General Music and Jazz: The Integrated Approach

So, you’ve given some thought to teaching “America’s classical music” to your general music students, but like a lot of things in life, it comes down to priorities. There are only so many hours in the school day, and most, if not all of them, are already filled. Where could you find a place for it in an already crowded curriculum? MENC member Laura Ferguson might have the answer you’ve been looking for: the integrated approach.

“As many children as possible should be exposed to jazz,” says Ferguson. “(Since) nearly all public school students have music education in the elementary grades, elementary general music classes would seem to be the most likely place for all students to be exposed to jazz styles and come to understand the genre.

“However, as elementary general music teachers, you already face a daunting task: ‘Music for every child, and every child for music,’ regardless of time, resources, ability or training. Anything added to the curriculum is done so at the expense of something else. What can you get rid of from the curricular shelf to make space for jazz? Can you really justify not emphasizing singing mastery, or reading skills, or playing recordings, or providing instrument experience, or listening to time-tested works? How can you give students a background in jazz without sacrificing what you already do well?

“The answer may be to use an integrated approach,” concludes Ferguson. “Rather than having a jazz ‘unit’ in which the genre is the focus for a short period of time and is then put away, consider using the genre as you would any other time-tested music. If you look at what you know and do well, you may find many places where jazz styles can slip seamlessly into your existing curriculum without loss of time, other activities, or conceptual focus. Not only will the issue of finding more time be moot, but using this approach brings jazz into the canon of the curriculum, whereas having a jazz ‘unit’ relegates the genre to an ‘extra’ rather than a ‘core’ area of the curriculum.”

Principles of Success for Integrating Jazz in Elementary General Music

• If you feel a bit out of your element using jazz, think of it as another type of multicultural music you bring to your students. You don’t need to know everything about a kind of music to share it in a meaningful way in your classroom.

• Assess your goals for an activity. If the activity (e.g., playing a simple bass line, learning a folk dance) is more important to you than the actual music you use for the activity, this would be a perfect place to slip in a jazz replacement for a more traditional song or piece.

• When creating play-along arrangements, remember that simpler is better, especially at first. Aim for arrangements that use stagnant rhythm patterns and a limited amount of pitches, and plan for many repetitions. Remember that the recording will add the aural interest for the students as they play.

• Listen like crazy! The more your ears are attuned to jazz styles, the more likely it is you will find ways to slip your personal favorites into your teaching. “Best of” compilation recordings from well-known jazz labels are excellent starting places for new listeners, as are internet or satellite radio stations that are dedicated to jazz.

• Listening maps are excellent visual tools for getting students to listen intelligently to complex pieces of jazz. They work best with short excerpts of pieces anywhere from thirty seconds to one minute long. When creating a listening map, focus on just one musical concept at a time, or the map might become confusing or messy. A simple map allows students to add things to their own individual maps according to what they hear, and comparing the different student maps encourages class dialogue.

• Remember that jazz is based on improvisation. Never fear trying something new! Improvisation in teaching, as in playing, is a creative and thoughtful endeavor.

Adapted from “Putting it Together: Integrating Jazz Education in the Elementary General Music Classroom” by Laura Ferguson, originally published in the January 2004 issue of Music Educators Journal (read the entire article– MENC member log-in required)

Laura Ferguson is assistant professor of music at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania. She teaches methods courses for music majors and elementary education majors, graduate classes for master students in music education, and supervises thesis work and student teaching. A former Down-Beat award winner for “Best Collegiate Vocal Jazz Recording”, she performs regularly with the “Ferguson and Friends” jazz combo.

—Nick Webb, September 22, 2010 © National Association for Music Education