Developing the Successful Jazz Ensemble @ Vandercook

This past week, I was in Chicago at the Vandercook College of Music taking a MECA Continuing Education course entitled Developing the Successful Jazz Ensemble. The instructor was Mike Steinel, Associate Professor in the Jazz Studies Division at the University of North Texas College of Music. He has also published numerous charts, records, and books including Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble. He did an excellent job of explaining a wide variety of topics at a very relatable level. I wanted to use this post to reflect on my week of learning.

We took this course from 8-5 every day on campus. Mike broke our day up into one-and-a-half to two hour chunks with breaks for coffee, lunch, etc. Our first chunk was an overview of jazz history. The second chunk was for assorted topics: warming up, tuning, tone, time, saxophone reeds and setups, and jazz theory resources. The third chunk was devoted to improvisation. After lunch, we spent time working on literature for the young jazz ensemble, progressing to more difficult literature throughout the week. Our final chunk involved a variety of rhythm section instruments.

Jazz History and Listening
This portion of our course was spent watching and discussing the Ken Burns: Jazz documentary. This part of the class was a bit slow for me because I have viewed the videos several times. If you are interested, the DVDs are available for purchase on Amazon, you can stream the videos on Amazon Instant Video (free if you are an Amazon Prime member) and on Netflix.

Warming Up and Tuning Up
Our first assorted topic was around strategies for warming up and tuning up. There were bits of it that I liked and bits that I disagreed with philosophically. Most of the warming up strategies were geared towards brass players, as Mike is a trumpet player. We began with an expanding interval exercise (F Gb F E F. F G F Eb F. etc.). We then progressed to a lead-pipe buzzing exercise playing and ascending pentascale from Bb up to F. I am not sure how I feel about the lead pipe buzzing because of the changes in embouchure and setup that are necessary to produce the desired pitches are not necessarily changes I want students using to produce pitches on their instrument.

For tuning, Mike recommended having each instrument playing a short tuning note (A for saxes, Bb for brass) followed by that same pitch on the piano. This way, the students aren’t automatically trying to adjust to a pre-heard pitch. They are (hopefully) playing right in the center of where their instrument is currently tuned. This will be a technique I try in my own rehearsals.

We also discussed difference tones, a phenomenon that causes a tone to be produced when two tones are played simultaneously. To demonstrate, below is a chart of the overtone series for a concert C:

Harmonic Pitch Tuning
20 E5 -14
19 D#5 -2
18 D5 +4
17 C#5 +5
16 C5
15 B4 -12
14 Bb4 -31
13 Ab4 +41
12 G4 +2
11 F#4 -49
10 E4 -14
9 D4 +4
8 C4
7 Bb3 -31
6 G3 +2
5 E3 -14
4 C3
3 G2 +2
2 C2
1 C1

The concept is that if two tones are produced (for example: G4 and E4), their difference tone will be the frequency of the difference between the two pitches. Because G4 is on overtone 12 and E4 is on overtone 10, the difference tone produced will be overtone 2 (12-10 = 2) or C2, creating a major chord.

Mike’s theory behind teaching improvisation is that we should teach it in the order that jazz developed. Here is his conception:

Style Period Rhythmic Emphasis Melodic Emphasis
Early Jazz Quarter Notes Melody & Countermelody (horizontal)
Swing Quarter Notes Chords (vertical), Riffs (blues)
Bebop Eighth Notes Chords (vertical), Chromaticism,
Modal Eighth Notes Scales (horizontal)
Post-Modern Variety Free elements

So he suggested the following progression for learning to improvise:

  1. Melody Based – simple rhythms (quarter notes)
    • Syncopation – playing it “early” or “later”
    • Iteration – filling it up with rhythm
    • Displacement – moving it around
    • Augmentation – stretch it out
    • Diminution – push it together
    • Repetition – play it again
    • Truncation – leave some of it out
    • Ornamentation – adding more rhythms and pitches
  2. Riff Based – simple rhythms (quarters and eighths)
    • Statement, Statement, Statement
    • Statement, Statement, Answer
    • Statement, Statement adjusted to harmony, Statement
    • Statement, Statement adjusted to harmony, Answer
    • Statement, Statement Transposed, Statement Transposed
  3. Chord Based – simple rhythms (mostly quarters)
    • Major 7th: 1 3 5 7 – based off Major Scale
    • Dominant 7th: 1 3 5 b7 – based off Mixolydian Scale
    • Minor 7th: 1 b3 5 b7 – based off Dorian Minor Scale
    • Half-Diminished 7th: 1 b3 b5 b7 – based off Locrian Scale
    • Full-Diminished 7th: 1 b3 b5 bb7 – based off Octatonic (Whole-Half) Scale
  4. Chord Based – faster rhythms (eights and triplets)
    • Ornamenting the 3rd – see notes below
    • ii-V Progressions – see notes below
  5. Melody/Riffs/Chords with added Chromaticism
  6. Scale Based – modal, harmonic and melodic minor
    • Pentatonic Blues: 1 b3 4 5 b7
    • Minor Blues: 1 b3 4 #4 5 b7
    • Major Blues: 1 2 b3 3 5 6
    • Composite Blues: 1 2 b3 3 4 #4 5 b7
    • Chromatic Blues: 1 2 b3 3 4 #4 5 b6 6 b7 7
    • Major Bebop: 1 2 3 4 5 #5 6 7
    • Mixolydian Bebop: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 7
    • Dorian Bebop: 1 2 b3 3 4 5 6 7
    • Locrian Bebop: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 5 b6 b7
  7. Interval Based
  8. Free Improvisation

Mike showed us a diagram for ornamenting the 3rds of chords that he will be using in his upcoming book, 21 Lessons in Jazz Improvisation. For copyright reasons, I cannot reproduce it here. It involves approach and departure tones towards and away from the 3rd of the chord on the downbeat.

He also analyzed several solos from a variety of different jazz artists improvising over ii-V progressions. He described ornamenting the 7 to 3 resolution between these chords using three possible ways into the 7th of the ii chord and two possible ways out of the 3rd of the V chord:

Way In (ii) Way Out (V)
1 3 5 7 3 5 7 9
3 2 1 7
5 3 1 7 3 2 1 7
add b1 to not resolve early

The second way out can be bad if it resolves to the 3 of the I chord too soon. We can delay this resolution by extending the descending line: 3 2 1 b1 7.

We can also use bebop scales over the course of a ii-V-I progression. We can use the Mixolydian Bebop scale of the V descending over the ii-V and the Major Bebop scale starting on the 5 ascending over the I.

For secondary dominants, typically all of the notes but the 3rd of the chord are in the key. Therefore, we can add the 3rd of the secondary dominant to the key of the tune to improvise over it.

For modal tunes, we can use chromatic passing tones between every whole step within the modes.

Rhythm Section
I learned quite a bit about piano, bass, and drums while in this course. I only had brief exposure to each of these instruments in a jazz setting during my undergraduate experience. Mike was able to explain the fundamentals of each to us in a simple way that we could practice and understand.

Mike described two different categories of piano voicings. Category A contains the 9th, 7th, and the 3rd of the chord, adding a b5 for diminished chords. It works well over Major 7th, Dominant 7th, and Minor 7th chords. Category B contains the 5th, 3rd, and 7th of the chord (the 13th for Dominant 7th chords) and works well of Major and Minor 7th chords. The 5th can be modified for diminished chords. This voicing can be placed in either hand using thumb, pointer finger, and pinky. Middle C should always be between the thumb and pinky. If used in the right hand, the left hand can be used to walk a bass line. If used in the left hand, the right hand can fill out the chord with triads, octaves, or descending 4ths from the root or the 5th of the chord. If chords move by 4th/5th, change categories from the previous voicing. If chords move by 2nd/7th, stay in the same category. If chords move by 3rd/6th, either category will work.

For constructing bass lines, Mike offered two basic walking melodies: 1 2 3 5 or 8 7 6 5. On beat 4, we can always use chromatic notes to lead in to new chords. We then took twelve bar blues progressions to build and walk our own bass lines on our own instruments, and then on piano or bass. With the help of one of my classmates, he helped me construct finger patterns for major, dominant, dorian, and locrian scales to help with using these two basic walking melodies over ever chord.

I apologize if any of this post seemed to ramble or appear to be utter nonsense. After taking the class, I wanted very much to re-collect my thoughts and notes into a more coherent place, and this was my vehicle. Taking this course was of an immense benefit to me, and I can not wait to begin implementing some of the strategies in to my teaching. Nor can I wait to continue the rest of my Masters program at Vandercook!


One thought on “Developing the Successful Jazz Ensemble @ Vandercook

  1. Pingback: Masters of Music Education | Adjusting the Sails

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