The below is the introduction from my manuscript "Lessons in Jazz Singing". Please email me to order the 150-page manuscript and to arrange for workshops in your area. You can also click on the link below to order. There is a pdf version of the manuscript that you can get right away.
Yours in Jazz Singing,
Rita di Ghent
BFA, MA, PhD Candidate
Music Faculty, York University
There are a lot of books available to aspiring jazz instrumentalists to guide them through their daily disciplined practice. There’s an entrenched understanding among instrumentalists about what knowledge and skills they need to acquire and how to go about acquiring them. Instrumentalists are admirable in their willingness to embrace isolation, day after day, year after year, denying themselves the more social lives of their non-musician peers.
Vocalists by nature tend to be more gregarious souls, and this tendency is reinforced by the jazz subculture. Singers are positioned as booking agents for the band and as the panache that gets and keeps the audience’s attention. In general, they’re not as inclined to isolate and discipline themselves as much as instrumentalists do. However, isolate themselves they must. Intensely discipline themselves they must. But isolate and discipline themselves to do what?
The accepted and considerable body of knowledge accessible to the instrumentalist knows no parallel in the jazz vocalist's world. In the "good old days" of jazz's birth and development, both instrumentalists and singers learned on the job--by hanging out where great jazz was played and by formulating and exchanging ideas. As the art form progressed through time, instrumentalists started documenting ideas about how to practice. By the time that jazz learning moved from the hang-outs to the schools, huge amounts of information about how to practice had come to be catalogued and made accessible to the jazz instrumentalist.
Vocal jazz education, on the other hand, became caught in a nether-world. Jazz singing teachers didn’t abound as did instrumental teachers, and the categorization and explanation of vital jazz singing concepts limped further and further behind those of jazz instrumentalists. The chasm between the learning approaches of singer and instrumentalist widened.
The average singer trying to develop his or her chops is often at a loss for how to go about it, so singers do more of what they already know how to do: learn tunes-- not capital “L” learn tunes, with an analysis of melody and harmony, an investigation into who‘s recorded it--vocal and instrumental--and from that, a study of paraphrasing concepts and feel. The “small l” learning that singers tend to engage in involves simply learning the melody and then expressing vague notions about what constitutes improvisation and swing. There’s also a belief amongst young singers that they should eschew imitation and get down to “being unique”. All this being said, students of jazz singing don’t lack willingness--they just doesn’t know what to practice. Vis-a-vis instrumentalists, there’s a lot of catching up to do.
So, how to move singers from their current learning approach to a more defined and fruitful one? One thing that’s clear is that singers must conduct themselves as musicians--not EXACTLY like musicians (and that’s a subject for another book), but as a species of musician nonetheless. Having prior musical training isn’t an entirely determining factor in your success as a jazz singer.
However, conducting yourself in a musicianly way as you start this phase of your training is.
I always tell my students that we’re all part of a plot to build a jazz singing “Super Race”. My approach is what I refer to as the “Intelligent Singer Approach.” A huge part of this ISA (forgive the acronym) is the notion that when learning jazz singing concepts, we need to do so objectively, analytically, rationally. A uniform characteristic amongst singers is their interest in the emotional and expressive aspects of singing--the great capacity it has to convey and evoke feelings. However, it’s precisely this emotive inclination that seems to get in the way of meaningful learning. The emotional capacity of a singer will always be there; it’s indelible. Turning off the switch won't jeopardize it. So, the advice I give my students is to put it away, leave it outside of the learning environment. It’ll be there, no worse for wear when it’s time to collect and use it. In my view, the concepts and skills that need to be learned are best done so by “going into the lab”-- experimenting with formulas and test tubes, being impartial, observing.
This having been said, jazz singing students, with their artistic spirits, have an enormous amount of inner (emotional) landscape to negotiate as they're learning: issues of self-worth, beliefs, motivation, goals, etc. The emotional concerns are an important part of the picture for a developing artist and not to be ignored. However, during skill acquisition, emotional reactivity presents a serious hinderance. For this reason, if one of my students experiences self-doubt or any other type of anxiety, we honor the feelings and then ask the student to put away the issue for the time being and get down to work.
The concepts in this book are a record of my experience of what has worked well in my teaching practice. I don’t think this book is all you need. I think it would be best used with a teacher, or at least other motivated students, to help guide you through the process.
No doubt there are more ideas from my practice that weren’t recalled at the time of writing. No doubt there will be future editions as these ideas come to me, but I’ve made a conscious decision to get out whatever ideas are kicking around in my head at the moment without further delay--after all we’ve got a super race of intelligent singers to make!
How to Use this Book
The lessons and advice in this book haven’t been laid out in a cumulative order. Wherever your heart leads you to start is fine. Because I feel that all the information within is critical, eventually get to all of it, and when you do, drop me a line. Let me know how you made out.
Rita di Ghent