Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Do you teach?"

I'm often asked this question. Since I have never had formal training, cannot play the piano or read music, I feel stunningly unqualified to teach. Disclaimer: I did, for a brief period conduct a series of classes at The New England Conservatory Of Music, but it was a temporary assignment. My students were eight young women, each convinced hers was a directive from On High to demonstrate her amazing capacity to emulate if not surpass Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing. I was sympathetic to their zealousness, but I posted the following message on the classroom blackboard with the invitation:

"Choose one as your focus for this semester:

In A Sentimental Mood
Prelude To A Kiss
Sophisticated Lady
Day Dream
Lush Life"

Any one of these melodies presents exquisite challenges to any singer: graceful, logical, and seemingly easy to maneuver. That's where the beauty of these carefully constructed songs shines through. It's not at all easy to place the notes correctly. But practicing the technique will pay off handsomely in the final analysis. My young students were unable to discern the wisdom of my method, and grumbled accordingly. My argument was and is simple: You should not attempt Advanced Calculus (scat singing) until a firm grasp of basic math (chord structure) is achieved. My students much preferred the bungee-jump thrill of diving into wordless versions of "Joy Spring" or "Ornithology". Yes, I certainly understand the desire to explore improvisational jazz since so many singers with impeccable credentials express themselves in this manner, thereby suggesting to the not-so talented that this activity is easy and without peril. My argument is that scat singing is an acquired attribute developed and nurtured over time. Listening to some blatantly confident but thoroughly unskilled scat singing can be harmful to your health, or (if you're lucky) hysterically funny.

Throughout my earliest years, I listened to and learned from the voices of the popular singers on the radio. There were so many but here are some I remember: Fran Warren, Helens Ward, O'Connell and Forrest, Anita O'Day, Francis Faye, Doris Day, Ruth Olay, Johnnie Ray and even Dennis Day! (Mr. Day was the singer on The Jack Benny Program and so far as I know, no relation to Doris). Also, Kay Starr, Kay Armin and Beatrice Kaye; Peggy Lee and Lee Wiley; Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Bea Wain and Francis Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Jack Jones, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Dick Haymes, Judy Garland, Francis Langford and Jo Stafford; Andy Russell and Andy Williams; Rosemary Clooney, Maxine Sullivan, Margaret Whiting, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Al Hibbler, Chris Connor and June Christy; Bill Henderson, and Johnny Hartman; Andy Bey and The Bey Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, The McGuire Sisters, The Four Freshman and The Four Lads; The Ames Brothers and The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. Learned from them all; sang along and knew every melody and lyric by heart.

I listened all the time and learned everything I know about singing from these instructors.

I guess, when asked if I teach, I might say: "Yes. Everytime I sing".


MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I love that last line, Carol. Brava!

I'm curious, though, as to the choice of songs. Was the Ellington/Strayhorn line-up simply because you love 'em, or was there another reason that would've made "Last Night When We Were Young," say, or "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" inappropriate?

Sloane said...

Good question! I guess I've just always felt the E/S songs are consistently challenging for me. Having said that, I am fond of telling singers that there is no such thing as an "easy" song to sing. One's choice should be made on the basis of how much the singer loves to sing it, not on whether it's currently popular or if the audience might like it. LNWWWY is one of my absolute favorite songs (listen to Bill Charlap's version on his new "Live At The Village Vanguard" cd. Bill knows the lyric, that's certain.) I've always thought the Landesman/Wolf SCRHYUTM has never had much appeal for me.
Thanks for writing!

chipboaz said...

I think your viewpoint about young jazz students wanting to skip the basics hits the nail on the head. I teach several jazz classes at a high school. I'm always overwhelmed with the amount of students wanting to play jazz. Unfortunately, the majority of them think that jazz is about "jamming out" and believe their favorite rock licks qualify them as jazz experts. When I teach Latin Jazz, I've got a roomful of drummers who believe that random rhythms in a drum circle make them experts in Cuban and Brazilian music. After a week or two, I'm left with a much smaller group in all the jazz classes - but those kids put in some work and really move in the right direction.

Your point about listening is so well taken too. I find two issues with young people wanting to play music - they don't know what to listen to and they don't know how to listen. They need to be pointed towards jazz that has some history and depth, something that will challenge and inspire their ears. Then they need to take the same steps you did - actually get inside the music and internalize it.

Very insightful post, thanks!

Roger Crane said...

Hi Carol, Roger the Song Scout here:

May I share my Six Scatting Commandments with you?

1) Thou shalt not scat unless you ensure the improvised notes have some relationship to the chords.
2) Thou shalt not scat unless you have something in mind other than a reconnaissance mission in search of the melody.
3) Thou shalt not scat unless you desire to communicate (and not simply say "Wow, look at me!")
4) Thou shalt not scat unless you have someting musical to communicate other than riffing on the melody.
5) Thou shalt not scat on every damn song in your set (or on your CD).
6) Thou shalt not make unappealing sounds while scatting (music should not sound like you are in search of an antacid).

As you can see I am tired of scat happy singers high on pyrotechnics and short on poetry.
Nice site Carol. My first time in your cyber-home. Love, Roger

Bill Harrison said...


I have not heard you sing, but the wisdom and warmth you exude in this post leads me to believe that you must know what you're doing! Thanks for the view from the front of the stage.

Bill Harrison

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