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Great ideas Shawn! Thank you!
I’ve found a few other things that have worked positively for me. I get to teach a mix of 7th and 8th grade students in a middle school jazz club. It’s in a instrumental jazz combo setting as opposed to a big band. I favor the combo setting when it comes to learning how to perform jazz (just ask any second tenor player in a big band. Those parts can be ROUGH if students are expecting straight ahead melody). I’ve learned to build a safe-zone soloing approach for self conscious but curious newbies in the middle school level.
The biggest thing I try to stress from the beginning is that mistakes are our friend in jazz. We learn way more in an impactful way from what doesn’t work than from successes that aren’t necessarily planned. If we can make those impact points positive, even if they weren’t the initial desired outcome, we can teach the kids some resiliency when it comes to learning the art. They won’t be good right away and that’s okay. That’s life. I’ve found that by celebrating a kid brave enough to play a sour note or two in a strong way in front of the class can help not only that student relax and feel more comfortable, but the entire class as well. Making mistakes becomes a positive part of the learning process, not part of a failure like it can so often seem in core classes.
I agree with Shawn in that major scales are the key to learning their way around chord progressions. In addition, I’ve found that by stressing tonal centers and learning the “cool” notes to play/sing can really help the younger students find success early and encourage them to keep digging as they progress.
Taking Tenor Madness for example, it’s a great way to get the kids started on a blues scale. If you start with the Bb major scale and then transfer the notes to numbers instead (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8), it can make communication easier and get each student to be accountable for knowing the theory on their own without taking too much time away from playing. Relate the notes of the blues scale to the ones they already know in the major scale. Have them write out the 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7 and 8 as notes on staff paper and label the scale tones underneath. It’s a super safe scale to play and they’ll sound good from the get-go, but please make sure that you stress from the beginning that the blues scale is only a tool. It’s just a beginning. Young musicians who use the blues scale over solos sound great at first, but it soon gets stale and boring to listen to. You can always do an “all-solo” as well. If every student is performing a solo (while the rhythm section holds down the accompaniment) and focusing on their own independent playing, they don’t have time to listen to what others are doing. Once they feel comfortable in this setting, take volunteers to share something cool they learned to play during their solo. If the students find a cool lick to play (a great chance to learn jazz terminology) they can teach it to the other students as well. It provides positive opportunities across the board!
Once they get the hang of the blues scale, get them to stress the chord changes of the blues progression in their solos. Have them use the blues scale to aim for the chord changes (such as the Eb and F7 chords if we’re talking in the key of Bb). This accomplishes two outcomes. The first being the chord progression becoming recognizable in their ears. If they can start hearing the roots and with the bass and comping instruments moving underneath, they’ll have an easier time equating that to what they see on the page. Have them play the roots with the rhythm section before they solo as well. Anything you can think of to get them to engage their ears as well as their brains. Jazz was an aural tradition first. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that present in a world that stresses literacy first. It’s certainly possible to keep the approach balanced and live in both the aural tradition and literacy emphasis.
The second is that it will open the door to playing the chord changes in the manner Shawn describes above. It can be a challenging step-up because there is so much to think about when soloing. Once they get to what Shawn mentioned above, you can have the kids start aiming for the “cool notes.” Here’s my take on notes to aim for. Out of the scale tones 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7,8 (using a dominant seventh scale), there are notes to aim for and notes to use as passing tones. My middle schoolers helped me label them as this: The 1 and the 5 is the land of the bass. It’s hard to be cool when you’re playing something the bass player emphasizes. We draw the 1 and 5 with a square around them because they certainly fit in the chord, but the solo ends up sounding “square” (slap knee here) if you emphasize these. We call the 4 and 6 tones passing tones because they sound okay when you go past them, but not so good when you emphasize them in a solo. (This changes as soon as you get to suspended chords but that’s further down the line). The coolest notes to aim for are the 3, the b7, and the 9(aka the 2). These are the notes that the greats use. By referencing the 2 as the 9, you can now also talk about extended chords that are stacked past the 1-3-5-and b7 (hello, bebop).
Lastly, the more you can play/sing and show that you are not afraid to make mistakes and try to model this stuff in front of your students, the more fearless you can help your kids become. If you get the classroom culture right, they will embrace mistakes made by everyone and learn from them. Everyone will soon be keying in on those teachable moments, not just the ones who need to fix something. Do call and response with them. Get them to react and communicate with their music instead of just focusing on the music on their page or in their heads. Use the written music to help them get to the music that happens off of the page, because that’s when the real magic happens.
Please let me know if I can elaborate/spew my limited experience at you more. My email is email@example.com. Heck, let me know if you disagree with me. I’d love to learn more, especially if I’m wrong. Even though I teach MS Jazz, steal whatever you’d like for whatever class you teach whether it’s instrumental or vocal. In the end, jazz is jazz and it shouldn’t matter how you make it. Only that you do and that you’re finding success getting better while having fun learning an incredible American art. If you want more vocal specific stuff, I happen to be married to a vocal jazz teacher who has forgotten more than I know about the stuff. I can hook you up with her email for more info too.
Best regards to you all,