Jazz for Strings Poll Follow Up

Our Jazz for Strings poll indicated that the majority of strings teachers think incorporating jazz into the curriculum is important, yet most are not programming jazz pieces in their concert season. MENC members Reynard Burns and Janet Farrar-Royce give some insight into some myths and realities for strings teachers when bringing jazz into the classroom.

Myths:

  1. Teachers feel that they are venturing into uneasy territory and that jazz will become too much of a time commitment both for themselves and the class.
  2. Jazz is not really a “natural” form for strings, and very few good jazz arrangements are written for strings.
  3. Having a student improv over a 12-bar blues chord progression does not seem very realistic.

Realities:

  1. When we teach our string students scales and arpeggios, slurs, bowings, etc., it is time consuming and antiseptic. When learning these rudiments, they are memorized in various keys, and in predetermined fingerings, something like memorizing mathematical theorems. These same patterns can be learned in a musical sense when applied to jazz and improvisation. Playing a scale in eighth notes straight or swinging them still reinforces the scale and provides additional alternatives to slurring that can only enhance the results.
  2. The need for a written arrangement is understandable. String instruments can do anything and probably a little more than wind instruments. Double stops provide harmony. Slides into and away from notes are something that even inquisitive beginners experiment with. There are many pieces for strings alone or with optional rhythm section. Search the Web for lists of composers and arrangers for string jazz.
  3. The key is to break it down, think melody-based improv instead of chordal, and make students understand the bass line. Try breaking those 12 bars of improv into three 4-measure phrases, one of which has only one chord, one with two chords (2 measures each) and one with two changes. Burns suggests, “It is possible to create or improvise over 8 bars and still swing. I work within the classical-based 8-bar phrase. All of my originals are in keys that make it easy for strings, and the 8-bar phrase stays within the normal phrase within the AABA form. Using an 8-bar phrase instead of the 12-bar blues may not set well with jazz buffs, but the intent is to work within the comfort zone already in place and add the jazz experience with minimal intimidation.”

“The techniques used by classical and jazz strings complement each other and provide a wider base for students to draw from as they become musicians and understand their instrument,” Burns states.

Reynard Burns has presented workshops and clinics for teachers and students on jazz for strings at the ASTA National Conference, for the Long Island Strings Association and NYSCAME as well as for districts around Long Island. For information about other projects and score and audio samples, go to his website, www.freeflightmusic.com or contact him a reyburns@freeflightmusic.com.

Janet Farrar-Royce teaches at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire, CT and is the Music Education Lecturer for the Yale Teacher Training Program. She teaches at several university programs every summer, including being the American Fiddling Teacher at Strings Without Boundaries, held every July at the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.

— Nicole Springer. April 13, 2010. © National Association for Music Education.