Friday, December 14, 2012

Teaching Improvisation Within Jazz Ensemble Rehearsals

How many student big bands have you heard where the ensemble playing was acceptable but where the soloing was downright atrocious? Based on the adjudications and visitations I have done, I'd go so far as to say that this is the norm in most schools across North America.  I admit that over the years, to varying degrees, my bands too could be described in this way.  Despite typically having one or two star improvisers, improvisation remains a common area of weakness.

If improvisation is jazz's defining characteristic, why as ensemble directors are we prioritizing accurate mass ensemble playing over the development of soloing skills in our rehearsals?  My rationale has been: in improv class, I teach improv, while in jazz ensemble I emphasize ensemble playing and exposing students to big band literature.  The problem is, only a small portion of my band takes my improv class.  In fact, some of them are not receiving any guidance in learning improvisation.  This simply has to change.  To quote Popeye,

"That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more."

The UConn Jazz Tentet, practicing improvisation.
Teaching a new lick to the UConn Jazz Ensemble.

My band rehearses from 3 - 5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Starting in January, half an hour every Thursday will be devoted to developing improv skills.  There will be 15 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of testing, based on the material assigned from the previous week.

As stated in my last post, we will be working on repertoire from the Art Pepper Plus Eleven album.  Almost every tune is a commonly played jazz standard, thereby functioning as excellent vehicles for teaching improvisation.  Learning these 12 pieces (sans arrangements) will be reinforced by assigning them as the performance repertoire for our weekly, Thursday night jam session at Lu's Cafe.

Students will be expected to play and sing the melodies, bass motion and arpeggiate the harmonic progression.  A variety of directly applicable licks, patterns and scales will be taught and correctly inserted into the pieces.

Four transcription projects will be assigned over the semester, consisting of two choruses (minimum) from any recording of Bb rhythm changes, F blues, Donna Lee and Airegin --- all of which are found on the selected Art Pepper album.  Students will notate, learn and perform these solos by memory.  They will be taught how to extract licks from these solos to learn in 12 keys and apply to other tunes.  Additional choruses/solos will count towards extra credit.

I would love to hear from my my fellow jazz educators in the comments below.  Is teaching improvisation a regular part of your large ensemble rehearsals?  Why/why not?  If so, how much time do you devote to it?  What do you require and assign?  How do you assess it?  Have you seen substantial improvement when improv instruction has been a regular component of your rehearsals? What do you think of my plan?  In your opinion, am I asking for/expecting too much?  Should valuable rehearsal time be devoted to teaching improv?

In the next few posts I will continue to share some thoughts about how I am planning to transform my rehearsals in the spring.  Sight reading and listening will be the next two topics.  Again, I would love to receive some feedback.  Feel free to throw questions back at me too.

1 comment:

  1. Lennie Tristano said, "If the subject you are teaching is Improvisation, than the teaching, itself, must be improvisational." Work with each student individually, taking them from their individual weaknesses to strength, so that your class becomes a group of people taking private lessons from you simultaneously. This is the only way I've been able to effectively teach Jazz. Lesson plans never really end up helping the most people. Just listen to them play, and give them advice and teach by example.... yours, Brad Goode


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