Using his guitar to demonstrate the progressions throughout the course of the session, he began by pointing out the fact that it is possible to begin playing the blues over just one chord. This is often a good starting point for beginning jazz students, along with the traditional progression with which many music educators are already familiar:

I7 / – / – / – / IV7 / – / I7 / – / V7 / IV7 / I7 / – /

From this progression, you can introduce chords on the first or third beat of many of these measures to add complexity and interest to the music.

Some ideas, ranging from simple to more complex:

  • Add a “quick four” IV7 chord in the 2nd bar of the progression.
  • Add a “turn around” V7 chord in the 12th bar.
  • Add passing chords on the 3rd beat of a measure in order to create a smoother bass line.
  • Use passing chords to also set up the IV7 chord in the 5th bar.
  • Use the ii7 chord in conjunction with the V7 chord to create a new ii7 – V7 – I7 climax and/or turn-around.
  • Use the VI7 (not the vi7!) to set up the climax and/or turn-around. (if played behind the ii7 in the above climax progression, it can also function as a secondary dominant)

Regarding scales, start your students off with a basic blues pentatonic or Mixolydian scale over the I especially before they learn how to move into more complex playing. As they become more advanced improvisers, encourage them to utilize more scales and emphasize the notes that really stand out in the chords underneath their playing.

Encourage your students to always actively listen to their own playing and think about what is coming next and how to move from chord to chord. Make them aware of the tension spots and have them think carefully about how to highlight that for the listener.

Adding harmonic movement in this fashion can not only teach your students how to navigate more complicated charts with ease but also give you teachable moments where you can explain how the chords function to create interest (e.g., explaining how diminished chords are built or the function of passing chords). You can also relate the progressions to jazz standards that feature similar musical elements. Finally, always increasing the complexity of the chord progressions accordingly with your students’ levels will keep them engaged and interested.

Dr. Goins did state, though, that he encourages his students to make the leap from playing over less to more complex progressions so they can gain the ability to move through the changes easily; their ears and brains will catch up them eventually. He believes that doing so will help them gain confidence playing in ensembles and not worry about embarrassing themselves, while simultaneously training their ears so they begin to listen to what they should be playing. Along with this, he chooses to introduce theory to the students after they have experienced playing the music. Whether you choose to take this approach or not is obviously up to you, and there are pros and cons to both approaches.

If you would like either of Dr. Goins’ PowerPoints, please contact him via email!

In contrast, Charlie Young presented a session titled “Intermediate and Advanced Jazz Improvisation: Strategies and Ideas for Teaching Jazz Improvisation for the Experienced Teacher.” He began by pointing out his belief that not all of our students have the interest and motivation to truly push themselves to put in the effort to listen to and live in the music. He even went as far as to say that some of these individuals may grow up to be the jazz teachers working with today’s youth, or even sitting in this room. What a beginning to a session!

What is the state of jazz education in this country? Making the argument that the predominant approach is very cookie-cutter, with all of the resulting students coming out sounding the same, he argued that becoming an advanced improviser is not about working through chords and scales but more about getting to the heart of the music and truly feeling it. Keep your playing emotional and creative and don’t overanalyze.

Mr. Young went on to state that in his opinion, the most important thing is to listen to the greats and play as frequently as possible so you learn how to communicate through the medium of jazz without having to think about it. Thus, encourage your students to play with friends as soon as possible in their musical development, both in and out of a school-affiliated ensemble. This can help students learn how to work with others musically as well as reveal their vulnerabilities during playing and learn to work through them.

Keeping your playing emotional and heartfelt is key, according to Mr. Young. Playing a technically flashy solo is no substitute for really communicating with your audience. Sometimes subtle is better than blatant; the power is not in the notes, but in how you play them.

Some other main points:

  • Throw out your fakebooks if you really want to push yourself to the next level.
  • Record yourself playing and then play along with it.

Mr. Young started to wrap up his session by really emphasizing the communicative nature of jazz through making a comparison between learning how to talk and learning how to play jazz. Toddlers don’t sit down and learn grammar and vocabulary before talking, it just develops naturally through exposure to others talking and communicating. If this is how learning to communicate works, then why do we as jazz educators so often force scales and chords onto our students instead of letting them just play or sing?

My thoughts on the sessions as a whole:
I left these sessions with new ideas, not only for my own teaching, but also for my continued progress as a jazz player. I truly believe that being a musician is a life-long process and that we are always learning; this is why I am so attracted to playing music and I think many would agree with me! I also found myself examining the way in which I learned jazz. Did I really engage myself in the music? How do I go about playing jazz itself, in the moment: am I truly thinking about communicating, or am I just working through scale and chord patterns?

There’s something to be said for the human capability of metacognition, thinking about our own thinking processes. I think one of the best ways to help students become better players, and not just in the realm of jazz, is to help them begin to really think about their own playing and help them get to the point where it becomes second nature. This is also known as procedural memory, which helps us perform without even thinking about how we are performing.

I chose to group these three sessions together because I think that they come from two different sides of thinking about jazz. Dr. Goins’ sessions are almost analytical in nature, while Mr. Young drew from a more philosophical area. Both lecturers, though, stressed the point of developing your playing through listening to classic standards and recordings and learning how best to communicate through the medium of your instrument or voice. It seems as though a truly effective jazz educator, thus, should draw from both an analytical and philosophical approach.

The theory question kept coming up. Where does this fit into your jazz ensemble? Should you just teach scales and chord progressions by rote to your students, then have them develop familiarity with fingerings and patterns? Do we even need scales and chord progressions? Should we just play all of the twelve tones and then figure out what works through learning and playing by ear? I might have more questions than answers, but I’m looking forward to working through them!