Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, a great excuse for music educators everywhere to bring this fantastic art form into their classrooms. NAfME has a list of ways to celebrate on their website, here are some more things you can do to get your students involved with jazz.

1. Incorporate the blues scales into your warmups. Learning a blues scale is an excellent gateway to basic improvisation. The scales are fairly accessibly even to your younger students (I teach them to 7th graders), and open up a lot of musical possibilities. You can create some short riffs for your students to mimic as an ear-training exercise, or you can even just use them with any major/minor scale exercises you already do. I’ll play some very basic comping rhythms, and we’ll play the scale as a class using that rhythm on each note.

2. Learn a jazz standard by rote as a class. If your students know even just a single scale, you can teach them the melody to C Jam Blues by using scale degrees. It’s a very quick process that can lead to teaching swing style, getting percussionists involved, and improvising. Here’s how I do it (and you can do this with ANY major scale):

  • Okay class, find the fifth note of this scale. Let’s play and hold that together.
  • Now find the eighth note of the scale. Play and hold together.
  • Repeat after me (do this in the rhythm of C Jam): five five…five five…five five…fiiiiiive eight. That’s the whole melody! We just play that little riff three times in a row.
  • Now I’m going to use some hand signals to help you guys remember those notes while we play it as a class (I use five fingers and eight fingers).

If your students are very comfortable with that, there are plenty of other standards out there that only require some basic blues scales knowledge (Manteca, for one).

3. Have an improvisation conversation. Trading fours is one of my favorite ways to introduce my students to improvisation. We set up a few basic parameters and go from there.

  • Pick a single note from the B-flat blues scale. That’s the note you’re going to use for this conversation.
  • You can play any rhythm you want, just stick to that note you chose.
  • You get four measures, and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

I’ll put a basic swing beat on our stereo system using the GarageBand app, and then I’ll take the first four measures to give the students an example. The first few times we do this as a class, just so the students feel more comfortable, I’ll play, then a student, then me, then a new student, then me, etc. As they get more comfortable, I’ll step aside more and let the students take over.

This can be expanded to riffs using multiple notes as the students progress. The reason I choose to start with a single note is so that the students are not overwhelmed by choices. It’s one less thing for them to think about as they’re starting to learn a new concept.

4. Write a short 12-bar blues composition as a group. I’ve done this project with my jazz band many times. Your students don’t have to be great with notation for this project to be successful. The last time we did this project, we started with an improvisation conversation. Students came up with some very short riffs using the B-flat blues scale, and we recorded the session.

Step two was playing back the session for the students and asking them to identify some riffs that they liked. I spent a few hours over the weekend transcribing those riffs and labeling them (A, B, C, etc) so I could put some sheet music in front of the students.

Next, we experimented with putting those riffs in a different order. One student might feel that riff B is a great opener, and we should follow it with riff E, and close with riff A. Another student would suggest going ABD. Since the students had each labeled riff right in front of them, we could try out these combinations right away and figure out what we liked best as a group.

If you want, the project can stop there. You’ve got a 12-bar blues melody ready to go. If your students want to go deeper though, you can start digging into the chords that make up a 12-bar blues, and start coming up with some background harmonies to support your melody. This is where I would revisit some of those basic comping rhythms, and we would have some students play the melody while others played I, IV, or V on those comping rhythms. Now you’ve got a more complete piece to work with.

The End of Reason?

Glenn Branca, I’m calling you out.

Sure, you’re writing for the New York Times, which is a loftier literary post than I’ll ever hold, but what good is your position with one of the world’s most prestigious papers if you’re going to use it to spread sheer lunacy?

I’m talking about ‘The End of Music‘, an opinion piece that appeared in the Times last Tuesday.

A friend of mine has already voiced her opinions on the matter, calling Branca’s piece “melodramatic”, “attention-grabbing”, “judgmental” and “snobby.” And I honestly can’t say I disagree with any of that. It seems like Branca is going out of his way to make inflammatory—and patently untrue—statements. Let’s take his article apart piece by piece.

We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility.

The second sentence of the article contains a rare truth—Orchestras are struggling to stay alive. A quick Google search of ‘orchestra budget deficit‘ shows that even the most prestigious, most historically successful orchestras have been operating at a loss recently. Branca’s reasoning is wrong, though. Orchestras aren’t struggling because audiences are mired in a 19th-century sensibility, they’re struggling because they haven’t adapted to the changing musical tastes of their audiences. But that’s a post for another day.

Immediately after his statement about orchestras, Branca loses the plot. He makes the outrageous claim that “…rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art…” This is ignorant at best, inflammatory at worst. To say that jazz has stopped evolving is to disrespect musicians like Josh Roseman, Dave Holland and the Marsalis family. To say that rock has gone underground is to ignore the fact that Metallica’s latest album opened atop the Billboard charts, or that a “niche” group like Dream Theater consistently finds their albums debuting high in the charts as well.

For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the “old, old story.”

This paragraph is nothing but sour grapes, rife with subjective opinion. Branca’s statement about the current quality of music seems to be rooted in personal taste and nothing more. Composers and musicians are doing new and exciting things; it’s not their fault that Branca has turned a blind eye to their accomplishments.

Look no further than the GVSU New Music Ensemble. They took “In C”, a well-known minimalist piece by composer Terry Riley and gave it a completely new and unique performance. Or, take The Streets’ 2004 release, A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Plenty of musicians have created a concept album, but this album takes it in an entirely different direction. I won’t spoil the surprise for you—you’ll have to listen on your own.

There’s a long list of composers doing new things with music as you read this blog. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir project comes to mind, as does Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Grab It! for saxophone and boombox. That’s just off the top of my head, but given five minutes or so, I could name a lengthy list of composers and musicians who are stretching boundaries and changing perceptions, just like Boulez, Varese and Stockhausen did so many years ago.

Certainly music itself is not dead. We’ll continue to hear something approximating it blaring in shopping malls, fast food stops, clothing stores and wherever else it will mesmerize the consumer into excitedly pulling out their credit card or debit card or whatever might be coming.

Branca seems to be confusing ‘music’ with ‘muzak’ here. Music is an organic thing, constantly evolving. It involves a relationship between composer and performer, and performer and audience. My interpretation of this paragraph is that Branca expects those relationships to come to an abrupt end, that somehow we’ll be able to turn a blind eye to the world of music despite the fact that it’s been a terribly important part of world culture throughout history.

Pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

Even though musical tastes and the way we experience music have changed, there are still legions of people out there still actively listening to and involved in music. Orchestras are constantly searching for new ways in which to interact with their patrons, pop music artists are finding ways to build closer relationships with their fans through social media which in turn creates a more meaningful musical experience, and musicians have found new ways to collaborate through vehicles like the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

If anything, the modern world has given us more ways to enhance our musical experience than ever before. It seems rather cynical on Branca’s part to paint this as a negative thing.

There’s No Music Like Live Music

This past weekend, for the first time in about 11 months, I was part of a live performance.

Student teaching and graduation from college had conspired to keep me out of any musical ensembles for the past 11 months, and I was grateful for the opportunity provided by a small community jazz band just a half-hour’s drive from my house.

They aren’t the most talented musicians I’ve ever played with, and the literature isn’t particularly difficult, but that’s not what this is all about. It’s about getting to be a part of that special communal relationship that only a musical ensemble can offer. It’s about getting together for a couple of hours each week with a group of people who love making music as much as I do. Most importantly, it’s about reconnecting with a part of my life that had been missing for over a year.

It’s going to be a long, circuitous route, but I’ll link this back to teaching, I promise.

An old quote says, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Words to live by—if you’d like to be nothing more than a poor-to-mediocre teacher. A more accurate saying would be, “Those who teach must do, lest they forget how.” It’s important to remain involved in your field to keep your knowledge base updated and easily available for recall in the classroom.

Up until the recent musical opportunity presented itself, I hadn’t played my trombone—or any instrument, for that matter—regularly since May. I had made an effort to play every day while student teaching, especially as a model for my students, but as soon as I graduated, a lengthy lay-off had set in.

It’s amazing how much ‘rust’ I had to shake off after just a short time away from total immersion in music. I hadn’t forgotten how to play the trombone, not by a long shot, but I wasn’t as comfortable in an ensemble setting as I had been in college, nor did I have my full facility on the instrument.

Imagine how rough the transition back to functional musician would have been if I’d taken a year off, or two years instead of just six months. That’s an awful long time to be away from that aspect of my field. Even if I were currently working in the music ed field, I think that taking a huge break from performing/composing would hurt my teaching, as it would mean that I was not continuing to refine my understanding of those aspects of music.

Moral of the story—stay involved in your field, lest your teaching suffer.