The trouble with conventional methods of teaching jazz is that improvisation does not come into the equation early enough, say leading figures in the Scottish jazz scene. But the problem is now being addressed by a Highland jazz project in Inverness which is developing new methods and materials for the classroom.
The Bancroft twins - Tom, a drummer, and Phil, a saxophonist - are well-known figures on the Scottish jazz scene. Both are doctors and took part as students in a number of jazz education events, here and in Canada, where they met their co-tutor on this course, bass player (now brother-in-law) Tom Lyne.
Earlier versions of their ideas were developed in the Grampian jazz schools they ran in the mid-nineties, but as Tom points out, the students attending those courses changed each session. The Highland jazz project, which has been set up through the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and made possible by sponsorship from the Bank of Scotland, Highland council and Highland and Islands Enterprise, offers the chance to work with the same group of secondary children throughout a dozen sessions.
"We believe in introducing ideas through creative play," Phil Bancroft explains. "We allow students to make things for themselves but without relating this to the need to acquire technical or theoretical knowledge before they start. Students are immediately improvising and can learn from other students."
Listening to some of the earlier sessions, it was obvious that the creative play was being supported by a great deal of "back door" theoretical information, even at this stage. The three tutors used a range of ideas, from scat-singing to a defined chorus and time scheme through to composing, harmonising and soloing on their own invented melodies.
The students are drawn from all round the Highlands and many are involved in the Highland Region Youth Orchestra which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. They were less familiar with improvisation, but responded surprisingly quickly to being pitched into it. Everyone had to contribute, and after an initial embarrassed reticence, everyone did.
While this course is important in itself, it also serves as an ideal vehicle for subsequent development. The Bancrofts are working with a teacher in Kilmarnock, Nigel Durno, developing materials for music teachers with no expertise in improvisation. Since it became a part of the syllabus, teachers have struggled to come to grips with what is often alien territory for them.
Tom Bancroft says: "Teachers really need two things now - in-service training, which we would go in and give, and teaching materials, which we are working on. We think the methods we are developing here, will develop into a resource project for mainstream teachers, and we will be looking for funding for that."
Tom Bancroft, Caber Music tel 0131 653 2203. website: www.cabermusic.com