Let 'Em Play II, Pt. 1

“There is no more daunting task than to stand up in a band room in front of your peers and attempt to improvise,” says Ron Kearns, MENC’s March 2009 Jazz Mentor. “As directors, we must be aware of how any criticism we make of a student’s solo can fuel comments and insults from the rest of the class as they leave the band room. These comments could stifle the will of the soloist to make another attempt. If you praise the student for his/her attempt and suggest how to better use scales, riffs or phrases to make the solo more coherent, the soloist is more likely to want to try it again.

Rote vs. Note

When I was an undergraduate in the 70’s, there was an ongoing debate over ‘rote vs. note,’ or teaching music reading over playing by ear. For music requiring an exact rendition of the composer’s written music, reading skills must be highly proficient. For music requiring improvisation, aural skills must be highly developed. With young musicians, teachers shouldn’t decide which skill is more important. It’s our job to help them develop both skills to their optimum level.

My first band teacher told my dad that I’d become a good musician as long as I didn’t hear the music first because my ‘ear’ was so good I could play anything I heard once. In his mind, this was a bad thing. As long as a musician could read music, there was no need for them to have a ‘good ear.’ When I adjudicate orchestras and bands with directors who don’t think listening is important, it’s reflected in their phrasing, balance and intonation.

Developing the Improviser’s Ear

When teaching improvisation in a classroom setting, the biggest challenge is showing large numbers of students of varying levels how to use scales and jazz riffs in solos. I started every jazz rehearsal by playing ‘head tunes,’ songs that you teach your class by rote, like Sonny Rollins’ Sonnymoon for Two or Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time. Have your students play them. Even if they don’t immediately learn the ‘head,’ they’ll be acquiring a necessary skill for jazz improvisation—aural discrimination (pitch identification, jazz inflections, phrasing, scale usage, etc.). As they attempt to play the intervals they’re hearing, they’ll learn interval quality (major, minor, etc.) and quantity (thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.). While playing melodies, they’ll learn step and skip relationships.Sonnymoon for Two is a melody based solely on the minor pentatonic scale. Add the diminished fifth (flatted five) to that scale and you have the blues scale. From one melody, you’ve taught two scales that can be used with blues chord changes.”

Adapted from “Let ‘Em Play, Part Two” by Ron Kearns, originally published in May 2009 TEMPO!

Ron Kearns is a composer, leader of his own group, the Ron Kearns Quintet, an adjudicator and clinician for Vandoren of Paris and Heritage Festivals. He also taught instrumental music and jazz in the Baltimore City and Montgomery County school systems for 30 years.

—Nick Webb, March 12, 2010 © National Association for Music Education