Student Composition In Your Jazz Program

Educator resources

Infusing Student Composition Into Your Jazz Program

by Dr. David Fodor

Many school jazz programs today feature outstanding performance ensembles.  Students are well trained in the reading and interpretation of jazz charts, and soloists often display an ability beyond their years to improvise across sophisticated chord changes. However, one thing is often missing from these performances: the inclusion of original music composed by the students themselves.

Why include composition in our jazz curriculums?
National music standards (www.nafme.org) include composing as an integral component of music learning, yet we often overlook the opportunity for our students to create and perform their own jazz music. Writing original compositions allows for students to imagine, plan, create, evaluate, and refine their own product. Empowering students to be creative composers may take some extra time, but the musical reward is well worth the effort.

How to begin?
Technology has made the composing process easier, and many students and schools have immediate access to computer-web-app-based products to work with. I suggest that “good old” pencil and staff paper also works well, especially at the beginning stages of composing! I will discuss one web-based notation program and one stand-alone music creation program as tech tools for your students. However, many other software choices are available that range from free to expensive.

1. Start composing with something familiar.
Most Junior High and High School students will have already learned and performed a song with the 12-bar blues form or 32-bar rhythm changes.  Using one of these familiar song forms as a foundation for creating a new melody is a common practice in jazz, and it allows students to focus on creating melodic elements first.
Have the students begin by creating a blues melody (AAB) on their instrument (drum set players can use vibes or piano). The role of the teacher in this process will include guiding the composer through some basic music theory concepts, such as how to use chord and non-chord tones, how to work within an appropriate pitch range, how to employ repetition, how to create complimentary yet contrasting thematic phrases, and more. The teacher’s role most certainly should include showing the students many exemplary models of the genre. The teacher can guide the composer through analyzing these exemplars, pointing out examples of how the theory concepts above have been used.

2. Write it down.
Once the new melody has been memorized, have each composer write out the notes and rhythms This could be accomplished by hand using pencil and paper or using a notation program such as Noteflight (www.noteflight.com). The teacher should help to ensure that the written part accurately reflects the intent of the composer, including rhythmic, dynamic, and articulation markings. If the student composer is not familiar with how to format a Lead Sheet, the teacher can present examples from any number of sources. Several common sources for lead sheets include the Hal Leonard Real Book Series (http://www.halleonard.com/search/search.action?seriesfeature=REALBK&) and the Sher Music Fake Book series (http://www.shermusic.com/fakebooks.shtml).  A fun way of “proofing” the written part is to have the composer give it to a fellow musician and ask them to play it. The resulting reading and conversation will most likely be lively and informative!

3. Time to Perform
Now that the melody has been created as a “Lead Sheet,” the next step for live performance is to have this document transposed for the appropriate instrumentation of the group. Lead Sheets are generally created for C, Bb, Eb, and C – Bass Clef instruments. If the written version was created in a computer program, transposing will be relatively easy to accomplish with a few button clicks. If created by hand, the teacher will need to present the transposition rules and help guide the process.

Teachers should let each composer run the rehearsal of their work. Before the first rehearsal, help the composer to create an “arrangement” of their tune, so the “road map” is clear in their mind. This will include deciding who plays the melody and when; how many times the tune is performed before opening up for solos; which instruments will comp (if there are multiple harmonic players, such as piano, guitar, and/or vibes) for the various soloists; and how the tune will end.

What if the composer doesn’t have a group to perform their work?  The music program “Band-In-A-Box”  (www.pgmusic.com) is capable of creating a full performance of a lead sheet composition, including rhythm section parts, melodic content, and even solos and an ending. The composer selects an appropriate musical style (with hundreds to choose from), tempo, number of measures, chord symbols, and melody. The computer then generates a realistic performance based on these parameters. Composers can also select the instrument(s) for the melody and solos, and print parts out for a live ensemble to use, when the opportunity arises.

4. Extra Credit
More advanced students may wish to write multiple parts for harmonized melodies, or create enhanced modifications to the form or chord structure.  As the guide for this process, the teacher’s role is to determine the best level of exploration for each student, supply them with the theoretical information they need, and lead them to listen and analyze the very best exemplars of the art.

Once students achieve a more advanced level of writing, they should be encouraged to share their work with others. The Jazz Education Network offers a Young Composer Showcase every year for students to submit their works.2 The very best compositions are chosen and performed by professional musicians at the annual JEN Conference.  Every composition entered in the showcase receives written feedback from a professional judging panel. The JEN Young Composer Showcase accepts original small group (combo) and large group (big band) works in High School, Undergraduate, Graduate, and Post-Graduate categories. For more information on the Jazz Education Network Young Composer Showcase, go to: www.jazzednet.org.

Jazz students will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of music through composing that will also enhance their performance skills and artistry. Please consider adding a composition component to your program this school year!


Dr. David Fodor is the Coordinator of the Jazz Education Network Young Composer Showcase, and a forty-year veteran music educator and performer. He retired from public education in 2013 to pursue new musical opportunities performing in several big bands, conducting the Wilmette Community Band, and presenting music clinics and workshops throughout the Midwest.