Scales of spontaneous invention

16th May 2008 at 01:00
The bands are unlikely to be found in the Easy Listening section, with names such as Detonator and Wreckage
The bands are unlikely to be found in the Easy Listening section, with names such as Detonator and Wreckage. But Portobello High pupils Sarah McCall and Michael Parr Burman are open-minded and a jazz development programme at school is encouraging them to move outside their musical comfort zone.

Today is the fourth session in a block of six afternoons they're spending with some of Scotland's most talented jazz professionals in a pilot project funded by the Scottish Arts Council's Youth Music Initiative. Everywhere, teenagers are sitting with headphones at keyboards, rehearsing sequences on trumpets, some almost dwarfed by their double basses.

The idea is to teach them the jazz improvisation technique of spontaneous invention, in an effort to develop their composition skills. Another objective is the not quite so sexy business of mastering scales.

Portobello's principal teacher of music and performing arts, Jenny Sumerling, is impressed with what her students are learning alongside pupils from nearby Holy Rood High. "Many people think jazz improvisation is something you either can or can't do; you're either brilliant at it or you're rubbish; there's no way it can be learnt," she says.

"They are trying to demonstrate there are basic building blocks, that you can learn how to do those and that gives you the freedom and the structure to bolt on your own ideas."

Mrs Sumerling is confident pupils will learn from the jazz tuition: "It is going to benefit them in everything they do musically with us in their courses in the curriculum, because it very much correlates and interfaces with what we are doing ourselves.

"Standard grade and Intermediate 2 all have inventing as an important part of their course, and an understanding of how harmony works is crucial to inventing."

As well as giving the pupils the opportunity to improvise in performance, the sessions also give them a chance of watching live performances from professional jazz musicians. There are more than 30 pupils taking part, mainly from S3, but with several senior students with a special interest in jazz joining in. They have been chosen because they study music and are fluent instrumentalists and vocalists - guitarists featuring significantly alongside woodwind, brass, drummers, and pianists and bass players.

The sessions are being organised by Cathie Rae from Thick-Skinned Productions, a tour management company which runs educational music workshops for pupils and music teachers. More than 100 instrumental teachers employed by Edinburgh City Council recently completed a jazz development workshop as part of their continuing professional development.

Cathie is a professional jazz singer who coaches vocalists and is project manager for the Glasgow International Jazz Festival: "They need to learn an instrument really well, which includes all their scales. That will give them more freedom on their instrument to create."

Third-year pupil Sarah McCall sings with Wreckage when she's not at school and wants to study the singersongwriter course at Napier University. "I've never sung jazz before. They ask you to improvise on the spot and it's too hard. We are getting there with it though."

Fifth-year pupil Michael Parr Burman, a guitarist with his band Detonator, is a member of the Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra and is accustomed to improvisation. "This course is pretty good," says the Jazz Prefect, who'll be passing on these skills to younger students at the end of this course.

The professionals have been patiently going over students' 12-bar blues homework - Chris Grieve on trombone, Graeme Steven on guitar, Stuart Brown on drums and Paul Towndrow on sax. "When you are a jazz musician, you compose on the spot. Everyone learns it from somewhere," says Chris.


When Thick-Skinned Productions surveyed pupils during a pilot project in 2006, they discovered 78 per cent had never heard live music. Four hundred pupils from Midlothian, West Lothian and East Lothian were surveyed, following a series of jazz concerts to launch the pilot.

After recent CPD sessions with Edinburgh instrumental teachers, a survey was carried out among 25 of the teachers. The findings showed how teachers felt the project could help youngsters, as Cathie Rae explains: "It is very clear from this initial feedback that knowledge of scales in particular is a problem for students, in that their importance is not fully appreciated and their lack of knowledge andor willingness to learn them is inhibiting their progress.

"This is not only significant when improvising, but in all aspects of composition, regardless of genre. We feel this pilot will emphasise the importance of learning all scales when improvising and composing, in addition to scales required for exams.

"We hope, along with instrumental teachers, to demonstrate to students the musical freedom that this knowledge of scales will bring and will endeavour to create interesting, fun ways to encourage them to practise."

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