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Lesson 2: Learning “Take the A Train”

Aim: How is scat used in jazz improvisation?

Summary: Students learn “Take the A Train” and how to scat, imitating instruments and creating their own musical language.
Materials: Musical Explorers Student Guide, classroom instruments
Standards: National 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 11
Vocabulary: rhythm section, scat, soundscape

Billy Strayhorn (1915–1967) was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist, and arranger who was a primary collaborator of the legendary bandleader Duke Ellington. When Ellington first met Strayhorn, he wrote Strayhorn directions to his office in Harlem. These directions later became the lyrics for “Take the A Train.”

Brianna Teaches “Take the A Train”

“Take the A Train” Demonstration

Jazz artist Brianna teaches “Take the A Train.”

Sing “Take the A Train”

  • Listen to “Take the A Train,” Track 28.
    • This song is about a subway line called the A train, which runs from Queens to the northern tip of Manhattan and stops in the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem.
  • Sing along to “Take the A Train” using Track 28.

“Take the A Train”

You must take the A train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on, now it’s comin’
Listen to those rails a-hummin’
All aboard get on the A train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

The rhythm section is the core of most jazz ensembles. Made up of piano, bass, and drums, it establishes the underlying rhythm, harmony, and beat of the music, laying the foundation for the melody and improvisation, and giving different jazz styles their distinctive feel.

Explore Scat Singing in “Take the A Train”

  • Explain that scat singing is a technique in jazz in which singers improvise using wordless syllables. Often, they are mimicking with their voice the sounds of the instruments in the jazz ensemble.
  • Listen to “Take the A Train” Brianna trumpet scat, Track 30. Note that Brianna uses scat syllables to imitate the trumpet solo.
    • Which syllables and sounds did you hear Brianna use to imitate the trumpet?
  • Create a list as a class of the scat syllables that were heard. Then add some others that could also mimic the trumpet.
  • Using “Take the A Train” trumpet call and response, Track 31, have students take turns echoing the trumpet using their scat syllables.
  • Try the same activity, this time imitating a different instrument.
    • What instrument do you want to be?
    • What scat sounds would that instrument make?
  • Listen to “Take the A Train” scat conversation, Track 32. Note that this time, Brianna and the trumpet are having a conversation, in which the trumpet calls, and Brianna responds with her own improvisation. Have students listen for the syllables.
  • Add any additional scat syllables heard in this recording to your list.
  • Using “Take the A Train” trumpet call and response, Track 31, have students take turns having a scat conversation with the trumpet.

Create Your Own Soundscapes

  • Listen to “Take the A Train,” Track 28.
    • How do you know the song is about a train?
    • Which instruments do you hear?
  • Explain that this has a soundscape, which is the section of sounds that portray or characterize a specific environment.
  • As a class or in small groups, have your students pick a place in your school that has distinctive sounds, for example, the copier running or telephones ringing in the reception office; the squeaks made by feet and bouncing balls in the gym; or the scrapes of food trays in the cafeteria.
  • Ask them to close their eyes and listen for the sounds around them for a few minutes. You can have your students use Explore the Sounds of Our City (PDF) to help them record what they have heard.
  • Back in the classroom, try to replicate the sounds that were heard by asking them to use their voices, classroom instruments, or additional sound-making items.
  • Here’s a tip: If your students do this activity in small groups, when you bring the class together, you can ask the rest of the class to guess the location of the soundscape of each group.
Creative Extension

Jazz Directions

Using Jazz Directions (PDF), have your students fill in the blanks in the “Take the A Train” lyrics with a special place in their neighborhood, the name of their neighborhood, and the mode of transportation to get there. Then have them draw a map or a picture of their special place to accompany their lyrics.

Literacy Extension

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra gives us a snapshot of the famous jazz musician’s life. Explore his musical journey from his first piano lesson to his concert at Carnegie Hall!

Illustration of Duke Ellington at the piano

Musical Word Wall

Add the words rhythm section, scat, and soundscape to the Musical Word Wall.

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