Teaching Jazz in the Elementary Music Classroom

“Adding another element to our curriculum in the elementary music classroom is easier than you think!” says MENC member Natalie Wilson. “Teaching jazz at the elementary level simply requires a passion for the music and a little creativity.

“I incorporate jazz into every grade level and just about every activity” continues Wilson. “My students at all levels receive instruction on maintaining a steady beat, instruments, form, listening , and many of the basic elements of music such as dynamics, tempo, pitch, etc. From playing 12-bar blues on xylophones to learning about jazz artists and history in listening examples, more and more of my students are becoming hooked on jazz.

“Students of all ages are great at finding a steady 2/4 beat, and there’s plenty of jazz that’s upbeat with a solid 2/4 feel. Share it with even your youngest students. They can use body percussion or any variety of instruments in the classroom to play along with the music. Be sure to share a little something about the artist as well.

“Big band music, with or without a vocalist, is a good fit for listening exercises. My students are required to ‘just listen’ and do nothing else. When a song is finished, I ask ‘what did you hear?’ and ‘what did you notice?’ They can usually pick out the rhythm section trio and various other instruments in the band, as well as the voice and background vocals. I’m always impressed when my kids speak about two instruments ‘talking to each other’ when they refer to ‘trading fours.’ They easily identify fast-slow, high-low, loud-soft and even phrases, all within a single tune, and often ask who was playing.

“I have my students play 12-bar blues on our barred instruments in the keys of C, D, and others as the instruments will allow. This lesson not only gives them an opportunity to play on Orff instruments, it teaches form as well. Before playing, they sing the changes. We sing on whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. The kids learn about the form then transpose all in one unit. Yes—kindergarteners are learning to transpose! (Our school song is an original 12-bar blues which I use to teach elements of vocal jazz style. There are off-beat entrances, dotted quarter-note kicks and a blues accompaniment.)

“To teach jazz successfully at the elementary level,” concludes Wilson, “you must be willing to change things up a bit. I’ve found my greatest resources in teaching elementary level jazz are my creativity and an ability to improvise within the curriculum. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many elementary jazz educators, but this isn’t because it isn’t possible or practical. Most music educators just haven’t considered doing it! Take the risk. Share your passion. Teach America’s true art form to our children. Teach jazz!”

Adapted from “Teaching Jazz in the Elementary Classroom” by Natalie Wilson, originally published in the January 2010 issue of VOICE.

Natalie Wilson teaches general music and jazz K-5 at Grass Valley Elementary School in Camas School District, Camas, WA. She previously taught choir and vocal jazz for 18 years at Camas High School and Skyridge Middle School.

—Nick Webb, September 8, 2010 © National Association for Music Education