What’s your favorite jazz teaching tip for the classroom or ensemble?

Three Music Educators Share Their Ideas

This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Teaching Music.

Roosevelt Griffin PortraitRoosevelt Griffin
Director of Bands, Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Harvey, Illinois
Founder, Griffin Institute of Performing Arts NFP
NAfME Council for Jazz Education

My first priority is to establish the element of community within the jazz band and make sure students understand their role in the band. Even in elementary and middle school, students need to know they have a voice in shaping the goals of the band. The trombone player is no more or less important than the director. In my classroom, we all take turns leading and following. This approach helps students lose their fear of activities like improvising. They know that whatever they do will be accepted by the community. Establishing a safe community helps the students feel comfortable as they navigate through school. They learn that it is okay for them to be different.

Teachers must be comfortable with exploring improv in the jazz band classroom. If you don’t have a background teaching improv, it may seem tricky. I start by teaching everyone the melody first. Every player needs to learn the melody before trying to improvise on it. Then, when they are ready to try improv, you teach them to always move away from the melody. Whatever they do has to be inspired by the melody. That ensures the student is moving through appropriate chord changes. The most successful jazz musicians will agree that improv always starts with the melody.

Understanding the different styles of jazz can be tricky, but the more students listen to it, the more it will make sense. One strategy I use is to play different styles of jazz as background music in the classroom. Pick an example from a style that you are currently studying. If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, regularly listening to people speak it will help you pick up the nuances and dialects of that language. It’s the same with jazz. Create a culture that showcases different styles, so they know that no matter what they’re experimenting with, they are never wrong.

“I am also a firm believer that student musicians must learn to sing together.”

I am also a firm believer that student musicians must learn to sing together. If you sing a piece together, you can play it together. Singing is very important in the band classroom, but a lot of teachers skip this, and students’ musicality suffers.

I also think it’s important for the music educator to take a role outside the classroom. Most of my work has been within communities of need, particularly those challenged with poverty. These students often experience a lack of community. I treat them with great respect. I am always in a shirt and tie and jacket, and when I sit down to talk to one of my students, we are at the same level. They know that sometimes they are followers, and sometimes they are leaders.

I talk to my kids about helping other students in their community. If your band friend needs help in math, help them in math. Help your friends avoid making bad choices. This is so we can all move forward together in the classroom as well as in the community.

David Schumacher PortraitDavid Schumacher
Director of Jazz and Bands, Pentucket High School, West Newbury, Massachusetts

The Tip

My favorite teaching tip is one that serves as a gateway to myriad benefits for your jazz students. Get rid of the music. All of it. The lead sheets, the chord changes, and the arrangements are all barriers. Don’t be scared. Once the standard has been set and expectations have been recalibrated, there isn’t a more empowering path you can take with your students. Patient investment and a clear process are required, but it’s a mindset that fosters independence, intrinsic motivation, and high-impact outcomes. It’s an old-school work ethic for a generation raised on instant gratification.

The Process

Students begin by transcribing the chord progression of a tune in class. The process varies by ensemble and experience, but we always conclude with a collective analysis of the corrected progression to include form, scale pairings, and other improvisation strategies. The students then transcribe the melody and arrangement from a specific reference recording. Include your drummer!

closeup of a cymbal in a drumset

Photo: Lisa Helfert

The Benefits

Beyond the obvious development of relative pitch, chord-quality recognition, and root movement awareness, students begin to hear harmonic context and phrasing to better articulate the form. You’ll find that retention of material significantly improves and more effectively transfers to other tunes. But this is only the outermost layer. When we deprive ourselves of one sense, our remaining senses are naturally augmented to compensate.

The best analogy is to remember that blind humans develop and rely on a sensitivity to sound far beyond what most of us experience. By severing our students’ visual connection to the music and the inherent distractions, we are enabling a deeper access to their aural surroundings. This leads to a profound connection to the music. Within this intensified awareness, students can emulate the nuances of style that foster authenticity far beyond what they could otherwise achieve.

Students can then reach next-level interaction and communication within their ensemble. The quarter-note pulse between your bassist and drummer will settle; the comping of your rhythm section will better support the soloists; and your soloists will better feed the beast that is your rhythm section. This leads to an organic spontaneity and true collective music-making that is otherwise elusive. It’s more rewarding for your students, more engaging for their audience, and more stimulating for you as a teacher. It reinforces the value of collaboration as an essential component to music-making, which is a waning skill in our world of laptop digital audio workstations and bedroom studios.

“Performing without written music liberates students from the score’s distractions and holds them in the moment—musical mindfulness, if you will.”

The Beyond

Once you’ve mastered these methods with your small-group jazz students, be brave. Apply them to your big band. Bring them to your concert bands, choirs, and orchestras. Try them with your middle school and elementary ensemble students. Start on a small scale with technical exercises, melody lines, and solos. Expand as their abilities allow.

Performing without written music liberates students from the score’s distractions and holds them in the moment—musical mindfulness, if you will. That is where true music is made and a lifelong passion for music-making is born.

Lenora Helm Hammonds singing into microphone with jazz ensemble behind her

Photo: Chi Brown

Lenora Helm Hammonds
Associate Professor, Jazz Studies, Department of Music, North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina


The great drummer Ed Thigpen, a longtime drummer for Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson among others, taught me a lot about rhythm and the use of the body when teaching jazz. His resources, such as Rhythm Brought to Life: A Rhythmic Primer, are wonderful. I attended his International Association for Jazz Education workshop years ago where he had 150-plus people on their feet dancing and singing jazz rhythms. It is an indelible memory.

Jazz is supposed to feel good. Music from the African diaspora embodies dance as integral to the ability to capture the essence of the music, and dancing is a doorway to feeling the music in your body. Have a dance party at the beginning of class before instruction begins. Ask students to make jazz playlists, which are incredible conversation-starters to jazz history lessons.

Teach Articulation to Vocalists as a Core Skill

Articulation is not the same as phrasing, as far as jazz vocal performance pedagogy is concerned. Notes performed without articulation sound dissimilar to the horn lines and phrasing authentic to the performances of the great progenitors of the art form. Articulation for instrumentalists is baked into the pedagogical process of learning jazz styles. For singers, it is entirely possible to supplant a focus on articulation for the initial and important tasks of learning lyrical phrasing and melodic and rhythmic improvisation. And depending on the instructor’s time and comfort level, he/she may never get around to discussing or addressing articulation. However, skipping this pedagogical step is revealed when what should be the last bastion of vocal improv—scatting—is attempted, and the singer is not able to demonstrate the ability to swing.

Two effective solutions are:

(1) New listeners to jazz or those with developing ears may not be able to identify articulation from a music listening sample or discern the difference between using articulation correctly or incorrectly. Use language first. Write a few sentences on the board, spelling words out phonetically with the syllable of emphasis in all caps. Ask the students to move the emphasis where it doesn’t belong to show how the word now sounds funny or incorrect. In any language, emphasis on the wrong syllable of a word can make the word unrecognizable. Such is the case with achieving a good feel and integrity of jazz styles—swing specifically. Discuss the musical analogy, defining articulation as the rhythmical emphasis on notes in phrases to provide swing and feel authentic in jazz.

(2) Use the phrasing of horn players to demonstrate the difference to singers. Listening to recordings of jazz greats is essential for this exercise. Play an instrumental bebop head (like “Confirmation”) or swing melody (“Limehouse Blues”), and give the student a lead sheet with written lines and patterns as well as melodies where articulation is written in the score. Give the students a written-out transcription of a solo and point out where articulations make the difference between what is on the page and what they hear in the recorded performance. A key of different articulation symbols found in instrumental and vocal band charts is useful. My top picks as play-along resources—Jerry Tolson’s Jazz Commandments: The Guidelines for Jazz Articulation and Style, Diana Spradling’s Jazz Singing: Developing Artistry and Authenticity, and Scat! Vocal Improvisation Techniques by Bob Skoloff—are great for these important exercises.

“Jazz music is not on the page! Much is nuanced and interpreted after you ‘read the ink.’”

Vary Playback Speed

When studying transcriptions/vocalese, playing YouTube recordings for your students is essential in jazz performance pedagogy. Assign a transcription from the recording where you can use the little gear in Settings to downshift from regular speed to 75, 50, or 25 percent of the original speed. I did this with Charlie Parker’s recording of “Confirmation,” and students commented on hearing notes they missed or hearing the blues nuances in his phrasing. Jazz music is not on the page! Much is nuanced and interpreted after you “read the ink,” and a listening/analysis discussion before class, during a playback of the chart, or after rehearsal is great for expanding their listening vocabulary and historical knowledge. Diana Spradling has a book with six vocalese transcriptions (including Betty Carter, Bobby McFerrin, Mel Tormé, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan) that is good for studying the original recordings while reading the transcriptions at various speeds.

What is your favorite jazz teaching tip for the classroom or ensembleShare ideas with fellow music educators on Amplify today.

Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

April 11, 2024


  • Ensembles
  • Jazz Education
  • Repertoire


April 11, 2024. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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