Working With Beginning Rhythm Sections

by Jeff Horenstein, R&R Chair for Vocal Jazz

Many of the questions I am most often asked by other choir directors revolve around working with their jazz choir rhythm sections. I feel fortunate to have had some extremely talented instrumentalists participate in my vocal jazz program, but I have also enjoyed working with many young players new to jazz. My mantra has always been: if they show up knowing the basics of how to play their instruments, we will be fine.

Let me begin by being as clear as possible on this: I don’t play any instruments. I have never taken a bass lesson. I have never played the drums. And in spite of several years of piano lessons as a kid, my piano chops are pretty embarrassing. However, this doesn’t stop me from trying to give as much instruction to my rhythm section as possible, and it shouldn’t stop you. My goal with this article is to provide some suggestions and resources for choir directors without much experience (or perhaps an outright fear of) working with rhythm section students.

What to play?
This is often the problem for student rhythm section players that are competent on their instruments, but not fluent in jazz. What do I do with the classical piano student or the orchestra bass player, neither of which can read chord changes? What do I do if I can’t read chord changes on the piano or bass, myself? And what do I do with the rock drummer that is now being asked to read parts and play in different styles (not to mention occasionally with brushes!) Good news! You don’t have to be able to do it, you just have to be able to understand it to help point your students in the right direction. Here are some resources that have helped me help my students.

Kirk Marcy’s Jazz Piano Voicings for the Trio Player (HERE) walked me through the basics of jazz piano comping. I began using this method to write out voicings for my less experienced jazz piano players. As I gained a better grasp of the material, I could explain the process to my students and transfer the part-writing responsibility over to them. Over time as the jazz theory becomes more ingrained in my students, they have been able to use this understanding to read chord changes in real time and create their own supportive piano parts. This is by no means a comprehensive answer to developing incredible jazz piano players, but it has been invaluable to me in terms of getting my players on the right track.

Tim Carey’s Some Tips for Getting the Bass Line Solid Right Away When it’s not Written Down (HERE) helped me understand some fundamental rules for creating authentic bass parts. Much like my approach with my jazz pianists, I will often help them write out their own parts using these ideas, and then as soon as they’re ready I will transfer the part-writing responsibility over to them. Both for my pianists and bassists, the ultimate goal is for them to read chord changes and not rely on written out notes and voicings all of the time. These resources have been a key first step in helping my students get to this point.

Taryn Zickefoose’s Common Drum Patterns (HERE) is a great way to help beginning drummers understand the most basic beats they will be asked to play. The notation is a little more complex (both for drummers with less experience reading music, and for choir teachers not used to drum notation), but there is a helpful guide at the beginning, and much like the piano and bass resources, once a student has the tools to make use of this material on their own, the sky’s the limit in terms of the music they will be able to play.

How to play?
This is often a more nuanced question. I may not have years of experience playing the instruments I’m coaching my students on, but I do have many hours of listening to these instruments being played in a style that is very appropriate to ask my students to emulate. Here are some strategies to improve your rhythm section.

1. Know what you’re after. Listen to enough rhythm sections to have a clear vision of how you are asking them to play. If you don’t know what you want, how can you ask them for it? Have them listen to the same things you listen to so you can have conversations about what you’re all hearing and how to apply that to what they are playing.

2. Don’t be afraid to get in there and mix it up with them. Ask them for what you want. Just because you can’t demonstrate it on their instruments, doesn’t mean you can’t ask them for it. Sing a rhythmic figure. Use common musical language (i.e. “play that hit on the and of beat 3”) to both be clear about what you want, and to reinforce good musicianship. Isolate sections, phrases, even measures and beats, and have them play it until they get it. If you discover that they can’t execute what you’re asking them to do, work with them to come up with a more player-friendly alternative that still accomplishes your musical goal.

3. Record rehearsals. If you find that you have difficulty listening and reacting to your rhythm section in real time, try recording them, listening to it on your own, and developing a plan for your next rehearsal. Perhaps have them listen on their own to see what they notice about their own playing.

4. Remember that we all have the same musical vocabulary. Vocalists and instrumentalists alike understand faster, slower, longer, shorter, louder, and softer. We can all speak the same language of notes and rhythms, feel and phrases, dynamics and articulation. Use these not just as tools to achieve your immediate musical goals, but to build musicianship within the members of your ensemble.

Ultimately, the experience of learning about these instruments in a jazz context and making connections with my rhythm section students has become one of the most fun and rewarding parts of my job. I would highly encourage you to dive in, take some risks, and enjoy the process of improving your own skills and knowledge right along with your players.

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