We’ve got the blues

Our fifteenth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week three of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

What activities might you use in a first lesson on the blues without a recourse to notation? Can you draw on Kwami’s description of different kinds of musical literacy to do this? How might you introduce appropriate notation into a lesson on the ‘blues’ that acknowledges the ways jazz and blues musicians use notation? 

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

I love the Blues. I love all that it has to offer our pupils from a historical, cultural, musical, and creative perspective. I love that it’s the perfect bridge between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, and the music that some would have us believe we should teach them and the music that they want us to teach them. I love that it’s expressive. I love that it’s improvisatory. I love that it’s spontaneous. I love that it’s never the same twice. And, I love that it’s communal. As you can see, I love the Blues, both personally and professionally.

From a pedagogical perspective, I use the Blues to create and educate, rather than to simply notate. While notation is something that I touch upon during the teaching of the Blues, it isn’t one of my primary objectives. The Blues is the perfect opportunity to learn about the specificity of one type of music, while learning about the bridging and melding that can take place between it and almost any other style of music to come after. The Blues is real-time creation – improvisation. The Blues is also founded on a reaction to, and expression of, the world around someone. Learning about and experiencing such musical and cultural creation is invaluable for our young people.

In the spirit of improvisatory practices, every time I start to teach the Blues, I do so in a different way. Despite this, there are always common themes to my first lesson of the Blues – call and response, physical movement, chanting, repetition, improvisation, instruments, voices, awkwardness, acceptance of awkwardness, encouragement, persistence, and fun. The Blues is very personal and doing such things as I’ve just mentioned for any person, let alone a young one, can be quite intimidating to start with. After all, we are all self-conscious, so building an environment of acceptance and trust is vital to successfully teaching the Blues. I have never, and will never, touch on traditional notation during the first lesson of the Blues. On reflection, this ticks all of Kwami’s different kinds of musical literacy.

From a notation perspective, I believe the Blues to be a great bridging mechanism. Those who’ve only ever read traditional notation see that something else is possible, and those who’ve never seen traditional notation can be introduced to it in an adaptive and bespoke manner. My message is that it needs to be flexible and meaningful to those who have created it and will perform it. I personally believe that the information contained in any Blues ‘lead sheet’ – if necessary – should facilitate full musical engagement by those at opposite ends of the notation spectrum. I employ a combination of chord symbols, numbers, composition maps, memory, and traditional notation. For me, this seems to cover all of the bases and tends to provide a rich musical experience for all. It also allows questions to be raised, interests to be spiked, and great discussion to be had by pupils and teacher alike. As I said earlier, I love that the Blues is expressive, improvisatory, spontaneous, and communal. Therefore, any style of notation employed in the teaching of it, should reflect these qualities of the music itself. How I introduce notation, and when, to any group of pupils depends on so many variables it’s difficult to express in this blog. However, my hope is that by employing this suite of methods, the music literacy of my pupils is broadened and improved, and that they gain musical knowing and understanding through engaging in the wonderful qualities found in the creation and performance of the Blues.

David House @House_dg

What activities might you use in a first lesson on the blues without a recourse to notation? Can you draw on Kwami’s description of different kinds of musical literacy to do this? On entry to the classroom students are handed cards with letters on – A, B, C, D, E, F, G – teacher begins to play chords at the piano, shouting out the root note as they go “C” “F” “G” and so on in the 12-bar blues sequence. After a couple of choruses students with the letters which are being shouted out are asked to stand up – brief pause whilst a reminder about chords having three notes is given – now any student with a card which is included in the chord stands up. After some time the students stop sitting and standing but sing along with and call out the names of the chords – thus internalising the chord sequence to be learned.

How might you introduce appropriate notation into a lesson on the ‘blues’ that acknowledges the ways jazz and blues musicians use notation? What would students gain from engaging with notation in this way? Chord sequence, with letter names only, is shown on a screen. Pattern is followed with all students playing something and joining in whilst the sequence continues. Emphasis is on keeping in time, developing a feeling for the chords, experimenting with different registers and voicings [if playing on a keyboard] and keeping in the groove. Improvisation is introduced via the regular use of chord I – and two bars of improvisation on each line of 4 bars. Students gain the way of expanding a single letter [chord symbol] into rhythmic and melodic ideas, a sense of exploring possibilities.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think I would probably use some sort of call and response activity to start with to fill the gaps and to introduce the idea of improvisation, which is the foundation of the blues along with he walking bass and chord sequence. I would have a walking bass and chord sequence playing on a loop and get either vocally or using an instrument, improvise a simple pattern or the top. Get the pupils to first copy me and then ask them to have a go at creating their own pattern for the rest of the class to copy. This involves listening and working out themselves what fits. Could have some good discussion about which ones work better and why. 

I agree with Kwame that developing improvisation and jamming skills are key facets to developing as a musician. All composition has in its development some sort of improvisation as when you are composing your are trying out and experimenting with ideas to see if they fit with material you already have/ are developing etc. I would also use this lesson as an opportunity to develop understanding of chords and standard chord notation used in pop and jazz as well as helping students develop their knowledge through listening of the differences between standard and 7th chords. Using different techniques from this help students to think about the music more, instead of just playing what Is notated down on a page exactly as it is written and can help them develop their all round musicianship skills of performing, listening, improvising/composing as well as thinking and talking about music.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicDept

I think I would probably start the Blues considering chords and harmony, encouraging students to listen to the sequence and feel the changes. This would involve some form of movement and probably some singing. The ‘feel’ of the Blues is so key to the style that the sound of it has to be embedded for students to fully appreciate the style so I would spend some time on this.

When moving onto some playing, I would introduce chords in the form of chord symbols for notation, and using extended chords as challenge. I have done this previously and I like being able to encourage students to consider the voicing of their chords where notation would be overly specific about which notes they would have to play. Showing students the movement from C7 (Bb at bottom) to F9 (A, C, Eb, G) is always a lightbulb moment for so many that chords aren’t all in root position!

All of this does not require notation for students to be literate which of course is the point in the Blues – the original Blues musicians would not have read music and so insisting on it to be successful now seems rather inauthentic!

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

An opening sequence of lessons on the Blues in my classroom would commonly use a range of different kinds of musical literacy that don’t include notation. I believe the aim of a good Key Stage 3 curriculum should keep music making at its core and be driven by aural skills and musical oracy. In addition Blues music is a popular style and needs and deserves to be embraced in a real way. Lucy Green’s book ‘How Popular Musicians Learn’ was core reading for me when it first came out in 2002 and explored how informal learning practices can impact and challenge what can be perceived as a more ‘formal’ music education. I have returned to it several times over the years.

So a typical key stage 3 first lesson on the Blues would likely include activities from the following. Not all at once, but a selection depending on the group. Including: listening to an example and tapping a pulse, singing is my ideal starter before anything else happens, exploring the 12 bar blues through listening and identifying chord changes, guided aural imitation and playing improvisations over a backing track or a guitar/drum kit groove played live. Improvisations do involve lots of teacher modelling and prior planning by the teacher on the skills and interests of the students coming into the classroom. It would be commonplace to show a video of Blue musicians playing together and having a class conversation about the way in which they learn to play and compose together. I would say the best lessons have less teacher talk and more music making.

Saying that I would sometimes provide a backdrop on a screen of the core elements, if relevant maybe a lead sheet to include the chord sequence, maybe a riff in TAB and notation or the notes/letters of the Blues scale. It would not be purely notation. Sometimes I would have this early in the scheme, sometimes later depending on the group. I would definitely introduce it before too long. But I would expect it to be a reference point over a score. I would not teach from this visual or use it formally, but I would display it as a support to students that find it of value. Notation in many instances is something that can be scaffolded around a good music curriculum, inline with the planning intent for the department. I do feel that approaching a scheme this way is a strong way to ensure a level playing field for students in accessing the work and also puts music making and oracy at the centre of the students musical learning experience.

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicEd

When introducing the Blues, it is important to consider the concept that is being taught. I tend to go along the lines of structure, chords/harmony and then melody. When introducing the structure of the music, I use a table format. I have 4 boxes over 3 rows. I then put the chords within the boxes (CEG, FAC, GBD) and colour code each one to enhance the visuals. This is designed to help pupils learn the 12 Bar Structure.

I talk to the pupils about the chords and the structure. We use this to listen to Blues music and when performing. This can last 2 or 3 lessons from listening and performing together as a class. Within this, we discuss the chords and the how these play a role within the structure. All of this is done with any notation. But I feel pupils gain a full understanding of the 12 Bar Blues structure and the chords that are used. The use of the table allows this to be accessible for all. In relation to Kwami, are we able to communicate this music in a practical way? I think so. This is a way that all pupils can access even if they have experience of notation or not.

Although don’t confuse the above with a rejection of notation. I feel there are elements where notation can be used. Especially when looking at melody. The visualization of the flat notes helps communicate the blues notes etc. It is important for the teacher to derive the best form of musical literacy to help convey a particular concept that all pupils will be able to use to access.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

I’d start with singing, and doing call and response; but I’d try and use words and melodic gestures that are reminiscent of the blues and the style – trying to give the class a flavour of the music without telling them what it is. I’d want them to feel what it’s like to sing short musical gestures that fit with an accompaniment. I’d probably move on to showing them the blues performed by others, and talking about what we see and hear. I’d want the class to experience the spirit of the style before we look at any notation. I’d then move to them creating their own musical gestures that could fit with my accompaniment, and to move this onto lyrics too; asking them to think about things they’re missing and things they’ve lost as a prompt for the lyrics they’d generate. I wouldn’t get into the granular details about chord progressions, blue scales in a first lesson. I would want to create the blues before we deconstruct it. 

Jazz players use chord changes as a means of giving shape to melodic improvisation. The chords determine (or at least suggest) the scalar context out of which the improvisor operates. Classical musicians reading lead sheets or fake book arrangements use the chord symbols in a much more static way – to accompany the melody of the tune they’re reading. The scalar context is unimportant to someone who is not engaged in improvising. (from here). 

I loved the above quote when I was reading up on jazz notation; it reminded me of when Professor Lucy Durán was giving a presentation to some of my students on African music and I given her the board endorsed reading: ‘African music isn’t mostly about rhythm’, she declaimed, ‘it’s about melody’. I’d need to think again about how I’d introduce notation into the blues (and how I’d teach the blues because I’ve not taught it in 15 years). Reflecting now I’d want to capture the spirit of the harmonic changes as determining ‘the scalar context out of which the improvisor operates’. This is one musical unit I would definitely want to spend a great deal of exploration of context and providence, as it is rich in cultural connections. 


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