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What jazz can do for your students

5 months ago

Whatever their musical preferences, all developing musicians can benefit from exploring some of the concepts at the heart of jazz performance practice, as Mark Armstrong explains.

At ABRSM’s 2016 Teachers’ Conference, Alexander L’Estrange and I gave a presentation about how to approach the jazz-inspired repertoire found in List C of the ABRSM syllabus. Although these pieces don’t include improvisation, an understanding of other aspects of jazz performance practice can make them sound much more authentic, colourful and stylish.

In this article, I’m going to look at some of these jazz concepts, not just for playing exam pieces but because these principles are great for encouraging facility, creativity and imagination in all music making.

Strategies for practice and performance

The sense of spontaneity, groove and tonal colour found in jazz – and all popular styles of music – is becoming increasingly important in the musical interests of all students, as well as in contemporary composition. But an awareness of these jazz principles can also shed light on more traditional repertoire, by suggesting alternative strategies for practising and performance. This is something which has helped me in my classical playing, as well as being vital in my jazz and commercial career.

Adding to your toolbox of skills

I’m not going to address improvisation here, but I want to talk about some other aspects of jazz performance practice that I think everyone can add to their toolbox of skills. These are: using rhythm effectively, encouraging tonal flexibility and internalising musical elements, so the piece is understood away from the notation, or even away from a specific instrument.

Feeling the groove

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of jazz performance is the feeling of ‘groove’ in the music. Jazz and popular music were, of course, designed to be danced to. For the music to work it needs to be played with rhythmic vitality and the right nuance.

Syncopation and pulse

Much of the energy in jazz comes from how syncopation bounces off the pulse. Developing a rock-solid internalised feeling for this is a really useful skill, particularly for jazz but also for all music. In a previous Libretto article (2015:2) I talked about how to develop a subdivided feeling for the pulse in swing and straight quaver styles, and described an exercise to develop more confidence in this area.

Different ways of learning

A big challenge with syncopation is that it often looks more complicated than it sounds. So, it’s a good idea to say rhythms out loud and have a student say them back before playing or looking at the music. They can do this while physically marking the pulse, maybe by tapping their hand against their leg or tapping their foot. This encourages learning the actual sound of the rhythm against a solid pulse. Follow this by seeing what it looks like on the page. Another exercise to try is playing the rhythm of a phrase or passage on a single pitch to emphasise the rhythmic contour, before adding the melody.

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An aural approach

This aural way of learning music is more authentic to the tradition of jazz, puts the right emphasis on rhythmic accuracy and is especially helpful for ensemble playing. Trying to piece rhythms together just from the notation is rarely as effective and stylish. Ideally, we would keep our internal metronome ticking away through the whole of a piece, but particularly on the long notes! It can be a slow process, but developing the ability to count and feel the pulse accurately while playing, at all times, is an incredibly valuable skill for all musicians. And it’s vital for anyone considering a career in jazz or commercial music.

Using tonal colour

Combined with the feeling for pulse, syncopation and groove, is a jazz musician’s sense of how to modify tone colour to suit the style of the music. Where classical musicians often strive for a consistently graded tone, jazz musicians look for a variety of tonal colour from note to note. This follows on from the African tradition of tonal embellishment and personalisation. You can hear this in the early blues singers, like Mamie Smith, who inspired the first jazz artists like Louis Armstrong to incorporate vibrato, portamento and other devices into their instrumental style. As a brass player, I know there can be some worries about ‘spoiling’ classical tone by playing jazz or pop music, but I also think that an awareness of the tonal differences needed in a variety of styles makes for a more flexible, imaginative and useful musician. I don’t feel that experimenting with this is necessarily a dangerous thing.

Note production, attack and accents

Much of the difference needed is more often in note production – tonguing or weight of initial attack – rather than tonal quality. In particular, getting the right intensity of attack on the off-beat quavers can have a huge impact on how authentic a jazz or jazzy piece can sound, without any other change in tone. The word ‘bebop’ – itself a musical style – is a great example of how to play swung quavers. Saying ‘be-BOP’ shows how the accent needs to be on the second (off-beat) quaver, not the first. Vocalising rhythms with ‘scat’ syllables like this follows on from earlier rhythm exercises and shows which notes need accents to create the right syncopated energy. Finally, make sure the end of every note is just as precise as its start. The rhythmic energy in jazz often comes from an abrupt ending to a note (with a tongue-stop for wind players). This adds energy to the rests and creates excitement in the active silence that follows.

Internalising the music and strengthening skills

Vocalising the music, thinking about tone and note production, and feeling the pulse all encourage students to really know how their pieces sound, away from their instruments and the notation. Using these aural techniques can strengthen core skills, which are applicable to all musical styles but are particularly authentic to jazz and pop. It’s also a fun and interactive way to learn music. I hope you and your students find some of these ideas enjoyable and useful in your music making!


Mark Armstrong is a jazz and commercial trumpet player and composer/arranger. He is Artistic Director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Professor at the Royal College of Music and an ABRSM examiner.

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