This time last year I took my grade 4 classical exam but decided to swap to jazz for a while to see the difference between the two genres (and because I think jazz is more ‘me’). I wasn’t sure what I would think of being examined on improvisation etc. but soon formed a connection with the music and have fallen in love with playing jazz. Jazz feels more free to me and I like experimenting with the music whilst keeping the flow.
Although at first I found it tricky to make things up on the spot, my trumpet teacher encouraged me to listen to tracks by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz trumpeters for inspiration and this has helped me develop my ideas. In September, I moved up to the Advanced Jazz Band which has been another source of inspiration, especially as we are expected to improvise in the termly performances.
My top tips for improvisation are to…
- play around over the backing track to get a feel for what sounds right
- experiment with different rhythms – use repetition and pauses for effect
- pinch ideas from the head
The scales for the ABRSM jazz exam aren’t the same as the major/minor ones in the classical exams, they are completely different (apart from the occasional one or two). This time I had to learn scales with names such as Mixolydian, Pentatonic, Blues and Dorian. Each of these means something different e.g. the Lydian scale is like a major scale but with the fourth note being sharpened by a semi-tone.
Unlike in the classical exams which require candidates to perform each piece of music as written, the jazz pieces require candidates to improvise by performing solos and fills. For solos, players have approx. 12-18 bars in which to improvise. There are also fills – 1/2 bars of improvisation. I chose to play ‘The Preacher’, ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’ and ‘August One’. The one I most enjoyed playing was ‘The Preacher’. Another difference between the jazz and classical exams is that they do not have to be accompanied by a live pianist; a CD player can be used to play the backing track instead.
My exam was at Blackheath Conservatoire which is where I’ve performed in Joe Thompson’s Family Jazz concerts and have taken previous exams. The examiner was friendly and let me restart August One when my CD player malfunctioned! Overall I think the exam went well and I came out of it feeling positive about the experience. Hopefully the examiner felt the same way…