Blues and Jazz are American genres of music with deep roots that reach to rich traditions. Most secondary and collegiate level schools have jazz ensembles and jazz studies programs. However, elementary and middle school vocal programs are sometimes limited in experiences that enrich students in these styles of music.

Perhaps you’ve heard or even made the following comments:

  • With all the objectives, skills, and concepts I teach for music literacy and performing, how can I incorporate this too?
  • I’m not a “jazzer”. I don’t know how to improvise so how can anyone expect me to teach it?
  • My students research and write reports about jazz musicians.
  • I’d like to teach my students about jazz and blues but I don’t know how.

No matter where you find yourself on this spectrum, if you are ready, willing, and able for the challenge of experiencing blues, jazz, and yes, improvisation with children, I have some successful, active music making ideas to share.

First, relax. No one is expecting you to know “ii-V-I changes in all 12 keys”! In other words, we can do this! In some ways it is like learning how to cook.

Next step is stocking the pantry. Provide ample listening and moving activities that use a 12-bar blues form. My youngest students frequently practice locomotor movements. For “walking” I often play a simple 12-bar blues form with a “walking” bass line. Recorded versions are available online or here is a sample that I use with my students.

Hearing jazz and blues recordings might not be common in student homes so be sure to include it as much as any other genre in your classroom. Incorporate jazz and blues recordings with movement activities such as mirroring and shadowing. There are also several fun children’s books that feature jazz or blues including several with CDs.

Once you’ve spent some time filling their ears and bodies with the sounds of jazz and blues, it’s time to start cooking! Begin with a recipe. My 3rd grade students enjoy “Telephone Blues” from Carol King’s Recorder Routes. I add a 12-bar blues accompaniment on the piano and the kids think they are really cool. This is also when I start them improvising in a blues/ jazz style. Even though they have improvised in the classroom many times, most of those experiences have been with materials in a straight 2 or 4 beat meter. To feel the swing of the 8th notes is a whole new experience. To play or sing it takes the experience to a deeper level.

Here is a sequence I use with my young improvisers:

Name Rhythms

  1. Have the students each think of someone who is really cool. I use the name of our awesome PE teacher.
  2. Ask them to turn the name into a pattern that they can say (Mr. Gates, Mr. Gates…)
  3. If playing the recorder, transfer the rhythm to “scat” syllables, (Doot-ta doo, doot-ta doo) making sure they can say it consistently.
  4. Model examples along the way
  5. Transfer the patterns to the recorder or a xylophone set in a pentatonic scale
  6. Speak and play the pattern on 1 pitch, then 2 neighboring pitches, then 3, etc.
  7. Adjust the amount of pitches based on the skills for your students, starting with a few and adding more as they go
  8. Practice the patterns in whole group, small groups, trios and duets, and then individuals
  9. Accompany their efforts with 12-bar blues on the piano or recording
  10. Consider adding actions to name rhythms (Mr. Gates shoots a basket, Mr. Gates goes to school…) to extend the phrase lengths and rhythms

Now that your students are feeling comfortable you can spice things up with more advanced arrangements. Here are two examples that I have created for my students.

Blues and jazz music evolved in America. Please make it part of your classroom too!