Bassoonists Can't Play Jazz and Other Lies, Part 2

Including nontraditional instruments in the jazz ensemble can attract more students to your group and offer a unique music-making experience. This can be a daunting task with limited arrangements available for your one-of-a-kind group.

MENC member Jeff Stepien recommends keeping an open mind. “Continue to seek out new and different music from all styles. Have your students listen to recordings, and learn to perform them.” Work with your students on composition so they can write their own music for the ensemble.

When working with students improvising on different instruments, Stepien recommends the following group exercises:

Improvisation Exercise 1

  • Start with 1 note, 4-beat rhythmic echo patterns on concert B♭ or F, then move to 2 or 3 note patterns. This gets them “off the page” and using their ears.
  • Once successful, have them create their own patterns for the rest of the group to echo. If they struggle with this, have them pick 1 note and a rhythm, or find 1 measure of a song they know and play that measure.
  • For a large group, have each student play a pattern for the rest of the group to echo. The next student in line can refrain from echoing the pattern for one round while he/she prepares to play his/her own pattern. That way, you can keep a steady beat and not break between students. Assure them there are no wrong notes: this lessens anxiety and can help them improvise for longer periods.

Improvisation Exercise 2

  • Have students use the first 5 notes of a concert B♭ scale (or the 8-note scale if they’re comfortable) to play whatever they want while you play a simple straight-eighth note pattern on a B♭ major chord on the piano. Teach swing rhythm later, when students are comfortable with straight-eighth improvisation and have listened to some examples of swing jazz recordings.

Jeff Stepien currently teaches 4th, 5th, and 6th grade instrumental music (band and orchestra) in three schools in the Washington Elementary School District #6 in Glendale, Arizona. Previously he taught in the Syracuse City School District and Chittenango School District in New York, and also worked as a woodwind specialist in the main stage showband on the cruise line Holland America in Europe.

Read Jeffrey Stepien’s and other member comments about this topic on the Jazz Forum.

Do you lead or participate in a nontraditional ensemble? Share your experience using the comment feature below.

-Anne Wagener, June 23, 2010 ©  National Association for Music Education