Ideas for directing student jazz bands

December 1, 2002

The following is a summary of lessons learned from observing rehearsals of jazz big bands. A great debt is owed here to Dr. Ray Smith of Brigham Young University, director of the Synthesis big band.

A picture is worth a thousand words

The student jazz group should be exposed to recordings (or, when possible, live performances), especially of the arrangements they are learning. This benefits the band in several ways:

First, the band members further absorb general concepts, such as swing feel, sense of time, and concept of tone, as well as bits of jazz “vocabulary” (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, for example). These concepts, no matter how clearly explained, can only really be learned by listening and imitating—like learning the correct accent for a foreign language.

Secondly, band members can look to musical role models for interpretive ideas. A young drummer, for example, might listen to where a professional drummer “kicks” the big band horn section, or when he uses brushes instead of sticks, or what kind of pattern he uses for a certain kind of tune. The lead alto player might notice where his professional counterpart places scoops, or the width of his vibrato, or the length of a certain note.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the energy and polish of a professional performance will inspire young musicians to greater achievements of their own. To give a student a hero is to give him or her a lifetime goal.

Lay ground rules

A young band needs a set of general principles they can apply to a new piece. Having a set of simple rules for swing, articulation, note length, dynamics, and so forth can ensure a band’s success even upon the first reading of a new chart.

These principles should be established firmly through discussion and specific practice, and consistently reaffirmed with simple reminders. For example, a director might help the lead trumpet player to set the precise length of a quarter note on an upbeat, have him or her repeat it several times until satisfactory, then invite the rest of the section to match it. Once the trumpet section can play consistently, other sections can be added in. Individuals who “stick out” may need to be made aware that they are not matching the rest of the group.

Of course, any set of “rules” on how to play music is subject to exceptions, differences in personal taste, contradictions, and other glaring flaws. But a frame of reference is essential to understanding the variations. Once a set of principles is firmly established in a student’s mind, he or she will be equipped to deal with discrepancies, and, ultimately, made educated decisions about the principles to be used in their own playing and teaching. For example, a well-trained student band might notice that a professional band holds their long notes just a little longer before cutting off—a distinction that would certainly be lost on a band that never thinks about how long to hold their own long notes.

Each new chart should be approached from the standpoint of established ground rules, and the inevitable exceptions should be dealt with using common sense, musical taste, recordings, and pencil marks in individual parts.

Follow the leader

Interpretation of a musical work involves hundreds of small stylistic decisions. Of necessity, a sort of “pecking order” (for lack of a better term) emerges for stylistic decision-making.

Section leaders in the brass and saxophone sections are ultimately in charge of their sections’ styles. A smart section leader, however, will welcome input from other members of the section. Smart section members will, in turn, accept the leaders’ decisions and support them fully for the sake of unity. In the rhythm section, natural leadership roles may be less clear. In some cases, it may be necessary to appoint a section leader in the rhythm section.

When the horns play together in ensemble, the saxophone and trombone sections should generally defer to the lead trumpet player as leader of the horn “section.” Smaller ensemble passages within the horns are usually led by the highest voice. For example, a melody played by the tenor and baritone saxophones should be led by the first tenor; a melody played by alto saxophone and trombone will usually be led by the alto.

The director reserves the right to override any stylistic choices, but ideally his or her role is that of an impartial set of ears, pointing out balance problems or other items that might not be immediately apparent to band members.

Auditioning band members

Auditions for a student jazz band should be geared towards assembling the best overall band, rather than assembling a group of the best individuals. Include section playing in auditions, and look and listen for strong, confident, consistent section leaders. Try moving players to different parts and pay close attention to the effects on balance and cohesion. Plan on reassigning solos as desired, so that soloing ability won’t interfere with putting together the strongest section. For example, if the best saxophone soloist in the group makes the best section contribution on second tenor, put her in the second tenor chair and give her a few of the solos that were originally written into the first tenor part.

Audition evaluations should be designed around the factors most important to the band. In a jazz band situation, intonation and sight reading ability might deserve more weight than, say, having all twelve major scales memorized. Other important factors will likely include solid time feel, stylistic authenticity, ability to “fill up the horn,” and improvisation skills. In some situations, it may also be necessary to consider students’ personalities and behavior.

Using rehearsal time

Rehearsals should be goal-oriented. Plan to achieve certain things, and set aside adequate time to accomplish each one. Focus on problem spots; resist the urge to “just play it again from the beginning.” If the band is allowed to rehearse mistakes, they will certainly play them in performance.

Set aside a portion of each rehearsal to work specifically on the band’s long-term development. This time might be used to teach music theory, to practice sightreading, or to listen to and discuss recordings together. Don’t get so concerned about next month’s concert that you allow the band’s growth to stagnate.

Use common sense in setting the pace of the rehearsal. Insist on progress, but don’t burn the band out. Be sensitive to the band’s needs: a few minutes to rest lips or a quick trip to the drinking fountain may save the band’s morale and salvage the rest of a long rehearsal.

Dealing with intonation and time

Many problems will solve themselves if brought to the band members’ attention. A young band might not notice intonation problems at first; show them with an electronic tuner or piano, or help them to hear “beats” in out-of-tune unisons. Get students “bugged” about intonation and it will improve significantly.

Use a metronome (or your drummer, if he’s reliable) to show the horns where they are rushing or dragging the tempo. Build a strong pulse in the rhythm section by insisting on precise coordination of the drummer’s ride cymbal with the bassist’s walking bass line. Strip the pulse down to bare essentials—quarter notes in the ride cymbal and the bass. When that is solid, more complex rhythm can be permitted, but must not interfere with the quarter-note pulse. Teach the band to play all rhythms as quarter notes, treating the in-between eighth notes as pickups to the next downbeat.

Selecting material

Choosing charts for the band to play may be the director’s most important job. Charts should be fun, should encourage musical growth, and should expand students’ knowledge of the jazz tradition.

Assembling a book that is fun for the band to play will depend on the band’s level and interests. Charts should be difficult enough to challenge the band, but not so difficult as to be overly frustrating. A band whose members are not as familiar with jazz music might find rock-oriented charts more appealing at first. Charts of familiar songs can be an effective way to bridge the gap to more “serious” jazz charts. Playing charts with a good variety of styles, tempi, etc., will also decrease the boredom factor.

Charts can aid the band’s musical development by creating demands on the students’ technical abilities or by raising questions about style and interpretation. Carefully-selected charts can be used to challenge specific technical abilities—a relatively simple tune in an uncommon key, for example, or one with difficult articulation. A chart in a style unfamiliar to the band might push the brass to match note length more carefully, or might require the rhythm section to learn an appropriate style of comping from a recording.

Charts should also expand students’ knowledge of jazz by exposing them to standard tunes, introducing famous or important arrangements, and teaching the styles of the influential big bands.

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