Tag Archives: listening

5 Ways to Introduce Students to the Stylistic Nuances of Jazz


By Vince Gassi

Jazz is a many-splendored thing. The numerous styles falling under the umbrella of “Jazz” (Swing, Bebop, Latin, Funk, etc.) allow performers and composers to be expressive in a variety of ways. It is a dynamic and ever-evolving genre, and each style has its own set of standard practices with regard to length of notes and phrasing. For young musicians, adapting to these stylistic nuances is a critical skill. This article offers a few suggestions to help your students toward that end.

1. Pattern Recognition

With Swing, quarter notes are played short unless otherwise marked. Eighth notes are played unevenly though they are written as normal (see fig. 1). The reason for this is that it is simply easier to read.

Swing Notes

Figure 1: Swing Eighth Notes


But this is just one style. A Bossa Nova or a Samba has a different code to unlock. Quarter notes are not necessarily always short or long and eighth notes are not swung but played evenly. And what about Rock or Funk? No matter the style, lots of listening and imitation is required. Like learning a language, learning any style of music takes countless hours of listening and practice in order to learn pattern recognition and to apply the appropriate style. If you wanted to be an award-winning novelist, simply reading a lot would not get you there. You would have to read constantly and then imitate. It’s the same with any musical style.

2. Recommended Listening List

Have your students listen as much as possible to big bands, small bands, soloists, anything jazz related (and any other musical style possible) and try to copy what they’re hearing. Why not make a listening list and include a list of things to focus on (e.g., concept of sound, time, ensemble playing, effects, improv, phasing). Pick out phrases that you can isolate and have your students work on.

As a young trumpet player in high school, I was drawn to the big bands of Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, and Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. To this day one of my favorites is a tune called “Stay Loose with Bruce” (Maynard Ferguson Band featuring Bruce Johnstone on baritone sax). This tune is a great example of the swing articulations and other effects like fall offs, shakes, bends, scoops, etc. Also, have a listen to the interplay between the ride cymbal (Randy Jones), the upright bass (Rick Petrone), and of course the baritone sax player, and the ensemble. (By the way, I just love upright bass. My uncle Ray played upright bass with a big band when I was a kid. I was mesmerized by the instrument). Quarter notes are short and the eighth-note swing feel is oh so sweet! Later on when just the bass and baritone sax are playing together, notice how the sense of time is maintained by just these two players. There is an endless supply of great Jazz artists in bands and vocal ensembles big and small for your students listen to and imitate. Recommending a listening list to your students will greatly increase their in-depth listening skills and differentiation of styles and interpretation. Miles, ‘Trane, Ella, Basie, Maynard, Buddy, Goodwin, New York Voices . . . the list is endless!

3. Ensemble Matching

Choose a rhythm, say the one in “Stay Loose with Bruce” (see fig. 2), and have everyone play/sing it in unison (note how the articulations on the 8th notes remind players of the triplet feel). As in Figure 2, insert a bar of rest every other bar to allow students to process what they are hearing in the silence. This also gives them an opportunity to focus on their sense of time. Alternatively, you might instruct the drummer to simply keep playing time in the rest measures. A third option is to have one section play/sing the rhythm and another section match it exactly in the next bar. By the way, this exercise can just as easily be done with a vocal ensemble. Try using syllables such as “Dut doo ba doo bop!”

Swing Articulation Exercise

Figure 2: Swing Articulation Exercise

4Live Performances

Find out where live jazz is happening in your locale and plan a “Jazz Trek.” The first live big band I heard was Maynard Ferguson’s band. My dad allowed me to skip off a day from my summer job so we could travel four hours by car to hear this amazing band at the Interlochen Centre for the Arts in Michigan. Mind blowing! Not just for the technical displays but for how tight the ensemble was and how well they could swing. To a kid in high school, hearing these sounds for the first time, it was transformative. Don’t you want to transform your students?

5. Transcription

Encourage your students to make a habit of transcription. I spent hours wearing out the grooves in my vinyl (yes, that’s right…vinyl) albums, attempting to listen to and imitate what I was hearing. Just jot down pitches to begin with (one at a time); rhythms will come later. Students should use their instrument to test the notes they are hearing. There’s a great app called The Amazing Slow Downer which allows you to slow the tempo of an MP3 down without affecting the pitch. Additionally, you can loop sections and isolate one or more bars or even just a few notes.

Be sure that your students notice inflection—the altering of a note or notes; another essential ingredient which tells the listener about what style you are communicating. Listen to Snooky Young’s cup mute trumpet solo on a tune called “Tiptoe” (Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band). It’s legendary, not because he plays a million notes, but because he is so musical. Notice how he shapes the last note of certain phrases with a slight vibrato. It’s a very subtle thing but adds to the coolness of the music. I don’t think anyone taught him that. Later in the chart you’ll hear the tastiest trombone soli (with upright bass). Put this music on and see if you can stay still, not tap your foot, or start moving in any way. Impossible!

All of the tips in this article (pattern recognition, recommended listening, ensemble matching, live performances, transcription) come down to listening and imitating (deciphering the code) and this applies to anything we want to learn. There is such a wellspring of expression and energy just waiting for your students to discover and these experiences will change the course of their lives. John Cacavas said it best, “Each day is different and your capacity for learning and expression will grow. Every time you browse through a score, hear a recording, see a movie, or attend a concert, your artistic self will absorb that which impresses you and will add to your experience.” As with any creative endeavor your students will eventually gain a greater awareness of their artistic self and begin to develop their own “voice.” So, encourage them to listen, listen some more, keep listening, and just see how much sweeter life is because of this music.

gassiVince Gassi
 is a much sought-after composer, conductor, and clinician. With nearly 100 published titles to his credit, Vince’s creative and energetic style has made him a favorite with young musicians. His works, both challenging and musically rewarding, appear on many international concert and contest lists. For 25 years Vince has taught instrumental music at the elementary and secondary school levels. He is in frequent demand as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and clinician throughout the United States and Canada.

Listening Sideways (or the Art of Playing Together)

Jonathan Glawe
By Vince Gassi

Listening sideways is the second of three essential steps toward developing a more musical ensemble. As music educators, we attempt to teach our students how to practice properly so that 1) they are constantly improving their technique. The more control they begin to have over the instrument, the more they can 2) direct awareness outward and listen to what is happening around them. This leads to 3) the stage where your ensemble is ready to work on expressiveness.

Here is a simple but essential exercise to help develop the ability of your young musicians to “listen sideways.”

1. Have your ensemble play a concert Bb scale (or insert key of your choice). They can play four quarter notes (all tenuto) on each pitch of the scale (ex. 4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Play the final note of the scale as a whole note.

2. Encourage all players to listen to each other. Actually use the phrase “listen sideways.” It will be your unique code for them to understand what you are expecting of them. This may be challenging but stick with it.

3. Now have only the first chair players from each section play. Direct them
to play the same scale together in quarter notes as before. Players must
listen to each other and match volume, tuning, note length, style, etc.

4. When the section leaders can do this, have the rest of the ensemble join in. The section players must “listen sideways” in an attempt to match their section leader exactly. If they cannot hear their leader, then they, or others, are playing too loudly and must adjust. This may take several attempts, so be patient.

5. Now have only section leaders play the same scale (or a different one if you choose) but this time, instruct them to play it in a staccato style; remember, 4 quarter notes on each pitch of the scale. Do this until the leaders can match each other. When playing staccato, students may often become impatient and start to rush ahead. Start over if you have to but keep them to the indicated tempo.

6. Now have the rest of the band join in with the instruction that they must once again listen to their leader and match them exactly. The goal is to have each section sound like one player.

7. And now for the real challenge. Have the whole band play the scale again, starting legato (4 Bbs, 4 Cs, etc.). Ask each section leader to switch at a time of his or her own choosing, from tenuto to staccato. Yes, you’ll have different sections playing different note lengths at the same time but, since this often occurs in your repertoire, it will be excellent practice. The section members may not switch at exactly the same point as their leader, but keep at it until they can. This is what the ensemble is working towards.

Keep at it each rehearsal until it happens, until the section players switch together with the leader. Even when they achieve this goal, keep doing this exercise at each rehearsal. It is a great way to reinforce this essential listening skill. This is the way athletes train. Baseball players work on the basics before each game of the season, taking ground balls, batting practice, etc., just to stay sharp. I’ve heard it said when the first player player makes a mistake, a well-trained section will make it with her.

8. Try having just one section do this. The other sections will learn much from hearing just the flutes or just the trumpets try this exercise a few times. They may be eager to prove that their section can do better. So let them!! A little healthy competition can be a good thing now and then.

Don’t give up after one or two attempts at this exercise. Keep at it until the ensemble really starts to hear what is going on. It will be at this point that you (and they) will start to notice how much cleaner the ensemble sounds.

You can also do this exercise using chorales. Through regular practice, your students will become conditioned to listen (and really hear) what’s going on around them. This is one definition of a good musician: someone who is aware of what is occurring musically and responds accordingly. Remember, your students don’t come to rehearsal to learn their part, they come to learn everyone else’s part. This is why developing awareness through directed listening is so important. If practiced regularly, you will notice your ensemble maturing as the weeks go by and expressive playing is the inevitable result.

Don’t forget – all this time, you, the conductor – need to be indicating style and tempo. Your students’ awareness should include responding to you as well. So try the same exercise but instruct them to change style when they see you indicate such. You are the ultimate section leader!

Listening sideways is an essential skill which, if practiced on a regular basis, will empower your musicians to mature. Eventually, your ensemble will begin to transform. Your students will become players who are aware of their musical surroundings and will respond appropriately. It is so much more fun for them when they play together. Similarly, it is so much more fun to conduct an ensemble that responds expressively in real time to each other, the hall, and, most importantly, you the conductor. Expressive performance is what all of our hard work is ultimately about. From this point on, the sky is the limit.