Teaching Jazz – Top 10 List (Part 2)

“There are many ways to incorporate jazz education concepts into the music classroom,” says Missouri MEA Jazz Vice-President Chris Becker. With that in mind, he asked several of his colleagues for suggestions on which ones they thought could be used in any classroom setting, at any level. They helped him compile a list of 10 ideas. Last week, the first five were presented in this space. Here are the final five.

Invite a jazz performer or clinician to your classroom.

Live performances in the classroom engage and inspire music students like few other activities. To familiarize your students with jazz, invite local professional jazz musicians, a local college or university group, fellow educators with jazz backgrounds, or groups specifically tailored to present a school program, like Young Audiences. Performances can often be arranged for little or no money, and some programs share the cost of bringing the performers to your school. Ask your administration or parent organizations to help out financially, and emphasize the benefits for your students!

Sing and play exercises by ear, without spelling out every note.

Using exercises that require students to learn by ear isn’t a bad thing. The notion that “ear players” are lesser musicians is very common, but hearing a tune and responding is an essential skill in jazz performance. The great jazz players all started by playing back something they heard someone else playing!

Instrumental teachers can take a lesson from choral teachers: have your students match a sequence of pitches that you play for them on their instruments. Choral and instrumental students can sing chord tones (starting with major triads) from a given root note pitch. More advanced students can begin singing the chord tones in a complete harmonic progression Eventually, the complex chord and scale patterns can be taught by ear.

Develop improvisation skills in your students, beginning with simple call and response rhythms.

Improvisation is a combination of imagination and the ability to produce what you imagine. Young musicians benefit from exercises that require them to produce what they hear from their teacher. Gradually they will develop the skill to produce what they hear in their own mind. Play a simple 4-count rhythm for your students and have them play, sing, or clap it back to you in time. Have a drummer keep time on the ride cymbal while you count off the exercise. Play the 4-count rhythm, and in the next four counts, the students play it back. Gradually play longer, more intricate rhythms for them to mimic. Later, students take turns playing rhythms that the others play back.

Send your students (and yourself) to a jazz camp or clinic.

Music educators who have little or no experience with jazz are often reluctant to either perform or teach it. There are many well-organized jazz camps and clinics, some of them one-day events, that are ideal for newcomers and provide opportunities to network and get acquainted with educators who can help you gain confidence and develop classroom strategies. There are also demonstration and performance clinics at many jazz festivals that are wonderful events for introducing your students to jazz. Even if you don’t have a group performing in the festival, take your students to hear other groups and the festival headliners.

Propose a jazz history, improvisation or theory class to add to your school’s course offerings.

A semester-long course in jazz history, theory or improvisation can offer your students the opportunity for concentrated study of jazz. The fringe benefit of such classes is the potential for increased enrollment in music classes and possible additional staffing. In high school settings, students could also earn a ½ unit fine arts credit toward graduation. In middle school settings, a course dedicated to jazz history might be impossible, but a unit on jazz history could be included in a music exploratory class.

Adapted from “Jazz ‘Top Ten’ List” by Chris Becker, originally published in Fall 2008 Missouri School Music Magazine

Chris Becker is Director of Bands at Parkway South High School in Manchester, MO and Director of the Jazz Band at Washington University in St. Louis.

Got a jazz lesson plan you’d like to share with other music educators? Post it on My Music Class.

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—Nick Webb, September 24, 2009 ©The National Association for Music Education