Five Things to Teach your Female Students about Jazz

This week’s Five Things Friday post was written by Marie Millard, trombone, founder of Sonoma Jazz Girlz.

Marie Millard received her music degree from Cal State Hayward in 1996 and began teaching elementary band and private trombone a year later. In 2016 she discovered that the all state high school honor jazz band that only had three girls in it when she participated in 1991 had even fewer girls in recent years, and she started Sonoma Jazz Girlz, a jazz improv class for junior high and high school girls. She plays with Awesome Hotcakes ( and blogs at

See the end of this post for Marie’s full-length bio.

1. Chord Spelling and Improv

Before I started teaching my jazz class, I emailed the jazz director at nearby Sonoma State University and asked what he thought were the biggest deficits in his incoming students. He mentioned two. The first was chord spelling (what notes are in each chord), which had already been my priority concerning what to teach. How many of my private students came to me playing the blues scale over anything and everything? And it’s a HARD habit to break. I would rather a student come to me knowing nothing about improvising than come to me knowing the blues scale!  I start by telling my students what notes are in a B flat 7 chord and what notes are in an E flat 7 chord. Then we click on the simple 12 bar blues on our iRealPro app (get this app!) and I make no rules except they have to hit one of the notes in the E flat 7 chord on the downbeat of the fifth measure of the blues. (iRealPro plays the part of the rhythm section and highlights the chords as they move along.) I make the student tell me which note they’re going to hit on the E flat chord before they start. When they accomplish this task, it’s like a light turns on and their confidence grows three sizes. We mess around with, “Let’s see what an A flat in the fourth bar sounds like going to a G in the fifth. Now let’s see what a D sounds like going to a D flat,” etc. After a while I talk about rhythmic variation and playing off the melody. I never want them to feel like they’re playing scales of any kind. Soon after the blues, I introduce “I Got Rhythm,” since it’s a common progression and the B section is good for talking about fives of fives (ii V I or actually II V I in this case). This is one of the many songs in the list of 1300 jazz standards on iRealPro. Then we learn songs with less common progressions. I recommend “Willow Weep for Me,” one of the few standards written by a woman (Ann Ronell).

2. Sightreading

The second thing the Sonoma State director wished his incoming students were better at was sightreading. It’s tempting for me to let my students solo on the same songs over and over, because I think it’s beneficial, but I’m trying to incorporate more sightreading. I’m trying! I print out the head of whatever song we’re working on, and sometimes we read big band or combo charts.

3. Famous Women in Jazz

Listening to the best jazz musicians is essential, and despite my saying, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have the internet! In my day…” students don’t usually remember to go online and listen between classes. So we take class time to listen to at least one song per week, and I make sure that at least half of the people we listen to are women. It’s no small feat! Search “jazz trumpet solo” and see how much scrolling you have to do to get to a woman. Search “best big bands” and see how few women instrumentalists are in the photos. Intentionally find women instrumentalists for your student to listen to; she won’t find them by accident. A good place to start is the DIVA Jazz Orchestra. As Geena Davis says, “If she can see it, she can be it.”

4. How to Spot Sexism

For years I didn’t talk about sexism with my students because I thought things were better for this generation. Now I realize that, at least in jazz, things haven’t changed much, so I bring it up. I used to think I was wrong for thinking, “Might this be sexism?” But there’s nothing wrong with thinking things through. You might decide that no, it wasn’t sexism, and you might realize, “HEYYY!” Sometimes you won’t ever know. But there’s a reason the top big bands have close to zero women, and it’s not that women aren’t as good. It’s that sexism is pervasive in jazz. Sometime’s it’s overt, and sometimes it’s unintentional. but it’s always present. My best tip for spotting sexism is TALKING TO OTHER WOMEN. Encourage your female students to tell you or someone else how things are going in their jazz group. In the 1990’s I heard, “Girls only go to college to meet husbands,” and “You only got that because the director wants to sleep with you.” I had my butt slapped by a male student I was alone with in a dark backstage. If I had told other women these things, they would have pointed out the obvious, and I might not have taken the long hiatus I did from jazz. I might have realized that I was a better player than I thought. Instead of having a vague uncomfortable feeling, I might have thought, “My friends are right. Those guys are sexist, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

5. Gigging and Networking

Try to prepare your student for anything that might happen at her first few gigs. Will she need mutes? Clothespins? What will she say if a man says something demeaning to her? Because of lack of representation, girls are conditioned to feel like they don’t belong at jazz gigs. The more you can prepare them (and if they can follow chord changes like you taught them they’ll be ahead of most), the more they’ll feel like they’re in the right place. Once she starts gigging, your student can help bring other women onto the scene. Not too long ago I got angry with another female jazz musician over something nonmusical. But would she still be my first recommendation if someone asked me who they could get to sub on her instrument? You bet your brass! She’s a great player! Help your female students get to know each other, and when the time comes, they can recommend each other for gigs. Promoting each other should be one of our main networking goals. Representation is what it takes, and these are five things I think are essential for making it happen.

Bio continued from above:

Marie Millard received her music degree in 1996 and has taught music in the public schools and privately. Her blog entry “I’m Just a Girl Standing in Front of a Jazz Band” went viral in 2016. She currently teaches trombone and jazz improv at Music To My Ears in Cotati, CA and is a member of the five piece jazz/blues/soul band Awesome Hotcakes. Although she’s the only woman in the band, she appreciates being treated as an equal there, which hasn’t happened in many of her previous groups. You can find her band at and her blog at

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