Big Bands, strict instrumentation & school rules: Obstacles to jazz education, Part 3.

Big bands, strict instrumentation, and sometimes unreasonable school rules can all create obstacles that exclude students from jazz education. This article is part 3 of a series on roadblocks to success in learning jazz (read part 1 and part 2). It discusses why the predominance of big band in school music, insistence on standard instruments, and other rules, can push students away from jazz education. Solutions are also offered.

Scene 1, based on a true story.

Maria was excited. The Klingon Centre! She was actually going to play there in a workshop with a famous guy from the Klingon Centre Jazz Orchestra! She’d worked so hard for this. She and all her friends in the band. They’d practiced – at home, rehearsed together, fundraised for the school band tour, travelled so far to come to Big City to play and learn jazz. This was going to be AMAZING.

Everyone in the band was excited. Maria could feel the air of anticipation as they set up in the Klingon Centre rehearsal room. Some nervously warmed up, others just looked around at the lavish facility, so much better than back at their high school. Everyone went quiet when their band director walked over with a sharply dressed man. “This is Lance” he said “from Jazz at Klingon Centre. He’ll be workshopping us today. He’s a true expert in Ellington’s music. Please listen and try your best, we’ll all learn a lot from this. It’ll be great. Have fun!”

After some small talk and introductions, Lance stared at the sax section. He glared at Maria. “There’s no clarinet in this chart”, he said. “Oh, I read off a tenor part”, Maria explained. “No”, Lance said. “There’s no clarinet in this. Big bands don’t have a clarinet unless there’s a double written. You’ll have to sit out this session, go and sit over there near the door. And one of you”, he said pointing to the three alto players. “You can’t have three altos, one of you has to go too”. Stunned into silence, and dejected, Maria and one of the alto players left. Their band director’s intervention was to no avail, Lance would not budge. It was his way, or no way. Maria and her friend were excluded.


Scene 2, also based on a true story.

The festival performance had been so much fun. The band played really well. They even nailed the test piece, first time ever! Everyone was on a high. Not that competition really mattered, but Rob was sure they’d do well and was keen to hear the adjudicator’s feedback. As he cleaned his flute and packed it away, he couldn’t help humming the tune to himself, it was so catchy. Besides, a couple of months of rehearsing a chart does tend to make it stick in your mind.

An hour or so later, when they all read the ‘adjudication’, Rob was devastated. In a nutshell, ‘excellent playing’ but ‘ineligible for any awards because there was a flute in the saxophone section and only standard instrumentation is permitted’


Scene 3, also based on true experiences

Helen wanted to join the band at her Australian high school. She’d loved concert band at primary school. There she played Euphonium. At first, she didn’t even know what that was, but the conductor said they needed one and it is very important. And it was fun. Now, at high school, She really wanted to join the jazz band that they called ‘stage band’. In Year7, they weren’t allowed to, they had to play in the junior concert band, which actually sucked a bit because it wasn’t as good as the one at her old school. To play in the band she had to take lessons, it was a rule. It was quite expensive, her family didn’t have that much money, but they made it work. The conductor liked her because she was excited to have a euphonium player in the band. ‘I Love lower brass’, she’d said, ‘always welcome in the band!’.

Now Helen was starting Year 8 and Year 8s were allowed in jazz band! But, when Helen asked about it, she was told ‘no, there are no euphoniums in stage band, you’d have to learn trombone’. But her parents had already hired a euphonium for her and were paying for lessons. There was no way they could afford another instrument, or extra lessons, or even the extra time. And to play in the stage band you had to already be in the concert band, and there was no way the conductor would let her stop euphonium.

Disappointed, Helen realized that jazz was not for her.

The young students in each of these three vignettes were all discouraged and excluded from jazz education largely by a rigid insistence on standard instrumentation in big band. In scene three, ‘Helen’ was also excluded by a structure of her school’s extracurricular music program. They illustrate the third obstacle in this three-part series on roadblocks to students staying involved in jazz: aspiring jazz students may be excluded by structural policies including strict instrumentation and unreasonable school rules.


Big band standard instrumentation

Big bands (aka jazz orchestra, jazz band, stage band) tend to be the most common form of jazz group in a school music program. This probably stems from a combination of factors, including economics and logistics (Mantie, 2008), a lack of improvisational jazz or jazz pedagogy training among school teachers (Fisher, 1981; Hinkle, 2011; Regier, 2019; Signor, 2022; West, 2013, 2019), and the aesthetic or cultural priorities of school and tertiary music education historically (Mantie, 2008; Prouty, 2012; Sarath, 1996).

There is a widely-accepted standardized instrumentation for big bands (Dunscomb, 2002, Lawn, 1995). The standard for school groups is:

  • Five saxophones consisting of: two alto saxes, two tenor saxes, and a baritone saxophone. Sometimes the saxophone players are required to ‘double’, or play an additional woodwind part, but the players’ main instrument is saxophone.
  • Four trumpets
  • Four trombones, one of which is a bass trombone
  • Bass, drums, piano, and guitar. Occasionally a vibraphone might be included, but relatively few arrangements include vibraphone parts.
  • A vocalist may be included in some arrangements, but almost exclusively as a soloist, not a regular ensemble member.

This instrumentation is routine in published arrangements of big band music for student groups. As well as this, big bands tend to adhere to a doctrine of one player par part (Dunscomb, 2002). It is widely accepted, that is, that only one person at a time can play the second alto saxophone part, only one drummer can play at a time, and so on. This certainly reflects common practice in professional big bands and addresses difficulties of intonation, blend, and balance (Lawn, 1995) as well as developing the musical skills of the student musicians (Dunscomb, 2002). Why, then, can this be a problem?


Standardized instrumentation and one-per-part: what’s the problem?

Scenes 1 and 2 that opened this article are both illustrations of how a rigid and unreasonable insistence on standard instrumentation is problematic. In scene 1 Lance, the guest clinician, mistook an educational setting for a professional performance. Pedagogy and professional practice are not the same thing and to conflate the two, as Lance did, is an error. The students were there to learn and play together under the guidance of an expert. Instead, young musicians were humiliated and excluded with no educational purpose served. There is no harm in including non-standard instruments in rehearsal or even in preparing material that allows a wider representation of musicians to participate. The result of the dismissal in Scene 2 had a similar hurtful result for no educational reason. The kinds of narrow-minded and bullying behaviour illustrated by Scenes 1 and 2 have no place in education, jazz or any other field.

Clearly, strict instrumentation excludes from jazz education students who do not play one of the accepted big band instruments. This is a problem, given the extent to which big bands dominate the school-level jazz education landscape. Research looking at the under-representation of girls and women in higher levels of jazz education has shown that standardized instrumentation can particularly exclude girls and women, who studies suggest are more likely to play non-standard instruments such as woodwinds (McKeage, 2004). Researchers have highlighted that young women’s participation in jazz education tends to drop significantly beyond early high-school age – middle school in the USA (McKeage, 2004; Thompson, 2021). The attrition of women from jazz education has been identified by one of Australia’s top tertiary jazz institutions, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM), as a significant problem for university jazz training:

participation in jazz at a university level hovers at or below around 10 percent for female and gender diverse players, a level of gender disparity not found in many academic disciplines. (Quinn, 2022, para. 3).

Where the SCM has established an ‘equity in jazz’ program to help address the issue (Quinn, 2022), it remains unclear the extent to which that institution might be willing to admit players of non-standard big band instruments into their degree. However, crucially it is not only performers who may miss out on jazz education, in part due to strict instrumentation, but future music teachers too.

Trainee music teachers who play non-big band instruments are likely to miss out on the opportunity to gain jazz experience at university or college, a gap in their training unlikely to equip them to teach jazz or big band (Signor, 2022). This is especially problematic in light of other studies that reveal few school music teachers in the USA, for instance, receive serious training in jazz regardless of their instrument, and that many feel under-prepared to teach it (Fisher, 1981; Hinkle, 2011; Regier, 2019; West, 2013, 2019). It could be, therefore, that strict instrumentation not only excludes many from access to jazz education but also helps entrench a self-replicating structural weakness in music teacher-training to the detriment of jazz pedagogy in schools.


Conclusion and solutions

An inflexible insistence on strict big band instrumentation can clearly push students away from jazz education. It may also add to a perception among students who do not play the orthodox jazz instruments that jazz is not for them. In many cases, such as in the vignettes (based on personal experience) that opened this article, there seems to be no real justification. It is often no more than stubborn inflexibility, a kind of sad power-play in which students are unfairly the victims. However, it is also not always a simple issue.

For example, to play big band music as it was intended by the writers and arrangers, usually does require the instrumentation called for by the arrangement. Big band music does not sound the same with non-standard instruments. As an analogy, it would be possible to play a string quartet with a random mix of instruments, but the result would no longer be a string quartet. Big band is a distinct genre that can bare only so much flexibility before it becomes unrecognizable. This is a problem, but there are solutions for jazz educators.

The obvious problem is the dominance of big bands in formal jazz education. Jazz and big band are not the same thing, though schools seem routinely to conflate the two. Jazz is a way of playing and reimagining music that can be done by any musician using any instrument. Big band is most often a highly-orchestrated genre that often, but not necessarily, includes jazz as one of its elements. Big band music sounds like jazz, but for most members of a big band the musical experience is the same as playing in any other kind of orchestra or concert band: reading and reproducing explicitly notated scores. Typically, big band involves moments of jazz played by only a few members of the ensemble – soloists and (often) rhythm section. But in the world of professional jazz performance, outside of schools, big bands are far less common. What could be called ‘real world’ jazz is played largely by improvising musicians in small groups or ‘combos’. It is in small ensembles that non-standard instruments can be easily included and everyone who wishes to play jazz can.

Jazz combos can include diverse instrumentation. They are simply combinations of instruments playing together in small groups. Small, flexible, improvising bands bring the dual advantages of accommodating players of non-standard instruments and offering experience in improvisational jazz that tends to be lacking in big bands. In short, combos can give equal access to jazz education to every student who wishes to participate and teach key skills such as improvisation, individual interpretation, real-time interaction, and personal musical initiative. Big band is a wonderful genre but, for jazz education, is problematic and should not really dominate school-level music.

Other structural obstacles to jazz teaching and learning need to be addressed to improve jazz education experiences and outcomes generally and keep more students involved and learning for longer more specifically. Jazz is one of the major musical forms of the Twentieth century and beyond and it is obscene that there are still music teacher training courses that neglect it. It is a failure on the part of universities and colleges that teachers, who are likely to be called on to teach instrumental jazz ensembles some time in their career, can graduate without any training in jazz or jazz pedagogy. Similarly it is hard to understand how jazz performance students can complete a degree without any training in teaching or pedagogy (Barr, 1974; Libman, 2014; D. Murphy, 1993; Richardson, 2019; University of Sydney, 2019), even though teaching is likely to form a large part of their working lives (Bennett, 2007). It is not good enough for jazz to be taught by teachers without expertise in jazz or musicians without training in pedagogy. The solution in both cases is simply to include jazz in music teacher training and to include pedagogy training in tertiary jazz performer education.

In Australia it is anecdotally common for primary and high schools to insist on unreasonable requirements that students must play in a concert band or orchestra as a prerequisite to joining a jazz ensemble. While I disagree with such rules, this is not the place to argue their relative merits. However, it is an unreasonable impost of time and money on students who, like ‘Helen’ in the third vignette at the start of this article, may not be able to afford either. The solution is to do away with these kinds of rules and make ensembles attractive enough to students that they want to be part of them.

This concludes this article and the series of three posts examining obstacles to students staying involved in jazz education. Part one looked at the issue of early dropout and premature perceptions of jazz as too easy or shallow. Part two looked at the knowledge crunch, the point at which the need for real skills and knowledge becomes and inescapable prerequisite to advancing as a jazz player. This third and final part discussed the dominance of big bands and strict instrumentation and their potential to exclude students who might otherwise like to continue with jazz. It also pointed to other structural impediments easily resolved but firmly entrenched in some places.

It is natural for some attrition to occur as students age and specialize in different areas of music or other fields. However, it seems that too many students, along with all their potential, are lost to jazz education. In any case, for those of us who teach jazz it is important to give high quality, effective education to every student who comes to us to learn. Being aware of the obstacles in this series, we can work to overcome them and provide better jazz education for more students.



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