SmartMusic Finale Garritan MusicXML

Teaching Jazz Improvisation with Accompaniments

Teaching Jazz Improvisation with Accompaniments

For decades, jazz educators have been using play-along recordings to help students practice jazz improvisation. These recordings have been a huge success, helping students learn jazz standards, practice jazz styles, and providing rhythm section backing tracks to help with improvisation. The problem with these traditional tools is that students can struggle to make the leap from a simple melody to improvising over a complete tune. Even if a student understands the chord-scale theory involved with each individual chord, solos over complete progressions can sound forced or boring – patterns, not solos.

Students at this level should have a step between basic single chord exercises and complete tunes. They should practice “mini-progressions” – 2 or 3 chord patterns that are common throughout jazz. Obviously, students have been told to practice II-Vs for a long time, but not every tune is only II-Vs. The number of variations in jazz are huge – some II-Vs have Trane changes, some have tritone subs, and some are common in Latin styles but not in swing.

Practicing all the variations usually comes down to learning so many tunes that things become second nature, but in the meantime students can benefit from practicing these progressions as though they were technical studies or etudes. Even though these situations are canned, students should avoid running patterns and actually improvise along with a live rhythm section – vamping the chord progressions that need work rather than complete tunes. Learning the harmonic vocabulary of jazz while also practicing the composition and style required to improvise means that students are learning complete harmonic concepts (“how to think”) rather than one tune (“what to think”).

This is where traditional play-alongs don’t offer a complete solution. The accompaniments these tools provide are so important for helping students with style and feel, but typically aren’t included for exercises or short progressions seen over and over again in the repertoire.

The Solution

The Latest SmartMusic Repertoire release included two new method books from the MakeMusic Improv Series, which are designed to address this problem. The first has basic melodies in a number of styles to help students with time and feel without requiring improvisation. The second has studies designed to help students progress to complete tunes by offering loops of common II-V, blues, and rhythm changes variants. Students can loop these common progressions and even change styles or choose which accompanying instruments to hear on each exercise. Tritone substitutions, for example, can be practiced over a montuno or over a swing feel, reinforcing style while also building confidence with this common II-V variation.

SM improv book example 2

Both books include accompaniments made with PGMusic’s Band-in-a-Box accompaniment software. Because the accompaniments use real musicians, students will find them more inspiring to play with than MIDI files, and they can help students hear what it would be like to play these styles with a live rhythm section. You can access these method books by clicking on the “MakeMusic Improv Series” tile in carousel on the SmartMusic Home Screen:

MakeMusic Improv Series

Let us know how these exercises are working with your jazz improvisation students in the comments section below.

Ryan SargentIn addition to his role as MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent is an active teacher and performer in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area, and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

A graduate of Baylor University, he has studied jazz composition and improvisation with Art Lande and Alex Parker.

Using Improved SmartMusic Accompaniments with Students

Mark Adler and Student

We recently added an exciting new SmartMusic feature to Finale 2014.5 that lets you create improved SmartMusic accompaniments (SMPX files) that can include the sounds of your favorite sound libraries, like Garritan, and/or live recorded audio. Previously, when you made your own SmartMusic files you were restricted to using general MIDI sounds. While you could certainly create great SmartMusic files, sometimes the audio quality was lacking. Now when I create an SMPX for a trumpet student, I can incorporate audio that will inspire them to be a better musician.

I’d like to share some of the SmartMusic files I’ve created for students that demonstrate how I use this new feature in my studio. Click here to download a .zip file of the four examples described below.

Most brass players are familiar with Herbert L. Clarke’s Technical Studies. While I may enjoy playing these everyday as part of my warm-up, some of my students might be less excited at the prospect, thinking them rather dry and boring. For examples 1 and 2, I have created SmartMusic files for two common Clarke studies which incorporate backing tracks that make these much more enjoyable to play and help to keep younger students engaged.

I suggest that students start at a slow pace, working on playing very evenly, then challenge them to slowly increase the tempo, always striving to play as evenly as possible. The audio for these files was created using Band-in-a-Box, then imported into Finale. Band-in-a-Box provides a great means for easily creating backing tracks for virtually any style of music and the audio they provide is recorded by top notch musicians. Click here for a closer look.

This next file will be familiar to anyone that has used the Arban Method. In example 3 I have imported a recording of one of Arban’s easier rhythm studies. While I would typically play this for students in their lesson, I also want them to be able to hear it when they practice at home and be able to practice along with the recording.

Example 4 is a file I made for a more advanced student who wanted to learn the Fanfare Abblasen, familiar to those that watch CBS Sunday Morning. I transcribed the piece featured in the famous portrait of Bach’s trumpet player, Gottfried Reiche, for piccolo trumpet in A. I imported a solo trumpet track recorded at a reasonable tempo (not too fast) for someone learning the piece, giving them room to work on incrementally speeding up.

These are just a few examples made possible with Finale’s new functionality. If you’d like to create your own SMPX files from Finale 2014.5, here’s a short video that demonstrates how to create a SmartMusic file with audio accompaniment, and another, broader overview video on creating SMPX files.

Are you using SMPX files? Let us know how by clicking on “Comments” below, or come and chat with me in person at the MakeMusic booth at the 2016 TMEA convention, February 10-13.

Mark Adler SmartMusic AccompanimentsSome of you may be familiar with my posts on the Finale Blog, but as this is my first appearance on the SmartMusic blog, a brief introduction is in order. My name is Mark Adler, I am the Finale Product Manager/Sr. Editor at MakeMusic. Before moving into this position, I was responsible for supervising music engraving for SmartMusic. I also supervised and wrote much of the MakeMusic-created content found in SmartMusic, writing hundreds of sight-reading etudes and such memorable SmartMusic classics as Frankenstein’s Monster Goes Jogging, and Jacque’s Unfortunate Boat Ride. Outside of MakeMusic, I am a professional musician and trumpet teacher who uses SmartMusic in both my daily practice and teaching studio.

SmartMusic Repertoire Update: February 2016

February Repertoire Update

This week we added 28 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. Included are new pieces for choir, concert band, jazz ensemble, and string orchestra (a full list appears below). The SmartMusic carousel has also been updated, and in recognition of February being Black History Month, we have added a Black History Month category, as well as the MakeMusic Improv Series, which we’ll feature in greater detail next week.

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
All Aboard! Conaway, Matt C.L. Barnhouse Co. Concert Band B
Aura Lea Smith, Robert W. C.L. Barnhouse Co. Concert Band VE
Divine Image, The – SATB Shank, Joshua; Blake, William Santa Barbara Music Publishing Choir ME
Dona Nobis Pacem – SATB Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus; Liebergen, Patrick M. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Choir ME
Drummers Rule Balent, Andrew LudwigMasters Concert Band VE
Hold On – TTBB African American Spiritual; Brown, Jr., Uzee GIA Publications Inc Choir ME
Kitchen Poltergeist (A Rondo for String Orchestra and Kitchen Utensils) Sharp, Thom LudwigMasters String Orch. ME
Legend of Crystal Lake Shaffer, David C.L. Barnhouse Co. Concert Band E
Let’s Keep a Good Thing Goin’ Clark, Paul C.L. Barnhouse Co. Jazz Ensemble ME
Little Dipper, The Carubia, Mike Smart Chart Music Jazz Ensemble M
Maybe Someday Sherburne, Erik C.L. Barnhouse Co. Jazz Ensemble E
Mother Goose Tales McBrien, Brendan Kendor Music, Inc. String Orch. E
Mozart Canon, A – 2 Part Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus; Moore, Donald Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Choir E
National Emblem (March) Bagley, E.E.; Conaway, Matt C.L. Barnhouse Co. Concert Band E
Sedum trubacu (Seven Trumpeters) – SSA Lukáš, Zdenek Alliance Publications Inc. Choir M
Serenade Sheldon, Robert Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Concert Band VE
Sharks of Seville, The Monday, Deborah Baker Kendor Music, Inc. String Orch. E
Song of the Ocean Winds Gordon, Adrian Leap Year Music String Orch. ME
SOS Shutack, George Doug Beach Music Jazz Ensemble ME
South Street Blues Jarvis, Jeff Kendor Music, Inc. Jazz Ensemble ME
Squares Be Gone Sabina, Les Kendor Music, Inc. Jazz Ensemble E
Sunrise Over Kilimanjaro Huckeby, Ed C.L. Barnhouse Co. Concert Band ME
Swing There, Done That Norgaard, Martin FJH Music Company String Orch. ME
Swing Thing Story, Mike Belwin Jazz Ensemble E
TechnoStrings Lieberman, Julie Lyonn Kendor Music, Inc. String Orch. M
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Gordon, Adrian Leap Year Music String Orch. VE
What Do the Stars Do – SATB Porterfield, Sherri; Rossetti, Christina Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Choir ME
Zelenaj se, zelenaj – 2 Part Dvořák, Antonín Alliance Publications Inc. Choir M

You can request a piece for a future SmartMusic release here.

Developing a Young Mallet Player

Developing a Young Mallet Player

A student’s first year in band or orchestra is arguably the most influential and critical time in their musical life. Rather than teaching a beginning student all of the things they need in music, I tend to take the approach of teaching a small number of concepts and focusing on preventing the development of bad habits.


We can all agree that starting a bad habit at a young age is very easy to do, however breaking that habit down the road is exponentially more difficult! With beginning mallet students, I use the practice pad to develop technique in the hands, as the keyboard is largely used to develop the musical mind. We simply transfer our basic “piston stroke” over from the pad to the bells with the understanding that the bells are not providing rebound. Further instruction on keyboard tone quality is delayed until the second year of instruction when we are able to play on a variety of keyboards, rather than just beginner bell kits.

Through years of being a “struggling” mallet player, I have developed a teaching strategy that has yielded positive results in a short time. When learning a mallet piece at a young age, I would spend ten minutes on just one measure to make sure I was playing all the right pitches. Talk about inefficiency, not to mention sight reading skills in the basement! I have absolutely used my personal struggle to help my students not fall into the same trap and the new strategy has done wonders for my own playing, even at a more mature age.


With beginning mallet players the first step is internalizing what notes correspond to the lines and spaces on the staff. Luckily, most of my students have been exposed to this in their general music class before they get to me. The next step is to know where all of these notes are on their keyboards. This one can take a while. One of the best tools for this is a speed note reading game such as this free one online. When youngsters play a game, they are SO much more willing and excited to learn. It is during this time of finding notes on the keyboards that half steps and whole steps are introduced. I find this concept to be very important to the next steps.

Bb Major Scale Note Positions

Early Reading and Avoiding the Sun

Once we can find our notes on the keyboard fairly well, we start the reading process. The first thing we do when “reading” is count the rhythm out loud. Next, we say the names of the notes (in rhythm) and touch the note as we say it. This step is the most crucial step in my opinion. This is where the connection between the music and the keyboard happens, which is where I always derailed as a young musician. We will repeat this step until everyone is comfortable and feels successful, and then we play!

While the students play, I am on high alert in search of the beginnings of bad habits, the biggest culprit being looking down at the keyboard! One of my favorite analogies is telling students to treat the keyboard like the sun. You can glance at it, but if you look for longer than a glance, you’ll go blind!

Now, the big issue with fighting this habit is that students are also developing technique at this time which increases their note accuracy. So when a student hears a wrong note, they instantly want to look down instead of understanding that it is likely just an accuracy issue that will get dialed in over time. My students start on bells, which is difficult for even experienced players to be accurate on, so I stress that missing a pitch on the bell kit is an acceptable mistake, whereas missing a rhythm is not. Most method books do a good job of starting with one or two notes and expanding the reading range little by little, which is helpful in building accuracy.


Before we start introducing the concept of key signatures, I introduce scales. I have really come to embrace the power of scales. The better students know and understand them, the more dangerous they become as musicians. I have tried several different approaches when teaching scales; here’s what I like at the moment: learning scales without music.

I understand the irony. Scales are the one thing that I would like my students to have memorized. Most other instruments have some sort of tactile reference in playing a scale, whereas on a keyboard instrument all of the notes “feel” the same when you play them. For this reason, I find it VERY difficult to play scales on a keyboard without looking down and my students are taught that they may look at the keyboard ONLY while playing scales.

So, we learn them in patterns. First the wwhwwwh formula (whole steps and half steps), and then we “block” them out. Meaning, grouping the naturals and accidentals to see the pattern created (ie for Bb: 1,2,1,3,1).

We organize the scales in the circle of 5ths/4ths, or as my students deemed it, the “circle of life.” This concept of understanding that all music is written in a series of scales and the circle is absolutely not above a beginning musician. I love seeing the “light bulb” moments when students begin to see all of the patterns that surround scales and the circle. Then with this understanding, when a key signature is present, the students know that all of the notes are just patterns in whatever scale is dictated.

That’s All

This is all I teach a young mallet player for the first year; all major scales and reading as much as we can get to. The finesse and nuance of mallet technique is reserved for the second year of instruction. Teaching finesse on a bell kit is a pretty tall order and it’s hard enough to hit those tiny keys as a 6th grader!

Nick FernandezNick Fernandez is the director of percussion at Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he teaches percussion students from 6th grade through 12th. Previously, Nick served as the director of percussion at Owasso Public Schools in Owasso, OK.

He has performed with the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Signature Symphony, and various local bands in the Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas areas.

Flipping the Ensemble Classroom

SM_Flipped Classroom_blog

“Flipping the classroom” is all the rage in education right now. Advancements in technology have changed how teachers teach by making the distribution of education no longer dependent on being physically present with a teacher in the same time and space. Traditionally, flipping the ensemble classroom means that the students learn the content outside of class time and then come to class to apply the content.

So, how can we “flip” our ensemble rehearsals? When I was in graduate school, the conductor of our Wind Symphony told us, “Learn your parts in the practice room and come to rehearsal to learn everyone else’s parts.” Anyone who has taught an ensemble at any level knows that that would be quite a lofty and idealistic goal in most settings; however, a flipped-class approach can make this more of a reality. Flipping your ensemble can make your rehearsals more efficient and help your students take more ownership of their learning, leading them to develop skills that will help them be able to be life-long musicians who can continue to explore music on their own once they move on from a formal music program.

Concert Passages as Audition Material

My first suggestion is most applicable to situations where students are auditioning for chairs. Select the most difficult passages in the music you want to perform on the next concert as audition material. This will give your students impetus to practice the difficult passages to earn a higher chair. This approach is very efficient because the students need to prepare something for the audition, so they might as well be practicing something that will help the general cause within the ensemble! When they are practicing the parts of the music that is going to be most challenging in the upcoming rehearsal schedule, they will simultaneously be preparing for the audition and the concert. Remember to include challenges in both lyrical and technical areas to encourage extra focus on both important aspects of music.


Another helpful way to flip your ensemble is to give students the opportunity to evaluate their performance outside of rehearsal time. Posting recordings of your ensemble and links to the best recordings you can find of the same repertoire can provide the students with a model of the ultimate goal, as well as a snapshot of where they are right now. Give students an assignment to compare and contrast the performances. This can be done at any level, from elementary to college, very effectively.

At any level, students can listen to two recordings, one of their group and one of another, and make observations of what is the same or different. One major benefit to doing these types of comparison exercises outside of class is that it gives students the time they need to think and evaluate. Some students take longer than others to respond, and because of that, those students might be less likely to participate in an in-class discussion, even when they have great ideas.

Completing this comparison outside of class will give every student the opportunity to provide you with his or her feedback, not just the students who are always raising their hands. This also puts some responsibility for learning on the students by allowing them to engage in critical-thinking as they discover ways to improve. If some students do not have internet access at home, perhaps copies of the music can be provided on CD, being sure to remain in compliance with copyright. Another option is to occasionally use station activities in class, which allows a similar approach to flipping the classroom, where the recordings are just be one of the stations.

Learning More about the Music

Besides learning how to actually perform musical works, most ensemble directors like their students to get to know more about the musical style, the composer, and relevant music theory. All of this can very effectively be done outside of class, using the flipped approach. Most schools use some sort of learning management system (LMS) now, which means that there is somewhere that the teacher can create a module, or collection of activities, for the students to complete outside of class.

A module for an ensemble might include a link to the composer’s website, a link to a YouTube video performance of the piece, another piece in the same musical style, and a relevant music theory lesson. The students could be asked to complete activities along the way that can provide evidence that they completed the activities and that can be used for assessment. Many schools now use Google extensively, so answers could be collected via a Google form, which allows for easy sorting and grading. A quick Google search on how to create Google forms can help anyone unfamiliar with the process.

A module might look something like this:

  1. Visit the following website for the composer of the piece we are performing in band. On the Google form, note one thing you have in common with the composer OR one thing that surprised you about the composer.
  2. Listen to the YouTube video of the high school band performing the piece we are also performing. On the Google form, note one thing you think our ensemble does better than this ensemble and one thing that their ensemble does better than we do.
  3. Listen to this recording of another march similar to the march we are performing on the upcoming concert. On the Google form, note what is similar and what is different about this march?
  4. Watch the video lesson on counting rhythms in cut-time and then complete the questions on the Google form.

I was purposely rather vague in my examples here to allow this to be relevant to any situation, but there are many ways you can use the resources available through technology to provide the students with the opportunity to engage with content outside of class. I spend a lot of time, especially in the summer, looking at technology and thinking about what technology could enhance my courses and my students’ learning experience, and much of that technology ends up being incorporated in my own flipped classes.

I hope these suggestions will help you help your students achieve the goal of learning their parts at home and coming together to make music, which is exactly what the flipped-classroom approach would achieve in an ensemble setting. The bottom line is to critically think about the elements of teaching that can be done by the students without all being gathered together and then consider the best way to do that. Then, ensemble rehearsal time, which has to occur with everyone in the same place at the same time, can be most productive and focused on bringing everything together and applying what was done outside of class.

Do you have a suggestion for flipping the ensemble classroom? Share it in the comments!

Kathleen MelagoKathleen Melago serves as Assistant Professor of Music Education at Slippery Rock University. She has taught music in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Ohio, both in schools and privately. Kathy frequently presents at state, regional, and national conferences, and remains an active performer.

Her book, Modal Exercises for Double- and Triple-Tonguing Mastery, published by ALRY Publications in October 2012, received distinction as a finalist in the National Flute Association’s Newly Published Music competition.  She can be contacted by email at [email protected].


Band Student Leadership Benefits Everyone

Band Student Leadership Helps Everyone

Student leadership in the band is the backbone of the program. This is especially true for the high school and college programs but student leadership can also benefit middle school music organizations. During my high school career, I noticed good and not so good student leadership. The best type of leaders had a vested interest the band program. That vested interest starts with educating the potential leaders about leadership and habits of successful people.

Why is Student Leadership Essential?

Student leadership is important because no successful band director can do it all by him or herself. If the band director attempts to perform all of the tasks that are necessary for the program, the likelihood that he or she will “burn out,” especially if they don’t have an assistant band director, is greatly increased. In addition, students will have missed an opportunity to have responsibilities for logical tasks that will help them in their personal and professional growth. The fact is that there is just too much to be done! Training student leaders can not only make a band director’s job easier, and greatly reduce stress, it’s better for everyone involved.

Successfully managing logistical tasks such as the maintaining the classroom environment can have a tremendous effect on the band program. At the 2015 Midwest Clinic, I gave presentation on teaching techniques in Title I schools. In my presentation I described how Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” suggests that small things lead to big things. I believe that training section leaders how to maintain a clean and structured band room can result in not only in a better learning environment for students, but also a more disciplined band. Why? Because student leaders will begin to take a vested interest, first in maintaining the band room, and eventually in the program overall.

In the process, the student leaders will also influence other band students to maintain a structured room, further encouraging these students to also have increased pride in the organization. Training student leaders to do a small thing in maintaining the band room leads to a big thing in providing a structured learning environment and more pride in the organization. This kind of pride really contributes to making teaching more fulfilling and rewarding.

Year-Round Leadership Auditions

In my high school band program, I informed all potential leaders that their audition begins on the first day of school. Which means auditioning for leadership is year-round. I learned this lesson the hard way when auditioning student leadership during my early band directing days. My high school band included drum majors, dance/guard captains, section leaders. Two weeks before the leadership audition, I held two weeks of leadership training. The leadership candidates were required to fill out an application that included things like:

  • Their current G.P.A.,
  • Recommendations from four teacher and two administrators,
  • A list of the ensembles they had performed in (including those outside of school), and
  • An essay that featured questions such as “Why do you want to become a section leader/drum major?”

Then the leadership went through an interview process with the band staff. After the two weeks, the leaders performed a playing/dance audition, and the drum majors demonstrated training learned during the training. At the audition, two outside expert observers along with the band staff were called to judge leadership candidates.

After this lengthy process I announced the new drum majors. Within an hour of my announcement, I heard a student shout; “Mr. Arnold, Johnny’s mother is waiting for you at your car in the parking lot!” Of course, Johnny was a candidate who was not selected that year. From all appearances, Johnny’s mother was about to have it out with me because her child did not make drum major. While she eventually left, she did email the principal stating that I was “the worst person on earth,” and the audition was unfair to her child.

Years later, I can look back at this story with amusement, but it was not funny at the time.

One of Johnny’s issues was he decided to start showing leadership skills two weeks before the audition, not during the year. The whole experience taught me the importance of making leadership selection a year-round audition process.

I believe band directors should identify candidates early in the year and notate grades, good habits, demonstrations of leadership, and behaviors that need improvement. Then periodically during the year meet with the candidates and discuss what you have learned. I also took the next step and had the candidates and parents sign the meeting document. Not only does this help determine potential leaders but helps the student improve as leaders. Now, by the time the two-week leadership camp begins, both students and parents are fully aware of each student’s leadership status in the program.

How to Train Leaders

One resource I have found to be invaluable in working with prospective student leaders is “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens” by Sean Covey. It’s vital that students learn how health/unhealthy habits influence human behavior. Reviewing this book with students not only helps me get to know band student leadership better but also helps the student in their personal lives. I have always believed that the place for successful music teachers to begin is with learning about each student. By doing so, the window of learning and growing becomes indefinite.

The concepts in this article were conceived to stress the importance of student leaders and their value to the band program. Student leaderships can assist the band director with administrative tasks, help reinforce rules, and promote pride in the band program. Additionally, selection of leadership should involve a yearlong process of candidate evaluations and conferences. By applying the concepts discussed, the band director will promote a more mature and prideful band organization.

Gabriel ArnoldGabriel Arnold received the B.M.E. and the M.M.E. from Florida State University. Before receiving his undergraduate degree, he served four years in the United States Marine Corps, where he played tuba with the Marine Band. In December 2015 he presented an in-service “Effective Band Director Techniques for Teaching in Title I Schools” for the Midwest Clinic.

Mr. Arnold is in his final year as a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University.

The College Audition

The College Audition

Editor’s note: When the subject of student auditions for college music programs came up, we turned to Tom Myer, the professor of saxophone at UC Boulder’s College of Music. Below Tom provides audition tips, from his perspective, for you to share directly with your students.

Your college audition is extremely important. In most cases, your audition for acceptance into the college or department of music is also your audition for a scholarship. My single best word of advice is to make contact with the college professor of the specific studio (flute, violin, percussion, etc.) for which you are auditioning WELL IN ADVANCE of the actual audition.

A ten minute audition simply is not enough time for faculty to get to know you or for you to get to know faculty. Making contact and/or taking a lesson prior to your audition really allows faculty to know if you are someone who will fit into their studio: the best candidate is not always the single most talented performer. I always encourage visiting students to observe rehearsals, lessons, and our weekly studio class as well as meet other saxophone majors, and take a lesson to help everyone to get a sense of whether this might be the perfect fit.

What to Play

Play something flashy. Wow everyone. This of course implies a great deal of preparation and a high level of performance. Play solo repertoire for your instrument. College websites often list suggested pieces and occasionally indicate required repertoire. Generally, a few movements from solo repertoire is appropriate.

Make an effort to show contrasting styles. Play repertoire that sounds good when played alone without piano accompaniment. A short etude can be effective but playing ONLY the all-state audition music will not show us your knowledge of the repertoire for your instrument. Jazz is appropriate only if the degree in which you intend to pursue has a jazz component. Orchestral excerpts may be appropriate depending on your instrument. Contact the professor ahead of time and ask them if your repertoire selections are appropriate.

The Audition

Your job is to convince your hosts that you really want to join their program. Smile sincerely. When a student enters the room for an audition, I always ask, “What do you have prepared for us today?” If you answer by providing a list of selected movements from five different pieces, the evaluation committee will likely be very impressed. If you prepare only the 2nd alto part from your high school’s last marching band show (I have actually experienced this) the committee will not be impressed. I almost always say, “Please play whatever you would like first.” Put your best foot forward by playing something you are comfortable with.

Of course, it’s normal to be a bit nervous. Practice playing through your audition material for your friends, teacher and family. There is no substitute for good preparation. Take private lessons and have your teacher help you with the audition material. Remember, audition committees are on your side. They want you to do well. They are rooting for you.

From the Evaluator’s Point of View

You must realize that most students will come into an audition and play the right notes and rhythms etc. However, what can separate you from others is playing that consists of clear and accurate rhythm (this is often difficult for many high school students when asked to play alone), beautiful tone, characteristic vibrato (if appropriate), and most of all, mature musical phrasing.

Audition in Person

A live audition gives the audition committee a chance to meet you, gives you a chance to visit the campus and shows faculty that you are serious about considering the school. Students from out of state sometimes send in an audition on video. Last year, a high school student submitted an audition video of what I consider to be graduate level repertoire, and the quality of his performance was “off the charts.”

However, this potential student had not previously contacted me at all, not even an email. It was obvious that he was sending his recording off to many schools just to see what kind of scholarships he would be offered. Clearly, he did not have much interest in my school. Both because I had a large pool of applicants and because I knew this student would be highly recruited by other schools, my financial offer to him was exactly zero dollars.

Also, please understand that there is no advantage in waiting until the last audition day. Many faculty make a video recording of your audition so that we can go back and compare auditions later. The last possible day for auditions is always booked solid with 10 minute auditions for several hours. By the end of the day the committee is often exhausted.

For the Saxophonist

Most saxophonists audition on the alto sax because the vast majority of quality repertoire is written for alto. A well-played baroque piece on soprano or baritone saxophone can be lovely. Be aware of the room you will play in. If you audition in a small room, it may not be appropriate to play the altissimo section from the Dahl Concerto. If you are considering playing a jazz piece, check with the teacher about whether this is appropriate or not for the audition. Not all schools or teachers are interested in hearing this. Consider playing a jazz transcription. This will tell the audition committee a lot about your jazz playing. Jamming along with an Aebersold recording is generally not recommended. It is appropriate to change mouthpieces to play jazz on a jazz mouthpiece and classical on a classical mouthpiece.

In closing, the most important thing for you to do is to directly contact the teacher of the school you are hoping to attend. The teacher will give you very clear expectations, recommendations, and information to make sure you audition will be as successful as possible.

Tom MyerTom Myer is the professor of saxophone at the College of Music at the University of Colorado Boulder. He received his MM in woodwind performance and jazz studies from North Texas State University and his undergraduate in music education from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He’s worked for Woody Herman, Nelson Riddle, Dave Grusin, Doc Severinsen and many more, premiered new works at the World Saxophone Congress, and has commissioned pieces in both classical and jazz. His recording Harbison, San Antonio was recently released by Albany Records.

Audition photo courtesy of the College of Music, University of Colorado Boulder

Earn CEUs at MakeMusic University

MakeMusic University

Need to earn some CEUs? We can help.

We’re excited to announce MakeMusic University, offering courses and training options to satisfy both your need for learning and for professional development. We’re here to help you make the biggest impact with your students – while using our products – and to help you earn product certification and CEUs.

Giovanna CruzWhen I was teaching in Austin, I was required to complete 150 hours of continuing education units (CEUs) over the course of 5 years in order to keep my teaching certificate up-to-date. Some years it was easy to get more than 30 hours of training. Others, not so much.

While the district regularly provided opportunities for professional development, they didn’t always match my teaching area or interests. I was on my own, and specific music or music technology options were hard to find outside of annual music education conferences. Sometimes I’d find an appropriate course only to realize it didn’t fit my schedule or budget.

It was with these challenges in mind that we created MakeMusic’s eLearning platform.” -Giovanna Cruz, MakeMusic Education Services

Now you can earn CEUs online, on your schedule, and at your pace, while studying material that is relevant to your teaching situation and interests.

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How to Develop Your Lead Alto Player

How to Develop Your Lead Alto Player

Playing lead alto saxophone in a jazz ensemble is fun, but carries certain responsibilities. The lead alto player sets the intonation, style, and dynamics for the saxophone section, while also matching the intonation, style, and dynamics of the brass section. This can be a big responsibility for a middle school or high school saxophonist. What follows are some thoughts and exercises to help your students to develop into confident lead alto players.


The lead alto needs to produce enough volume to cut through the rest of the section. To start, make sure the saxophonist is playing on good equipment, including a jazz mouthpiece, jazz reeds, and a horn in good working condition. The next step is to make sure they are using their air correctly; otherwise it will be difficult to cut through the rest of the section. Before each rehearsal have the student put a towel, t-shirt, or something similar into their bell and then warm up for 10-15 minutes.

This will require the student to push the air harder, and give them a sense of how much more air they should be using all the time. Too often younger jazz students do not use enough air to blow through phrases and this causes the music to sound choppy and uneven. This technique could also be used during rehearsal to reinforce the concept of good air support. Learning to use air correctly will benefit both the student and the ensemble.


One common problem among younger jazz players is their use of articulation; they will articulate too often and with too much tongue. Once a student is using their air correctly, have them practice passages slurring everything, regardless of the written articulation. Then begin adding articulation using a “doo” or “loo” syllable. The tongue should brush the tip of the reed and be as keep the sound as smooth and uninterrupted as possible. Jazz articulation is a debated subject. While there are some general rules about articulation, it tends to be a personal choice among jazz players. For a young player, the most important thing is to keep the articulation light and smooth and to slur more often than they articulate.


There are many factors that can contribute to a saxophonist’s ability to play in tune. Again, good equipment will aid greatly in this area. Assuming the student has good equipment, these exercises will help solidify their intonation.

First, make sure the student has a good tuner. Although I prefer to have one with a sweeping arm, a digital tuner (or even many cell phone apps) can work just fine. The student should begin practice playing long tones at a mezzo-forte while looking at the tuner and adjusting the pitch to be in tune. Once the student finds where the note is best in tune, they should practice playing the note while looking away from the tuner and then checking the tuner to see how accurate they are. This is an exercise that every serious musician does regularly.

Once the student improves at playing in tune at mezzo-forte, have them play long tones at different dynamic levels. In general, louder dynamics cause a saxophonist to play flat and softer dynamics cause a them to play sharp. Knowing these tendencies means that a student can practice playing at more extreme dynamics with a tuner to make sure they are playing in tune.

Next have the student play long tones from forte to piano while looking at the tuner and keeping the note in tune. Then play the same exercise from piano to forte. All of these exercises should be practiced regularly for many weeks, months, and even years to assure that the student can play well in tune.

Going to the Source

All of the previous information is helpful for developing young lead alto saxophone players. However, recordings represent the single most important tool for any young jazz musician. The lead alto playing of Don Redman (Fletcher Henderson), Johnny Hodges (Duke Ellington), and Marshall Royal (Count Basie) form the cornerstone of lead alto playing. Students should take time to listen and absorb their sound, style, rhythmic feel, interpretation, etc. This is best done by finding the lead alto part that matches a specific recording and studying how each player interpreted the music.

A good lead alto player can elevate the sound of the saxophone section and the entire jazz ensemble. Focused work on volume, articulation, tuning, and the study of classic recordings will help your students to become confident lead alto players and overall better musicians.

Andrew Stonerock BioDr. Andrew Stonerock is the director of jazz studies at Cameron University. He oversees all aspects of the jazz program and directs the jazz ensemble and jazz combos. He is frequently in demand as a saxophonist, woodwind doubler, adjudicator, and clinician. 

In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his family and his dog Basie.

Five Ways Jazz Conducting is Different

Dean Sorenson

Conducting a jazz ensemble is a contradiction in terms for some. Many of the bands that we study, respect, and admire feature no conductor at all. The only “conducting” might be the lead alto player cutting off the final chord. Most professional big bands are not conducted in the traditional sense, although modern bandleaders such as Maria Schneider and John Clayton are very animated conductors.

The conductor of any ensemble is responsible for all aspects of preparation and performance, and in this way the role of the jazz ensemble conductor is not different than that of a concert band or orchestra conductor. The gestures and activity from the front of the ensemble, however, are different in a number of ways. I would like to share a few of these differences.

1. Count-Offs – Let ‘em Hear You

Start the band with a count off. Say it loud and say it proud. A count-off is usually two bars long, although at very fast tempos four bars is used. Slower tempos often require only a single bar of count off. Let your ear and your sense of rhythm be your guide. Any pickup notes should be included in the count-off bars. This means that if there are pickups on beats 3-4 before the first full bar, the count-off will only be one and a half bars long.

Establish a tempo with handclaps or finger snaps. Style and tempo will determine if you snap quarter notes or half notes. Aside from a ballad tempo, most anything in a swing style will be snapped as half notes, and usually on beats 2 and 4, as this helps to indicate the swing feel. Non-swing styles may be snapped or clapped on quarter or half notes, and usually on beats 1 and 3. Once the tempo is established, verbalize the count-off by saying 1 (x) 2 (x) – 1 2 3 4. The “(x)” indicates a silent beat.

2. Less Is More – Don’t Conduct All the Time

Once the band is started, encourage everyone to listen to the rhythm section for tempo, and to one another for balance and blend. The ensemble should maintain consistent tempo by listening to the rhythm section, not by watching you present a flawless conducting pattern. Sometimes it can be hard to know what to do once the band is counted off. Many successful jazz ensemble conductors simply step to the side. If your ensemble is mature enough to allow that, go for it. Most young bands appreciate someone standing in front, though, for security if nothing else.

Feel free to give cues or make dynamic adjustments but your gestures will be much more limited in front of the jazz ensemble. A big band is really a large chamber ensemble and should be treated as such. Too much conducting is not only distracting, it does not encourage students to develop the necessary listening skills needed to be successful musicians.

3. Keep It Together – No Conductor Likes a Train Wreck

A jazz performance can ebb and flow, and sometimes a conductor is necessary to hold things together or to get things back on track. Stay out of the way as much as you can, but sometimes things happen that require a conductor to prevent a train wreck. Listen carefully and make certain the tempo remains steady. If adjustments are needed, make eye contact with the bassist and drummer. Those are the instruments best equipped to change the tempo of the band.

Open solo sections can also get tricky. Encouraging many improvisers is a very cool thing to do, but sometimes things can go awry. Make certain that you have the order of soloists penciled in your score, and that you keep careful track of who is playing and cue who is playing next. The players should have all of this information also, of course, but nerves often take over during a performance and may cause forgetfulness or a lack of concentration. Even though we have been encouraging listening and personal responsibility among the players, someone has to be in charge. That someone is you.

4. Stay Put! Don’t Leave the Stage Between Tunes

Large ensemble conductors are notorious for walking off stage after every piece, only to re-enter again and again. The first entrance is dramatic and exciting. By the time this happens for the sixth time I begin to wonder if it is just an excuse to milk more applause out of the audience.

Modern audiences already have short attention spans. Unless there is a huge change of personnel or set up happening, there is no reason to leave the stage until the performance is completed. Count-off – play – cut off, and then get ready for the next one. Keep it moving. Your audience and the band will thank you for it.

5. Don’t Be a Stranger – Talk to the Audience

So what to do between tunes? Engage the audience! Audiences crave connection with the performers, and you are in a unique position to do just that. Talk to them about any element of the performance (Who were the soloists? What did they learn to be able to do what they did?); the music (why did you choose that particular piece? what about the composer or arranger?); or other things happening in the music department (advertise upcoming concerts, recruit younger students). These are just a few of the things you can talk about. Keep it brief and to the point. While you don’t need to read from cue cards, it does help to sketch out in advance what you plan to say between each piece. Recall the previously mentioned nerves from #3. They can affect us, too!

Even better than you talking to the audience – have students talk to the audience. Assign a student or a group of students to do a little research on the music being played and have them share their findings with the audience. The audience gets to engage with the performers, the students learn communication skills, and everyone learns a bit more about the music. Everybody wins!

At the end of the day, the conductor of any ensemble exists to help the group sound better. It is best accomplished with a combination of careful listening, clear gestures, and good direction. As a smaller ensemble, a jazz ensemble can assume more collective responsibility for the music than what may be practical in a larger concert band. Adjust for this difference, and ALL of your ensembles will benefit.

Dean Sorenson BioDean Sorenson is Associate Professor and the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Minnesota as well as a prolific and highly sought-after composer, arranger, trombonist, educator, and clinician. Dean’s latest project is Colors of the Soul, a CD of original music for sexet. His most recent book is First Place for Jazz, a new and innovative method for beginning jazz players published by the Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Look for the new EXCELLENCE IN JAZZ PEDAGOGY series, a new collection of books dedicated to the art of teaching jazz, also from Kjos. Dean is frequently featured at festivals and conventions around the country and abroad, and maintains a full schedule of concert and recording dates as a Yamaha performing artist. For more info visit

Photo of the author performing with Buffalo High School’s Jazz I (in February 2015) is used with permission.