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The Orchestra Swings

The Orchestra Swings with Communication

Aim: In what ways do musicians communicate when they swing?
Summary: Students explore musical dialogue in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and musical conversations within the ensemble in Bernstein’s “Riffs.”
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 7, 11; NYC 1, 2
Vocabulary: call and response, riff, scat singing, trading fours

Going Deeper: Jazz is Freedom

Call and Response

Musicians communicate with each other through the language of music. One form of musical communication is known as call and response, in which musicians play, listen, and respond to each other in a musical dialogue, all while maintaining the steady beat, form, and rhythm of the piece. This back and forth can range from a simple echo to a more intricate conversation between musicians or entire sections of an ensemble. Call and response is a musical tool that adds excitement, spontaneity, and swing to the music.

Call and Response Warm-Up

  • Practice spoken examples of call and response with the students, including both echoes and questions and answers (e.g. “Knock, knock?” “Who’s there?”).
  • Practice call and response rhythms. You can start with patterns the students already know, and then move on to improvised rhythms.
  • Try out these same examples of call and response at different tempos and different dynamic levels.
  • Invite students to take turns leading the call and response. For an added challenge, have a group of students maintain a steady beat, or utilize the rhythm section while other students experiment with call and response.
  • Discuss musical communication with the students.
    • Why do you think it is important for musicians to work together and have good communication?
    • What are some examples of things that you do together as a group that require good communication?

Call and Response and Scatting in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”

  • Listen for call and response in the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Armstrong complete). The call and response begins at 0:56 in the recording, after an introduction performed by the trumpet player and singer.

    • What did you notice in these examples of call and response?
    • What instruments do you hear?
    • What are the musicians doing in their musical conversations that is similar to the way we have spoken conversations?
  • While keeping the beat with a stomp-clap (stomping on beats 1 and 3 and clapping on beats 2 and 4), have half the class sing the call while the other half provides the response. Have students switch parts.
    Call: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
    Response: Doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah
    Call: It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
    Response: Doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah
  • The response for “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a version of scat singing. Scat singing, or “scatting,” is a jazz technique in which vocalists use syllables to improvise on a melody. Sometimes musicians use scat singing to mimic the sound of instruments.
  • Play the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Armstrong scat excerpt).

    • What do you notice about the way Louis Armstrong is singing?
    • What sounds or instruments do you think he is trying to imitate?
  • Demonstrate some examples of scat responses, then ask the students to take turns creating their own scat solo response. This can be done a capella or with the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (play-along).
    Call: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing (students)
    Response: Improvise a four-measure response (solo)


  • Divide students into pairs. One student will sing an improvised scat solo “call” for four measures. The other student will respond with an improvised scat response for four measures. Explain that this dialogue—in which each musician plays four measures—is called trading fours.
    • Pick some instruments to mimic for your scat patterns.
    • What sounds might your instrument make? How can you mimic those sounds using your voice?
  • Students may use the activity My Scat Patterns (PDF) to record their ideas.
  • Put it all together by playing the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (play-along) while the students perform their scat patterns.

Go Deeper

Discuss other pieces of Link Up repertoire in which call and response and scatting can be heard.

Courtney Bryan’s “Do Your Thing”

  • Written by New Orleans–based composer Courtney Bryan, “Do Your Thing” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the premiere of Link Up: The Orchestra Swings in 2017. It was inspired by an African American ring game called “Little Sally Walker,” and features two important concepts from the curriculum: blues form and improvisation. At the culminating concert, this piece is featured as a surprise for the students. They will not have heard the piece before, but you can introduce your students to Bryan by reading her biography  out loud. At the concert, the vocalist and host will encourage students to join in and “do their thing” through call-and-response.
  • The three videos below can be used to introduce your students to “Little Sally Walker.”

Swing Dancing to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing):” Choreography Instruction

Swing dance to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills.

Communication in Bernstein’s “Riffs”

  • Leonard Bernstein’s “Riffs” from Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs is a piece for orchestra that is written out, but has an improvisational and rhythmic feeling often associated with jazz. The piece is built on a riff, or short melodic phrase, that is played over and over again by a soloist or group of musicians. The riff is playfully traded around the ensemble, and can be heard in rapid dialogue between the musicians over exciting rhythms and dynamic contrasts. The piece builds in intensity to a dramatic ending, when the full ensemble plays the riff together.
  • Review the Instrument Families section to prepare the students to listen for the various instruments playing the riffs in Bernstein’s piece.
  • Listen to the track “Riffs” from Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (excerpt).
    • Can you hear the riff?


  • Listen to the track “Riffs” from Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (complete). Divide students into woodwind and brass instrument families. Have the students raise their hands, stand up, or hold up instrument family flashcards when they hear an instrument from their section playing the riff.
    • How do other musicians in the ensemble add to the riffs?
    • How would you describe the musical conversations you’re hearing in the piece?

Florence Price’s “Juba”

The third movement of Florence Price’s first symphony, entitled “Juba,” is named for the juba dance, which originated among enslaved people in the US and features rhythmic hand-clapping and slapping of the thighs. Many enslaved people were taken from a region of West Africa where drums were used as a method of communication and a vehicle for communal gathering. It was feared that drums would be used by enslaved people to coordinate revolts or uprisings. When drums were outlawed by enslavers, enslaved people developed the juba dance to continue making music and building community. In Price’s “Juba,” the orchestra performs rhythms associated with the juba dance tradition. Her work shows the ways in which many black musical idioms, such as jazz and swing, have roots in modes of artistic expression that were developed out of necessity.

Go Deeper

Explore this Plantation Dance / Ring Shout video and lesson plan developed by PBS Learning Media to learn more about the history of the juba dance. To go even further, learn the Pattin’ Juba with your students through a tutorial from Body Percussion Classroom. Now that you’ve heard or performed the juba dance yourself, listen to the third movement from Price’s First Symphony using the track “Juba” from Symphony No. 1. Do you hear the juba? Why or why not? Can you imagine performing the juba to this music?

Downloadable PDFs

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