Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

Wilktone - Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

NCMEA 2015

This Sunday and Monday (November 8-9, 2015) I will be performing and presenting at the North Carolina Music Educators Conference at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, NC. While the conference does have a fee to enter, if you’re a member of MENC you get a discount. If you are a member, there’s a chance you’re already planning on attending. If so, please come to one of the events I’m presenting at.

On Sunday, November 8, 2015 at 3:30 PM the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will be performing one set for the music students and educators present. We’ll do a mix of my original compositions and some others by bands like Count Basie, Buddy Rich, or others. I haven’t finalized the set list quite yet. We will be in the South Main Hall 3 at the convention center.

The next day at 3:30 PM, Monday November 9, 2015, I’m joining Chris Nigrelli, Matt Buckmaster, and Wes Parker in a big band trombone section workshop. We will be performing some trombone solis from standard big band rep and talking a bit about how to get the best sound and style from younger trombone students.

I will also have a wee bit of downtime on Sunday evening and Monday morning. While I plan to spend it at the convention checking out other performances and clinics, I can also break away for a bit in case anyone is looking for a lesson or cup of coffee. Please feel free to contact me.

Weekend Picks

It’s Friday. Here are some random music-related links for you to peruse this weekend.

Did you know that there is a brass band in New Zealand that since 1895 performs on bicycles?

 How about a bicycle brass band from Holland?

When directing an ensemble in rehearsal I often use an analogy that isolating individual musicians playing, as if we were recording everyone, would sound different than when you hear the same part played in the context with the whole ensemble. For example, a single big band trumpet part isolated might sound too short, but when the whole brass section plays that way together it comes out just right. Here’s a similar idea, listen to the vocal tracks from the Beatles isolated out of context from the rest of the parts.

An older discussion about teacher tenure and why it’s not the firing itself that is the issue, it’s how the threat of firing teachers allows other people (often not qualified or informed enough about the teacher’s job and situation) to control the teacher’s day to day work.

And lastly, something a little lighter. Here are 27 jokes only classical music nerds will understand.

Music Competitions: Art or Sport?

Marching BandThis weekend I hear there’s a big sporting event happening in the U.S. I have a gig that night, so I won’t be hanging out at a viewing party like many folks here do, but it did get me thinking a bit about music competitions.

At least in the U.S., competitive music festivals are regular and popular events for music students to participate in. In North Carolina, where I live and teach, there are several different types of festivals with different levels of competitiveness involved. For example, there are All-County, All-District, and All-State ensembles for middle school and high school music students. A student needs to audition to be placed in these ensembles, so in essence these groups are similar to how a professional ensemble might select its performers. Each student competes against other students and the best student musicians are chosen.

There are also music festivals where schools will bring students to perform as ensembles or even solos. Some of these festivals will be non-competitive. When I coordinated college jazz festivals I always insisted that they be non-competitive. The students will sometimes perform for a rating (sort of a grade) or even just perform for clinicians who will then work with the students to help them improve. These are my favorite sort of music education festivals for reasons I’ll go into in a bit.

Then there are the competitive festivals, which have been around in the United States as early as 1923. Each school ensemble will perform for a set of judges who at the end of the festival rank each school. Sometimes there are “playoffs” where a certain number of ensembles will perform a second time. Prizes for these festivals can range from bragging rights to trophies to performing on a featured concert.

These competitions are a double edged sword. There are pros and cons to participating in them, but often times the motivations directors and administrators have for them miss the point of music education, in my opinion.


  1. Generates interest in the music program.
  2. Promotes high musical standards.
  3. Provides an effective motivator for middle school and high school students.
  4. Provides extra incentive to directors and students to prepare better than for a standard concert.


  1. Undermines balance of music programs by overemphasizing certain specialized aspects towards winning.
  2. Conceptually leads to what Alfie Kohn calls a “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” One person or group succeeds while the rest do not.
  3. Emphasizes an extrinsic goal, rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of music for its own sake.
  4. Leads to student and director burnout.

Over-scheduling for competitions is a serious issue that I think deserves a bit more attention here. Lynn G. Cooper notes in his fine text, Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials, that the grueling schedule of marching band competitions results in beginning to prepare music for each season in March or April, starting the drill design in March or April, and beginning rehearsals in July. Add after school rehearsals in the fall semester, weekend commitments at football games, and then 6 to 8 Saturday competitions are a monster that once begun is expected by parents, students, administrators, and the community at large. This leads to a high level of burn-out.

Every bit as important as the concern for teacher burnout is the problem of student burnout. Many students drop out of programs that over-emphasize competition (with its attendant 0ver-commitment) at the expense of music education. College band directors find that many students who come from such programs do not continue to play their instruments in college or later in life – they are tired of all the activity and lack the intrinsic motivation needed to continue to play. But students who know about music, listen to fine music, love music, and possess the skills, techniques and understandings to be mature, independent musicians will continue to participate in music even after they graduate from their school music program, because music has become important to them.

Remember balance. It is important in the ensemble, and it is important in life.

– Lynn G. Cooper


Weekend Picks

I’m playing tonight (Friday, August 29, 2014) at Highlands Playhouse with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Dinner is served for attendees at 7 PM and the concert starts at 8. Stop by if you’re in the area.

Here are my picks for your weekend surfing.

Liz Ryan offers 7 Reasons To Let Your Kid Study Music. It’s a little different from your typical list that strives to show a connection between musical study and academic success, although there’s a bit of that in there too.

Are you a trumpet (or any brass) player looking for some new exercises to break things up? Check out the Exercise Database For Trumpet Players, Teachers and Students.

In 1920s America admitting to a homosexual relationship could get you thrown in jail or worse. In spite of that, some lesbian blues singers more than alluded to their preferences. Lisa Hix has written a fascinating look at Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem.

Lastly, it’s easy to find YouTube videos of trumpet players showing off their high range. If you find those videos impressive, you’ll enjoy this High Note Trumpet Nation Anthem.

Weekend Picks

I just began working on a new project that is taking up much of my free time just now. It’s not ready for a public announcement, but it will be of particular interest to student jazz composers and involve the Asheville Jazz Orchestra. Details on the AJO web site and here when it’s ready to go live.

AJO at Woody's and Becky's PartySpeaking of the AJO, we played a private event for one of our trumpet players, Woody, and his wife, Becky. Their sons threw them a 40th anniversary party. Since it wasn’t a formal performance for us and there were a lot of musicians in the crowd to sit in, I got to go out front and listen for a change. I even moved around and took a bunch of photos. Too bad I didn’t think to bring a better camera.

At any rate, here are some music related links for you to surf this weekend. There’s a bit of a theme this weekend. Everything here is something I take with a grain of salt.

Well it’s about time. Science declares Universal Property of Music Discovered.

Researchers have discovered a universal property of scales. Until now it was assumed that the only thing scales throughout the world have in common is the octave. The many hundreds of scales, however, seem to possess a deeper commonality: if their tones are compared in a two- or three-dimensional way by means of a coordinate system, they form convex or star-convex structures. Convex structures are patterns without indentations or holes, such as a circle, square or oval.

Do you buy it? Assuming the math is sound, it’s probably just an interesting quirk. At least that’s my guess.

There’s definitely some good advice and food for thought, but the headline is just click bait, The End of the Symphony and How Today’s Music Students Should Adapt. I’ve been hearing about the end of symphony orchestras for decades and they’re still around.

Speaking of the end, here is Frank Zappa explaining the decline of the music business. An interesting perspective from someone who experienced a changing music industry, but the business has changed quite a bit more since Zappa recorded this.

And finally, here is “Hans Groiner” discussing the music of Thelonious Monk. The comments on YouTube are hilarious.

AJO Tonight and Weekend Picks

AJO-Logo-Transparent copyI’m directing and performing with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra again tonight (Friday, August 8, 2014) at the White Horse in Black Mountain, NC. The show starts at 8 PM and we’ll play two sets of big band jazz. If you’re in the area looking for live music, please consider coming on out.

Here are some music related links for you to check out this weekend.

Low-Down Sires Busk

Low-Down Sires Busk

The first time I ever performed on the street (AKA “busking”) I had just graduated high school. A sax player heard me play and we talked for a while about a band he was playing in. A month later I went off to college and coincidentally I met another member of that band, eventually leading into me recording and playing some gigs with them. Recently I started busking again with some friends I play trad jazz with. We’ve found it to be a fun way to practice new material, essentially becoming a way to make a bit of money to rehearse. Sometimes if we’ve got some down time on an out of town tour we will go out and play on the street to not only pick up a few more bucks but also plug our gigs later. If you’re interested in trying out performing on the street, check out this advice on How to Busk.

One piece of advice I often give to my composition/arranging students is that they should show their parts to players that perform the instruments they are writing for. Even instruments in the same family will differ in terms of playability. For example, I sometimes get parts written by trumpet players that lay horribly for trombone because they took what they wrote for a trumpet and simply transposed it down an octave. Horn is a particularly challenging instrument for me to write well for because it has some idiosyncrasies that don’t translate from the other brass instruments. Fortunately, John Ericson has given us 9 Ways We Can Tell a Composer or Arranger Doesn’t Know How to Write for the Horn.

Did your metronome battery die? Or maybe it’s just too quiet and you need to blast a metronome through your computer speakers. Here’s a handy (and amusing) online metronome that simulates a pendulum style metronome.

And lastly, since school is about to start up after our summer break, here is a list of Ten Things You Should Never Say to Your Music Teacher. The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but the advice is golden!

Jim Chesebrough Sabbatical Project – 50 Lessons

Dr. Jim Chesebrough, who teaches at Keene State College, has a sabbatical project going on now where he’s traveling across the U.S. and taking lessons from a variety of different brass teachers. He’s video recording each lesson and then leaving some thoughts up about them on his web site here. It’s a very cool project and sounds like a great way to not only revitalize your own playing but also learn some new approaches and pick up some new teaching tricks.

I learned about Jim’s project when he contacted me asking if he could take a lesson from me as part of it. I’m very honored to be considered, since there is some very august company in his list of teachers. Jim was interested in picking my brain about embouchure with me, so we spent pretty much the entire lesson going over that. It’s not something I always focus on, but it may be one area where the information I can offer is different from what he might get from other teachers.

That said, I know he’s planning on grabbing some lessons with a couple of brass teachers that I’ve learned a lot from, Dave Sheetz and Doug Elliott. It will be interesting to hear what Jim learns from those guys and compare it to what I thought. In our lesson we ended up discussing some comparisons and contrasts of what Donald Reinhardt taught, for example, and some other more traditional approaches to teaching brass technique. Both Dave and Doug studied extensively with Reinhardt.

Check out Jim’s web site from time to time. As he adds new lesson notes and videos I’m sure there will some great stuff up there.

Blues in F Clinic For Concert Band

I recently got the chance to teach an introduction to improvising over a blues in F to a couple of classes at North Buncombe Middle School.  I put together a handout for the students and wanted to share it here, along with some ideas on how you can use this to introduce improvisation to virtually any group of woodwinds and brass players. It’s basic concept is flexible enough that you can use it to teach age ranges from middle school to adults and adjust the speed and difficulty level accordingly.

First, download the Blues in F Concert Band Clinic handouts and take a look at the score.

Blues In F 1

The very first thing on each part is the F blues scale. Letter A is one chorus of blues in F with the chord symbols for each part and each chord arpeggio stacked up to the 7th of the chord. But before you even hand out the music to your band, I suggest you try teaching some of this to them by ear. Depending on your students, what they may already know or be able to pick up, and how much time you have to devote to this, you might do only a bit by ear and then refer to the handouts. If you have a lot of time you might be able to do the whole thing by ear. But no matter what level or age group, I think it’s important to approach teaching improvisation as “sound before sight.” The goal is to get the students playing what’s not on the page, so get them used to not using music as quickly as possible.

You may want to start teaching by ear by demonstrating one strategy to help beginners match your pitch. Have a student who plays an instrument quite different from the one you’re playing chose a random pitch and hold it out. Whatever pitch he or she played, play a pitch a ways away from it and play a slow chromatic scale, getting slower the closer you get to the pitch, until you end up on the same pitch. I would intentionally do this on an octave or two away, if feasible, to also demonstrate that you can use the same technique if the pitch they’re trying to match is out of their normal playing range.

Then with a goal in mind, teaching the blues scale for example, teach your band the pitches one note at a time. When the majority of your band has matched the pitch, cut them off and establish what concert pitch everyone was playing. I usually do this by asking students in different sections, although sometimes you have to introduce transposition if they haven’t learned how to do it yet, so you might skip that step or just ask about what pitch their transposed pitch was.

Teaching the basics of the blues form can also be done by ear. In the clinics I gave the other day I taught them the roots of the three chords by ear and then had them repeat riffs back to me. I played only a single pitch (F, Bb, and C) on each riff and just played simple rhythms, but in doing it I went around the blues form. With plenty of time or more advanced students you could teach the chord arpeggios or fragments of chords by ear as well.

Here are the riffs at letter B.

Blues In F 2


There are three riffs happening that when put together provide enough of an accompaniment to improvise over. Higher voices, such as high woodwinds and trumpets, have a rhythmic riff that is based on the 3rd and 7th of each chord. The tenor and alto voices have a 3 note riff with longer notes and the bass voices play the triads of each chord.

Because each riff is simple you can teach them to your band by ear and even make everybody learn all three riffs, depending on how much time you can devote. At the very least, it’s useful for everyone to learn to play the bass riff by using the stacked chords at letter A. The other day when I was giving this workshop the balance of the mixed groups I was working with was such that there wasn’t enough of the bass line. I simply had some of the other lower range instruments play the chord arpeggios over the form. If you need more of another riff, you can also easily change sections around as needed.

Whether you teach the riffs by ear or from the handout (or make up your own riffs), once the band has gotten it together enough have them play it at a quiet dynamic level while you demonstrate improvising over it. Whatever basic concepts I want to teach with them is how I will play hear. I suggest that you choose a single topic to work on at this point and focus their attention on that. For example, if you’re going to be teaching them to use the blues scale for note choice selections, make yourself demonstrate only using notes in the blues scale. Other topics you could use here include using silence to build interest, playing long notes versus short notes, chord tone soloing, modal improvisation, whatever (if possible, see if you can introduce this topic earlier in your workshop by ear). But play a chorus or two while they accompany you and then you can explain what you did.

Then get your band riffing and go down to different players and have them try it out. You can do this a number of different ways, depending on your circumstances and goals. I like to have every student play at least 4 bars and go around the entire band with everyone trading fours. If you have a small enough group and enough time everyone can take a chorus, or you can even just let the braver students jump in and try them out.

Regardless of how you organize the students into improvising themselves, I think it’s a good idea to pause a couple of times or so, not only to rest chops and ears, but to evaluate a little bit what was going on. I prefer to emphasize positive things I noticed as well as offer suggestions at this time that other students can try. Demonstrate again for them, if there’s time.

The nice thing about using this approach is that it’s flexible. The handouts are designed to help speed things along and give a clinic that goes about 30-45 minutes, but you can jump right in and get them going right away with the handouts. I’ve done similar warmups with student big bands. If you want, you can spend maybe 10 minutes warming up your band on a piece of the handout and the next rehearsal quickly review what you did previously and learn something else new.

If you’d like to read an earlier post of mine about this topic, as well as download some different riffs you can use with virtually any group of instruments, see Introducing Improvisation in the Concert Band Setting.

Please let us know if you are a band director and try this out. How well did it work for you? What did you do differently or what would you change next time around?

Middle School Level Big Band Charts Now Available

Three big band charts I wrote for middle school jazz bands are now available on PDF Jazz Music. All three of these charts include chord voicings for guitar and piano and sample bass line. There are also some sample solos included, although each of these charts would be useful for introducing different improvisation topics to young jazz students.

I wrote Nogueira Amarga for the Northview Middle School Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of David Wortman. It’s a bossa nova that is based around a two-chord vamp, making it an easy introduction to improvisation since the students can choose notes from just a major pentatonic scale or major scale.

Blackhawk Blues was composed for Mary Jo Sparrow’s North Buncombe Middle School Jazz Ensemble. It also includes sample voicings, bass line, and solos. As you would guess from the title, Blackhawk Blues makes for a good introduction to blues scale, minor pentatonic scale, and blues form.

Like the other two, Tyson Tunes Up includes voicings, bass line, and solos. I wrote this chart for Tyson Hamrick’s jazz band at Owen Middle School. This chart is a touch more challenging than the other two. Each of the horn sections gets the chance to play some melodies. This chart is based on rhythm changes and includes hints at other famous tunes that use the same chord progressions.

You can view scores and hear recordings of these charts on my page over at PDF Jazz Music. One interesting things about the recordings of those three charts is that they were made with just 4 musicians. I had three friends play the drums, bass, and saxophone parts. I recorded all the brass parts and the piano on those recordings.

Jazz Education – The Kenton Clinic Model

Beginning in the 1950s big band leader Stan Kenton developed an approach to jazz education that today is sometimes referred to as the “Kenton Clinic” model. The concept of it is simple – put students and professionals in the same band and have them play together.

At one time this was really the only way available for young musicians to learn to play jazz. Prior to the 1950s you really couldn’t get instruction in jazz in school, you had to learn it by sitting in with professional bands and hopefully eventually getting good enough to be hired. Kenton realized by the 1950s that this model of music education was changing. There was less interest in jazz as pop music and fewer opportunities for young musicians to pay their dues by sitting in with local and regional bands. At the same time, many high schools and colleges had begun to put “stage bands” into their curriculum. Kenton recognized the opportunity and in 1959 he presented his first clinic at Indiana University. It was considered successful and led to Kenton expanding on his program. He would end up presenting over 100 clinics a year at camps and residency programs through the mid 1970s and developed educational materials and arrangements for student groups.

Since then the Kenton Clinic model has been duplicated many times. As a music student I was able to attend the Birch Creek Jazz Camp first as a student and then later as a teaching assistant. The highlight of those camps for me was rehearsing and performing several times with the faculty big band. The experience of playing with musicians at a professional standard forced me to step up my playing to a higher level. Additionally, I was able to make connections with fellow students and faculty that led to other opportunities years later, yet another valuable feature of the Kenton model.

I’ve always enjoyed the Kenton model and as the music director for the Asheville Jazz Orchestra I’ve wanted to do more of it. Last Saturday we were able to present a one-night Kenton Clinic to jazz students from Owen High School. The OHS band opened the evening with five charts, with a handful of AJO players sitting in (mainly to fill in for students missing for other school sponsored events that Saturday). I had been helping the students rehearse their music prior and they even performed one of my compositions, Truck Stop Coffee.

But I hope the highlight for the students was getting to sit in with the AJO. I made sure that throughout the night we had good swinging charts for the students to play on. I also made sure that our encore was a chart the students all knew and we closed the night with a combined band.

It’s my plan to repeat this clinic with other student bands and hopefully someday expand on it and present clinics that go over multiple days. The AJO has performed or given clinics at several educational conferences before, but we rarely have the opportunity to use the Kenton model at these. If you’re a band director around western North Carolina and interested in trying to help organize a Kenton Clinic with the Asheville Jazz Orchestra, please drop me a line at the contact link here.

If you’re curious to learn more about the history of jazz education in the U.S., check out this presentation by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.