Why A Singer Has to Be Every Instrument

Me singing St. Louis Blues at a jazz jam. 12-7-14

Me singing St. Louis Blues at a jazz jam. 12-7-14

I began my journey as a singer only about 5 months ago, when I started taking jazz vocal lessons. In early September I got up and sang in public for the first time, and by mid-October I had a “debut night” for friends, and since then I’ve been singing at jazz jams at least twice a week… sometimes more.

There are so many lessons I’ve learned by getting up and singing in public. What I’d like to reflect on today is how a singer needs to be every instrument.

There are a lot of things I mean when I say that.

First, a singer has to have a strong sense of time, and needs to be in the groove with the rhythm section. While the singer doesn’t have to be a drummer, it certainly helps when a strong sense of time is embedded in your brain. Some singers sing ahead of, or behind the beat. In order to do that well, you have to have an impeccable sense of timing.

When I sing a song all the way through, and then the band begins doing their solos, I have to know exactly where I am in the song so that I can come back in after the solos and begin singing again to complete the song.

Singers sometimes get “lost” in the tune and don’t know where to come back in, either because they lost count, or they don’t have the lyrics running in their head, or both. A good keyboardist will “cover” for the singer’s error, and just keep playing the tune again until the moment to come in comes back around again, and if you’re sitting in the audience you may see the guy on the keys give a nod or a little signal to the singer to come back in. More advanced singers don’t need these signals, because they know exactly when to come back in.

Beyond that, a singer has to be listening for the changes that the keyboardist is playing to sing a tune with proper pitch. Of course, the singer should have the proper pitch in their head first, and the correct note can come out whether there is music playing or not, but when you are at a jazz jam, what if the keyboard player didn’t hear your key correctly and starts playing your tune in the wrong key? You’d better not start singing until you correct him.

Aside from that, the human voice – as an instrument – should be flexible enough to create sounds that are more “flute-like” or “trumpet-like,” depending on what is desired. If you listen to the live recording of Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin doing Blue Skies, in her scat solo she often sounds like a trumpet. Words like “bop” “dee” and “dot” can sound like a trumpet when sung.

To me, one of the greatest aspects of singing live jazz is the fantastic collaboration a singer can have with a band, to get things swinging and then everybody has a great time.

What experiences have you had, as a musician or a singer, that you’d share with others when it comes to creating the best possible performance?


2 Responses

  1. This is Awesome! My head would explode if I tried this (not to mention people’s ears when they heard me).

    • While you may not *want* to sing in public (most people would rather have root canal, I suspect) it is still possible to develop your voice so you can at least carry a tune and enjoy singing.

      If you like singing, even just for the heck of it, take a song you like by an artist you enjoy and sing along to the recording. Choose one or two songs you’ve always loved, and keep singing them. It helps to choose a singer who is singing a song in a vocal range that’s comfortable for you.

      Patrick, I can’t remember if you are a big Bruce Springsteen fan, or maybe Bob Dylan? I might be way off base, sorry… I can’t remember. But you know what I mean… 🙂

      P.S. And if you want local encouragement, your lovely wife has big time chops to sing her heart out, so you can always get cheered on by her! 😀

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