Developing Jazz Skills in Middle School Musicians

One of the more frequent questions I hear from fellow young teachers is something along the lines of “How can we develop a good middle school jazz program?” The root of the problem seems to be that, while many of these musicians have come from successful high school and college jazz programs, they have no concept of how to make those concepts accessible to a younger age group. It’s true that the performance expectations for a middle school jazz ensemble (usually) can’t be at the same standard as a high school group, so we need to look at middle school as a time to really explore the fundamentals of jazz music.

Even though middle school students won’t be ready to perform “Boogie Stop Shuffle” or “Groovin’ High”, they are more than capable of grasping the stylistic elements of various jazz genres. They can also learn to improvise, transpose, and learn tunes by rote—all skills that are shared by musicians with years more experience.

In designing my own MS jazz program this year, I decided to devote roughly 70 percent of our class time to improvisation and other activities that don’t require sheet music. For the first two weeks of school, the only sheet music my jazz students saw was a sheet containing all of the blues scales. We spent the time acquainting the students with the swing style, and worked our way up to performing a 12-bar blues by using various improvisation games.

  • Improv game one: It’s a call-and-response activity, based on Ed Gordon’s learning sequence activity. The teacher plays (or sings) a four-beat rhythmic pattern on a single pitch. The students respond back first with an imitation of the rhythm, and then eventually by creating their own four-beat patterns on the spot. For maximum effectiveness, student responses should be given without any disruption of the meter.
  • Improve game two: Using the Aebersold “Blues in All Keys” recording, students are going to begin performing their own 12-bar blues solos, with some basic parameters in place. Students should pick a single pitch from the blues scale that corresponds with the Aebersold track. Throughout their entire solo, students are only allowed to alter the rhythm. Pitch must stay constant. This allows them to focus on one aspect of the music at a time, simplifying things and increasing their comfort level.
  • Improv game three: This is essentially the inverse of game number two. Instead of altering rhythm, the students will now focus on altering pitch. Using the corresponding blues scale, they will now be allowed to change pitch as they see fit, but their rhythm will be limited. You can start out by using a single whole note in each measure as the prescribed rhythm. As the students begin to develop, alter the rhythm. Use half notes, quarter notes, etc. Allow students to compose their own rhythms, or borrow rhythms from some well-known tunes.

Transposing skills are just as easy to develop. I like using scale degrees, because this eliminates the issue of having to name different pitches for saxes, trombones and trumpets each time you do a transposition exercise. I start out by having them write a four-note cell as a class in B-flat blues, something simple like 1-1-6-1 (Bb-Bb-Ab-Bb). They will then use those same scale degrees to re-create that cell in E-flat blues and F-blues. As a class, we’ll play through each cell a few times, and then I arrange them on the board like so:

| B flat | rest | B flat | rest | E flat | rest | B flat | rest | F | E flat | B flat | rest ||

In about 25-30 minutes, middle schoolers can use transposition to compose their own 12-bar blues as a class. To close, we play through it as a class and open it up for solos.

Lastly, we can use those newly-developed transposition skills to teach a few simple tunes. Again, you don’t need sheet music to pull this off. My two favorites are “C Jam Blues” and “Manteca”. For “C Jam”, students will only need to worry about two notes in the blues scale, 5 and 1. “Manteca” is only a little bit more involved, using 5, 6 and 7 (1), and some more complex rhythms. My favorite part of using “Manteca” is that it gives you the chance to teach the three main riffs that comprise the song, and by teaching all three riffs, it gives the students the chance to perform on each part in the ensemble.

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