Swingin’ From the Start: Teaching the Basics of Jazz and Improvisation in a Concert Band Setting
By Jennifer S. McDonel and Richard Victor
Have you ever wondered how jazz “swings”? Or how you could give all your band students the opportunity to play jazz and learn to improvise? If so, read on! We have developed a process for teaching swing style to young musicians in a concert band setting and for guiding students to learn to improvise with understanding.
In this blog post, we will take you through that learning process, which can be used with 2ndyear students through college, even with performers who have never improvised!
TEACHING SWING STYLE
We start with a piece we composed in swing style for band students in grades 6 through 8, called “Swingin’ From the Start”. You can hear an excerpt of the piece on our website; it was composed with only tonic and dominant chords to simplify the improvisation process. In a school setting, students’ skills would develop over a period of a few months using just a few minutes of rehearsal time. The process we use is LISTEN – SING – PLAY.
Gordon (2013) suggests that we learn music like we learn language by developing five vocabularies: listening, speaking, thinking, reading, and writing. We begin by helping students develop a sense of swing style through listening and performing by ear (through coordinated movement, singing, and playing instruments). After successfully building a sense of swing style through listening, moving, and performing by ear, students then may interpret the printed music with understanding.
Why is movement important to learning swing style?
Swing music is dance music; when you’re dancing, the weight is always on the off-beats (or “microbeats”); the triplet divisions of microbeats are another part of the swing feel. We promote active learning in the full band rehearsal through coordinated movement and rhythm syllable association, in addition to listening, singing, and playing by ear, because these techniques help students understand where the feeling of weight is in swing style.
Here are some techniques you can use in order to get kids feeling the swing style. This process allows students to hear the tune performed multiple times while actively engaging students in coordinated movement and swing-style rhythm chanting.
- Give students mp3 recordings of each section of the piece.
- Have students listen to, move with coordinated macrobeats and microbeats to, sing, and play by ear on their instruments each section.
- Sing the entire song for the group.
- The group stands. Students sway side to side to macrobeats (big pulse) and chant “DU _ DU_” while the instructor sings the song again. (Figure 1).
Next, students lightly pat their laps to duple microbeats (big pulse divided in 2s) and chant “DU DE DU DE”, placing emphasis on the microbeats (or “off-beats”) while the instructor sings the song once again (Figure 2).
- Syllable pronunciation guide: DU = “doo”; DE = “day”
- Then, students move to both macrobeats and microbeats (coordination) while the instructor sings the tune yet again.
To get students feeling the triplet division of the beat, have students move with coordinated macrobeats and microbeats while chanting triplets, accented on the offbeats.
- In beat-function rhythm syllables, this would be – DU Da Di DE Da Di
- Syllable pronunciation guide: DU = “doo”; Da = “dah”; Di = “dee”; DE = “day”
- Next, get students to feel the shuffle rhythm, by moving (as above) and chanting the rhythm pattern in Figure 4.
- In beat-function rhythm syllables, this would be – DU Di DE Di, DU Di DE DI
- Remember to keep singing and playing the song many times for students so they can assimilate it as a whole before asking them to sing the tune from memory.
- When you have gone through this process several times, singing the song for students, then check to see if they can sing it.
- First, have students audiate (think in their heads) the song all the way through.
- Secondly, establish tonality and meter and then gesture for students to sing the song.
- Assess students’ ability to sing the song as a group and as individuals, also checking for students’ ability to sing with the style characteristics of swing.
- Remediate phrases and review swing style as necessary.
When students can sing the song successfully, transfer this same process to playing the song with swing feel on instruments.
LEARNING TO IMPROVISE
Improvising with understanding is different than just playing a written solo or having students memorize 5 to 7 “magic notes” that they can play in any measure of the piece without having to actually hear the chord progression. We follow a sequential process for learning to improvise meaningfully using the tune, chord roots, and the simple chord progression adapted from Azzara and Grunow’s (2006) “Seven Skills for Improvisation”. Teachers introduce each step of the process using just a few minutes of the full band rehearsal, and then instruct students to practice each exercise at home.
Exercise One. Prior to class have students review the mp3 recording of the chord roots. To start this exercise sing the chord roots for students using the rhythm in the recording, then have students echo. Identify the chord roots as Tonic (I) and Dominant (V7) and indicate the I chord with just the index finger and the V7 chord with five fingers. After singing chord roots to the progression, have students play the chord roots on their instruments.
Then, have half of the band sing the tune (learned earlier) while the other half sings the chord roots. Repeat and switch parts. Finally, perform this exercise on instruments.
*NOTE: The battery percussion should play the swing pattern in Figure 5 for this and all subsequent exercises.
Exercise Two: Students play the chord roots again, this time improvising their own rhythms. *Note: Remember to reinforce the characteristic swing rhythms and appropriate swing style articulation learned previously.
Exercise Three: Divide the band into three groups. Create vocal, 3-part harmony on the tonic chord by having Group 1 sing “Do”, Group 2 sing “Mi”, and Group 3 sing “Sol”. Then move to the Dominant chord by step: “Do” moves down to “Ti”, “Mi” moves up to “Fa”, and “Sol” stays on “Sol” (Figure 6).
Next, have students sing the tune’s harmonic progression with chord tones. Switch parts several times so each group gets comfortable with all the chord tones.
Repeat this process using instruments, helping students find “Do-Mi-Sol” and
“Ti-Fa-Sol” by ear on each instrument.
Exercise Four: With voices then instruments, students improvise rhythmically to the harmonic progression on individual chord tones, moving between “Do-Ti”, “Mi-Fa”, or “Sol-Sol”.
*Note: Continue to monitor appropriate swing style in students’ performance.
Exercise Five: With voices then instruments, students improvise tonally on the harmonic progression using their choice of chord tones, but playing only on microbeats.
Exercise Six: With voices then instruments, students improvise tonally and rhythmically on the harmonic progression with appropriate swing style using their choice of chord tones.
Exercise Seven: With voices then instruments, students improvise on the harmonic progression with appropriate swing style, adding melodic content of their choice (passing tones, neighbor tones, etc.)
*Note: It is helpful during this exercise to have a few instruments playing the actual bass line.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now students are ready to read the printed music and perform with understanding and appropriate swing style. Learning tunes and changes by ear is exactly the way jazz has been taught historically! Notation was just meant to preserve the tunes.
In “Swingin’ from the Start” we also have written some background parts for the band to play while selected students are performing improvised solos. There is also a special “grand finale” section to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.
You can watch the premiere “informance” of this piece on YouTube.
We hope that this blog has helped you feel more confident about teaching swing style and improvisation. If you have any questions or would like to know more about this process please feel free to contact us using any of our online sites:
Website: Professional Development Services for Music Educators . . . and More!
Facebook: Professional Development Services for Music Educators . . . and More!
LinkedIn: Professional Development Services for Music Educators
Azzara, C. D., & Grunow, R. F. (2006). Developing musicianship through improvisation. Chicago, IL: GIA.
Gordon, E. E. (2013). Learning sequences in music. Chicago, IL: GIA.
Meet the Authors:
Jennifer Sutton McDonel
is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Radford University in Virginia. She is also executive director and faculty member of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML). She holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree,summa cum laude, from The Ohio State University, a Master of Arts in Music Education degree from the Eastman School of Music, and a Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo. Dr. McDonel’s teaching experience includes early childhood music, elementary general music, 5th – 12th grade instrumental music, and undergraduate and graduate level classes in musicianship, elementary general and instrumental music. She has presented clinics on music learning theory and its applications in several states, regionally at MENC’s Eastern Division Conference, nationally at AOSA, JEN, and NAfME National In-service Conferences, and internationally at three International Conferences on Music Learning Theory and at the 2nd International Symposium on Assessment in Music Education.
Richard Victor retired in June, 2011 as High School Band Director and coordinator of music for the State College Area School District. He began teaching at State College Area High School in 1975, and served as coordinator of Music since 1988. Mr. Victor’s teaching duties included four different concert bands, the Marching Band, the Jazz Band, and the Musical Pit Orchestra. As coordinator of music, Mr. Victor supervised the activities of 25 music teachers in 13 buildings. Under his leadership, the State College Area School District was recognized nine times as one of the Best Communities for Music Education in America; in 2005, 2006 and 2007, State College Area High School was named a Grammy Signature School.
He is the current chair for the NAfME Council for Jazz Education and was the guest director of the 2013 PMEA All-State Jazz Ensemble. Mr. Victor was president of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) from 2000-2002. He served as president of the PA Unit of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) from 1989-1993 and was PMEA All-State Jazz Coordinator and PMEA News Jazz Editor from 1993-1998. Mr. Victor also has served on the Advisory Board for Teaching Music, the official magazine of NAfME
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