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This is Jazz Educator's Guide: Episode 2

Lessons on improvisation, rhythm and harmony and tension and release


Subject: Music


Level: Lower Secondary, Upper Secondary

By: Joel Chua

Episode 2: The Method to the Madness

This educator's guide is part of a series of guides for music educators looking to explore the basics of jazz with their students. Created alongside the 3-episode This is Jazz video series, each guide contains suggested activities and handouts that teachers can use for classroom teaching and learning. 

In this guide: Learning objectives

1. Students will understand the concept of improvisation and “making it up.

2. Students will understand how rhythm and harmony are used to add “jazz flavour” to existing melodies.

3. Students will be able to understand the concept of tension and release in a melody.


Before going into the various suggested activities, download, print and hand out This is Jazz Episode 2: Student Handout to your students. 

Students to complete Activity 1: Point A to Point B in the student handout. You can assign the pre-activity as a pre-class task. You can get students to share their stories and point out how all of them started from the same point (A) and ended their journey at the same point (B), but how they got from A to B differ. This can be applied to jazz too, which they will find out more about later. Screen the video below before next activity. 

Episode 2: The method to the madness

Activity 1: Getting from point A to point B – in visuals

1. Teachers can demonstrate this concept by marking out Point A on one end of the board and Point B on the other end of the board.

2. Explain to students that when jazz musicians are soloing, they are playing the same tune, but with their own melodies and expressions. Link this back to the pre-activity they did in the student handout. In the same way, this exercise (and the one in the student handout) encourages them to get from point A to point B in their own way.

3. Invite students to come up and draw a line connecting Point A to Point B. Encourage them to be creative e.g. using curves, squiggly lines, more angular shapes etc. There are no wrong answers.

4. Extension: You may try to express their drawing/line in music to help them “hear” the music they have created spontaneously for e.g. a smooth curving line could be a legato melody or phrase, while a sharp angular line may be likened to a rock song with electric guitar sounds.

5. If students are keen, invite them up to “perform” their line whether it is through singing, dancing or any creative expression.

Activity 2: Getting from point A to point B – in a Blues!

1. Introduce Blues licks to students:

Two suggested ways

  • Either perform the Blues licks for students: Download and refer to Notation: Blues Licks A to F to prepare. If you are performing live for the students, click on this blues play-along backing track and perform the blues licks in sequence, from A to F.
  • Or play a recording of the Blues licks: Download and play for students Audio Track: Blues Licks A, B, C, D, E and F. Then, download and play Audio Track: Blues Licks A to F in sequence for students. Explain that this is what it sounds like if the blues solo that were played earlier were simply played in order.*

*Please note that the track here is not nearly as expressive as a musician may perform the lines.

2. Explain that these are simple Blues licks, melodies that are commonly used by jazz musicians in their musical vocabulary on a blues, just like commonly used words they used to write a story. Tell students each of the Blues licks can be used in any part of the Blues.

3. Teach students to sing along to each of the examples by repeating the phrase a few times and vocalising them. This need not be 100% accurate as long as students are able to reproduce a similar melody shape and rhythm. 

4. Their next task is for them to create their own unique “solo” by selecting the order of the blues licks, in any order they wish. You can refer students pages 3 and 4 of the Student Handout to the notation and for them to write their their solo. Allow students some time to decide how they want their solo to sound.

Remind them there are no wrong answers and any solo that they come up with is valid. If needed, you can replay the individual Blues licks examples (Audio Track: Blues Licks A, B, C, D, E and F) for students to listen to while they are choosing their solo sequence. You can set aside some time for students to play their solos. 

Activity 3: Cool covers

Start off by explaining to students that in the video, This is Jazz Episode 2: The Method to the Madness, they heard two versions of the song Oh Rumah by ERI. One was the original version and the other was the "jazzified" version. Explain to students they will hear more songs that have been "jazzified". They will be given two versions of the same song, one original and one "jazzified". These covers and arrangements were performed by local musicians. 

1. Set the following task. You may choose to cover less songs in more depth or all of the songs but at less depth as long as the contrast between original and “jazz” version of the song is highlighted. See list of videos below. Instruct students to listen to both versions and identify the elements used to change/ “jazzify” the song for e.g. swing rhythm, harmony, improvisation etc.

2. Ask students how these changes affect their feelings towards the song for e.g. more interesting, more dramatic, less simple etc. 

3. Conclude this activity by summarising the observations and key learning points including that there are different elements that musicians can tap into to "jazzify" a song and how different combinations of elements can evoke different feelings.

Note: This activity is recommended for intermediate learners.

Song 1: One people, one nation, one Singapore

What's changed in the jazz version?

Suggested answer:

  • Different instrumentation: Piano, Organ.
  • Rhythm of the song: Free time ballad style instead of pop style drums.
  • More complex chords are used, many extensions. 
  • Different harmony used (different “home” key and different approaches to the home key).
  • Piano improvised melodies and ad libs.
  • Vocals more expressive with melody, singing in different rhythms, changing some of the lyrics.

Song 2: Love song 1990

What's changed in the jazz version?

Suggested answer:

  • Jazz piano intro with intricate harmonies.
  • Finger snapping on 2 & 4 in first half of the jazzified version of the song.
  • Mouth trumpet solo.
  • Rhythmic hits towards the climax of the song.
  • Big band style build-up to a kickline chorus.
  • Complex chords at ending.

Song 3: Getaran jiwa

What's changed in the jazz version?

Suggested answer:

  • Performed as a bossa nova.
  • Vocal improvisation at the start.
  • Change in chord progressions, played by guitar.
  • Rhythmic hits
  • Vocal scat solo. 
  • More expressive lyrics.

Song 4: Rasa sayang

What's changed in the jazz version?

Suggested answer:

  • Big band instrumentation.
    - drum kit
    - percussions
    - double bass
    - Jazz guitar
    - piano
    - brass and Woodwinds
  • Swing rhythm.
  • Piano solo with blues inflections.
  • Bass solo.
  • Saxophone ad libs among horn lines.
  • Big band melodic lines and rhythmic hits.

Activity 4: How tense can you get?

Explain to students that the next activity is designed to help them better understand the idea of tension and release which was briefly mentioned in This is Jazz Episode 2: The Method to the Madness video.

1. Explain that it is not always explicitly that we will feel a tension in the chords, but also a natural movement or resolution of melodies. Refer to the download, Notation: Tension and Release A to H provided below. Play the melodies for A, B, C and D. It is ideal to include a chord/triad as accompaniment to give greater musical context to the melody.

2. Pause at the notes without heads (indicated with “?”) and ask students to sing the note before playing. Check if students are correct by playing the note (indicated in “()” below “?”)  after they have sung.

3. When students get the notes right, explain that our desire to resolve the melodies to the those notes are a natural and instinctive response as most of us were raised with western music whether we listened actively or not.

4. For examples E, F, G & H, play them one at a time (either perform live or use Audio Tracks: Tension & Release provided below). Compare E to F, F to G and G to H.

5. After playing each progression, ask students to choose which has more tension.

6. Conclude by explaining that when jazz musicians perform solos, they spontaneously create and resolve these tensions to bring about emotions and tell their own musical stories.

Contributed by:

Joel Chua

Joel Chua is a Singapore-based keyboardist who has performed at various international Music and Improv Festivals. A versatile musician, he is associated with a wide-range of acts including Litmus Jazz Ensemble, The TENG Ensemble, Raghajazz and Nathan Hartono.

Keep up with Joel and the Litmus Jazz Ensemble @litmusjazz

This is Jazz Educator's Guide
This is Jazz Educator's Guide is a series of guides for music educators interested in discovering the basics of jazz with their students. Created alongside the 3-episode This is Jazz video series, each guide contains suggested activities, resources and handouts that teachers can use for classroom teaching and learning.