Jazz education and the “ya gotta listen” cop-out

brass drums

It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.

(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)

But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”

“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.

If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”

How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.

If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.

And yes, ya gotta listen.

Jazz and classical musicians’ concerns about jazz playing

man playing saxophone

Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.

A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.

  • Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
  • For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).

I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.

But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, they way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.

(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)

My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.

Music guilt

person in black shirt playing brass colored saxophone

In my professional capacity as a musician and music educator, I frequently have to lay down the law with my students or with myself about not practicing enough. The sense that I’m never quite good enough, and that it’s my own fault for not working harder, is a real professional hazard.

But when I meet people who aren’t professional musicians or serious music students, they often seem to feel the same way. They confess regrets about an instrument collecting dust in a closet, about not “sticking with it,” or about never learning to play at all. Sometimes they tell me how much they used to enjoy playing, but how some additional factor like music theory or stage fright or scales took the joy out of it.

I have to remember in those moments to keep some perspective. While my own musical goals demand serious daily work, lots of people find joy in dusting off an instrument once a month or once a year to play the same three songs again. Some people find certain aspects of a traditional music education boring. Some might play well, but aren’t interested in doing it front of an audience or a teacher.

And that’s okay! There’s lots of room for musicians of all levels and aspirations (or non-aspirations). And, of course, we professionals need a public that is enthusiastic about music, not guilt-ridden and regretful.

If you want to learn, it’s not too late. If you want to play or sing casually, you may. If you don’t want anyone to hear you, you don’t have to let them. Music should be fun for you.

Favorite blog posts, December 2021

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles

The pennywhistle (or “tinwhistle” or “Irish” whistle) is common in Irish traditional music, and has found a home in some other styles such as southern African kwela music. They appear famously in movie soundtracks such as the Lord of the Rings movies and Titanic.

Here are some important things to know:

  • There are high-quality pennywhistles with good intonation, clear, pure tone, and nice even response. (The Burke whistles are among my favorites.) But some high-profile players of traditional Irish music prefer the chirpier, raspier, less-perfect sounds of inexpensive, mass-produced ones (such as Generation whistles). Those players might try many inexpensive whistles to find the most playable ones.
  • There are also some in-between options. The very consistent but relatively inexpensive plastic whistles from Susato have the advantages of high volume, excellent tuning, and availability in lots of keys. (They also have a reedy tone that some people find too recorder-like.) Or, there are “tweaked” whistles like those made by Jerry Freeman, inexpensive whistles with some adjustments made for better playability.
  • Pennywhistles are available in various sizes, but the way they are named doesn’t match with the conventions of orchestral wind instruments. The most common and traditional whistle is the high D whistle. These are usually notated with the instrument’s six-fingers-down note, D, appearing as D on the staff and sounding one octave higher. (By the terminology used for, say, clarinets and saxophones, this would be considered a “C” whistle.) Other whistles are named by their 6-finger note as well.
  • For non-D whistles, there aren’t firmly-established notation practices. Some notation treats them as transposing instruments, with music written so that a notated D at the bottom of the treble staff is always played as the six-finger note. In other cases, music may be written at the intended sounding pitch (or, often, one octave below, like piccolo transposition), and it is left to the whistle player to select an appropriate instrument.
  • Whistles use a simple-system fingering scheme, and are best used in mostly-diatonic contexts. Some chromatic fingerings are possible but cross-fingerings tend to be weak and half-holed fingerings are awkward in technical passages. To play in multiple keys, most whistle players keep whistles in a variety of sizes on hand. For chromatic passages, something like a soprano or sopranino recorder might be more suitable.
  • Like most fipple flutes, pennywhistles have relatively low breath requirements. The upper octaves are achieved almost entirely by overblowing, so they tend to be louder and brighter. (Some more expensive whistles are designed to “improve” on this traditional characteristic.)
  • Pennywhistles respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Pennywhistle playing in Irish traditional music uses a sophisticated system of ornamentation and inflection inherited from bagpiping traditions. Since pipers don’t stop to breathe, whistle players use a system of placing breaths that is also somewhat unfamiliar to orchestral woodwind players, leaving out selected notes to breathe rather than trying to insert breaths between notes. For slower tunes whistle players may use a flattement-style finger vibrato. By far my favorite resource for learning these techniques is Grey Larsen’s book.

Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts

gift box decorated with ribbon bow for present

Giving someone a musical instrument as a surprise is a generous and thoughtful idea. But getting it right can be tricky. Here are some things to consider:

  • For serious musicians, like a student studying with a private teacher, a college music major, or someone who does any kind of (semi-)professional playing, an instrument is a very personal choice. Even if you know what brand and model they have been eyeing, they will probably want to try several, since they all play a little differently. If they are a student, their teacher should also have significant input on any instrument purchase.
  • Nice instruments are expensive, and serious musicians invest in them as something they will use every day and possibly use to make a living. Certain instruments can cost as much as a very fancy car! So, if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, it might make more sense to make a contribution toward an eventual purchase.

For beginners or more casual hobbyist musicians, their preferences might not be as specific or costly. But if you don’t have some expertise in musical instruments (more than Internet research can provide!) there are still dangers.

  • The very inexpensive “instruments” sold in big-box stores or online megastores are sometimes not really playable instruments but more like realistic-looking toys, despite what they say on the box or website.
  • Used instruments from classified ads or pawn shops may be in unplayable condition, in ways that aren’t obvious to an untrained eye, even an eye that is otherwise good with mechanical things, furniture pieces, etc.
  • If your idea is for a youngster to join up with, say, a school band program, that program might have some guidelines or requirements about what instruments are appropriate.
  • Information you might find on the internet isn’t a substitute for advice from a good private teacher, and music store employees may have motives besides helping you find the best possible instrument at the best possible deal.

If you are thinking about giving an instrument as a gift, consider these alternatives:

  • Buy a young recipient some lessons with a reputable teacher, and have that teacher work with you on eventually upgrading to a nicer instrument.
  • Ask the recipient what smaller-ticket, lower-stakes items they might need, like a new instrument case, strap, stand, etc.
  • Contribute toward (or fund outright!) a future purchase of an instrument to be selected by the recipient. A college-aged student might be gradually paying off the nice instrument they already have, and might really appreciate having it paid off in part or full.

Happy gift-giving!

Favorite blog posts, November 2021

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Shaping a phrase

When a woodwind player plays a phrase like this:

…it could have a variety of shapes, depending. But often a rising line gets a subtle crescendo, and a long note at the end gets a little decrescendo:

To play create this shape, you blow air that makes the shape. You can imagine playing a single note, like this:

…and then let your fingers and tongue play the notes over the shape.

But sometimes less-experienced players blow like this:

That makes the phrase sound weird, like the notes each have their own shapes. For the notes to unite into a phrase, they need to combine into one shape.

To practice this, first decide what shape your phrase should have, and mark it into your music. Then, without your instrument, blow air that makes the shape of the phrase. Then pick up your instrument and do the fingerings, blowing the air shape outside the instrument. If some notes should be tongued, add that next. Once you are comfortable with all those steps, combine them to play a smooth, connected, well-shaped phrase.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: recorders

For a “modern” woodwind player, recorders might show up in “period” classical music performance or in commercial situations like musical theater or studio gigs. They might be used in commercial settings to evoke Renaissance or Baroque periods, to function generically as “world” or folk flutes with robust chromatic capabilities, or (maybe due to their association with elementary school classroom music) to suggest themes of childhood or naivete.

The use of recorders in classroom settings is an odd one, as something like a pennywhistle has a similar just-blow “fipple” (duct) mouthpiece and a much simpler fingering scheme. The effort required to play recorders fluently and convincingly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Here are some important things to know:

  • While the finest recorders are usually made of wood, there are high-quality and relatively inexpensive ones made of plastic that are quite playable. The top-of-the-line plastic ones made by Yamaha and Aulos are well worth considering, at least as a starting point.
  • The alto (“treble”) recorder is the primary instrument of Baroque repertoire, with a solo range similar to the Baroque flute. The soprano (“descant”) is the one used in elementary classrooms.
  • Recorders are available in “modern” pitch (A=440 or similar) and in various historical pitches, which may be required for playing with period ensembles.
  • Recorders are often misunderstood as being in the “keys” of C or F. This isn’t quite the same thing as, say, clarinets in B-flat and E-flat, since properly-written recorder parts are always written in concert pitch (sometimes with octave displacements). Rather than learning one set of fingerings and reading from transposed parts, recorder players learn two different sets of fingerings, and may read in multiple clefs. (I’ve written more about this in a previous post.) However, some composers and orchestrators get this wrong, and transpose parts for “F” recorders as they would for F horns.
  • Recorders require much less breath than “modern” woodwinds. Like most fipple flutes, they don’t have much dynamic range, since blowing harder tends to cause sharpness or unwanted leaps into the upper registers.
  • The recorder’s left-hand thumbhole functions as an octave vent (this feature distinguishes the recorders from pennywhistles and other fipple flutes). The thumb octave vent helps balance the volume of the upper and lower registers, and gives the player some agility for moving between them.
  • Recorders respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Vibrato may be produced on recorders using the breath-pulse technique used on modern flutes and double reeds. It can also be done with flattement, a microtonal trill technique common in the Baroque period.
  • There are many historical and modern method books available for recorders; I like Walter Van Hauwe’s The Modern Recorder Player (in three volumes) as a good introduction that assumes a strong musical background.

What is my old instrument worth?

close up shot of a flute

If you have an old musical instrument and are wondering about its value, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Prepare yourself for the very strong possibility that it has little or no monetary value. The vast majority of musical instruments don’t increase in value over time.
  • For most instruments there’s not a reliable “blue book” kind of value. The monetary value is what you can get someone to pay for it.
  • You can check an auction site like eBay to see what people are paying for instruments like yours. (Search for auction listings that actually sold.)
  • Note that sometimes brand and model names get reused over time, and your instrument that has a similar name to an expensive one might not really be the same thing.
  • Condition is very, very important. In the extremely rare case that you have a model that has some significant value, that value usually drops a lot if the instrument isn’t in playing condition. High-level players will usually want to try the instrument before buying, and if it’s not playable then they can’t make sure it’s worth the price.
  • Note that an instrument’s condition may require more than a visual inspection—just because it’s shiny and not visibly damaged doesn’t mean it’s ready to play.
  • Donating an instrument to a school, etc. might be possible if the instrument is of decent quality and in playable condition. If it’s going to require a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair before a student can play it, it may not be worth it to your school’s band program. In other words, if you can’t sell it, it probably doesn’t have value as a donation, either.

An instrument that can’t be sold or donated for playing might be destined for the garbage. (They often can’t be easily recycled.) If you’re determined to find a new life for it, a local theater might want it as a prop, a thrift shop might accept it as a decorative item, or an instrument repair shop might throw it on their scrap pile to scavenge for parts.