This article is copyright 1998 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Association of Jazz Educators Jazz Educators Journal, Vol. 30, No. 5, March 1998. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.


Grading Jazz Improvisation: On What Basis?

by Antonio J. García

A couple of years ago I was reading one of the MENC (Music Educators National Conference) journals when I came upon a letter to the editor from a Northwestern University student in Music Education, Michele Kaschub. The thrust of her inquiry: why did a recent article on grading students in music courses focus so much on attendance and attitude–and so little on musical content and progress?

As I reflected on seminars with my Master of Music in Jazz Pedagogy students on the topic of assessment, I realized that jazz educators have yet as a group to address the issue of grading a Jazz Improvisation course, much less advocate any direction for the next generation of teachers. The matter never even surfaced during years of Curriculum Committee discussions I shared that led to the Teaching Jazz guide–nor is grading discussed in the other MENC curriculum guides. Yet if grading music in a creative, credit-bearing course is any challenge at all, how much more daunting is it to grade something as personal, even as amorphous, as jazz improvisation?

New Ground...or Taboo?

How does one grade a Jazz Improvisation course? Is it appropriate to evaluate students' creativity, their expressiveness in soloing? Is that defendable against potential student appeals? Or is it better to restrict the grading to students' more technical skills, their ability to re-create the required chord/scale relationships? Does that de-emphasize the importance of creativity in the students' work? After all, don't students focus most on what will get them the best grade?

For years IAJE and individual educators have pushed for Jazz Improvisation to become more available as a curricular offering as well as existing extracurricular occurrences–and will continue to do so. But with credit-bearing curriculum comes the responsibility for assessment and grading. Given the recent inclusion of improvisation skills in the National Standards, one could expect an increasing emphasis on Jazz Improvisation in the classroom. This will only add to the questions already circulating at the secondary and university levels about grading student work in such courses.

Paul Lehman, Past MENC President, stresses: "The only justifiable basis for grades is student progress in learning specific skills and knowledge in music, as outlined in applicable standards...and made explicit in a written curriculum guide.... Thinking carefully about grading forces us to think carefully about our objectives, and it provides a basis for improving our instruction."1

What are the objectives in a Jazz Improvisation course, and how can they be graded? Surely there are a variety of approaches, yet few references are available for those educators seeking advice. My inquiries thus far have uncovered only one substantive research paper, plus a few scattered pages in several books. Is this because little interest exists in the topic? Not according to dozens of educators with whom I've broached the subject. The response of many could be summed up in the words of one individual, who wrote: "You are bringing up some interesting points. I hadn't thought of the issue in my own grading. I may rethink some things I am doing in light of that."

For some, this is more a taboo topic. "It seems that you were trying to evoke some ideological war between teachers," wrote one educator. "I would hope that rather than focusing on the dichotomy between concrete or abstract principles, you would help us learn how our colleagues reconcile the two."

The latter is indeed my goal: let's discover how jazz educators reconcile the difficulties of grading an individual's growth in a Jazz Improvisation course. I sense no war erupting but rather a growing curiosity about what trends may already exist at the national and international level.


Initial Respondents to Improv Grading Survey
Jamey Aebersold University of Louisville Louisville, KY

Lee Bash Illinois Benedictine College Lisle, IL

Darius Brubeck University of Natal Durban, South Africa

Chris Collins Wayne State University Detroit, MI

Rick Condit McNeese State University Lake Charles, LA

Pat Crichton Western Australian Conservatory of Music Mount Lawley, West Australia

John Davis University of Northern Colorado Greeley, CO

Orbert Davis Columbia College Chicago, IL

Pat Dorian East Stroudsburg University East Stroudsburg, PA

Larry Engstrom University of Nevada Reno Reno, NV

Paul Evoskevich College of St. Rose Albany, NY

Pat Harbison University of Cincinnati College Cincinnati, OH

Andy Hoefle Highland Community College Freeport, IL

Sparky Koerner College of the Mainland Texas City, TX

Bob Lark DePaul University Chicago, IL

Eric Late San Jacinto College Pasadena, TX

Bryce Luty Hutchinson Community College Hutchinson, KS

Bart Marantz Booker T. Washington HSPVA Dallas, TX

Dan Murphy University of Redlands Redlands, CA

Jeff Phillips Hendersonville HS Hendersonville, TN

Ellen Rowe University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI

Peter Scheiner Columbia College Chicago, IL

Phillip Simon Thomas Jefferson HSST Alexandria, VA

Bob Sinicrope Milton Academy Milton, MA

Janis Stockhouse Bloomington HS North Bloomington, IN

Bryan Stovell Dover Bay Jr. High/HS British Columbia, Canada

Michael Tracy University of Louisville Louisville, KY

Chuck Tumlinson Washburn University Topeka, KS

Chris Vadala University of Maryland College Park, MD

Jeff Waggoner Hinsdale Central HS Hinsdale, IL

The Initial Survey

Following experimentation with a sample document, I decided to address the issue by direct-mailing questionnaires on the topic of grading improvisation to nearly 200 jazz educators in October 1996. Countries targeted included the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, England, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, The Netherlands, South Africa, and Malaysia–plus Europe and Latin America at large, with recipients including the then-current IAJE Executive Board, all Section/Region Coordinators, all Unit Presidents, more than 25 Interest Chairs of current or preceding term at the time, representatives from the IAJE Curriculum Committee, and a number of jazz educators who would not have otherwise been included in the survey. I also distributed additional copies at the 1997 IAJE Conference.

The response to the survey was swift, with most activity completed within one month. Respondents currently represent four countries, including 17 states in the U.S., and include educators at the junior high, high school, community college, college, and university levels. Nearly half of the responses apply in some way to vocal jazz education as well as instrumental.

I extend my sincere thanks to those who have already participated (see sidebar). Yet as informative as the results of the survey are thus far, I believe it is essential to gather the input of more than these 31 respondents.2 For that, I need your assistance!

MENC has since begun its own grading survey, published in its journal nationwide.3 Having received only 150 responses in the few months following, Paul Lehman wrote in the December 1997 Teaching Music: "I believe there is widespread interest in this topic. Many teachers are looking for help, but relatively few are stepping forward and offering to provide help at this stage because there is a great deal of uncertainty over how to proceed."4

Surely the topic of grading Jazz Improvisation prompts the same uncertainty for many–but that makes your participation all the more important. Organizations such as IAJE often hear concerns that there isn't enough "grassroots input" or "international input"; so now I am asking you directly. In addition, I encourage responses as applicable from the current and incoming IAJE Executive Board, Section/Region Coordinators, Unit Presidents, Interest Chairs, and the IAJE Curriculum Committee; for your representation of views around the world is a vital part of your role in IAJE.

Take Action!

The adjoining survey is intended to generate a representative–but not necessarily comprehensive–view of Jazz Improvisation teachers’ perspectives regarding grading concretely the abstract art we call Jazz Improvisation. Please photocopy, complete, and return this survey to me as soon as possible. The apparent length of the questionnaire is deceptive: since virtually all the questions seek check-marks or short answers, you should be able to complete it in 15 minutes or less. Some questions are rather pointed; however, there is no right or wrong answer. Make every effort to focus your answers within the spaces provided.

Only those educators who issue credited grades for Jazz Improvisation class or lessons need complete this survey; non-credit classes do not pose the issue discussed. If you feel that a colleague is more suited to answering the focus of this survey than you, please forward it to him or her immediately. If you are aware of accomplished Improvisation educators who you feel should also participate in this survey, please photocopy it and request that they complete it and forward it to me as well. IAJE membership is not a prerequisite, and both vocal and instrumental viewpoints are welcome.

Since for-credit Improvisation classes are less common in high, junior high, and elementary schools, I especially welcome participants in these categories. (International participants should note that the term "college" is used within to describe a track parallel with universities.)

Future Discussion

My analysis of the results will form a future article for the JEJ. In addition, I have proposed a panel discussion on the topic for the annual IAJE Conference, as I believe it is important for educators to exchange their experience and advice in an open forum. With your assistance, I will be able to obtain and communicate a larger, clearer view of Jazz Improvisation grading policies, providing a valuable perspective for current and future educators.

I look forward to hearing from you!


1 Lehman, Paul R. "Assessment & Grading," MENC Teaching Music, December 1997 (Vol. 5, No. 3), pp. 58-59.

2 I thank John Perrine for his assistance in collating the data from the initial survey.

3 "How Do You Grade Your Students?", MENC Music Educators Journal, September 1997 (Vol. 84, No. 2), p. 10. An October 10, 1997 deadline for response was requested.

4 "Grading Survey Under Review," MENC Teaching Music, December 1997 (Vol. 5, No. 3), p. 29.


Survey on the Grading of Jazz Improvisation Courses for Credit

by Antonio J. García


I. Identifying Information/Educator (please print)

A. Your Name: _______________________________ B. Title: ______________________

C. School and Street: ____________________________________________________________

D. City/State/Zip/Country: ________________________________________________________

E. Business Phone (overseas country codes first): (______________) (_______) _______-_________

F. Business Fax: (_______) _______-_________ G. E-mail: ________________________

H. Approximate # of years you have taught Improvisation anywhere (credit or non-credit): ___

I. Approximate # of years you have taught Improv for credit at your current school: ___

II. Identifying Information/Curriculum

A. Current Curriculum Level (circle one): Primary, Elementary, Junior High, High School, Community College, College, or University

B. How many Improvisation courses do you offer for graded credit? ___

(If you offer more than one and would like to complete one questionnaire for each, feel free to photocopy sets at this point and complete the answers separately for each course. If you would rather complete only one survey, please do so for your most entry level Improv course.)

C. Course title of your Improv class referred to in this survey: ____________________________

D. Are vocalists enrolled in this class? ___usually ___sometimes ___rarely ___never

E. Do you offer a separate Jazz Theory course for credit? ___

III. Grading Philosophy (Short blanks from here on may be answered "Y" or "N.")

A. Do you consider your Improv course an "easy A" (i.e., virtually no concrete requirements for students to fulfill in order to receive an "A")? ___

B. Does class attendance count toward the grade?___

C. Do any "non-musical" considerations, such as responsibility or professional attitude, have any bearing on the Improv grade? ___

D. Do you characterize your Improv grading process as (circle one bold) concrete or abstract?

E. Do you outline in your syllabus dual competency levels as a means to grade students of different experience levels (e.g., majors, non-majors) fairly? ___

1. If so, describe the titles and differing requirements of the competency levels:

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

2. If not, do you find you grade students of differing experience levels on separate grading scales without having stated so in the syllabus? ___

F. Do you feel your assigned grades are defendable against later grade challenges by students who may not agree with your policies? ___

© 1996 Antonio J. García All rights reserved.

Duplication for JEJ completion permitted; unauthorized duplication prohibited.

IV. Grading Policy

A. Is your grading policy based on a combination of elements which can translate into percentages of the final grade? ___

1. If so, list your various criteria headings and their corresponding percentages on a 100-point scale (use as many lines as needed):

Criteria Percentage

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

Criteria Percentage

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

____________________ ____%

TOTAL (must equal ...) 100%

Some grading scales may be published in the upcoming article. If you would prefer your scale be anonymous (if published), check here: ___

2. If your grading policy is not based on a scale for elements which can translate into percentages of the final grade, what are the criteria (numerical or otherwise) which are the basis for the final grade?

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

B. Assuming that the most important gauge of Improv success is the students’ creative expression in solos, does your class grading system reflect comparable emphasis on the creative? ___

V. Grading Creativity

A. Do you feel it is only appropriate to grade (circle one bold) the more technical/left brain skills of Improv (ability to re-create scales, cycles, etc.); or do you grade students’ more creative/ right-brain work as well (ability to improvise in an increasingly expressive manner)?

B. If your Improv grading is based virtually entirely on more technical skills, please answer the following:

1. Do you find students are more motivated to focus on those techniques (seeking an "A") rather than on creative experimentation with those skills? ___

2. Since your Improv grading does not encompass the students’ creative work in solos, how do you defend placing the greatest grade-point importance on the least creative elements?

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

C. If your Improv grading includes emphasis on more creative skills, please answer the following:

1. How do you defend the notion of grading creativity?

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

VI. Topics Emphasized

A. Do you spend more time in class workshopping (circle one bold) the more technical elements (scales, cycles, etc.) or ways to sustain and develop a more creative solo?

B. Do you test students’ scales, arpeggios, etc. primarily (circle one bold) during class or outside of it?

C. Do you require as graded work from the students any of the following (check as applicable):

1. Scat-singing in imitation along with recorded solos of jazz masters? ___

2. Improvised scat-singing? ___

3. Transcribing solos onto paper? ___

4. Composing solos on paper? ___

5. Performance of specific chords, scales, etc.? ___

6. Written testing of chords, scales, etc.? ___

7. Memorization of tunes on instrument? ___

8. Written testing of tunes progressions and melody by memory? ___

9. Performances outside of class? ___

10. The reading of Improv-related Jazz Educators Journal articles by Liebman, Galper, and other such authors? ___

11. Specific listening assignments? ___

12. A specific text? (If so, list title, author, and publisher here:) ______________________________________________________________________ __

13. Other specific assignment emphases not listed above:

___________________________________________________________________ ________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

VII. Resources on Grading Improv

A. Do you recall ever seeing an article dealing specifically with recommendations regarding the grading of an Improv class, particularly as pertains to issues of creativity? (If so, list title, author, periodical, and date:)

_______________________________________________________________ ____________

B. Do you recall ever seeing a book which included a chapter dealing specifically with grading Improv, particularly as pertains to issues of creativity? (If so, list title, author, and publisher:)

_______________________________________________________________ ____________

VIII. Additional Input

A. Please consider describing briefly here one of your more unique and successful methods of teaching your students some often-underdeveloped aspect of Improvisation. (Should music-notation examples be helpful, please submit a hard copy with any disk you may offer.) The more unusual the approach, the better!

______________________________________________________ _____________________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

B. Please consider describing briefly here what most disappoints you about what you observe in the teaching of Improv in today’s educational system. (Check here if you prefer this statement to remain anonymous: ___)

______________________________________________________ _____________________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

C. Please consider describing briefly here what most pleases you about the teaching of Improvisation in today’s educational system.

______________________________________________________ _____________________

___________________________________________________________________ ________

IX. Your Consent

I understand that all of the information I have presented within this survey may be attributed to me (except where anonymity has been requested) and that my responses may be quoted, paraphrased, or summarized within the text of Antonio García’s article–and grant permission for same.

___________________________________ ____/____/____

Your signature date

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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