Buster Birch seems to be turning into one of the busiest jazz educators on the planet. He has as a new series of jazz guides and answered a few questions from Peter Bacon:
LondonJazz News: Who would you say is the chief target for this new series of jazz guides?
Buster Birch: The Beginner Jazz Soloing series of books is aimed at anyone wanting to get started with improvising. They would suit school children, adult learners and “classical” musicians who want to learn to improvise. They could also be a great help to instrumental teachers looking for a way into improvising with their students. This first book is for saxophone and clarinet, the trumpet edition will be coming out very soon, and I’m working on a flute and violin edition now. These will be followed by the “Intermediate Jazz Soloing” series for the same range of instruments. We’ll be using them as core texts for the students at Bromley Youth Music Trust (BYMT) Jazz School, and I hope other institutions might also find them helpful.
LJN: How did you start out on your musical journey? Did you study music in the classical way?
BB: My musical journey all started with my dad, who used to play trumpet and encouraged me to learn an instrument. My studies have been broad and the route fairly unconventional.
From 13 I had two years of snare drum lessons at school from a Yorkshire military drummer who taught traditional grip, notation and rudiments. Then I got hold of my first drum kit and spent about a year teaching myself by playing along to records, before gigging with local bands. My teenage years included playing percussion in the school concert band (led by our very strict, but brilliant music teacher); playing drums with much older musicians in pub covers bands (I was too young to be in the pub so they used to hide me out the back until we went on stage); playing four sets a night in local working men’s clubs at the weekend in a trio with a pianist who had a missing finger and a bass player that sang with a pipe in his mouth (that was an education) and joining a pop band that had a very colourful manager who owned a Soho film studio (that was another education). This was all from 16-19, at which point I started to take my studies more seriously.
I took traditional music theory lessons from my old school teacher on Saturday mornings, started jazz saxophone lessons and took drum lessons at the new “Drum Tech” in Acton. Then I got a place at Goldsmiths College, where I spent three years doing a music degree. It was fantastically diverse. We studied jazz, composition, ethnomusicology as well as atonal music, serialised music and everything from Beethoven to Boulez. I was still working on the saxophone, but mainly playing drums in the big band and percussion in the symphony orchestra, as well as gigging as much as possible. After that, I spent a year in New York and took some lessons at the Drummers Collective in Manhattan and studied privately with Joe Morello (from the Dave Brubeck Quartet) and Jim Chapin. After I came home, I got a place on the one-year post-grad jazz course at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where I had some fantastic teachers that made a massive difference to my progress. That is where it all started to fall into place. I realised what I wanted to do and what I needed to work on, and it has been a constant process of development ever since. As I said, it’s pretty unconventional, but in hindsight, I think all of those different experiences have helped me become a better musician and teacher.
LJN: Do you think it’s more of a challenge for those who have followed the conventional way of learning music – being taught predominantly through using their eyes (reading music) – to then use their ears in order to improvise?
BB: Well I know what you mean, but I’m not sure that it is necessarily harder. It’s just a different set of skills that you are using, and like everything else, you have to work at it. If you’ve never done much of that, then you shouldn’t expect to be good at it right away. I think that is a fairly common problem. There is an expectation that some musicians have of themselves that because they can play their instrument well and sight-read, then they feel they should be able to do all this other stuff as well, so it can be frustrating for them. But I have found that most people are usually much better at playing by ear than they think. So long as they are prepared to give it a go and allow themselves to make some mistakes, then they will improve.
I do think there is a problem with the way people in our culture are usually taught music. It is fundamentally based on notation and reading, at the expense of other skills, right from day one. The reason for that is the ever-increasing pressure to pass exams, instead of just allowing time to learn, grow and develop a more rounded set of skills. The most important thing is to listen to the recordings, to have that reference in your head, but with all the apps and free YouTube stuff now some students tend to skip that stage.
LJN: What would you say are the three or four key messages in your way of teaching jazz playing? The ones that can be applied irrespective of instrument?
BB: Well firstly, none of these books are about the instrument. They are all about how to play music. The exercises have been carefully written to fit in a comfortable range for each instrument and there is a chapter on articulation (with audio samples) and a section on developing your sound, with references to famous jazz recordings, which are specific to each instrument. But the main body of the work teaches the student how to create well-balanced melodic phrases, which they can use to improvise solos or compose their own tunes.
I spent seven years as a visiting jazz professor at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, where I taught classes on improvisation, jazz repertoire, jazz history and musicianship. I’ve also been co-director of the Original UK Jazz Summer School for 14 years, where I’ve worked alongside some of the finest jazz educators in the UK and I’ve learned a lot from them. Three years ago I decided to start up my own regular jazz workshop, which led to starting a second regular jazz workshop which then led to starting up the BYMT Jazz School. In that time, I’ve given over 150 jazz workshops to adult learners and children. I wanted to bring some of the rigour and teaching concepts from the conservatoire to the children and amateur musicians, but of course, they are starting from a different point. So I had to develop some strategies to help them understand the music, get over the initial fear of improvising, develop some useful skills and not get bogged down with too much theory. The important thing is to break it down into small, manageable steps and have a clear strategy for the students to follow. Over time I found some things worked really well, and those are what I have based this series on. It is fundamentally a melodic approach to improvising, as opposed to the chord/scale theory approach which is very common in jazz education nowadays.
The key features of the book include
• playing by ear
• using patterns to learn the minor pentatonic scale
• applying stock rhythmic phrases to scale patterns to create melodies
• using Question & Answer phrasing to improvise musical “sentences”
• applying articulation techniques to develop a jazz sound
• improvising in different styles using the same method
• composing your own tunes using the same method (four sample compostions in different styles are provided as a practice guide)
• how to play over ii-V-I chord sequences using the same method
Every single exercise includes a play-along audio file to practise along with the notation, and there are backing tracks to practise improvising in different styles at different tempos. In all, there are 153 audio tracks to download for free. I’m pleased with the response so far. It has received some great reviews on Amazon and I’m really happy to have this opportunity to share some of the methods that I’ve found worked well in the workshops.