Learning to Play Jazz Heads During Rehearsals

by Ron Kearns


In my book, Quick Reference for Band Directors, I discuss the importance of learning jazz heads (jazz melodies). Young jazz players need to know how to listen to jazz heads and how to learn them in a short period of time. It's not unusual for jazz players to learn a new head on stage during a live performance.  Aural development, discrimination of form, knowledge of how to swing, when to swing and styles that don't swing are all important skills for jazz players. Jazz educators need to assist students in developing these skills.

 

Jazz classes must have a balance between preparing students for performances and teaching them to become jazz performers. The best way for students to learn how to learn heads is to do it daily.  The next best way to teach students how to play jazz heads is by guided listening. If the teacher is a jazz player he/she can lead by example. Play short phrases of the head and have students play back what they think they heard. This trial and error causes students to discriminate pitches, rhythms and form. If you're not a jazz player there are play-along sets like Aebersold, Hal Leonard and Music Minus One that have jazz heads on recordings. Play short snippets of the head and let students play back what they think they heard. Mistakes are part of the process and as mistakes are made your students will recognize their mistakes and the mistakes of classmates.

 

During the early stages teaching Blues heads works best. The repetition of Blues heads and the slight variations found in them makes success in learning them possible for most students. As the teacher, make sure you know the heads. If you're not a jazz player, attempting to learn the heads and styles will help you understand the difficulties your students will experience. If you are a jazz player, try to empathize with your students so that you don't unwittingly make them feel stupid because they aren't learning the head quickly enough.

What should be my first steps?

The first thing you should do before attempting to teach your students a head is to decide on a key that will be accessible to your students. During clinics and with my students I've found that B flat and F major are the keys students have success playing the Blues. Some of the best recorded Blues songs are in B flat and F. Once you determine the key, teach your students the blues scale and minor pentatonic scale. As they progress you can slowly introduce the Dorian and Mixolydian modes to help them understand the turn arounds they will hear.

 

If your rhythm section can play twelve-bar blues, have them play. This combines learning jazz style with learning heads and form. You don't have to tell them what you're doing or what they're learning. I've discovered that it's best to tell them what they've learned rather than what they're learning. As I said in an earlier , we don't teach babies grammar while they're learning to speak, we teach it after they develop a natural way to speak. Most kids learn grammar aurally long before they are introduced to subject/verb agreement. Learning music aurally allows students to use skills that are natural to their learning process. The human ear wants to put things in some sort of order so as we listen, our brains organize large segments into smaller parts. 

As your students listen to live or recorded performances of heads they unconsciously begin organizing the head into usable segments. If your rhythm section can't play basic blues, use a recording of a rhythm playing without the head. There are play along recordings that come with tracks that have a head played over the rhythm section and tracks without the head being played. I prefer using tracks that don't have a head being played. If you're not a jazz player use the tracks with the head to teach the head and the tracks without the head for your students to play along with. After they play us your comments to encourage and not criticize. Example: " Okay, that was good but we could do that second section a little better." Speaking encouragingly can help prevent your students from developing the wall of fear.

What should I do next?

Once your students learn a simple head they will start to get comfortable with playing jazz. I use Sonny Rollins'" Sonnymoon for Two" as my first head. The head is based completely on the minor pentatonic scale and is the melody played three times over the course of twelve bars (measures). This is the least intimidating head I've used because immediately after teaching the minor pentatonic I can apply it to a song. Because you're using the minor pentatonic you can teach the head of Sonnymoon in any key or in all twelve keys. As the year progresses and your students become comfortable with Sonnymoon you can easily go through different keys.

 

Once your students learn to play heads by rote, improvisation becomes less intimidating. Teachers are always shocked by how well their students learn heads at my clinics. The point I stress to them after their students leave is that the students learn the heads quickly because I present the head in an non-intimidating way. As long as you don't show fear your students won't develop fear. Be prepared and you won't panic! As always, let 'em play.

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