SmartMusic, Finale, and the School Jazz Ensemble (Part 1)

Many teachers are also required to teach jazz ensemble, regardless of their level of experience as a jazz performer. Fortunately there are many resources they can draw from today – including SmartMusic. SmartMusic provides jazz-specific exercises, ear training, and literature – including the recent addition of the Standard of Excellence Jazz Ensemble Method. In today’s blog I’ll share just a few of the ways that I utilized SmartMusic in teaching my jazz ensemble: Please note that while the emphasis here is on jazz, these activities could also benefit any of your performing groups.


While all of the SmartMusic Exercises clearly benefit the jazz performer, two groups of exercises are specifically created for this purpose: Jazz and Play By Ear.

The Jazz exercises utilize scales and patterns commonly used in jazz charts. These files can be looped to be repeated or to transpose with each repetition, either in 5ths, 4ths or half-steps. These exercises provided my students with an opportunity to become more comfortable with jazz scales and to improve technical ability, all while being accompanied by a rhythm section. Because the Finale Exercise Wizard shares these same exercises, I was able to use Finale to print hard copies of these exercises for all students.

Among the many Play By Ear opportunities are some specific “Blues Licks Exercises.” Against the context of a jazz rhythm section, SmartMusic plays some unseen notes, and then provides space for the student to repeat them. Here’s one way I used these exercises to develop listening skills: At the beginning of a rehearsal I’d tell the students what notes we were going to use, and we’d play them. Then I’d start a Play By Ear exercise and students would listen and attempt to play back the licks using the same notes. I found student concentration to be sky-high during these activities.

Over time, their listening skills improved greatly, benefitting improvisation as well as every other type of playing done with other musicians. Keep in mind that when performed by individual players, the unseen notes can be assessed!

The Play By Ear exercises were a great way for the students to verbalize rhythms, whether we were focused on swing eighth notes, or specific articulation. Instead of playing the exercises, the students would verbalize them with the inflections and syllables I modeled for them. Once this was successful, then the students would play the examples – with greater accuracy and understanding.


Rockin’ Blues, one of the sample files in SmartMusic, provides an excellent vehicle for beginning improvisers who are ready to begin applying the blues scale. We started out by playing the blues scale in unison along with the file. After learning more about improvising, students could practice at home with SmartMusic and try out their ideas in privacy. I would also use Rockin’ Blues at the beginning of rehearsal with SmartMusic being amplified through some powered speakers.

We’d arrange for all students to take turns improvising for one bar, one student immediately after the other. As they became more comfortable, the number of measures was extended, and more confident improvisers were invited to play an entire chorus or more. Even the bassist and drummer were encouraged to improvise along with the SmartMusic rhythm section. Of course, tempo and key can be adjusted as necessary. Doing this at the beginning of rehearsal allowed the students to immediately focus musically, and I saw confidence increase quickly.

Practicing with Jazz Ensemble Repertoire

From the SmartMusic home page, you have instant access to jazz repertoire appropriate for any skill level. Simply click on “Concert & Jazz Band, String & Full Orchestra,” specify “Jazz Ensemble,” and indicate a skill level. Play back these pieces and you’ll hear actual audio recordings of professional musicians. And again, tempo can be changed without changing the pitch.

Students with SmartMusic at home can practice these pieces along with the professional ensembles, while taking advantage of all of SmartMusic’s features, including the ability to record and assess themselves.

I used the Gradebook to assign parts from this music. For example, one piece had a particularly challenging section, which I assigned to all students, requiring them to send me their recording of this section along with the accompaniment. The Gradebook made it easy for me to quickly review every student’s recording. At the next rehearsal, before the first note was played, I knew who could play the section, who needed help, and what specifically they needed help with.

Of course jazz is primarily an aural tradition – to someone who’s never heard jazz before, even the best charts will lack vital information required to play the music in the intended manner. Listening to recordings of jazz greats is a great way for students to learn the language, but adapting what they hear one place and applying it elsewhere is often a big leap.

Having a professional recording of the pieces the group is rehearsing is a great reference for students. It allows them to hear what it’s supposed to sound like. We would listen to these recordings in rehearsal and concentrate on specific aspects – for example the interpretation of articulations, or unwritten dynamics. My contribution was to project a part on the screen so students could SEE and HEAR their part in real time. On occasion, I might loop a section over and over, or slow it down (again, without changing the pitch). Because I had SmartMusic amplified, I could have any section of the group (or the entire ensemble) play along with the pros.

The rhythm section was able to better sense the feel of the music by listening and playing along. Drummers benefited by seeing the written part and how the professional drummer interpreted it. This easily opened a discussion about how a drum part is often just a guide and how drummers play ensemble and section figures.

Next week I’ll share some more ideas about jazz ensemble, including playing standards, making student recordings, and expanding SmartMusic by importing audio files and creating charts in Finale.

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