Book Review: Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading, By Antonio J. Garcia

Jazz Improvisation by Antonio J. GarciaMarlowsphere Blog (#140)

Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading
By Antonio J. Garcia
Meredith Music Publications 2016
A Review by Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., MBA
In the world of academic instruction there are many books—especially textbooks—that are quite long (and expensive) but have little to say of any substantive consequence. Then there are books that are relatively short but are packed with relevant information and do have something substantive to say. Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading by performer, composer/arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and author in both instrumental and vocal genres Antonio J. Garcia belongs in the latter category.

Why? Garcia tackles the subjective issue of grading a student’s improvisory technique, skill, and creativity in a way that opens the pedagogic challenge to a larger discussion; it is an issue that goes beyond the teaching of jazz improvisation.

There are numerous subjects in a student’s fundamental education about which subjectivity or creativity do not begin to enter the discussion. Such subjects could include mathematics (2+2 still equals 4), accounting, chemistry, physics, et al, in other words any subject for which there is no debate or creativity required (this is not to say that at some point the basic tenets of a subject are not open to examination or paradigm shift; it just means that there are subjects–such as geometry and calculus–that require more mastery than creativity).

On the other hand, there are subjects for which there is a requirement to master basic rules, but for which creativity and subjective application are requisite for success. Such courses might include English, journalism, and anything in the fine and performing arts, et al. In other words, in these concrete vs subjectivekinds of courses, there are rules to master, but there is also room for creativity and subjectivity.

Thus, there is the issue of grading. How do teachers grade creativity and subjectivity? In the former classes a teacher merely tests a student’s rote understanding of the material (2+2=4), but in a course that requires a mastery of rules or techniques, grading a student’s creative application of the rules or techniques is, well, subjective. Or is it? There is much useful information in Garcia’s 135-page book that answers this question.

The conundrum, as Garcia puts it in Chapter 1, is grading a student’s improvisational skills is “. . . a precise task in an idiom that frequently defies definition.” He raises some pertinent issues that apply equally to courses beyond jazz improvisation: “What are the objectives in a Jazz Improvisation course and how can they be graded?” and “Should the grading process be concrete or abstract?”

To answer these questions Garcia reached out several years to nearly 200 jazz educators from all over the world, plus jazz educators from the now defunct International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE, an association that has morphed into the Jazz Education Network or JEN). His grading model is also based on an IAJE Roundtable and his own extensive pedagogical experience. The “Self-Study on the Grading of Your Jazz Improvisation for Credit” questionnaire is included in Chapter 2.

Feedback from this questionnaire was “Two-thirds of the respondents spent more class time work-shopping the more technical elements (scales, cycles, etc.) than focusing on ways to sustain and develop a more creative solo.”

One of the other conclusions he comes to is “. . . it is the inexperienced or ineffective teacher who places emphasis almost exclusively on technical skills.” Again, this is also true of teachers in subjects that require a modicum of creativity and out of the box problem-solving.

Chapter 3 provides the “meat” of this book. It includes almost three dozen specific commentaries from leading jazz educators with respect to grading philosophy, grading policy, grading creativity, and topics emphasized. In effect, not only do you hear from Professor Garcia’s voice, you also hear the approaches of a broad spread of jazz educators with respect to grading jazz improvisation, including Darius Brubeck, Bob Sinicrope (recent JEN President), Mark French (Berklee College of Music), and Jamey Aebersold.

While the grading approaches among these jazz education luminaries vary (although there is much agreement on technical skills), in Chapter 5 Garcia himself reconciles the grading issue of “technical skills” vs. “creative skills”: “By specifying technical tools that lead to creative expression and requiring that they [students] incorporate those tools into their improvisations, I am unifying their thoughts of technique and expression, while I eagerly await their next creative discovery on that path.” At the conclusion of the chapter he adds: “By requiring students thoughtfully include the tools of creative expression that exceed simple scalar retention or the like, I believe we do the most possible toward prompting students to expand The book's philosphical hearttheir creative reach.” One could add poet Browning’s   “. . . or what’s a heaven for?”

Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading is not just for jazz educators who teach improvisation. The philosophical heart of this book is about bringing out the creative best in students, albeit by starting with the fundamentals. It is about approaching each student as an individual learner with varying degrees of talent and intellect compared to others. It is not just about grading, it is about how to be a more effective teacher.

© Eugene Marlow June 22, 2017

Back to Top