Building a great band: Part 1 for students and parents

Achieving excellence in jazz band performance

By Saul Richardson: Principal at Jazz Workshop Australia, Lecturer in Jazz Pedagogy at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Chief Conductor Sydney Youth Jazz Orchestra, Yamaha Festival jazz adjudicator.

Part 1: For Students and Parents

If you are a member of a jazz ensemble (often called “stage band”, “big band”, “jazz orchestra” or “jazz band”), it means you are part of an exciting team of musicians working together to play music together at the best possible level. It is important that being in the band is fun, but usually you’ll find that the better the band is, the more fun it is. If the aim of your group is just to have a bit of fun and mess about, then this guide isn’t for you! This is advice for musicians who want to be good players and members of the best possible band.

Here are a few things that will help you and your band improve:

  •  You have a responsibility to the group to help make it good!
  •  Be at every rehearsal. If you have to miss a rehearsal, you should find someone to fill in for you. Arrive on time.
  •  Try your hardest to play your best at every rehearsal and every performance. You don’t improve by not trying, you just get better at being ordinary. You need to put in effort at training sessions (rehearsals) so that you get used to playing at a higher level. A rehearsal without effort is a waste of time.
  •  Practise your part between rehearsals. Most bands waste most of their time waiting while the conductor teaches individuals how to play the right rhythms or correcting wrong notes. The band will improve much more quickly if everyone works on basic things like notes and rhythms between rehearsals. That way when the whole band gets together you can work on more important and more interesting things.
  •  Learn how to improvise. This is the most important part of playing jazz, and most people just can’t do it because they have never learnt how or never practised it. Yes, that’s right! You need to practise improvising if you want to be able to do it well in a jazz style.
  •  If your regular music teacher isn’t a jazz teacher, then it is a great idea to get some lessons with someone who is so that they can teach you how to play jazz. Be careful with this: just because someone can play jazz, doesn’t mean they are good at teaching it. Just because someone is a famous musician, they may not be any good at teaching! Find someone who is well known as a good jazz teacher. They should be able to refer you to past students who have been successful.
  •  If you are a trumpet or trombone player, always hold your bell above the music stand and point straight forwards.
  •  Listen to recordings or live jazz. Try to hear professional recordings of the charts your band is playing. This is the only way to really learn what jazz is supposed to sound like. If you don’t listen, you’ll never be able to play it well!
  •  If you play saxophone, you need to play with a jazz sound in a jazz band, not a “classical” sound. The tone you are asked to use in exams and in concert band isn’t a jazz sound. Use the right sound in the right context.
  •  If you play guitar, bass or drums, learn what sound you should use in various jazz styles. What is right in rock usually isn’t right in jazz.
  •  Stand up to take solos (unless you play piano or drums).
  •  Always take a pencil to rehearsal and mark your music with reminders to yourself and any changes.
  •  Learn your scales. They really are important.
  • When you play in the band, make an effort to listen to the other instruments around you as you play. A great band plays “together” and “in tune”. You need to listen to the other instruments to make this happen. It isn’t easy at first, you’ll need to get used to doing it.

Good luck, and enjoy the journey as your band moves from good to outstanding!




©2012 Saul Richardson,

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