The Fundamentals

My new "doumbek" or goblet drum

My “doumbek” or goblet drum


If you are a regular reader, you know I began taking jazz vocal lessons last year … then I had my public “debut” in the Fall where I sang in front of an audience for the first time.

Yup, that's me ... with a wonderful drummer behind me.

Yup, that’s me … with a wonderful drummer behind me.

Since the Fall of 2014, I have been going out to sing jazz regularly, by which I mean at least once a week, and usually 2-4 times a week. I’m proud to say I’ve gotten to know many incredible and talented jazz singers, musicians and jazz drummers.

And to make progress in my musical journey, I’ve had a number of different teachers. I began with a jazz vocal teacher, then I took lessons with a vocal technique specialist. These lessons were the beginning of building my voice and increasing my range.

I had a lot of work to do on my own too. I practiced for many hours everyday. I still practice everyday, but more on that later.

Once I had the beginning basics, and I can’t emphasize enough how “basic” I mean … there are many singers who have been singing for years … I don’t fall into that category. All of my lessons were an “I’m starting from scratch” point of view.

In any case, I moved onto taking lessons with a keyboardist who is brilliant and deeply grounded in the blues and gospel aspects of music and has been able to help me incorporate some of that into my singing. There’s no way on earth I’m going to claim that I sing Blues or Gospel. NO way. However, I hope that as I make progress with this particular teacher, that I can incorporate the flavor of that into my singing.

And again I must emphasize, for someone to sing this way who has never sung this way before, it’s beyond challenging. Blues and Gospel have their own scales and the music has a different feel to it. Incorporating that into jazz is a whole other thing again.

Beyond those lessons, I’ve also done something a bit unusual. I’m taking “rhythm” lessons with a highly talented, well respected jazz drummer. I’m not calling my lessons “drumming” lessons. The purpose of these lessons is not for me to become a drummer (although I find tapping out rhythms on my little doumbek drum pictured above amazingly fun). The purpose is to improve my rhythm and timing when I’m singing.

And now, I can “read” some drumming notations, with whole, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. And pretty soon, we’ll get to swing rhythms too. Woo!

Great singers have so many techniques in their vocal arsenals. Two such techniques are “singing behind” and “singing ahead of” the beat. There are many jazz vocalists who do this, and for my money, I’ll take Carmen Mcrae any day as a classic example.

Here’s a good article on jazz singing techniques with video examples:

And an excerpt about a singer’s sense of time:

Elemental to jazz is a complex, driving rhythm, produced most often by the bass, drums, and piano – the standard rhythm section of a jazz group.  Though her back-up group produces the beat, the singer sets the tempo.  The accompanying musicians correlate with her tempo, which may not synchronize exactly with the beats they play.  Some singers intentionally sing behind or ahead (less frequently) of the beat, as part of their interpretation of the song.  That is not to say that they are not keeping good time; they are merely not hitting the beats at the same time as the rhythm section.  Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae, both famous for their lyric interpretation, sang behind the beat in order to achieve an emotional suspense. As part of having a good sense of time, a jazz singer is able to sing in various tempos, from fast bebop tunes to languid ballads. 

ALL of the things I’ve mentioned in this posting so far are about getting down the most basic fundamentals in order to be a halfway decent singer. (I’m halfway decent some of the time, haha!)

Today I had a rhythm lesson, and I got into a conversation with my teacher about how I’ve been having difficulty with a particular song I’ve been trying to learn, and have been practicing for several months.

He took me over to my keyboard and asked me was I practicing scales? Um… nope. I had been doing some of that with my vocal technique coach, but I haven’t consistently been doing that on my own at home.

What I have been doing is singing songs. Lots of them. Learning new ones. Memorizing lyrics and melodies, and then trotting them out at jazz jams.

But, as he pointed out, if he asked me to sing a “C” note, would I be able to do that? Um… nope. Uh oh.

So, as fundamental as all of my studies have been, they haven’t been fundamental enough. And he rightly pointed out, it may not be as much fun to sit in front of the keyboard plinking out notes in the major scales and going up and down the keyboard for hours and hours but the payoff is immense once the fundamentals are known and fully understood.

How long will that take?

Oh, years, probably.

But, I have made progress from where I started in July 2014, with my very first singing lesson.

Last night, I went out to sing jazz...

Last night, I went out to sing jazz…


Just last night, I was out singing at a jazz jam, and a young woman who is a server at this place said to me, “I’m so glad you came to sing tonight. When I hear you sing, it makes me feel happy.” I’ve gotta tell you, that is an incredible payoff for me. Hearing her say that made me feel like even if she is the only person I reached in the audience with my performance, boy, was it worthwhile!

That said, staring face to face with a highly proficient, talented jazz musician who has been at it for years, who is telling me I need to go to the keyboard and do the work, I say: Yes, I do.

There is no other answer.

I liken the stuff I love most to candy. I just learned the song “Let’s Get Away From It All.” It goes, “Let’s take a boat to Bermuda, Let’s take a plane to St. Paul, Let’s grab a kayak to Quincy or Nyack, Let’s get away from it all,” etc. Well, that is tons of fun! I can sing that, and I loved learning the fun lyrics.

But learning that song, and even performing that song, is not going to get me where I need to go on rhythm and timing, singing intervals, singing chromatics and doing fancy shmancy singing stuff that I want to do.

It’s back to the basics, again.

The fundamentals. You gotta have ’em.


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