By Elizabeth Draper, Music Director, Cantata Learning
April is Jazz appreciation Month. It’s a perfect coincidence that I am in the midst of a 4-week musical immersion in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz.
Jazz is considered one of America’s original art forms. Music like all cultural expression, is ever evolving. It is fluidly morphing from every interactive influence it encounters.
Because music does not exist in complete isolation, it would be difficult to credit any one person or band as the “inventor of Jazz” but it has been indisputably decided that Jazz began showing it’s early roots sometime between the late 1800s and early 1900s in New Orleans.
New Orleans was one of the few places in the United States where African slaves were allowed to dance and own drums. These complex, syncopated poly-rhythms blended with popular music, military marching bands, European classical music, rag-time, blues, etc. to create the music known today as “Jazz.”
A common characteristic in Jazz music is the “swung” feel. We may take it for granted today, but this rhythmic feel evolved as Jazz music evolved from it’s early roots. It became popular in 1930s with advent of the genre of Jazz known as “swing”.
Cantata’s song Wash Wash Wash Your Hands is a great example of a “swing” feel. The hi-hat cymbal plays a swung eighth-note throughout. Enjoy this song with you classroom and encourage your kids to tap along.
An activity I love to do with children is to have them grab a drum or a homemade drum and demonstrate the difference between a “swung” eighth-note and a “straight” eighth-note. Other percussion instruments can work but I’ve found this works best with drums or other instruments that have a stronger, more precise “attack” than, say, a shaker. This can also work with a tonal instrument, but it is less likely that a classroom will be filled with these types of instruments.
I often begin with the children forming a single-file line behind me (usually I choose to walk back-wards to face them as we march) as I sing and tap straight eighth-notes in rhythm. I have the children copy my lead, then we join in unison, taking turns leading. This is also a great opportunity to explain and define “tempo”, as this is the main variable during this activity.
Once this gets old, I begin tapping a swung eighth-note rhythm and have them copy in the same fashion. I generally don’t explain to them what they are technically doing until after they are comfortable with the swung feel. It’s generally easier to do before getting too heady/technical. Analyzing too much only leads to confusion.
The next step is having the kids take turns leading and going in between a “swung” and “straight” feel. I love to sing different familiar melodies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at the same time showing them how these sound when you sing and play them “swung” instead of “straight.”
Get creative- allow the kids to take turns trying to sing things “straight” vs. “swung.” I use this time to explain that a key component to most jazz is the fact that it falls within the “swung” feel. I demonstrate this by scatting a jazzy sounding lick and then repeating it “straight.” This can get a lot of goofy giggles.
At 2:34 into this video is a comical explanation of “swung” vs. “straight eighth-notes. However, I recommend not trying to explain the technicalities behind the “feel” but instead just have your kids follow by example.
Elizabeth Draper has spent over half her life as a music educator and performer. She currently performs with the Grammy-Winning children’s group The Okee Dokee Brothers.