Jazz Singing Goes to Class: Inspiration from a Master Teacher

SBO Staff • August 2010ChoralGuest Editorial • August 17, 2010

Setting the stage

If you are teaching a jazz choir, you know that you will have to convey in-depth musical skills and information to a group of people with limited time constraints. If you are teaching jazz solo voice, you know that the teaching process will be different. Or is it? Historically, jazz singing has been learned in apprenticeship or immersion settings such as on the bandstand or in jam sessions. However, today’s aspiring jazz singers attend classes or workshops to learn and work out their craft. These singer/learners are a diverse group ranging in skill, beginner through professional, and age, high school-aged to older adult. Classes can be found at independent workshops, colleges, universities, and summer camps. However, these settings share common ground: singers learn an applied skill in a class setting with minimal individual instructor attention. Since jazz solo voice classes are relatively new, identification and discussion of successful practices is essential. Further, teaching delivery can only be enriched with components and strategies adopted from a successful master teacher.

One community college instructor has devoted a life-long career to the art of teaching jazz solo voice in a group setting. He has successfully translated jazz singing skills and knowledge previously learned through apprenticeship to group activities and class performance observations. The secret to this class dynamic seems to be the instructor’s sense of time and space. Just as a brilliant conductor directs an orchestra rehearsal, this instructor “conducts” the class in regard to education, music and organization. Lifetime teaching vocabulary is used to employ learner-enabling tools. Pedagogical technique is tied to subject mastery through which a community of learners is created. In this case, subject matter encompasses vocal technique as well as jazz history and style. In order to learn his strategies, I embarked on a research project observing weekly class sessions throughout an 18-week semester. The instructor was informally interviewed, random students were interviewed, and all students were surveyed. Through this process, three components emerged: community, mastery, and educatorship.

Connecting with the Audience: Community of learners

It is 6:35, and the pianist wanders in. “How ‘ya doin’, man?” Hugs#149;A few jokes#149;To me, it seems like they are meeting for a drink. There is no sense that they are here for work. The pianist gives pointers to excited students working on that evening’s performance charts. While testing the sound equipment, the instructor pauses to talk with a student about her week. Meanwhile, students find their own comfortable spot to inhabit for the next three and a half hours.

It is 6:50, and students start trickling in. First is Ron who has retired early and is seriously pursuing training as a jazz singer. Next is Thinh, a three-semester percussion student who is transferring to university in the fall. He has sung in the Chamber Singers and Jazz Singers throughout his time at school. Susan follows Thinh. She is the lead soprano for the Jazz Singers, and is preparing for a classical and jazz voice recital this Spring. Anna sneaks in followed by several of her friends. Anna has sung in her Spanish church, but is terrified of improvising in this class. It is close to starting time and ten more students rush in. They’ve come from work and many have spent upwards of two hours in transit: 21 students in all, nine men, 12 women, three African-American, five Hispanic, three Asian, 10 Caucasian, ages ranging from 17-70, the musically trained to the relative beginner.

Community is the foundation of this jazz voice class’ success. Singer/learners feel a sense of safety that encourages free artistic exploration. Robert Brooks suggests creating a safe and secure learning environment fills a social-emotional need of learners. Learners whose basic needs have been met will be the most responsive learners.2 Richard Ryan and Edward Deci contend that this safe environment encourages learner motivation, whereas learners will become proactive and engaged or passive and alienated due to social conditions within the class setting.3 This class’ environment is created with necessary equipment, appropriate personnel, and continuously evolving curriculum. Second semester singer/learners mentor new singers in social and educational expectations. Students have varied reasons for class enrollment: a father who listened to jazz vocalists or a youthful attendance to Ella Fitzgerald’s concert. However, the students share common ground: a desire to learn this skill and to work with this particular instructor.

In this class, community building is approached through consistent and light-hearted banter. From the first class meeting, the instructor joked with students as they introduced themselves. By the second-class session, students realized that he knew unique information about each of them. This rapport building is supported by Richard Brooks who suggests that educators guided by empathetic philosophy will be able to look inside learners and respond with meaningful strategies.4

Within this relaxed atmosphere much is accomplished. Many tunes are introduced and rehearsed. Jazz history and concepts are almost casually interjected as students work through tunes. Phrasing, style, history, vocal technique and microphone technique are conceptually infused from the very beginning. Pacing is unhurried, however, instruction is intense with an impression of time’s preciousness and a reluctance to waste any minute. Class directed student feedback is minimal. This has been neither discouraged nor encouraged. When asked, the instructor said that this was a conscious strategy. He said, “They are getting used to listening. They don’t know enough at this point to critique in a discerning way. Many students are getting used to the seriousness of the class. Perhaps next semester there will be enough of an experience base for student comments to be discerning and helpful.”
Richard Brooks suggests that the social-emotional needs of the students are as important as teaching students in the ways they learn best.5 This instructor has created a friendly-forum in which students find the courage to try. One student addressed this by saying, “The weekly demonstration of human character, in the form of people at all levels standing figuratively naked in front of a crowd and baring a bit of their soul, is worth much more than the time investment or cost of this class.”

Telling the Story: Mastery of subject

“Mastery” was a main thematic response from student interviews and questionnaires. Student one, “Because the instructor is a total musician himself, he can communicate musical concepts and ideas from all points of view: director, vocalist, instrumentalist. Wherever the student is, he encourages their best and makes it better!”

Another student was surprised at the instructional quality, saying, “The instructor is surprisingly good for a junior college. He teaches theory, corrects gently, and is very encouraging to students who have never sung jazz. He has an amazing depth and breadth of jazz theory history and performance technique. He is professional and engaging. All his students seem to value him as a friend and mentor, as well as a teacher.”

It is 7:00, and the instructor introduces “Now’s the Time” as well as lyricist, Eddie Jefferson. He asks Thinh, “Who was Eddie Jefferson?” Thinh does not know, but Susan answers, “A man who wrote lyrics to instrumental solos.” The class sings the tune twice. However, the instructor catches missed notes and encourages careful listening as the pianist plays the section. He then directs the class to sing the whole song in one breath with a faster tempo. After two more choruses, the instructor asks, “Everyone, how do we get through this in one breath?” Anna suggests thinking about breathing in the middle of her body. The instructor humorously addresses support, “Everyone, point to your nose. Point to your shoulders#149;point to your lungs…There’s difference between your shoulders and your lungs, huh?”

It is 7:15, and each class begins a little differently. Sometimes the instructor speaks with individual students while other classes begin with group singing of “Now’s the Time.” During one session, the recent death of arranger Gene Peurling evoked sadness and provided an opportunity to discuss the arranger’s impact on the vocal jazz field. That particular evening’s class began with listening to the Singer’s Unlimited.

Research has found that subject mastery is an essential element in effective teacher/learner relationships. Charles Goldsmid, James Gruber, and Everett Wilson found that superior teachers had command of subject matter, concern for students, and techniques for conveying competence.6 Thomas Streeter studied an award-winning middle school jazz band program and found that the director combined strong musical training, solo classical experience, and professional jazz performance experience.7 Catherine Jensen-Hole studied how teaching strategies employing modeling, coaching, scaffolding, fading, articulating, reflecting comparatively, and exploring were used to develop student musicianship. She suggests that student performance ability is directly related to the teacher’s musicianship and educatorship, which are intertwined and utilized simultaneously within the learning environment.8

For this instructor, subject mastery includes instrumental performance expertise and technique, vocal technique, comprehensive musical knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and rehearsal techniques. In fact, this instructor has spent a lifetime “preparing” to teach this class, beginning with a music education bachelor degree and a classical trumpet performance masters degree. Although a trumpet major, the instructor studied vocal performance and health intensely. High school and college director positions required choral, band, and orchestral work, while professional credits include principal orchestral trumpet, vocal jazz group directing, international clinician, and DownBeat Magazine award-winning ensembles.

Personalizing the Music: Commitment to Educatorship

It’s 8:30, and Alex works with the instructor. The pedagogical approach is clinician-like with positive, skill-oriented comments, “You just heard something that you would have paid for in a jazz club. Poignant, that’s the word that you were looking for.” The instructor asks Alex to begin again. After a few notes, the instructor comments on note duration and text phrasing. With each student performer, there is never more than a four-minute block of comments. Most of the time an individual comment is less than one minute. This seems to strike the balance between individual feedback and class engagement. With another student’s improvisation, strategy was tailored to her advanced, skill level. The instructor asked her what did not work in her improvisation. The student was not sure. After having the class sing her motive, the instructor analyzed it, “It is all one pitch. But if you take it and end it this way#149;Go someplace with it.” Using a modeling strategy, the instructor trades four’s (alternating four measure solos) with the student to encourage improvisational concept application.

Many strategies are used within this class. If one idea did not work, the instructor would alter it or change it until he found something that did work. Goals and strategies seemed to be clear and conscious. Some strategies were used to build community and rapport: humor, student modeling, chatting, and seating arrangement. Other strategies were used to convey musical skill: instructor chosen literature, instructor modeling, new conceptual information, kinesthetic learning, professional accompanist, student demonstration, and immersion. Organizational strategies created the class framework: improvisational teaching, lecture, time management, momentum, mastery, and expectation-level.

When students were asked to describe the instructor as an educator, the unanimous response was excitedly positive. One student noted, “He doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. He works with individuals and teaches them proper vocal techniques, respect for the music, good posture, etc. He makes students feel comfortable in performing. Students learn by watching and listening to others, and each student is respected despite their ability.”
Another student expands this thought, saying, “The instructor is able to teach all levels. He has more than one way to get a concept across. He does not give up. He is an expert at this craft and dedicated to his students’ success.” Ken Bain found that outstanding teachers approach teaching similarly. Class presentations are viewed as important and intellectually demanding. Simplicity and clarity are key strategies. Critically reflective and analytical teachers are able to clearly convey their thought processes in lectures, discussions and assignments. They know their subjects extremely well, and are able to create structures that learners can use to build their own understandings. Further, because these teachers believe in their students’ desire to learn, they seek to introduce authentic tasks that will challenge learners to critically assess their assumptions and models of reality.9

Patricia Cranton suggests that presenting oneself authentically is intrinsic to the teacher/student relationship. Broadly defined, this means helping students learn, caring for students, engaging in dialogue with students, and an awareness of the exercising of power. Further, an authentic teacher presentation integrates teaching, personal life, and professional life.10 Authenticity has five interrelated facets: self-awareness, understanding of others, connections with others, understanding of role of context, and critical reflection on one’s practice. Context would include influences and perception of self, students, and their relationships. Perception would extend to the course content, discipline, physical environment, psychological environment, department, institution, general community, and/or culture.11 Cranton adds, “If we assume educator roles that are not congruent with our values, beliefs, and personality preferences, we are asking students to communicate with the role, not the person.”12

In this class, presentations could have been altered to be more student-inclusive. For example, there could have been more discussion opportunities. However, this is not this instructor’s style or his strength. The instructor sees himself as a master in this genre, and that is presented. Authentically the ‘performer teacher’ role seems to be part of the experience for the students. However, a consistent class strategy was student modeling. Whether during improvisation or introducing literature, the instructor would immediately ask a student to demonstrate in front of the class. Student questionnaire and non-verbal responses indicated that students did not seem to mind class presentation methods. Perhaps part of their attraction is to the ‘teacher-as-performer’ who, often using kinesthetic tools, would draw the best out of everyone. Singers left class sessions sounding significantly better. Perhaps students traded verbal interaction to gain faster results?

Lessons learned

When someone easily creates a “relaxed-yet-serious” environment, an observer might dismiss it as unplanned rather than skill. However, this class’ success and student experience supports the idea that rapport and community-feel are equally important as the amount of content covered. Perhaps the question is “How does one become an effective, master teacher?” Conversations with this instructor revealed continuous reflection about what worked versus what did not. This reflection yielded analysis. Analysis led to preparation: the search for new materials, the creation of new materials, the exploration of meaningful strategies, and the innovation of presentational materials. Essentially, when this instructor teaches a class, for which he is considered an expert, he is not happy to simply rely on previous methods and material. Perhaps in this instance, Billie Holiday’s idea of artistry applies, “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.”13

Stephanie Austin Letson is director of Choral Activities at Contra Costa College, in San Pablo, California. She directs the vocal jazz ensemble, JazzaNova, and the Chamber Singers. A doctoral candidate at Columbia University, Teacher’s College, Letson’s dissertation research focuses on vocal jazz education.

1 Carter, Betty. “Betty Carter Quotes,” BrainyQuote. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/betty_carter.html.
2 Brooks, Robert. To touch a child’s heart and mind: The mindset of the effective Educator.http://www.cdl.org/resource-library/articles/touch_child.php.
3 Ryan, Richard M. Deci, Edward L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist 55, no. 1 (2000): 68-78.
4 Brooks, Robert. To touch a child’s heart and mind: The mindset of the effective Educator. http://www.cdl.org/resource-library/articles/touch_child.php.
5 Brooks, Robert. To touch a child’s heart and mind: The mindset of the effective Educator.
6 Goldsmid, Charles A., Gruber, James E., Wilson, Everett K. “Perceived Attributes of Superior Teachers: An Inquiry into the giving of teacher awards.” American Educational Research Journal 14, Vol., no. 4, (1977): 423-440.
7 Streeter, Thomas. “Sam Hankins: Middle School Jazz Advocate.” Jazz Educators Journal (April 2006): 1-6. http://www.iaje.org/article/asp?ArticleID=257.
8 Jensen-Hole, Catherine. “Experiencing the interdependent nature of musicianship and educatorship as defined by David J. Elliott in the context of the collegiate level vocal jazz ensemble.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Texas, 2005.
9 Bain, Ken. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
10 Cranton, Patricia. Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2006.
11 Cranton, Patricia. “Educator authenticity: A longitudinal study.” Learning In Community: Proceedings of the joint international conference of the Adult Education Research Conference (2007). http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/CASAE/cnf2007/Proceedings-2007/AERC%20CASAE%20Cranton-2007.pdf.
12 Cranton, Patricia. Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2006. 113.
13 Holiday, Billie. “Billie Holiday Quotes,” BrainyQuote. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/billie_holiday.html.

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