About a month ago I posted a new resource I discovered that I recommend for music educators called FreeMusicEd.org. The podcast covers some great topics, such as iPad and iPhone apps for band directors, dealing with limited instrumentation, brass mouthpieces, marching band arrangements, and much more.
Stephan Cox, the brain behind FreeMusicEd.org invited me to come onto the podcast and interviewed me about a number of my favorite blogging topics, including teaching jazz improvisation, brass embouchures, teaching composition, and other odds and ends. It was a great time talking with Stephan and he was an excellent host who asked great questions. The podcast is now live and you can download it here or by searching for FreeMusicEd on iTunes (best to type it in as one word to find it easily). Be sure to go through and listen to his other podcasts and poke around the website some too!
Ever since the National Association for Music Education adopted its National Standards for Music Education one area that band directors have begun to address in more detail than ever before is improvisation. NAfME’s standards include:
Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
In many band programs, however, this can be a real challenge for directors to implement, particularly if he or she has had little to no experience playing jazz. If you don’t happen to play one of the typical jazz instruments the chances that you feel uncomfortable are high. This essay is designed for band directors who want to introduce improvisation with their students in the concert band specifically, although music teachers should be able to find ways to adapt these ideas for almost any situation with a little thought and creativity.
The first thing to understand is that everyone improvises all the time, but we often don’t think about it when it happens because we’re so used to it. When rehearsing our concert band we improvise a great deal by responding to what we’re hearing and addressing them in patterns that we know (or hope) will be successful. As we get more experience teachings we pick up on new ideas and try them out, eventually coming up with our own teaching style that fits our own personality and style. This process isn’t really all that different from how we can develop an improvisational style, it’s just a different context.
The way we teach is highly influenced by those who taught us. Improvisation should be equally influenced by an informed opinion of what we think works and fits how we want to play. In order to improvise convincingly we should be familiar with lots of different players. Probably the most important thing that we as band directors can do is listen to lots of great improvisers and encourage our students to listen to great improvisers as well. It’s sort of like learning to speak a language from reading a book. You can learn the “grammar” and “spelling” of musical improvisation from a book, but if you don’t listen to it performed by the masters you’re going to end up with a funny “accent.”
Improvising for the first time can be a daunting task. There are lots of different things to keep track of all at once and the amount of multitasking is intimidating for many students. That said, when you consider improvisation at its basic level there are really three main areas of concern – when to play, what to play, and how to play it.
When to play is usually the first thing I address with teaching improvisation to a new group of students in a longer-term improvisation class. Subtopics in this area of concern include using silence, playing with good phrasing, rhythmic density, etc. The main point I want to get across at first is that you don’t have to play all the time and, in fact, it’s often more interesting to leave room in your improvisations for your audience to guess what’s coming next. I like to demonstrate to new students what this can be like by improvising a solo by using much more silence than I normally would. When a soloist doesn’t play for a long time the tension can really build up and no matter what you play next the release can be quite surprising and enjoyable. Get your students to duplicate this in their own solos as much as possible.
Leaving silence in improvisations has additional benefits beyond simply making your solos more interesting. It allows the accompanists to interact more conversationally. It also gives the student a chance to evaluate what he or she just played and how effective it was and then think about what’s coming up next. This is also another one of NAfME’s standards.
Evaluating music and music performances.
Items that address what to play are actually pretty easy to find. This includes things like chord/scale relationships, playing chord tones and non-chord tones, playing outside the changes, etc. There are lots of great resources all over on this aspect of improvisation, so rather than duplicate a lot of it here I’ll instead focus on what I think the best way to teach this element of improvisation is.
Music is an aural art form. It exists in sound, not on the paper. With improvisation it is even more important to learn to listen and imitate the sounds you hear. When introducing note choices to students new to improvisation I always teach them by playing a pitch and having them find it on their instrument by ear.
A simple ear training exercise you can do with your concert band is to play random notes and have your students try to match pitch. Some students will be better than others and it’s helpful for struggling students to have a strategy to help them out. I usually advice my students to simply play a chromatic scale until they hear themselves match the pitch. Over time they will find it easier to hear when they’ve found the right pitch and may even begin finding it faster by learning how far away they are and leaping closer to the correct pitch. Once students get used to matching pitch with you playing the lead have a student volunteer play the random pitches instead.
As an aside, I find many students will use their eyes, rather than their ears, to figure out the pitch. As a trombonist I get in the habit of playing lots of pitches with alternate positions to see if the trombone section is just watching my slide rather than finding pitches by ear. Students will often look over to their section peers to look at fingerings rather than risk guessing the wrong pitch. It’s up to you to encourage them to avoid this and instead really try to find pitches by ear. The payoff will be much better in the long run if they can learn to find pitches aurally, rather than visually. Once most of the class has found the pitch I will tell the band what the pitch is to help provide feedback, but I always make them give me an honest effort first.
Once I have a band able to match pitches fairly well I will teach them by ear basic scales (pentatonic, blues scale, or scale fragments) that can be used to improvise over a simple vamp. If they want or need to write down pitch names I will usually allow it, but they again have to give me an honest effort to learn these scales by ear before I’ll help them with the pitch names. Next I’ll teach the band some simple riffs that set up a vamp (again by ear) that fits those pitches.
As a composer I try to limit the number of independent lines I’m writing to no more than three or four (with some exceptions according to the effect I’m after). For the purposes of setting up a vamp for improvisation with a concert band I feel two or three riffs works best. Again, I teach my students the riffs by ear and have the whole band learn some basic riffs. After the band has got the gist of each riff I assign parts to them and get them to set up the vamp. Once the groove is happening, I’ll demonstrate by improvising a simple solo (using only the notes I taught them just before) over their accompaniment.
Since I’m a composer and experienced improviser, coming up with chord vamps and riffs isn’t really a big deal for me, but for many band directors this is a brick wall. In order to help those folks out, I’ve put together some riffs that you can use in PDF form here. Three of the examples are simple two-chord vamps with three simple riffs notated in all standard transpositions. One example is a blues progression in Eb with parts for each standard concert band instrument. Again, I usually teach students these riffs by ear and then later hand out parts if needed (or, better still, have the students learn to notate these riffs themselves).
Once you’re able to get your band riffing on this simple chord progressions you’re ready to get them to play solos. If you want to ease them into solo improvisation one way I like to get them started is to play a very simple (one or two note) idea with a metronome click and have them play the lick back at me. Use the a scale that will work over the vamp you want them to improvise over, but don’t use more than three notes (see the handouts from above for some scale choices over the vamps I wrote out). The point here is to teach them that they don’t need to play a very complex lick to sound tasteful. I emphasize that all they can play very interesting ideas by rhythmically improvising on even just one or two notes.
Then go around your ensemble and have everyone play 2, 4, or 8 measures of improvisation. Some students will jump right in and go wild while others will freeze up. With the eager students it can be helpful to get them to scale back their improvisation and not try to squeeze in every idea they have into just 4 measures. With timid students my goal is to get them to play just one note (then just one note more, now two notes, etc.). You can also have some students practice playing longer solos.
Another exercise I like to use is to have students come up with their own background riffs using only notes in the scale I’ve given them to improvise with. Each of the PDF examples I posted has three riffs, one that functions as a bass line, one chord support, and one melodic riff. Simply remove the melodic riff from the vamp and have a student play his or her own riff in place of it, then have the other students pick up that riff by ear.
You’ll notice that in almost every step of my process I emphasize teaching students ideas by ear. Having good aural skills is a critical ability for improvisation. While it’s certainly possible to create interesting improvisations from selecting note choices by reading notation this approach is limiting. Teaching your students to match pitches by ear will train them to “hear” the ideas they have in their head and play them more spontaneously.
Conversely, only teaching improvisation through playing by ear will also hinder development. I always like to point out that music theory IS ear training and vice versa. After you teach improvisational techniques by ear go back later and teach your students the theory behind it. More advanced concepts can be first learned via a theoretical approach (e.g., read this scale and then apply those notes over this chord vamp), but emphasize while practicing this way that your students should be listening closely to the sounds and making the connection between what they are seeing with what they are hearing. When using this approach reiterate to your students that they should intentionally leave a lot of silence in their improvisations to give them a chance to evaluate what they just played and then think a bit about what they are going to do next.
I recommend that you make improvisation a regular warmup with your group. You don’t have to improvise with them every day or even every week, but go back to improvisation every so often with them to reinforce what they’ve learned and get them to practice it more. Like most musical skills, improvisation abilities are developed over the long term and we can’t simply teach it in one class and expect that our students will become successful at it. In fact, you can break down all of the above steps and exercises into their own warmup and spread them out over the course of a week or so. Easing your students into improvisation this way will help some of your students who are more nervous about improvisation get used to the idea of playing a solo over time. All your students will benefit from the repetition of ear training and music theory over time, helping them retain these skills.
And of course, have fun with it. The more you project that you’re enjoying the music the more it will “jazz up” your concert band for learning to improvise. Even if many of these students will never join a jazz band you’ll find that the ear training and music theory practice they get will help them become better musicians and benefit your concert band in ways you didn’t expect.
Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
When performing with the Low-Down Sires, a traditional jazz group, we frequently decide (either collectively or individually) to perform the solos off of recordings rather than to improvise our own. We recently added Duke Ellington’s composition East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Harlem Twist)to our repertoire and I really enjoyed the trombone solo on the recording. We all thought this would be a good one for me to play the recorded solo on, so I transcribed “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s solo from it.
It’s got a couple of interesting things on it. The opening lick is cool for the motive he played with a three note melodic idea superimposed over different parts of the first couple of measures.
Nanton also plays around with some chromatic passing tones on his solo break, specifically a passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes of the major scale and then the 2nd and 3rd notes. This chromatic passing tone usage would become pretty common with bebop musicians and sometimes is called a “bebop scale” today. For example, a major scale with the passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes is frequently called a “major bebop scale” and a major scale with a passing tone between the 6th and 7th notes is sometimes called the “dominant bebop scale.” Here is Nanton’s solo break.
It’s a short, but very tasty solo. Click here to download a PDF of the whole thing. As always, I recommend you at least double check my accuracy here and let me know if you spot any errors. It’s best to do your own transcribing, since you’ll learn the whole stylistic language (articulation, vibrato, swing feeling, etc.) as well as develop your own ear much better that way.
On a recent gig with the Low-Down Sires our music director had another job out of town and Mick, our cornet player, ended up taking over the direction duties for this show. While rehearsing for this show we got into a conversation about different hand signals that directors will give to keep the musicians together. Here is a list of ones, mostly compiled by Mick (mainly duplicated from here), but with a couple added by Mick and me. Some are pretty standard, but others were new to me. A few of them are a little more specific to the trad jazz style (such as the ones referring to “ensemble choruses”). Some of these are also used by big band directors as well, so even if you don’t play fake gigs they are worth learning about.
The concert key of a song (or key change for the next chorus) is indicated by the number of fingers held out. The number of fingers held down indicates the number of flats in a key signature. Two fingers held down indicate Concert Bb. Concert C is usually indicated by making a zero or C with two fingers.* The sharp in Concert G would be indicated by extending up one finger.
Your solo. When the player points at you, it means the next solo will be yours. (Don’t jump in immediately; wait until the current chorus is complete.)
I don’t want one. If you don’t want to solo, just shake your head no.
Take two. When two fingers are held up, that means to take two complete solo choruses. This occurs usually on fast tunes in which choruses are very short, so it gives the solo player a chance to stretch out.
Half solos. The X sign, with crossed hands or crossed fingers means to split the solos in half and share them. In other words, instead of a 16-bar solo, you play 8 bars and pass it on to the next soloist. This happens often in large jam sets to allow everyone to have a short solo.
Trade fours (or twos). When one player establishes eye contact with another player, holds up four fingers, and points them back and forth between the two players, it indicates, “Let’s trade four-bar solo phrases” or “Trade fours.” Of course, you can do the same thing with two fingers to indicate trading two bar phrases, although this is trickier to pull off.
Everyone in. When the cornet player holds up one finger and moves it in a round-up circle, it means, “Everyone in, this is an ensemble chorus.” This is usually the sign to end solo choruses.
Last chorus. A fist held up means “this is the last chorus.” Go out at the end.
Go to the top. Touching an open palm to the top of the head means, “Go to the top,” which usually indicates going back to the verse, first stanza, or sometimes even introduction of the given tune.
Get down. A flat hand held down at knee level indicates that the next chorus is going to be played in a restrained style, at a pianissimo level. This may also be called a “chatter” chorus.
One down/one up. As a band is nearing the last ensemble choruses, the cornet may give a hand signal, pointing down with one finger, then up. That means to play a quiet and restrained chorus, followed by a loud and exuberant final chorus.
Four bar drum break. When four fingers are held up to the drummer, usually in the final chorus of a tune, that indicates that the drummer is to take a four-bar extemporaneous solo, followed by the band playing a variation on the final four bars of the song. It is critical to listen to the cornet player to catch the shape of these last four.
Jump to the bridge. The leader may point to the bridge of his nose. Done frequently on ballads or longer form tunes after solos to keep a tune from going too long. Sometimes used to help get the band back together if someone zones out and looses track of the form.
Open repeats. The leader makes an “O” shape with one or both hands. Used to indicate that this section will repeat until cued out, usually to let a soloist or soloists stretch out and play additional choruses. The cue to go on to the next section is usually done by holding up a fist a bit before the next section.
Play backgrounds or riffs behind a soloist. The leader points at and sort of waves his finger at a section or group of players to indicate that in the next repeat the players should play backgrounds behind the soloist. In a fake gig the leader or another horn player might quietly play or sing a riff to the rest of the players before they enter to get the riff established, if the backgrounds are improvised.
* Several years ago I was playing a dance set with a big band where the leader wanted the band to improvise a medley of bossa novas. He got the band started off on a standard tune with one horn player performing the melody. After that melody the rhythm section was instructed to play a 4 measure transition to the next tune and the hand signals were used to tell them what key to transition to (e.g., two fingers held down to modulate to Bb, etc.). It got around to me and I called Black Orpheus/Carnaval/Day In the Life of a Fool (three different titles for same tune), which is typically played in A minor. I realized as I called the key that I didn’t know a hand signal for A minor. I tried to verbally get the word over to the leader and rhythm section, but because I was way over on the other side of the stage they ended up going to C major instead. Fortunately this rhythm section was on top of things and immediately recognized the tune, but it was an unusual modulation, to say the least.
Who knows an appropriate hand signal for A minor? What hand signals did we leave out?
I’ve recently begun playing with the Low-Down Sires, a dixieland group based out of Asheville, NC. I have always enjoyed playing dixieland, although I hadn’t been playing a whole lot of it lately, so it’s a lot of fun to be playing it again regularly. One of the things I really appreciate about this group is that everyone makes a serious effort to play in the style. There’s nothing worse than listening to players who don’t play stylistically correct, regardless of what genre of music they’re performing.
One of the tunes we’ve been playing that’s been giving me some trouble is Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp. This tune is challenging for me to solo over, in part because of the changes (it starts on the IV chord, not rare but somewhat unusual), key (Ab major, not too hairy, but a little tricky if I’m not focused), and bright tempo. Taken together, it’s not usually a big deal for me to adjust to these changes and tempo, but I keep finding myself wanting to bop over it. In order to give me some ideas for a more stylistically correct approach I decided to transcribe Lou McGarity’s solo over this tune and get inside it a bit.
There’s a couple of things in it I find interesting. McGarity uses a lot of Ab major pentatonic over it, but with some added passing tones between the 5th (Eb) and 6th (F) as well as a lower neighbor passing tone to the 3rd (C). Here’s an example from the first 4 measures of his solo.
The Ab major pentatonic scale (Ab, Bb, C, Eb, and F) provides a nice sound to blanket over this chord sequence (which makes up most of the solo changes). The chromatic passing tones (E/Fb and B/Cb) give it a little more color without sounding to bopish in the dixieland style.
McGarity recorded this solo in 1951, quite a while after the tailgate trombone style evolved, but he plays some of the typical glisses and long notes in this solo. Somewhat unusually, he also shows off his solid upper register by screaming a high Eb in this solo. Here’s an example from last 8 measures of the second chorus.
If you’d like to see the whole transcription, you can use this link. As I always like to recommend, you shouldn’t trust my transcription for complete accuracy. For one thing, I’ve only approximated some of the glisses and smears McGarity plays. If you don’t really listen closely to the sound you’re going and try to learn this solo you’re going to miss a huge part of the style. Here’s a YouTube video I found of this recording, but be aware that the sound was sped up so that it is playing back a half step higher. You can buy this track here.
Coursera offers online courses taught from over 60 universities for free. I recently learned of one offered by Berlkee College of Music an Introduction to Jazz Improvisation, taught by one of the greatest improvisers ever, vibraphonist Gary Burton. All you need to take this course is a basic understanding of chord symbols and improvising over basic progressions (blues, etc.), have an intermediate ability on your instrument, and have the ability to record yourself and convert the audio to MP3 format.
The next 5 week session starts up next Monday (April 29, 2013). If you want to participate in this one you’ll need to sign up soon.
If you’re like me, you’re probably not familiar with Charlie Banacos. An influential jazz educator, he withdrew from performing in favor of focusing on his teaching. He stated:
Music for me is like religion. In every religion there are the preachers who are touring all over the world to preach about religion, and the monks, who sit in a basement, practice for themselves, and teach others. I am the monk.
The exercises cover nine facts of technique and musicianship–which I have organized in Sections A – I. In Section A, three popular ear-training exercises plus a meditation practice are presented. These exercises are useful for the development of various aural skills, such as relative pitch, perfect pitch, and intonation. In Section B, ten prominent exercises for instrumentalists/vocalists are listed, which focus on enriching improvisation skills, expanding melodic, harmonic, and temporal vocabulary, and improving technique. Section C includes a list of names of voicing exercises for chording instruments, such as piano and guitar.
Banacos taught composition to a variety of instrumentalists and singers. In Section D are some composition exercises he assigned, some of them based on Joseph Schillinger’s System of Musical Composition. Section E features four prominent exercises for rhythm, and Section F, three exercises for sight-reading/sight-singing. Banacos’s explanations for practicing the assigned repertoire, as well as for overcoming technical limitations, are listed in Section G. Some of the exercises included in this section were intended to further enhance instrumental technique. Section H illustrates Banacos’s approach to building repertoire, which consists of jazz standards as well as classical piano works.
I haven’t gotten through the whole paper yet, but it looks excellent and should be valuable for teachers and players alike. While I’m at it, please go visit Casa Valdez Studios for an excellent blog for jazz musicians and saxophonists.
I came across this very interesting video master class by pianist Dave Frank on playing outside the changes. He describes his master class:
In this advanced master class will explore various ways of improvising melodic lines that go outside the chord changes. We’ll use a basic 1-4-5 blues progression and look at 4 different ways to approach this more advanced way of playing. The general concept of playing lines outside the changes is to suspend the underlying chord progression as a basis for linear improvisation for a period of time, improvising during the suspended measures using a superimposed concept, mode or progression.
In his video Frank goes through three basic techniques you can use to play outside the changes, superimposing a short melodic pattern transposed to different pitch levels a second or third apart, using different modes selected for the amount of harmonic tension over a particular chord progression, and using particular scales, such as whole tone or diminished scales, that are intentionally ambiguous.
It’s a very detailed introduction to playing outside of the changes and there’s a lot of good stuff in there. It’s inspired me to go back and start working more on this aspect of my own improvisation. Take 40 minutes to watch Frank’s video and try some of these ideas out.