Jazz, Improvisation, and Romare Bearden: Blending Art with Music

Walking the Lower School hallways, memories of walking in single-file lines and sitting in rows on the floor instantly come rushing back to me. I was able to relive Lower School memories when I recently visited a first grade music class taught by Christine Hoffman. When I entered the music classroom, I was instantly greeted by a bunch of curious and energetic first graders. They were just wrapping up a collaborative unit with Lower School art teacher Holly Smith about jazz, improvisation, and Romare Bearden. Bearden was an American artist whose work focused primarily on the life of African-Americans. Hoffman said, “This unit on jazz, improvisation, and Romare Bearden has been exciting to put together with Holly Smith. When Holly introduced Romare Bearden and the concept of improvisation in art, the kids made wonderful connections between improvising in art and improvising in music. The idea that music and art can be vehicles for self-expression is what this unit is really all about.” Hoffman started off her music class by asking the kids questions so that they could connect what they were learning in art class to their music class. “Romare Bearden listened to jazz music while he worked,” one of the girls said. The class then began to discuss the concept of improvisation and how you can improvise in both music and art class.

The next portion of the class focused on jazz legend Louis Armstrong, famous for his improvisation as well as scat singing. Scat singing is improvised jazz singing where the voice is used to imitate the sound of an instrument. After a short discussion on improvisation, Armstrong, and scat singing, the class watched a brief video of Armstrong performing “Dinah” and another video book called “When Louis Armstrong Taught Me to Scat.” I was thoroughly impressed at how skilled the kids were at recognizing different types of instruments. When Hoffman asked if any of the kids knew what type of instrument Armstrong was playing in the video, almost all of them immediately raised their hands and were able to say that he was playing the trumpet, part of the brass family.

After their discussion about jazz and improvisation, the class took some time to practice their four-beat rhythmic patterns by using rhythm notecards. Hoffman held up various four-beat musical patterns, and the kids clapped the patterns and said the notes aloud. Watching the kids do this really brought back memories for me of doing this in Lower School. After going through several notecards, Hoffman then told the kids to pick two notecards to put on the board to play on real instruments. The kids would repeat this phrase twice on various instruments, such as drums, guïros, wood blocks, and tambourines. Then, they were able to improvise their own musical phrases. Hoffman had an innate ability to teach the kids how to distinguish between improvisation and just loudly banging on their instruments. The first time the kids attempted to improvise, they were just trying to be as loud as possible with their instruments rather than trying to improvise their own musical patterns. Hoffman then explained to them, “You are not here for loud class, you are here for music class.” They then began to create their own musical patterns using the notes that they practiced with the rhythm notecards.

Having not been in Lower School in seven years, it was a great opportunity to be able to come back to music class and re-experience it. It was also a cool experience to be able to observe what these kids are learning about as an older, more experienced student. I asked a few of the kids what their favorite part about music class was; “activities” and “improvising” were just a few of their answers. This energetic group of kids is always eager for a hands-on learning experience and loves learning actively. When asked about her favorite aspect of teaching Lower School, Hoffman said, “They’re at an age where they don’t feel the need to conform, and subsequently, they are able to think outside the box to come up with creative and unique ideas.” The energy, enthusiasm, and love of learning that these kids possess are contagious, and spending time with these first graders was an experience that was both nostalgic and fun.

Below is a video of first grade teacher Nicola Byford’s class doing the rhythm and improvisation exercise. Video credit: Christine Hoffman.

Featured image: Libbie Alexander.

About the author

Libbie Alexander is a junior at Collegiate.