What Do They Need? Exploring the Art of Teaching Vocal Jazz Improvisation

By Bell, Dylan | The Canadian Music Educator, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

What Do They Need? Exploring the Art of Teaching Vocal Jazz Improvisation


Bell, Dylan, The Canadian Music Educator


The Problem

In September 2012, I was invited to teach a class of first year vocal jazz students at the University of Toronto. Up until this time, all first-year jazz students took a common course in jazz improvisation. The directors of the program recognized that vocalists have "different needs" than instrumental students, and asked me to design and teach a course suited to vocalists. Since this was the first time this course had been taught, much of the curriculum was developed on-the-fly, in response to the students' direct needs. More importantly, it served as a laboratory from which I was able to unpack the larger questions and problems posed by this deceptively complex question of vocalists' "different needs."

Research Methods

This article is informed by data collected from a variety of sources.

Written interviews with expert practitioners

* Jennifer Barnes, vocalist, faculty member at the University of North Texas

* Christine Duncan, vocalist, faculty member at the University of Toronto

* Peter Eldridge, vocalist/pianist, faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and member of the New York Voices

* Kristin Korb, vocalist/bassist, private instructor

* Bob Stoloff, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, Chair of Voice Studies, Instituto de Musica Contemporanea at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador

* Michele Weir, vocalist/pianist, arranger, performer and clinician

Written interviews with students

My vocal improvisation class consisted of six first-year students: for the purpose of this article, they are named Amber, Bianca, Jade, Raven, Rose, and Violet. These students were given a written interview similar to the interview with the "experts," with some questions slightly modified for students instead of teachers.

Student practice journals

From January 2013 to April 2013, the above-mentioned students were asked to submit a regular practice journal. These findings were useful in particular to address the "what do vocalists need" question, as well as the problems inherent in practicing and studying vocal improvisation.

Text study of vocal jazz resources

Instrumental method books are too numerous to mention, but the available resources for vocalists are quite few. I performed a detailed analysis of several of the most common texts (please see references).

Self-observation as a vocal and instrumental improviser

This was of significant value. This article deals with much of my work as an academic and instructor: however, like most professionals, I am a continual student of my craft. This year, I focused my studies on piano and voice. I found that my approach to each was very different, and began to make observations and comparisons based on my approach to instrumental and vocal practice, documented in my own practice journal.

In jazz education, it is common to refer to the learning of jazz improvisation as learning the "jazz language." Language has vocabulary, rules of grammar and syntax, and linguistic conventions. The same could be said of the language of jazz, in particular the style of bebop. The clearly-defined grammar, syntax, and conventions make it relatively straightforward to teach and to evaluate. This article focuses on the more concrete facets of learning the language, rather than the subtleties of masterfully communicating in said language.

I focused my studies on piano and voice. I found that my approach to each was very different.

For the purposes of understanding the learning process, I have broken it down into three phases: conception, imprinting, and application. These three phases exist for both instrumental and vocal learning; however, the amount of time spent on each phase, and the method by which the language is learned, differs.

Conception

I define "conception" as the cognitive understanding of how the language works. This involves the following:

* theoretical aspects, such as harmony and chord-scale relationships

* absorbing melodic concepts such as phrase-types, melodic contour, intervallic understanding, et cetera. …

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