Building on What You Know, Part 1

“Humans do not find or discover knowledge. They construct or make it.” —Eunice Boardman, Dimensions of Musical Teaching and Learning

Show, don’t tell. Nothing beats experience. Words to live by in daily life, and equally valid in developing a methodology for teaching jazz.

“Each student is a unique individual—a person who brings a palette of unique experiences to the classroom,” says MENC member John Barron. “Through a synthesis of new and prior experiences with jazz, students construct their own meaning in relation to their world. By determining my students’ experiences, I can clarify where they are musically and where I’d like them to go.”

Borrowing on ideas developed by Jackie Wiggins in her book Teaching for Musical Understanding, Barron adapted them to create a 6-point approach to teaching jazz. Here are the first three:

1) Engage students in real-life, problem-solving situations. All too often, novice jazz students are given a set of chord changes with corresponding scales and asked to begin improvising completely out of context. Better to start them off with familiar tunes from general music classes or the folk music canon that have the most basic chord progressions and are simple enough to perform on keyboards, mallet instruments, or recorders. This will allow teachers to lay the necessary groundwork to prepare students to explore the more sophisticated dimensions of improvisation.

2) Learning situations need to be holistic. While there is value to a structured approach to teaching improvisation, the material is often studied outside of the context of an actual piece of music. Experienced jazz musicians not only improvise off a tune’s harmonic structure, they develop thematic ideas from its melodic content. By building up a storehouse of familiar tunes, students will have an ever-growing wealth of melodic ideas to incorporate into their improvised solos. The blues, with its simple, riff-oriented melodies (heads) is a wonderful way to immerse students in the deep well of jazz, and won’t take more than one class period to teach.

3) Students need to interact directly with the subject matter. There should be less emphasis on talking about music and more on doing—performing, creating and listening. A teacher can explain the difference between straight eighth notes and eighth notes that swing, probably in less than two minutes. But if students are expected to understand this stylistic difference so vital to the nature of jazz, direct involvement with the music will allow them to make more meaningful connections with the music.

Adapted from “Lessons from the Bandstand: Using Jazz as a Model for a Constructivist Approach to Music Education” by John Barron, originally published in the November 2007 issue ofMusic Educators Journal

John Barron is the music teacher at Ottawa Elementary School in Clinton Township, MI.

—Nick Webb, October 6, 2010 © National Association for Music Education