Teaching Jazz Trombonists

Here’s a re-posting of something I put out this summer and had a few requests to reissue. This is free, use it as you wish, give me credit if possible. Skip it if you have no interest.

“How should a teacher (college, trombone) approach the student whose primary interest is jazz?”

This will not be a step-by-step syllabus, it wouldn’t fit. Most of it will apply to any wind instrument. I do have a printout of “Teaching Jazz Trombonists, An Overview” which I will snail-mail if you write or email me directly/privately (not the list!) with your request and your snail address. It’s a chart and won’t go into email. Let’s please use, for this, ervint@u.arizona.edu

On rereading this, much of it is addressed to the student also.

I think:
1. The best way to learn this instrument (slide trombone) is still, primarily, the legit (non-jazz) exercises and etudes. Scales, arpeggios, flexibilities et al, keys, reading, endurance, good sound, etc. They won’t hurt your jazz at all. “First be a good craftsman; this will not stifle your genius.” Playing (manipulating) jazz trombone is very similar to nonjazz trombone. (This is less true on guitar, bass, and maybe saxophone.) On trombone we still do not have a fully-developed library of jazzy pedagogical materials — it’s coming. I mean, you/he/she cannot learn to play jazz trombone by only working on jazz material.

2. The two best books that a college student should read to learn about jazz are both by Jerry Coker and available from Aebersold: “How to Practice Jazz” and “Jazz Improvisation.” These are concise (dense, compressed) and may require frequent re-reading. There are other good books also.

3. Listening is the best single teacher, focused listening. The serious student listens to, get this, players by whom he (she) wants to be influenced, Many Times!until the licks and styling are internalized and memorized (and imagined and copied). This will usually continue forever until you are old and jaded. Start with, I guess, JJ, Frank Rosolino, Bill Watrous, Carl Fontana and John Allred for mainstream; but there are many more! TAP Music Sales is maybe your single best (largest) source 1-800-554-7628 for an important brass catalog. However, just listening is not enough of course.

4. The student Must first learn to play familiar tunes in virtually any key. The kid has no business aspiring to jazz, if he cannot yet play Happy Birthday, or White Christmas, in Any Key at the drop of a hat. If you hear a melody in your head, you can play it. If you hear a lick on the radio, you can copy it (if it’s within your technique). Go ahead on work on other jazzy things also, even if you/he cannot do this well. But you Will need it! This is prerequisite, I’m not lying.

5. It will take about as much time and effort, to become a fluent jazz player, as it did to learn your instrument in the first place. Ask any fluent jazzer. If the student is an “ambitious jazzer” (beyond curious) he’s going to need to practice almost as much as the embouchure can stand. So much to learn!!

6. See Rob Boone’s fine article on Practicing Jazz (trombone) in the Summer 95 ITA Journal.

7. Gotta read! Huffnagle and Paisner, Alan Raph “Dance Band Reading” and several more but start there. Better learn to read concert treble fluently also.

8. Take, pass, ace Freshman and Sophomore theory. Do not slight eartraining and sightsinging, as so many do — they try to escape it, for heaven’s sake! Learn to write music by hand, legibly and correctly. Finale will be valuable later, but might get in the way of your trombone also.

9. Sing in a choir; make music with your body.

10. Note most trombone improvisation is above the bass staff; build range and endurance. Note most of it is legato; clean that up and develop quick clean legato. Note that most jazz comes at you pretty darn fast; it is not deliberate and careful like (most of) the legit trombone literature. Work at quick thinking.

11. The Aebersolds and other play-alongs are some of the best money you will ever spend. And (I think) you’ll get the Most from them by using them with a friend or two. Start, I guess, with any from albums 1, 54, 3, 12. CD is the only way to go any more.

12. Memorize tunes and the changes (chords). And the form. Know all the facts. Use the memory and the brain. Escape the print asap.

13. Technique (fast accurate playing) must be developed and kept that way. Without remarkable technique the improviser must continually Edit (Edit Out) some of the best licks and replace them with something simpler. This takes valuable time from the process, and is also a pity.

14. The Blues is one important dialect of jazz. Blues is critically important historically, and very valuable today. I see a frequent problem however, when students Start with the Blues. Blues is (seems) relatively easy to accomplish and manage, and for many students who start in Blues, they get that (“I can play The Blues in Both Keys!”) and never go beyond. I propose you might be wise to postpone concentration on Blues. (Boy, that may start a fight if the jazz eds hear it…)

There’s so much I might say…

For the non-jazzer teacher, let me see…coach the trombone playing technique, and tell the student What You Hear as a musician and as a trombonist. Coaching is tricky even in legit stuff; it is more tricky in improvised music.

If I aspired to taking orchestral auditions, I simply must study that material with an expert (or someone else will certainly win the audition). The jazz student also needs time with jazz experts, champion players, skilled jazz educators. The non-jazz teacher cannot become this person, probably. Jazz camps and clinics are usually very good. This kid is going to learn more (jazz) from jazzers than he is going to learn from his legit teacher.

There are probably dozens of approaches you Can Use in your teaching studio…try this, if the student will cooperate with you. On a certain Aebersold track (got CD playback in your studio?), very familiar to the student, ask him to play with Intent….Plan….

“Now try this: This Time I am Going To _________” and fill in the blank. This time I am going to (choose one, only one at first):
play longer phrases
play shorter phrases
play more ascending phrases
play more descending phrases
imitate myself more often, rhythmically or melodically or both use more accidentals
lay out until Those Chords Come and cover them better
sing instead of playing (rest the chops)
play like I was just now singing
push myself technically and play faster
use more triplets (intermittent, mingled with eighths)
use more sixteenths or double-time
employ more pickups, play into downbeats
Not play so many 2 or 4 bar phrases
avoid the tonic
avoid the roots
vary phrase lengths
play better in tune
play JJ licks
play like Carl
play like Frank
play like Ray
play with my eyes closed
Play with eyes wide open, reading hard
play more strictly in time, “giusto”
play more loosely with the time, lazily maybe, rubato
play louder
play not so darn loud
use more syncopations
start off the beat oftener
end phrases with short notes off the beat
stop doing “That” (whatever) so much
mind my embouchure, or my hand position
(add to this list at any time)

Playing with Intent, intention, on the same track repeatedly, will grow the student into more possibilities and get out of the rut.

There is real danger in the jazz life. Increased danger of flunking out of school, hanging out with the Wrong People (you Will be influenced by those you hang with). Careful there, kid. Good luck. (Why do you think they call it Dope?)

Finally, for the teacher again, be Supportive. Praise almost always works better than disapproval. But do maintain your standards and your musical opinions, be the teacher, and don’t lie to the kid. If he ain’t practicing, this is not going to work.