Let 'Em Play II, Pt. 2

Modes and Melodies

Have your students learn all of the modes used in jazz playing by playing the major scales they know, starting on each note of the scale. Encourage them to play these scales over blues chord changes, adjusting them rhythmically so they fit the form. You’ll be surprised at how inventive your students become.

Improvisation has often been described as variations on a theme. Encourage your students to alter the melody of the song they’re playing by using some of the scales they’re learning as additions to the melody, or by dropping notes from the melody to make room for the new notes. I left it up to them. Some students will be adventurous and enterprising, while others will try to find the ‘right’ notes. Have them listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue so they can hear how adventurous Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane were, and how Davis used ‘time and space’ in his solos. Chances are, they’ll quickly identify with one of these three and try to emulate the one they like.

Finding Their Own Way

Without value judgments from their teacher, students are free to chart their own course. Because of my personal jazz background, I was able to gently nudge my students toward the technique they needed without criticizing the one they were using. If you’re not a jazz player, you can still help them develop their technique by sending them to study privately or helping them choose good technical studies. The bottom line is to continuously encourage them to grow. Empty criticisms have no place in teaching. If you tell a student what they’re not doing, it’s your responsibility to tell them what they need to do to improve. Try to improvise, at home or away from your students, to get an idea of what they might be going through. You’ll be more empathetic and less judgmental as you listen to their next attempts. Some students will take off immediately and others will struggle. How long it takes is less important than the process. A firm practice foundation will help all of your students discover themselves. As long as they willing to try, let ‘em play!”

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 17, 2010 © National Association for Music Education