I’m a Human Jukebox

As a newbie jazz singer, I’m well aware of how few songs I can perform in public. Now that I’m singing at jazz jams regularly – at least twice a week – I get asked by other musicians and audience members to sing certain songs. Most of the time I don’t know them.

About a week ago, a drummer asked me if I knew any Barbara Streisand tunes. Nope. Then later that night, a guy in the audience told me how much he enjoyed my singing and did I know any Broadway tunes, like from Les Miserables? Uh, nope.

Tonight I went to a jam, and a saxophone player asked me if I knew East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a tune I’ve heard so many times at jams but I have not learned. So, no. He was surprised, so I had to explain that I’ve only been singing in public since September. Then he said, oh, you’re still building your repertoire.

Ah yes, my repertoire. One of my important mentors talks to me about this all the time. You have to build your repertoire, he says to me, you have to learn more songs.

Yes, yes, I’m working on it!

I’m becoming a human jukebox one tune at a time.

The thing is, it is totally different to sing a song at home, or even within my practice sessions vs. performing it in public. First, as I’m learning a tune, I must learn the melody perfectly. Of course, I must also know all the lyrics and I must understand the rhythm of how the lyrics and melody are combined. Then, I need to ensure I’ve selected a good key for me so I can hit all the notes.

This seems obvious and maybe it even seems “easy” until you decide you are going to perform a song in front of a roomful of people. Then you’d better know exactly where you are going to take your breaths for each phrase, and you’ve got to know the lyrics and melody well enough to sing them even when you can’t hear yourself. There are many reasons why that can happen, like the band is too loud, the singer’s microphone is not turned up enough, the stage monitor is not loud enough (if you’re lucky enough to have a monitor), but if you know a song well enough, you’re singing the notes from your head and the notes in your head are in correct pitch.

So it actually takes me many weeks of practicing a song within my daily singing practice to even approach being able to sing it in public. There are certain songs, like The Very Thought of You, that have such a big range and require a lot of transitions between my head voice and my chest voice that I’m still unwilling to perform the song in public. I’ve been practicing that song privately since I began taking lessons in July, but I’m not ready yet. I’m not confident I can hit all the notes consistently.

When I look at the “play list” on my personal jukebox, it’s not very long. I’ve learned some basic standards that everybody at a jazz jam knows but now I’m starting to learn songs that I hope not everyone will know.

And why would I want to learn songs not everyone will know? Well, because a lot of what I hear at jazz jams is repetitious. At first I didn’t know most of the tunes, so it was all new to me. (The truth is I still don’t know a lot of tunes, especially if they are instrumental only…but anyhow…)

Now, when I go to a jazz jam, I know at least 75% of the songs presented … even if I don’t sing them myself (yet.) For example, I haven’t performed The Autumn Leaves or It Could Happen To You or Green Dolphin Street in public, but I’ve been practicing those tunes at home and yes, I’ve heard those tunes many times at jams. I know I should learn Route 66, but as a tune I think it’s cliché, I don’t want to perform it when I know everybody and their sister can perform it anyway. (People tell me that about Bye Bye Blackbird, but I like that song and perform it anyway.)

So lately, even though I’m a newbie, I’m trying to find songs to add to my jukebox that are not as common at jazz jams. For example, I’ve never heard anyone perform the St. Louis Blues at a jam (yet) but I’m learning that one now. I want to be able to perform it.

It’s a classic tune. Louis Armstrong did it, as did Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday and many others. Some tunes, like St. Louis Blues, are more old fashioned, and I guess it’s probably why people don’t perform them as much. They’d rather sing Fly Me to the Moon, which is fine.

I’m keeping a list of all the songs I want to check out and eventually learn, and that list is already pretty long and growing constantly.

Thank goodness for an essential tool like YouTube, which can be used to quickly conduct research on a song. Within minutes you can listen to three or four different versions of the same tune by a variety of singers.

For singers that have been doing “the jazz thing” for a long time, their jukeboxes are chock-a-block full of songs. Some of those songs they perform regularly and others are gathering dust because no one put in the quarter and pressed those buttons. Still, with a little practice, they could get their groove back on those songs quickly.

But this human jukebox has a long way to go to have a decent selection. I guess one convenient fact of life is that at a jazz jam, it’s most typical for a singer to get up and sing two tunes.

Ah, but which two… that’s the thing. 🙂

 

 

A Jazz Canary Update

Considering how important my jazz vocal practice is to me, I’m surprised that the last time I wrote about it was July. Back then, I never could have imagined how my life was going to change. So much has happened since then!

https://cdeminski.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/the-jazz-canary-an-update/

THE TECHNICALS…

I began taking jazz vocal lessons in July, which was an exciting first step. I’d never taken singing lessons.

My teacher started me on the basics with warm up exercises. Then she introduced me to wonderful singers I hadn’t heard of before like Carmen Mcrae (now one of my favorites,) Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington and others, all with the purpose of familiarizing me with classic jazz standards.

At the beginning, I was really scared to sing, even in front of my teacher! My palms would start sweating in the car as I drove to her house, even though I had been practicing. Standing behind the microphone in her living room and listening to my voice booming out of the amplifier was unnerving.  Thank goodness she was encouraging every step of the way and gave me constructive feedback on how to improve.

After 7 weeks with my first teacher, she suggested in order to “build up my voice” that I go to one of her singing teachers who is a vocal technique specialist. I’m so grateful my teacher saw the potential in me and opened the door for me to take a next step. I can see how essential it’s been to my progress.

The vocal technique coach I’m seeing is amazing. She has helped me understand every mechanism that’s involved in singing, and how to use her techniques to improve. I do specialized exercises to shape vowels when I sing, or ensure my air passage is fully open to allow air flow, and how to make sure I’m not constricting my throat muscles to hit notes higher on the register. Since I began singing as an adult, these techniques are invaluable because although I may be singing for years to come, I didn’t start when I was a kid.

Singing is about building up muscles in the abdomen for breath support, and the throat has to be able to do a lot of “tricks” behind the scenes while you’re singing. All of that has to be so natural when it’s happening without thought or effort.

And while all of those lessons have been going on, I’ve been spending at least an hour a day doing warm ups, or assigned exercises or singing songs. It’s so clear to me how important repetition is to drive improvement. In order for your body to internalize what has to happen, it becomes part of muscle memory and part of your subconscious mind. You need to hear the notes in your mind before you sing them, and then you must hear those notes so accurately that you sing them exactly as you “hear” them in your head.

If that sounds complex, it’s because it is complex… but when it’s happening, especially after a lot of practice, it feels natural. And when it feels natural, there is a wonderful surge of adrenaline from being a bit nervous, but it can fuel good feelings of having fun. Most jazz songs don’t last very long, certainly less than four or five minutes, but when you’re behind the microphone in front of a crowd, it seems to last forever.

THE PERFORMANCE…

By the time September rolled around, I’d found several open microphone jazz jams that I began attending on a regular basis.

One very important place was Robin’s Nest in Linden, NJ. This is a small venue, but I made friends with so many of the regulars and the house band, I felt (and still feel) like I’m part of an extended family in that place. There was one singer in particular who took me under his wing, and gave me advice and tons and tons of encouragement.

Now, when I started taking lessons, I DID have a goal in mind. I wanted to sing at my local jazz jam at the Brightside Tavern in Jersey City. Singing at the jam was the whole reason I got started with lessons, although like I said at the beginning of this post, I had no idea how big an influence all of this would become in my life.

In order to push myself to achieve my goal, I sent out an invitation to a large group of friends to do a “debut” at the Brightside in mid-October. It was a fixed date on the calendar where I was making myself perform in front of a room full of people who knew me. Yes, it made me nervous as hell, but I felt without that date on the calendar, I’d just keep going to lessons and put off performing.

Thank goodness my mentor at Robin’s Nest suggested I begin singing there first as preparation for my big “debut” night. It took me a week to think about it, but on September 7th, I took the plunge and sang in front of a small crowd. I was absolutely terrified. I was trembling and sweaty, and I really didn’t know how to properly signal the band about the tempo I wanted to use… but somehow I managed to get it done. People came up to me later and said they didn’t think it was possible that was the first time I’d sung in public, which was really nice of them, and I felt very encouraged by their reactions. After that night, I decided to sing every Sunday night at Robin’s Nest to continue preparing for my debut at Brightside.

Sure enough, my mentor was so right, getting up and singing in front of a live audience before my debut was really important. I had originally planned to practice and prepare but use my debut as my first time out – and I’m mighty glad I didn’t do that!

On the night of my debut, October 13th, about 15 friends showed up on a rainy night, along with various musicians and regulars to the jazz jam at the Brightside. I sang Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird and I Got Rhythm that night. Since then, Blue Skies has become a kind of signature song for me that I can sing most easily because I’ve been working on it the longest.

In the six weeks since my debut night, I’ve settled into a regular schedule of performance. Every Sunday I sing at the Robin’s Nest; on Mondays I’m at the Brightside Tavern; and now I also go to Crossroads in Garwood, NJ on Tuesday nights usually twice a month as well.

These jazz jams are filled with wonderful musicians and singers who have become good friends. I know dozens of people associated with the “jazz scene” in New Jersey and I’m so proud of that fact.

Singing for a live audience is an amazing experience. It’s liberating to me in a way like nothing else I’ve ever done before. In order for the performance to be the best it can be, I have to let go of everything including my fear of failure.

And of course I’ve made mistakes… not hitting the right note, not coming back into the song on time, forgetting lyrics, freezing up on stage, oh yes, I’ve had my share of scrapes and bruises “on stage” but as a very dear friend said to me, the best thing about music is that it floats out into the air during the moment you’re doing it, and then it’s gone. Then it’s time to move on to the next song.