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

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

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.

Asheville Jazz Orchestra, featuring Owen High School Jazz Band, March 15, 2014

20131213-074555.jpgI’ve got a fun gig coming up this Saturday (March 15, 2014). The Asheville Jazz Orchestra is playing our monthly show at the White Horse Black Mountain. I always enjoy playing with the big band there. It’s a great room for the big band and the folks there are easy to work with and very supportive of live jazz in western North Carolina.

However, this gig is particularly exciting for a couple of different reasons. Playing with us for the first time on Saturday will be 3/4 of the rhythm section. Our usual guitarist, Chris Morgan, is playing. Kent Spillman (who I play with in the Low Down Sires) is playing drums. On bass will by Ryan Kijanka and Michael Jefry Stevens is playing piano. Michael did sit in with us once on an open reading session the AJO put together a while back, and he brought a couple of his own compositions for us to read through.

And in case checking out some new players in the band isn’t incentive enough, the Owen High School Jazz Band, under the direction of Jason Minnix, will be opening up the concert at 7:30. When the AJO takes the stage right afterwards, around 8, Jason will be joining us on bari sax. Fans of the AJO would probably remember Tyson Hamick on tenor sax. As the band director at Owen Middle School, Tyson started most of the OHS students. We’re also going to be giving the students the opportunity to come up on stage during the AJO’s performance and sit up close to get the feel for what it’s like being on stage. We’ll plug in some of them into the AJO on a couple of charts too. As a student I found opportunities like that pivotal in sparking my excitement with playing music and I love paying that forward when I can.

If you’re out in western North Carolina this Saturday, please come on out to support live jazz and jazz education.

Parfiti – A Free Tool To Generate Parts From a Musical Score

Have you ever tried to generate parts from a physical score by photocopying the score, cutting each part into strips, and then pasting them together on a sheet of paper? I recently discovered Parfiti, a free online resource that will essentially do the same thing electronically. Using Parfiti you can take a PDF score you have on your computer or a file from IMSLP and use the score to print out separate parts for musicians.

ParfitiUsing one of my own scores converted to PDF didn’t work so well. Parfiti doesn’t handle landscape orientation well as it currently assumes that the score will be in a portrait orientation. But going through a portrait orientated score worked great. You can even just copy and paste in the IMSLP ID number and Partifit will import that score automatically for you. You’ll next need to label each of the parts, but once you’ve got them properly listed it will separate the parts for you for easy printing.

If I needed to replace a part that was lost I’d probably find it faster to simply create that part using Finale, but if I needed to generate many lost parts from a score I think Parfiti would be a faster tool, particularly if you don’t have access to notation software or just aren’t all that quick at using it.

The Music Ed Podcast

I discovered (or rather was pointed to) another great music education podcast I want to plug. The Music Ed Podcast is about “quick and easy tips on how to be a better band teacher.” He’s got 14 episodes up so far, with topics ranging from teaching national music standards to things to avoid.

The Music Ed Podcast is by saxophonist James Divine. As an aside, when I taught at Adams State College (now Adams State University) James brought his Colorado Springs Middle School Big Band out to our annual Jazz Festival, so I know he’s the real deal.

Free Music Ed

I’ve discovered a new music education web site  I’d like to plug. FreeMusicEd.org has some great resources for music educators. There are links to free music downloads, music theory sites, tuners, metronomes, and instructional resources. There’s also a nice podcast with 35 episodes so far.

I discovered this resource through John Bogenschutz’s web comic, Tone Deaf Comics. The latest podcast from FreeMusicEd.org was an interview with Bogenschutz and I was interested in learning more about the creator of one of my current favorite comics. Through listening to that podcast I’ve discovered the many other episodes that are available. Go check them out here or use iTunes or your favorite podcatching software to download them.

Advice For Parents of Music Students

I was asked a while back if I could put together a resource for parents of music students. Parents will sometimes surf by here or contact me looking for advice on how to help their child with music studies. Here are some of my thoughts compiled together, in no particular order.

Encourage, but keep an eye on burnout

Children studying music definitely respond to positive reinforcement. Ask your child to play for you regularly. Ask about how lessons and music classes are going and what music he or she is playing in them. Encourage your child to practice every day, or at least as close to every day as is possible. Conversely, be on the lookout for signs of burnout. Children today seem to be busier than ever with school work, music lessons, rehearsals, dance classes, athletics, and all the other activities parents encourage their children to be a part of. If your goal is to have your child love music and participate in band, be aware that sometimes they may feel burnt out on all the activity and see if they can back off on some for a while. Sometimes when an activity like practicing our instrument becomes a chore we loose the enjoyment we used to get from it.

Try to sign your child up for regular private lessons

There’s almost no replacement for one-on-one private lessons when it comes to success in music. The individualized attention a private instructor can offer will pay off in dividends down the road, as many bad playing habits can not seem to make much of a difference in the short term but are very hard to correct later.  Us band directors can only do so much in large ensemble rehearsals when it comes to teaching children to play or sing music.

One trend I’ve noticed is that many students want to take a lesson or three just before a big contest or audition, and then drop the lessons once it has passed. While catching the occasional lesson like this is better than no private lessons at all, it’s not really the best way to prepare. While I’m always happy to help a student prepare for an all-state audition, very often the issues holding a student back are best addressed in exercises or etudes that aren’t going to be asked on the audition or contest. Having a regular meeting with a private instructor is going to mean better overall musicianship and developing the skills and will better prepare the student for learning the contest music.

Listen to “art” music in the home or car with your child and make recordings available

I’ve got nothing against pop, country, rap, etc. In fact, I like to listen to a wide variety of musical genres and feel there’s good (and bad) music in all styles. That said, music is an aural art form and music students who aren’t exposed to the sounds they will be performing will be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning how to play with a characteristic tone and with a stylistic approach. Take the time to put on some music that will broaden your child’s listening skills, with an emphasis on the instrument that your child is studying.

Rent or purchase a decent instrument, make needed repairs quickly

You don’t have to go overboard and buy a top of the line instrument, but your child’s instrument should be in good playing condition and be well put together. If there are dents in a trombone slide, leaky pads on the clarinet, or sticky valves on a trumpet the instrument is going to be harder (or impossible) to play and limit your child’s progress.

If you’re looking for specific brand information I recommend you speak directly with your child’s music teacher. Your child’s teacher will have a good idea of how he or she currently plays and what sort of equipment will be most helpful, as opposed to someone online, who may or may not be as expert as you think.

Many schools have deals with local music stores that offer good quality instruments for rental or purchase and also ensure that your student has all other necessary equipment and books for music classes (e.g., cleaning kits, required music books, etc.). Some music stores also have special deals for students that include repair work and may even pick up and drop off the instrument at your child’s school, saving you the bother of running those errands yourself.

Attend your child’s performances

Performing for people you know who came specifically to hear you is so much more fun than playing for a group of strangers. Of course it can be impossible to get to every single event, but make a serious effort to hear your child perform as much as possible.

Take your child to hear high quality live music

While having good recordings to listen to is invaluable for music students, seeing music performed live offers so much more. Professional performances will be more inspiring and educational than non-professional shows, of course, but don’t dismiss how exciting going to hear a community or school group too. If your child is in middle school, for example, going to hear a high school band perform will show him or her what is possible for slightly older students and what sort of opportunities are available at the high school.

Meet your child’s music teacher(s) and consult with them from time to time

Band and choir directors are busy folks. They often spend the whole school day teaching classes and then go on to run after-school rehearsals until late in the afternoon (or evening). Weekend student performances and contests also often take up a lot of their available time. I’m not pointing this out to discourage you from checking in on your child with them, but instead to help you understand that your child’s music teacher may be too busy to check in with each of their student’s parents individual on a regular basis. Talking with your child’s music teacher will let both your child and the teacher know you care and help communicate important information (e.g., what specific issues your child is struggling/excelling with, what time that next concert’s warm-up will be, what clothes they need to wear, etc.).

Join the band/choir boosters

If you’ve got the time to be active in the schools booster organization join and help out. Band is a very expensive program, requiring instruments and other equipment to be purchased and maintained, obtaining sheet music, hiring support staff, and many other expenses that might not be obvious or covered by school funding. Booster clubs are often the main source of funding for some particular programs (e.g., marching bands) and many times events and activities can’t be done without volunteers to help supervise or take responsibilities for the preparations. The stronger the booster club, the better your child’s experience will be in music.

Can you think of some suggestions I’ve left off of this list? Do you have some specific questions that you’d like to see added? Leave your comments here or drop me an email here.


Last week I got an email from a graduate student looking for help with a reference I made in one of my blog posts. Since the specific quote itself was by a humorist, not a musicologist, I recommended he find another source. His response was the humor was ok in “Academia” and would I please send him the page number to complete his citation. Unfortunately, he seemed to miss my other point – you should always go to the original source and confirm that what you’re reading is accurate. This xkcd cartoon offers a perfect illustration for why.

xkcd: Citogenesis

While I would like to imagine that my writing is a good resource, I wouldn’t recommend anyone cite this blog or any of my quotations without verifying the information. Even in those areas where I have some academic expertise I like to recommend that everyone not take my word for indisputable fact, but do your own research and look for yourself.

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