The 10 Most Common Mistakes That Jazz Band Directors Make
(And how to fix them)
Jeff Anderson, Musical Director, Indianapolis Jazz Orchestra
In my 26 years as a professional musician and band director, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and to observe dozens of scholastic jazz ensembles. I’ve learned that an effective director not only knows what to do, but what not to do. With this in mind, I’ve assembled the 10 most important things that I believe all scholastic directors should strive “not” to do. These aren’t listed in any particular order of importance, although their individual relevance may vary depending on the situation.
1) Playing only pop arrangements
In this case the director thinks that if his jazz ensemble only plays arrangements of the latest pop hits, that it’ll “keep the kids interested.” Many music publishers foster this notion by offering simplistic arrangements of the most transient music. In some ways you can’t blame them. They are, of course, in the business of making money. Most of these charts are played only in the first year that they’re purchased and are then quickly relegated to the “dead music” section of the music library. Directors must understand that publishers always offer the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to jazz band arrangements.
I’m not trying to trash pop music. It’s just that it doesn’t always provide the best basis for creating a good big band arrangement. Tradition as well as practice has proven that the music we call jazz, as well as “standards,” seems to work best as the source material for most big band music. As a rule, we always tend to underestimate what students will accept. With a little time and understanding, most students will come to accept, love, and even demand this type of music.
2) Not playing recordings for students
A director once asked me, “How do I get my band to play Basie-style charts better?” I quickly responded, “Play some Basie recordings for them.” The director looked incredulous and a little disappointed. I’m quite sure that he expected me to share some miraculous rehearsal technique with him rather than tell him to do something so simple and obvious. We all know that music is an imitative art form. Jazz, in particular, has numerous musical elements that just cannot be accurately notated. Students must have frequent modeling from professional sources in order to fully develop as musicians. Next to sight-reading, regularly playing quality recordings for your students is the most effective thing that you can do to improve your band. Having a recording of a great professional band playing as students are coming in to each rehearsal is an easy way of accomplishing this.
3) Playing arrangements just because they’re hard
We’ve all heard charts like these: the brass play in the stratosphere through the entire piece, the saxes seem to have one technically impossible soli after another, the changes are unbelievably complex, it seems to hit every musical feel – Swing, Rock, Ballad, Latin, the tempos are blistering, and it musically stinks! Some of us in the big band business kindly refer to these arrangements as “history of jazz” charts. Although this kind of arrangement has been around for a long time, there seems to a recent trend with a few publishers to offer more of them.
Oddly enough, this is a bigger problem with strong high school (and sometimes college) ensembles than with weaker groups. With the emphasis on competition, some directors reason that the tougher the chart, the more it will showcase their band. While this thinking might occasionally help win a trophy, it does so at the expense of musically cheating the students involved. They can easily end up believing that if an arrangement is not really hard then it “can’t be any good.” It’s never musically or educationally sound to choose a specific chart for your band just because it sounds (or looks) technically tough. An arrangement should first and foremost always have some musical merit. Not to worry for you trophy conscience directors out there – there are plenty of very musical charts available that are also “really, really hard!”
Remember: why waste any time playing bad (or even mediocre) charts when there are so many good charts available? Just because a chart exists doesn’t mean that it deserves to be played!
4) Using the jazz ensemble like a “super big combo”
This type of jazz ensemble suffers from a real identity crisis. Every arrangement that they perform seems to just be another way to highlight a jazz solo (or solos). The jazz choruses seem to go on forever while the rest of the band plays lackluster background figures. A band like this is sometimes the product of a well-meaning, but misinformed director. Often, the director will have a strong background in jazz improvisation, but lacks experience with (or appreciation of) the Big Band as an ensemble. They believe that they’re actually doing the right thing by making jazz improvisation the primary focus of their group.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with performing an occasional soloist-centered chart. On the contrary, the jazz solo-feature can be an important part of a band’s overall repertoire. It’s just that to use the big band exclusively (or mostly) in this way is neither musically practical nor historically valid. Directors must remember that the big band has always been an arrangers medium – perhaps more than any other type of musical ensemble. The amazing sounds of bands like Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and many others can all be faithfully recreated because of the wonderful arrangements that have been left behind. Today, arrangers are still forging great new charts for the medium. Yes, the jazz soloist is an important part of the big band as we know it. It’s just not the most important part. A good jazz ensemble should always be centered on playing quality arrangements that feature the entire ensemble first and the soloist second.
5) Never working on jazz improvisation
Never working on improvisation with your students can be just as bad as making it the only focus of your jazz ensemble program. Jazz solos are an important part of most big band arrangements. Unfortunately, many directors leave this part of their program to pure chance. Often, students are left to themselves to figure out what to do when confronted with an improvised solo. Most of the time this is because the director has had little or no experience with jazz soloing and just feels uncomfortable trying to teach it.
The director in this case must either confront his knowledge deficit or bring in outside help to remedy the problem. Many colleges and universities offer summer courses and clinics dealing with jazz improvisation and how to teach it. Although taking a course like this may require some time and humility, it’s usually well worth the effort. The quickest (and perhaps best) way to deal with teaching improvisation is to bring in outside help. This outside person can be either a local professional musician or a qualified college instructor. However you choose to incorporate improvisation instruction into your program, it needs to be done on a regular basis. Unless you have a healthy jazz combo component as part of your overall program, you should probably work on improvisation at least a little bit at each jazz ensemble rehearsal.
6) Not sight-reading with the jazz band
Unfortunately, this problem is another indirect result of the total emphasis on competition that is prevalent in many high school bands. Some directors theorize that all available rehearsal time should be devoted toward “mastering” the 3 or 4 tunes they’ve selected to play at competitions that year. They feel that any time spent doing anything else is a waste and just another obstacle between them and their next trophy. Besides being educationally bankrupt, this tactic is extremely shortsighted.
Sight-reading is the absolute best tool that a director can use to increase the strength and independence of their band. A director who teaches his band to sight-read will find that they can learn tough literature much more quickly than they did so previously. Starting each rehearsal session by sight-reading an easy to medium difficulty chart (grade 2-4) will quickly show positive results with any high school (or college) band. Most school libraries have many arrangements just sitting in mothballs that could easily be used for this purpose. I’m always amazed and perplexed as to why more school groups don’t use this easy, but incredibly effective program building tool.
7) Using more than one student on each part
This most frequently happens with trumpets and saxes. I’ve often seen as many as seven or eight players in one section. These “super sized” sections will almost always have two students playing the lead part. Frequently directors will place more than one student on a part thinking that it will make the group sound stronger. This tactic never has the desired effect. Those students on the doubled parts just remain weak and never get stronger. Additionally, the doubling of parts creates intonation problems that can be insurmountable. Even if the director is doing this for the loftier reason of “letting more students participate” it still tends to create many more problems that it solves.
Big band charts are arranged specifically for one person per part. It’s surprising how much better they sound when played that way. When there is only one on a part it also has the added benefit of teaching young players to be stronger, more independent, and play better in-tune. If you absolutely must have an extra person (only one, that is) in a section, never double the lead part. Have the student double a lower part (4th Trumpet, 2nd Tenor, or 3rd Trombone).
True personal story: I played a gig some time ago with a so-called professional big band. It was my first (and ultimately my last) time playing with this group. I took my place in the trumpet section and watched 4 players arrive, then 5, then 6, then 7. Eventually there was a total of 8 trumpet players in the section. I was confused, but the bandleader (a piano player) came back and explained that he wanted two people on each part. He stated that he “liked the sound” of two trumpets on each part. I fought off the feeling of being in the Twilight Zone as we started the gig. About a half-hour into the first set the bandleader looks back to the trumpets and loudly (and a little angrily) says, “Is there something that we can do about the bad intonation in the trumpet section?” I loudly responded, “Yeah, send half of these guys home!”
8. Ruining your young lead trumpet player
This is another problem that is most common with high school bands that are usually pretty strong. Many of these bands are playing charts that are just way too ambitious for most high school lead trumpet players. Bands like these usually have a brave kid playing lead that is squealing and screeching like the devil just trying to cover the part. Because human beings are such adaptable creatures, a few young players actually learn to make it work (…well, at least kind of make it work).
I’m deadly serious when I say that 99% of all high school trumpet players are just not physically prepared for extreme register work (above a written high “c” or “d”). The problem arises when kids are forced to deal with these range expectations before they’ve developed a full, mature sound. These students are forced to employ unorthodox methods in order to try and fulfill the requirements of the music in front of them. Being a college director, I’ve had many opportunities to observe trumpet students who are products of such environments. Quite frankly, most of them are absolutely ruined as trumpet players. I’ve seen significant external scarring on the lips of trumpet players that are no more that 18 years old. Often the scarring is not visible, but is still present on the internal mouth structures. A young student with a damaged embouchure like this may find it impossible to ever develop a mature sound or advanced flexibility. A professional lead trumpet player, who also teaches, should first evaluate promising young lead players before introducing them to any extreme range work.
9) Never using outside help
One of the universities that I attended was located in a fairly small city. This university had a large music department with a strong jazz program. The chairman of the jazz studies department once told me that he had never been asked by the local high school band director for any help. He was also sure that in the 20 years that he had been there no other member of the jazz faculty or jazz-studies students had ever been asked either. Oh, by the way, the high school in question did have a fairly active jazz ensemble. This amazed me at the time and continues to do so today.
I know that high school band directors tend to be an independent lot, but this is crazy. All band programs, jazz and otherwise, should at least occasionally bring in outside specialized help. To not do so is to deprive your students of new, fresh, and effective musical perspectives. The varied and complex requirements of the jazz ensemble demand at least some specialized aid. This outside help may not necessarily cost an arm and a leg. There are many professional musicians and college faculty that are willing to help high school programs for little, reasonable, or no compensation. You’ll never know until you ask.
10) Directors not having a performance outlet for themselves
Believe it or not, some high school jazz ensemble directors have never been a member of jazz band themselves! This largely depends on whether or not the college they attended required it for teaching certification. I believe that to be truly effective, every jazz band director must have some experience as an adult player in such a group. If a director didn’t get this experience in college, there are many other ways to accomplish this. Summer college ensembles, community groups, rehearsal bands, and even professional organizations (depending, of course, on personal ability) can all help provide the necessary experience.
I believe that all scholastic band directors, regardless of past experience, must have a continuing personal performance outlet. All musicians (this includes directors) have an inherent need to perform. If not fulfilled, this need is often replaced by living vicariously through directed student ensembles. This can be an unhealthy and educationally destructive situation. I sincerely believe this is in large part behind the single-minded focus on competition that is present in many high school band directors.