Many young jazz ensembles focus on funk and rock arrangements to hide the fact that they don’t know how to swing. Rather than limiting our concert programs to “25 or 6 to 4” and “Fantasy,” we should be teaching swing to young musicians from the beginning of their jazz careers.
Of course, jazz directors of all experience levels know how hard it is to teach a swing feel. Even the name — “swing feel” — implies that this is something you feel, not something you reason out or intellectually understand. As a teacher with both private students and full ensembles, I’ve heard (and tried) all sorts of different explanations of swing. Many teachers start with that little musical diagram that’s part of the tempo marking (pictured above).
When you’re working with middle schoolers who barely understand triplets, asking them to internalize a rhythm with tied triplets is already a tall order. To make things worse, jazz often has different articulations than what students are used to. Students need something simpler. The next thing teachers try is usually “Well, just play long then short.” This can turn the greatest Count Basie tune into the Mickey Mouse March. Emphasizing a long-short pattern causes all sorts of ricky-ticky side-effects.
The Secret to Teaching Swing
The most effective method I have found for teaching students (especially young students) to swing is to use “back-accent tonguing” (but don’t tell the students it’s called that). Rather than have students hung up on the precise rhythmic values of swing (which vary based on tempo and style anyway), get the articulation correct and the rhythms will follow. Have students start on an upbeat with a firm accent, and slur into a tenuto downbeat. Add notes until students start to get the familiar swing “doo-BAH-doo-BAH” sound.
One key to making sure this exercise goes well is to focus on keeping the downbeats long.
Next, add the slur. The goal is to make the accented upbeat drive forward into the long downbeat. Note this is easier to play than to read; be certain to model the sound so no one is intimidated by the notation (they can look like ties, not slurs). Don’t let students get overeager with the accent — the slur into the downbeat is just as important as the emphasis on the upbeat.
Once students are starting to swing, apply the articulation pattern to something that students are very familiar with: scales. Now starting on the downbeat, use the scale up to the 9th to practice the accents and slurs:
Going to the 9th not only ends the scale on a downbeat for rhythmic comfort, but gets students used to extensions common in jazz and de-emphasizes the importance of the root (which students will rarely play in voiced chords). Practicing back-accent articulations on scales also kills two birds with one stone: your warm up already got students practicing scales and swing. Even better, you now have a vehicle for teaching advanced theory concepts like modes — use the same pattern on dorian or mixolydian scales.
The biggest benefit to teaching students swing feel using the back-accent method is that it wires their brains and ears to automatically articulate soli passages in an idiomatic way, improving their sight-reading skills. Take a look at this example:
Experienced jazzers will naturally articulate the line like this:
You can see that back-accent articulations are similar to what experienced musicians will intuitively use on a swing line. Young students may still need some courtesy articulations written in, but the back-accent approach puts them in a position where they will start to automatically articulate in swing style.
In 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.