Last week we began to look at some of the resources SmartMusic can offer to anyone teaching a school jazz ensemble. This week I’ll continue describing some of the ways I’ve used SmartMusic with young jazz students.
One of the goals I set for my jazz ensemble was that the students all learn to play, improvise, and recognize some jazz standards. SmartMusic gives your students instant access to this music. From the SmartMusic home, click on Jazz Improvisation to pick from a wide variety of collections of standards. This repertoire allows students to play the head and improvise over the changes along with SmartMusic’s jazz accompaniment.
There are also several tools to assist them in improvising these pieces. Chord symbols are listed, and a variety of Jerry Coker-style jazz patterns can be displayed to help students become familiar playing chord tones.
Also included are actual transcriptions of what you hear being performed by the rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. Bass and piano players can compare the chord symbols in the piece with what jazz musicians would actually play, helping them to learn to walk – and comp – respectively. Plus the piano, bass, and drum parts can each be turned off or on, not only to provide an opportunity for closer scrutiny, but also to allow, for example, a drummer to play along with the provided piano and bass.
As always, these pieces can be slowed down as necessary or transposed to different keys to help develop student transposition skills.
Although the SmartMusic accompaniment library is the largest of its kind, and it continues to expand all the time, there are occasions when you want to play something not currently found in the library. Using the built-in Audio Import feature, SmartMusic allows your students to practice with any .MP3 file. What’s more, SmartMusic allows you to change the tempo of these files without changing pitch, and the sound quality remains very high. This feature helps not only when you’re trying to play along with a difficult piece, but it is indispensible when more advanced students begin to transcribe recorded solos.
When our jazz group worked on titles not found in SmartMusic, I would import an .MP3 recording of the chart and do the same sorts of things that I did with supported titles, including changing tempos, looping difficult sections, and working with students to emulate style, tone, blend, etc.
In addition to importing audio files, you can also create additional SmartMusic repertoire using Finale. Personally, I would create custom practice files for pieces we were working on. In addition to entering notes, I could make accompaniments by placing chord changes using a MIDI keyboard (you could also type them in) and generated the rhythm section accompaniments using a Finale plug-in. I then saved these files as SmartMusic accompaniments so the practice/assessment features could be used. I also saved the Finale files as audio files and burned them to a CD for students’ use outside of SmartMusic.
On occasion I’d select some challenging measures from a part and score it for the entire group. I would use this “exercise” as a warm-up or study. In that way, the section of the group that needed to master this excerpt was able to do so, and the rest of the group was also challenged with relevant material. I would also assign these examples using the Gradebook, to make sure that every student would master the section before our next rehearsal.
I also made chord progression scale sheets to be used with improvised sections of pieces we were rehearsing. When used in class, I’ve have one student improvise while the rest of the students played the scales “underneath” at a piano level.
Self-assessment is important no matter what style of music your students study, and SmartMusic’s recording capability gives them this instant feedback. Students practicing improvisation should make great use of this feature to hear what works for them – and what doesn’t.
The recording feature is also very useful in the classroom. I would record the group performing a piece, or an excerpt of a piece, and then play it back. Using a SmartMusic microphone produces very good results, and students thrive from this kind of immediate feedback. Afterwards we’d save these files and use them as a measurement of improvement when compared to later recordings.
Are you ready to begin putting all these suggestions to work? Great! Perhaps your next step is to include SmartMusic as part of the auditioning process for your jazz ensemble. One of the published pieces I used for tryouts was in the 12 bar blues format. The idea occurred to me that by using the Straight Ahead Blues sample file, the students could perform the tryout piece with SmartMusic accompaniment, making for a more musical experience. It also gave students the opportunity to try improvising.
Auditioning drummers needed to demonstrate their ability to play a variety of styles. In preparation I looked to SmartMusic’s Jazz Improvisation section to select three pieces that demonstrated different styles. During the audition I used the Instrumentation feature to mute the drum part so that only the piano and bass were heard as the drummer performed along with the accompaniment. This helped in the evaluation of the drummer’s ability to play and fill in the correct style, in time, and in balance with the SmartMusic rhythm section.
I used a similar process for the bass and piano players. I also recorded the auditions using SmartMusic and saved the audition recordings as .MP3 files – providing one more great way to document each student’s progress.
Of course, these are just a few ideas of how you might implement SmartMusic into your jazz ensemble work: they just scratch the surface of what’s possible. I hope they inspire you to even better ideas and help you to instill a love of jazz that will be with your students their entire lives.