By Saul Richardson, University of Sydney. May 2016.
Learning jazz and playing jazz at school is usually great fun and rewarding. But it can also be confusing and, for some students, disheartening. At first everything is fun, and everyone participates together on equal terms, loving the joy of just making music together. Over time, however, it changes. It becomes more serious. Some people seem to become band director’s favourites. They start to get all the solos, all the accolades, and all the limelight. Why? What changed? Many students and their parents are left wondering “why don’t I get solos anymore?” Read on to find out why.
over time, there is a shift in the rules of the game
Like sports, dance, and many other areas, the focus early on in jazz education is on participation and having fun. It is all about making music together. Everyone is encouraged, and everyone gets a go. However, over time there is a shift in the “rules of the game”. Success changes from just participating and expressing yourself as a beginner, to mastering a complex set of skills and techniques. In other words, actually being able to play jazz and sounding like a jazz musician when you do it.
The focus shifts from fun to knowledge and skills. The “star” students tend to be the ones who apply themselves to learning that knowledge and who try to master the skills required to play.
To make things even more complicated, things change again as the level goes up even more. As well as having to have skills and techniques, advanced students also need to be immersed in the music. They have to be familiar with tunes, important musicians, significant bands, famous albums, and ways of doing things “on the bandstand”. They get this from extensive listening, going to concerts, jamming with like-minded peers, and lots of playing. At advanced levels (and as professionals) the basis for achieving success in jazz comes from two essential things. The first essential element is being a technically great player with a good command of instrument and theory. The second essential element is being intimately familiar with the sounds and ways of jazz.
Any student who lacks either of these things probably won’t become good at playing jazz. So, to be a good jazz player, just studying classical repertoire and techniques won’t be enough. Just loving jazz and listening won’t be enough without technical practice and discipline.
Practice techniques and skills with a jazz focus, and immerse yourself in the sounds and ways of jazz.
These new “rules of the game” can be hard to figure out, mainly because they are often unspoken rules. When you read the history of jazz it seems to be all about inspired but untutored geniuses freely expressing themselves, some kind of outpouring of their inner jazzness. This is untrue, however; it is a myth! Virtually every great jazz player of the past and present has mastered technique, jazz skills, and immersion in the sounds and ways of jazz. The greats of the past all did the things I have outlined in this article. This is not just a vague claim, it is based on my own PhD research examining the early musical education of 160 jazz Greats and famous musicians (Saul Richardson, forthcoming). Of course, it also comes from decades of experience teaching and playing jazz.
So, how can you get more solos in jazz band? Practice techniques and skills with a jazz focus, and immerse yourself in the sounds and ways of jazz.