Favorite pieces: All Ye Young Sailors

Another of my favorite pieces for 2nd year band is Pierre La Plante's All Ye Young Sailors, an arrangement of the sea chantey "Blow the Man Down." Of course, the moment the students hear the melody, they recognize it as the theme from Spongebob Squarepants. Since I'm not a fan of the show, why do I like the piece?

Melody

While some composers and styles minimize melody, most people (and that includes most students) thrive on good melodies. Recognizable, hummable melodies stick with band students for days, weeks, and months (and yes, years for some), so great tunes are high on my list of priorities when I select music. La Plante's skillful scoring provides every section with the opportunity to play at least part of the melody, so even the low brass players and saxophones have a chance to shine.

Time Signature and Rhythm

There aren't as many pieces in 6/8 for young band as ones in 4/4. All Ye Young Sailors has a great mix of beginning 6/8 rhythms, and there is just the right amount of independence in the parts. Note and rest values include eighth, quarter, dotted quarter, and dotted half. There are no offbeat entrances. Some instruments play a staccato quarter (or a single eighth) followed by an eighth rest (or two), but everything else looks pretty much like the early exercises in 6/8 from common method books. The most complicated section rhythmically is a round at the end.

Compositional Techniques

The round at bar 41 is not the only cool compositional technique in the piece. The melody travels between sections in two bar segments as a call and response (for instance, 13-21). There is an example of stretto at 19. Trumpet 1 plays an augmented version of the melody at 23. I don't dig into all of these with my sixth graders, but I'll spend at least some time on the ways La Plante disguises the melody. After all, knowing who has the melody is an important part of playing your own part, no matter what you have!

Be Prepared

I always start working on All Ye Young Sailors with a review of 6/8 in the book and then take brief sections of the piece with the ensemble. We may speak or clap some parts before playing them as well. If a group is doing well with 6/8, they can likely get through the whole piece on the first read-through, but watch out for the tempo changes at 35 and 37. I typically conduct 35-36 in 6 and watch the flutes carefully--once they can play their eighth notes with me, I make sure the clarinets and saxes are watching and listening to sustain their pitches. Good cues at 41 and following for the round are also important.

If you're interested in purchasing All Ye Young Sailors, doing so through the affiliate link below benefits my school.

Cover tiny file look inside All Ye Young Sailors Composed by La Plante. Score. Published by Daehn Publications (DH.DP2509-SC).

Jazz Band, Teaching Improvisation (part II)

I had a lot of fun working with my high school jazz band this last year on understanding guide tones—with the small group that I had, it was a ton of fun to dig into some concepts that I wish I would have worked harder to grasp when I was in high school. However, most of the group did not have a significant amount of experience with jazz improvisation, and they started the year very hesitant to improvise. Working with the group helped me realize how much teaching improvisation is like teaching anything else. You figure out what the student knows, look at what you want the student to be able to do, and then break down the steps in between to manageable chunks. So for today, what are the first steps in teaching improvisation to beginning students?

 These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

These hot cross buns are a great way to start improvising. I'm sure they also taste great.

One of the ways I like to encourage improvisation early on is through varying what students are already playing. For instance, I am a big fan of rhythm exercises in beginning band. Many books (I have used Essential Elements in the past) include pages of rhythms in an appendix in the back, and I start using these pages almost right away. While I mix it up with speaking and clapping, when it comes time for students to play a line of rhythms, I start to work in some choices.

"Pick your favorite note and play measure 3." (at this point, they probably know only five notes)

"Great job. Let's trade off every other measure, and you can play any of the notes you have learned so far." If the student is doing well with this, I'll start changing notes in the middle of a measure to see if they'll experiment more.

At this point, I'll also work in some repeat after me, both with myself and the student(s) leading. Perhaps I'll play Hot Cross Buns as we have learned it, and then I'll throw in an extra note or a slightly different rhythm. At the beginning stages of improvisation (and particularly when the student is a beginner on their instrument), my goal is to make them feel comfortable following the instructions I'm giving.

The Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble book uses a similar approach, and I have my beginning jazz players do the same kinds of exercises. We'll play Jingle Bells and then have students "solo" by varying the melody. Stronger players usually have no trouble with this, but I think it is important to reinforce the concept of variation in working with beginning improvisors. Until we are freed from technical limitations on our instrument, we can't play what we don't know how to play.

Over time, I'll work in additional listening exercises as well as chords, scales, and theory. That discussion, though, will have to wait for another time.

Jazz Band, Teaching Improvisation (part I)

How many of us experienced something like this early on in learning to improvise?

"These six notes make up what is called the blues scale. Doesn't it sound jazzy? Now, when we get to the solo section, you can play this scale for your solo. Mix up the notes however you want with some rhythms in your head and you'll sound great! "

While this is an oversimplification, I have seen this way of teaching improvisation play out far too often. Some students get it and sound fine (though they may get intro trouble later if they don't move past the blues scale), but many students simply freeze up. They don't know the scale, they're uncomfortable playing in front of their peers, or they're just not sure what to play even with the notes right in front of them. Another pattern I have seen is students ignoring the scale or other materials provided and playing random notes, reminding me of my kids at home who love to pick up "instruments" and make "music." 1

So how do we teach improvisation? Or perhaps we should ask, is it possible to teach everyone to improvise? For today, I'd like to define what improvisation is and lay the groundwork for answering how to teach improvisation.

Some say improvisation is spontaneous, but while there is an element of spontaneity, the best improvisors are those who are able to draw on vast reserves of musical ideas in order to fuel their creativity. 

Improvisation is the art of using what you already know to instantaneously create music.

the art – improvisation requires creativity

what you already know - creativity without skill rarely (if ever) makes anything great 2

instantaneously - it's happening right now

create - not recreate, you are making something that is not exactly what you or someone else has made before

music - the organization of sounds and silences in time

I believe every musician can and does learn to improvise. While some seem to pick it up naturally (I'm looking at the lead trumpet player who takes things up an octave, or figures out another alternate high note on a final chord), most students I have taught are not immediately comfortable with the idea of improvisation. Next time I'll look at some of the things I do to teach students to improvise.

  1. Though I should note that the oldest two are doing fine with piano lessons, and the oldest sings pretty well on pitch..

  2. Unless it's modern art.