Let 'Em Play

Ask a jazz educator what makes teaching jazz band different from marching or concert band, and chances are the answer will be “improvisation.” This is no small distinction. Jazz band students are required to learn how to do what has often been referred to as composing on the spot. For many students, this aspect of the music is the one they have the most difficulty mastering.

“One of the biggest challenges in teaching jazz improvisation is to get the novice improviser to relax and let the music flow naturally,” says Ron Kearns, MENC Jazz Mentor for March 2009. “The problem starts with their fear of failure, whether self-imposed or unwittingly imposed by the teacher/director. When I do clinics for jazz bands one of the most frequently asked questions is how to get a student to relax while playing over the changes.”

Kearns has some ideas for helping students to become better improvisers:

Learn the Language

Everybody starts off relaxed until they find out they’ve done something wrong. Then fear of failure clouds the issue. When a baby is learning to talk we don’t try to teach them grammar and sentence structure immediately. They’re allowed to express themselves in the way that comes to them naturally. Then we start to shape their language development. Why should we expect someone learning the language of jazz improvisation to immediately understand and play it?

Most young improvisers have some experience with playing scales before attempting to improvise. Kids learning speech need sounds to imitate from hearing their parents and siblings talk. The same holds true for young improvisers. If you want them to learn the language, they must hear it.

Help them to develop a discography of players on which they should model themselves. Once they’ve had an opportunity to hear professionals improvise, let them play along with the recording or try to play what they think they’ve just heard. Don’t try to edit what they play. Let them experiment. It’s from this imitation and experimentation that they develop the fluidity needed for improvisation. Once you try to force a student to adhere to the “proper way,” inhibition sets in. An inhibited player will not develop the confidence needed to improvise effectively. If the student is allowed to play in a relaxed setting with you guiding them, success will follow. With some direction, they will begin to hear what needs to be edited out or added in as they play.

Teacher Aids

One of the things I suggest to teachers when I visit schools is that if they’re not comfortable improvising, bring in an experienced improviser to work with their students. If you don’t have access to good, experienced improvisers, buy some of the many fine method books and CDs that offer play-a-long opportunities. There are even some that have sample solos performed by professional musicians for students to emulate.

Of course, having an opportunity to interact with a “real” player is much better than playing with a recording, but hearing jazz inflections demonstrated, whether live or on recording is significant. Several companies have a roster of clinicians/performers who are available by request to visit your school. Take advantage of these opportunities.

Use Simple Melodies

I use simple melodies to help my students develop as soloists. This accomplishes two things. First, they get a “theme” to keep in mind as they develop “variations” that later become crafted solos and most importantly, they learn the importance of form. Once they are comfortable with the melodic form, you can then address harmony and harmonic chord structures. If you’ve introduced them to modes, you can show them how to use the Dorian and Mixolydian modes with the Ionian mode to form the ii-V-I progression. Using modes, blues scales and chromatic patterns is less intimidating to the student when presented in such a logical sequence. Now you can point out problems they are having resolving to the correct chord or using trigger notes to move through the changes.

The mistake most teachers and students make is trying to do too much too soon. Many students find it difficult to concentrate on learning melody, form, chord progressions and patterns at the same time. It would be like trying to jump from simple math to calculus without a thorough progression from one to the other. How your students progress depends as much on the presentation as on the process of learning. Let ‘em play!

Adapted from “Let ‘Em Play” by Ron Kearns, originally published in May 2007 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.

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—Nick Webb, April 20, 2011 ©The National Association for Music Education