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November 2004 Bob Lark’s Creative Approach To Teaching Jazz Ensembles, By John Thomson

As a youngster in Ohio Bob Lark almost gave up music when he became bored with the simple music the high school band played. However he found inspiration from an unexpected source and went on to major in classical trumpet and music education in college. He never wanted to become a band director, but ultimately he did and has directed the jazz groups at DePaul University in Chicago for the past 15 years. He can quickly suggest several ways to remedy most problems that arise in a student jazz ensemble.
   “Recently I was a guest soloist with a high school jazz band that had a talented but nervous tenor sax player. When he had a solo, he played lots of fast notes in scalar runs. I had the solo right after his and grew concerned that the arrangement would crash before I could get in. When he bobbled it badly on the day before the concert, I thought the boy was going to cry and pulled him aside. I told him that when he got to the two-measure break that it didn’t matter what he played but as he got to the end he should aim for a particular note (the seventh of the chord) and play it as loudly as possible. He should hold this note for several measures until the band came in. I assured him that with this target to aim for, his nervous energy would be directed into the horn and the crowd would be impressed with this solid ending. I also commented that it wasn’t necessary to use lots of 32nd notes on every solo. At times something simple is the best choice, and in this case it worked just fine.”

What was it that prompted you to become a jazz player and, director?

   Just after I started high school my grandmother I gave me a Christmas present of two tickets to a Buddy Rich big band concert at a local high school. I was so livid that I didn’t talk to her or even thank her. How could she dare to buy me tickets for some Guy-Lombardo-type band? In January I literally went kicking and screaming to the concert at Lakewood High School. I was truly a ninth-grade brat. We drove through a snowstorm and had seats in the ninth row center. I arrived wanting to hate the concert, but my dad said “You will like this guy; he’s funny.” Only years later did I learn that my grandmother often went to dance to the Ellington, Basie, and Woody Herman bands. She knew about all of them.
   Because of the blizzard, the band was late, and the announcer finally came out to say he wasn’t sure the band would make it. As he was mid-sentence, this short guy came out smoking a cigarette. Several people started applauding, but I was thinking that because we were starting 20 minutes late, the evening would last even longer. Even back in the 1970s it wasn’t too cool for someone to smoke in a high school auditorium. This guy took his time getting onstage and showed no sense of urgency about being late. Finally as he tapped the announcer on the shoulder, someone in the audience yelled “Buddy Rich.” The short fellow looked up and said, “We’re here, but I don’t know if we are going to play.”
   On hearing this people started booing at the bad news, but I applauded loudly. My dad elbowed me as hard as he could, and Buddy looked straight down at me in the ninth row. He went on, “Since we’re here and have no other place to go, we might as well play.” The auditorium exploded, and the band was all set up as the curtain opened. This was obviously part of their schtick. This guy gets behind the drum set and played a little something on the high-hat, then looked down on the floor, and yelled, “One, two, one, two, three, four” and my life changed. I knew then that I wouldn’t quit playing the trumpet, and I still get goose bumps thinking about it. After the concert was over I went on the stage to find Buddy and also met Bob Mintzer, who played second tenor in the band but didn’t look much older than me.
   At that time the school didn’t have a jazz band, so I started one. I chose to attend Ohio State because it had a good jazz band. I wanted to major in jazz studies, but no one in their right mind did this back then. I decided to be a music ed. major but wouldn’t be caught dead with a teaching job. It was just something to fall back on. A few weeks into freshman year I decided that I wanted to teach in a college after spending some time on the road with a band. I had finally realized that a college director gets to lead a band five days a week and play periodic concerts. I still had this attitude until junior year, when I got my head screwed on right, and didn’t make the top band at Ohio State until my senior year. After graduation I went on to North Texas State for a masters degree. I was a graduate assistant there, and then took a job as a middle school band director in Texas. During the second week of school I learned that I was expected to field a marching band. At that school students didn’t start to play an instrument until seventh grade and I knew then why 1 was the fifth band director in five years.
   After I finished that dismal year I went back to North Texas for doctoral studies. I played in the 1:00 band, and taught the ninth band for a while, then the seventh and the fifth bands during three” years there. I was the principal trumpet in the brass quintet and earned a doctorate in classical trumpet performance. That was not unusual at North Texas in the 1980s, which eventually was the first school to offer a jazz studies major.

How much did you ever play on the road?
   I haven’t done this, but years later I was asked to tour with the Buddy Rich band after he gave notice to half of the band one night, which was not unusual for him. This had always been my dream, but at the time I was married and in the third year of doctoral studies. I didn’t go on the two-month tour to Australia and have regretted it ever since until two years ago. Some friends advised me that if 1 had gone on the tour, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now. I completed all of the doctoral coursework in 1987 but didn’t complete the program until 1994. I took a job at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas to teach classical trumpet and be the jazz director. I went there because they hosted the Great Plains Summer Jazz Camp, and I had a chance to get to know and play with Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, and James Moody. Three years later I took a job at DePaul in the fall of 1990. Now I am in my 15th year here and am in charge of the jazz studies program.

What are some of the common problems that high school jazz ensembles have?

   In my experience high school jazz ensembles do not concentrate enough on listening to the way professionals play. Students don’t study the sounds of Basie, Ellington, or contemporary bands and have no concept of how a Basie chart should sound. For that matter the same is true of the wind ensemble literature. Students in school ensembles just show up and play the music that is put in front of them without knowing how it should sound. However, they do know how Sarah McLachlan and the Dixie Chicks sound. This failure to understand any of the history of jazz sounds is the biggest problem student ensembles have.
   When I started directing a university big band, I was surprised that even the jazz majors didn’t listen regularly to jazz. When I was in college, one jazz major proudly declared, “I own four jazz records, and I play on three of them.” I then knew why his playing lacked depth, although he was a capable musician. There were more professional big bands 30 years ago, including Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Basie, and Ellington had just died. These bands regularly went on tours, and there were more community concerts and workshops in the public schools, and all of which were opportunities for students to hear how this music should sound. Once I realized how little backgrounds students have, I began to play recordings during nearly every rehearsal. I try to find an arrangement of the music we are playing, but it may be of another piece, something in a similar style. I may suggest that they focus on the articulation, balance, or blend. I want them to hear which notes the trumpet slurs and which are tongued. A passage marked mf will not always sound the same on different charts.

What other problems do high school groups face?

   Overall both students and teachers are asked to do.” too much in many high schools, from developing marching and pep bands to concert and jazz bands, and to do so in a 45-minute class and whatever time they put in before and after school. With so much to do, high school ensembles are not able to develop stylistically in any of these. Students are asked to do more in public school than they will at any other time in their lives. Adding to that is the problem is the fact that everything is new to students.
   In a big band certainly everyone in the ensemble is responsible for keeping time, but most students are not taught which instrument sets the beat. In most cases the hi-hat or ride cymbal gives the tempo. For the opening weeks of school I will tell the drummer to use only the ride cymbal, hi-hat cymbal, and snare drum and to leave everything else at home. Some drummers think I am kidding, but they soon realize that I am not. I start the year this way to clarify for the entire band how important it is to listen for the beat, which in a jazz ensemble is often set by the ride cymbal. I coach them to listen to the ride cymbal and the hi-hat cymbal, which define the time. The snare drum usually defines the rhythmic figures. In my experience many drummers play too much and are too active. Part of this stems from listening to fusion-oriented groups, which are a different animal from music in the swing tradition. I expect the drummer in a big band to use the snare drum sparingly to give cues and to set up rhythmic figures.
   The saxophone section should listen to the lead alto for balance, intonation, and stylistic interpretation. The ideal is for a conductor to give instructions to the lead alto, trumpet, trombone, and the drummer and for the rest of the group to get cues from them. If I tell the lead alto player to slur three notes, tongue the quarter, and play softly on the whole notes, the others should follow him. Section players should be just that and take directions from the lead player.

What are specific problems with each section?
   I find that saxophone and trumpet players often over articulate. On a Basie chart with six consecutive eighth notes and no phrase or articulation markings, the rule of thumb is that these should all be slurred, but it is alarming how many students, even jazz studies majors at the graduate level, will tongue the eighths. This makes the phrase sound stiff. If students listen to recordings by Johnny Hodges or Dick Oates or Tim Reeves, it will be evident that they usually slur the eighth notes. On a big leap, the higher eighth notes should be accented or tongued because it changes direction. I expect to hear the trumpets and saxes in young bands over articulate. Trombones obviously have to tongue every note because they play a dinosaur instrument that sounds so nice. The guitarist and pianist often play at the same time without realizing that they are filling the same function. This happens because they are unsure when to play without competing with each other.

How do you teach the bass and guitar to work together?

   Although it is a sweeping generalization, I find that those students who study with an outstanding teacher will play much better than the others. It is so important for young jazz players to study privately with the best teacher they can find. Without such guidance bass players will usually set the amplifier incorrectly. Before playing a note the bass should set the amp in the mid-range, not with the treble turned all the way down and the bass all the way up, which many bass players will do in an attempt to get a big, rich sound. However, they end up producing a muddy sound instead. I tell bass players that I want to hear a clear sound, one with definition, regardless of whether they use an electric or acoustical bass. This isn’t possible with the treble is set on 1 and the bass on 10. A mid-range setting on the amp is the best starting point, and some electric basses also have settings on the instrument. If the guitar treble is set on 10 and the bass on 1, the sound is thin. It is better to start at 5 on everything except the volume control. If the volume is too high the sound of the band will change dramatically.
   I will ask the bass player to connect the quarter notes on a swing piece and be sure the notes touch one another, especially on a double bass. Finally I will ask them to draw more sound out of the instrument by pulling the strings harder, which will probably produce some blisters at first but will improve with practice. Unless there are strong and weak beats within each measure, everything will sound flat. Some teachers have said that it doesn’t matter if beats one and three or two and four are emphasized on a swing chart. Often the context will determine which is best. Some professional bass players prefer to emphasize beats two and four, which can be very powerful. Depending on the arrangement, I will try different things to find out what works. It also matters whether the guitar and bass have high-quality strings. As obvious as this caution sounds, most electric basses and guitars have rock strings, which are too thin. Thin strings quickly go out of tune, and a double bass in a school orchestra needs a different action than what is needed in a jazz band. These are very specific problems but a good private teacher will cover most of these problems that would otherwise come up during rehearsals.

What advice do you give to the pianist?
   The piano players in junior and senior high schools are better today than when I was in school. Private teachers and directors are quite good at suggesting chord voicings. A C7 chord would not be voiced today with a right hand C-E-G-B” but when I was in high school the pianists often played a rock-a-billy sound with right notes that sounded out of place. The books by Frank Mantooth, Matt Harris, and Dan Hurley are quite helpful about voicings. Most pianists in student groups play too often, and this is true regardless of whether they play the right voicings. They are simply too active. Just listen to a class for five minutes and compare this to any recording by a professional group. The difference will be obvious.
   During a rehearsal I may go around the room and ask the saxophones to listen critically to what the lead alto is playing on a solo and then listen to hear when the ensemble is accenting or ghosting notes. I will ask the trombones how prominent the bass trombone is in relation to the lead trombone. At times the bass trombone should lead the sound if there are only one or two low winds in the band. 1 will ask the pianist to assess whether he is playing every beat of every measure or if he rests during the first eight bars of the first chorus or plays a sustained figure at the bridge. I believe that many pianists play too actively or densely out of enthusiasm, and in some cases out of a need to feel important. I recommend that they listen to recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock to hear how effective a sparser style can be.
   The typical swing arrangement features the horns to a rhythm section accompaniment during most of the piece. The arrangement will give a few chord symbols and rhythmic hits, but that is all. With a Latin, rock, or fusion arrangement, the rhythm section will be a heavily notated part and specific chord voicings with four or five notes in the right hand and three or four in the left. The rhythmic figures are also complex, but the winds play more sparsely with an occasional riff.
   Even though the piano and guitar parts may call for both to play, it is often better to assign phrases for each to play or lay out. The guitar may lay out during a tenor sax solo and come in afterwards. This adds flavor to the music, and these players don’t have to worry about stepping on each other’s toes. If only chord symbols are indicated on the parts, an alternative choice is for the piano or guitar to play long notes while the other plays short ones. Behind a saxophone solo the piano may play sustained sounds and switch to short ones during the trumpet solo. Such assigned flip-flops are easier for inexperienced players than figuring out on their own what to do. This would be asking a lot of inexperienced players. It helps if the director lays the groundwork by giving some general directions about what is important and what is not.

If a high school director sees students only twice a week, what is the best use of a 50-minute rehearsal?
   The rehearsal should start on time, especially if the session is held before or after school. From my experience in teaching at a public school I know this is tough but a rehearsal that is supposed to start at 6:30 a.m. should begin making music at 6:30, and this means everyone should arrive before then. As silly as it seems, this is the biggest problem I have when giving a workshop. I am there to help and can’t do anything if we are waiting for the trombone section to show up. I make all announcements in the opening minute of a rehearsal, and this may only be to indicate which arrangement is on tap that day. Directors should always state specific musical goals to be accomplished in each rehearsal. To those directors who have claimed that they can’t afford to waste five minutes of rehearsal time to play a recording by a great band I would respond that they can’t afford not to do this. It is one thing for directors to admonish students to listen to recordings, but it would be far more effective if they would teach students what to listen for.
   By the time I was a freshman in college, I knew that I wanted to be a university jazz director. By having this goal, I carefully watched each music teacher to determine what made some of them effective and what was not. Some gave very specific instructions but others took a hands-off approach. At times both can be effective, but I generally give very specific instructions. I never say, “Just swing” because I don’t know what that means. Some directors tell students to swing harder, but they don’t know how to swing harder. I heard this so often and couldn’t figure it out, so I often asked some professional players and teachers I respected how to make a piece swing. They replied that this happens when one note is louder and longer than another. The last note of a phrase should be a little broader, fatter, and have a little more accent.
   A pet peeve of mine is arrangements that indicate a staccato note at the end of a phrase. This is misleading because an accented note of full value is better. Certainly the context determines everything. If drummers listen critically to good recordings, they will find that 90% of the drum fills are on the snare drum, but a Latin chart will have more flams on the tom-toms. By critically listening to master players, drummers will learn” where most of the action occurs.

What other qualities should a director develop?

   I hope they soon realize that many different approaches will work if these are used with conviction. The spirit of rehearsals should be neither tense nor cavalier. Often a moment of humor can lighten the rehearsal. Sometimes I will talk about something in a completely different context to lighten the mood, but I hope students will perceive that I am doing so to change the atmosphere and not conclude that the rehearsal has simply lost focus.
   I never plan every step of a rehearsal or assign a specific number of minutes to each component. I may plan more of the details as we get close to a concert or recording date, but I usually have only a tentative plan in mind and announce this at the outset. I don’t write out a plan for each rehearsal, but I recommend this to directors for their first years as a teacher. It is terribly important for all directors to know when to stop fussing with a problem and move on to something else.

How do you teach improvisation?
   With a junior or a senior high school ensemble it is best to find time before or after school each week for a session on improvisation. This should be for at least 30 minutes, and it will help if the director plays an instrument to demonstrate each step. At first nearly every student will be intimidated by the prospect of having to improvise something in front of others. One goal of the director is to make the experience fun. The underlying irony of improvisation is that we are free to play whatever comes to mind but instead of enjoying a chance to be independent, it often creates anxiety. It helps if the director plays pitches and articulations. Some students do better if they close their eyes. If someone doesn’t catch on by the second or third try, I will suggest they play a long, first note and the second one accented. Many students have to be taught to swing eighth notes instead of straight eighths, and a chalkboard example can be used to show two eighth notes as a quarter-eighth note triplet. I coach students to listen to articulations, durations, style, and inflections on each note of a phrase. When I change the second note of an improvisational phrase, I may ask students what the second note is. If they don’t know, I will eventually tell them.
   A call-and-response approach takes much of the intimidation out of improvising, especially if I play along with them some of the time. The first goal is to learn how to progressively add notes to a starting figure. I observe how long each can play before losing the phrase. Sometimes I will have a class sing a phrase, because whatever they can sing, most students can play. Before long this game becomes fun.

What are the most important lessons you have learned?

   I realize that everything I have learned has come from other musicians. My approach to teaching music and jazz is an amalgam of what I have learned from master players and teachers. In the years since I left North Texas I have learned more about jazz than I did in school, and most of it came through working and talking with people. I now realize that the process of learning is incomplete on the day we graduate from college. That is just a beginning of the knowledge we can pick up about music. At DePaul I am fortunate in being able to bring in a great many jazz artists. The most powerful way for students to learn is by hearing and watching people who are the best in their field. One of these guests may be as pivotal an experience for some as it was Tory me to attend the Buddy Rich concert. We never stop learning more if we will keep and open mind and search for new ideas.

   John Thomson is director of bands at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois and a Consulting Editor to
 The Instrumentalist. He received bachelor and master degrees from Carnegie Mellon University. He is an active clinician and has taken ensembles to the Midwest Clinic three times.