<< Blues Classroom
Addresses the following themes in the National Curriculum Standards for Music Education:
Primary: 2, 3, 6
Secondary: 4, 5
Play Bessie Smith's "Lost Your Head Blues." Ask students if this song reinforces or challenges their notions of blues music. Point out that while the song might sound mournful, it actually depicts a bold woman willing to stand up to her husband. Next, play Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy." What does this song do to students' preconceptions of blues music? Finally, play an example of jump blues. (See the glossary for a definition.) By this point, student definitions of blues music should be more nuanced than they were originally. Point out the blues is a means of self-expression; as such, it naturally includes a wide variety of emotional moods, including sadness, desperation, humor, flirtation, and, very often, happiness. Conclude this discussion by playing the end of the segment "Was the UK Blues Scene Significant?" from Red, White & Blues in which a variety of people talk about what defines the blues. [See Film Tie-Ins for details on the film segment. Short song clips by jump blues performers such as Big Jay McNeely and Wynonie Harris can be found in Experience Music Project's Digital Collection at http://www.emplive.com/digitalcollection/index.asp.]
After students have explored the variety of music that exists under the umbrella of the blues, inform them that certain musical elements are present in much blues music. To allow them to hear the commonalities in blues songs, play a variety of tracks and ask students to identify these shared characteristics. To reinforce student understanding of essential blues elements, assign them to read the essay in this guide, "Understanding the 12-Bar Blues."
This entire exercise can be wrapped up by having students complete a one-page written response to the question "What is the blues?" Student writings should capture the ideas presented in the lesson.
Inform students that the blues scale uses some of the same pitches as the eight-tone major scale while adding some others. The blues scale is built around a pentatonic scale, which is common in many African music cultures. Begin to introduce this blues scale by demonstrating the notion of bending pitches. Do so by playing the flat 3rd, flat 5th, and flat 7th steps in any given key. Now, incorporate all the pitches that construct a blues scale in any given key. Show, via overhead projector or handout, the notes in a blues scale: the root (1), the flat 3rd (b3), the 4th (4), the flat 5th (b5), the 5th (5), the flat 7th (b7), and the octave (8). Choosing a specific key, have students repeat this scale pattern up and down on whatever chromatic instruments are available. Periodically, students should revert to playing the original eight-tone major scale to train their ear to hear the difference between the two types of scales.
Another characteristic of the blues is improvisation. Inform students that the blues scale is used to construct melody, which is created through variations on the order in which the blues scale pitches are played. The flexible order and duration of the chosen pitches is called musical improvisation. Improvisation allows performers to create a different mood or convey a different meaning through their personal choices of notes, tempo, and rhythms.
Walk students through the following exercise, with the goal of using the notes from the blues scale to make up their own phrases (of 12 measures in 4/4 time) on any melodic instrument. Start by having students echo short phrases you play on non-pitched instruments. Once students have mastered the echo, keep playing the same rhythmic phrase while one or two individual students improvise their own rhythm. Continue this call-and-response exercise until all class members have had a chance to improvise. Maintain this call-and-response format, using longer and longer phrases and eventually transitioning into pitched instruments and two-three notes. Once students have mastered diatonic improvisation, move into blues improvisation, using the blues scale and the same technique of echo and the call and response.
To help build student competence in blues improvisation and to reinforce the conversational tone of improvising, wrap-up by allowing students to try "trading fours" with a partner. Trading fours refers to each player in the duo taking turns improvising on four-bar measures.
2. In addition to the blues scale and the melodies related to it, the use of a particular harmonic or chord pattern identifies the blues. This exercise introduces students to the three basic chords of the blues. These chords create the vertical harmony that supports the horizontal melodies. Start by presenting a visual example of the music staff, with a root chord (I), subdominant chord (IV), and the dominant chord (V)the most common chords used in a blues progression. Demonstrate playing these chords in the key of C and have students echo. Then, have students construct these chords in one or two more easy keys by changing the identity of the root chord. Inform students that one of the more popular formulas for a blues progression is played using the chords mentioned above in the following pattern: I-IV-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-V. Students should be encouraged to play the progression above on chorded instruments, or at least the root note of each chord in the progression if they do not have a chorded instrument. Conclude by introducing the notion of a 7th chord. Show what such a chord looks like on a music staff, using a V7common to the bluesfor your example. Play the V7 and give students a chance to do the same. Finally, have students play the pattern above, substituting the V7 for the V. Discuss how adding the 7th chord changes the sound and how this sound can be heard in the blues.
Research and Analysis
Synthesis and Assessment
2. Discuss the role that body language plays in song delivery. How does a performer's physical commitment to a song impact its message? How would students expect someone who is singing about love to look? How about letting loose on Saturday night? Have students listen to several blues songs, and then ask how they would expect the performers to look while singing and playing.
Instruct students that during slavery and in the subsequent Jim Crow South, oppression meant that, in addition to being denied many freedoms, African Americans were expected to make their bodies look subservient in posture. Blacks, when interacting with whites in the Jim Crow South, were expected to have their shoulders slumped over, with their faces looking down. Looking a white person in the eye was considered disrespectful.
Using historic footage from The Blues films (clips from any of the films will work), have students cite examples of performers who demonstrate subservient posture while performing. Students should note the content of their song lyrics as well. In contrast, ask students to cite examples where the performers are both direct and confident in their presentation, again also noting the content of their song lyrics. After viewing the films, discuss whether the song lyrics matched the posture. This exercise can be extended by asking students to research the state of race relations in the country at the time of each performance identified in the films. Conclude by asking students to create a visual that depicts the physical posture, lyrics, and accompanying racial climate of three or four performances.
Research and Analysis
Synthesis and Assessment
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