Learning to Swing It

When teaching upper elementary or middle school students about jazz, MENC member Ruth Debrot recommends starting with the concept of swing. To teach beginners this concept, she recommends:

Establish a groove

The first step in learning about jazz is to experience the concept of “swing.” Once your students master a swing beat, they can use the pattern on many types of blues and jazz pieces. Establishing a “groove” helps students feel comfortable with the jazz style and assists them as they attend to other musical elements such as

  • harmonic changes
  • singing with expression
  • improvisation.

Use speech patterns

Preparing and practicing both a steady beat and a swing beat using speech is a good way to begin. Having students imitate a straight beat versus swing beat by clapping and saying “straight beat” and “step baby” demonstrates this contrast verbally and kinesthetically. When students have developed beat competence and a conceptual understanding of swing, they will find it satisfying to practice both beat patterns on hand drums or other unpitched percussion instruments.

Practice with familiar songs

To offer your students more opportunities to practice their swing skills, have them jazz up a favorite nursery rhyme. By working in cooperative grouping where they are actively playing and saying rhymes, students have time to practice the new concept of swing in the familiar context of speech.

Performing any rhyme “rap style” using both a steady beat and a swing beat will help determine whether students have mastered the swing beat. If you wish to provide more practice, have students choose and perform a simple song such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” or any familiar tune and jazz it up by adding a swing beat.

The more opportunities for practice the better. Beat competence is an important concept in any style. After mastering the swing beat, and establishing “the groove,” it will be easier to master additional musical concepts in the jazz and blues style.

Ruth Debrot is a music specialist for the Public Schools in Sharon, Massachusetts, and conducts the Concert Choirs, Treble Choir, and String Ensemble at Sharon Middle School. She has published nationally in MENC’s Spotlight On General Music, regionally in the Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools and for the Massachusetts Music News. She is a recipient of the Society for General Music in Massachusetts award for Excellence in General Music and is currently pursuing her doctorate at Boston University in Music Education.
— Anne Wagener, May 11, 2011 © National Association for Music Education