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Bassist/Composer/Educator, Helen Russell
asks the following question...

February 2012

The Question:
The idea of singing; Communication or Elucidation?

by Helen Russell share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

The idea of singing
Communication or Elucidation?

I would like to write about something that I may not be technically authoritative enough about but the question would then be who is? I would like to explore the chasm that I have sometimes found exists between singers and instrumentalists, particularly when the singer is musically uneducated and the player is educated.

My musical background is, luckily for me, very wide-ranging, and includes both singing and playing instruments, in classical, popular and jazz styles. I am, broadly speaking a jazz bass player, but over the past 15 years or so I have often worked as a musical director for theatre and cabaret style shows.
This means that I've spent a lot of time working with singers, and a lot of that time has been spent coaxing them in to learning harmony parts. Harmony singing was something I did as a child, along with a select group of people including siblings and close friends of the family, who started doing it at a young age and became, as I realised when I ventured out in the wider world, uncommonly good at it.

As a first-year music student at the local university, I naturally wrote a couple of a capella arrangements and looked around for people to sing them with me. I quickly found out that the person least likely to be able to learn a harmony part and hold it was the vocal major student. That disturbed me, and it still does, but I failed at that stage of the game to figure out the reasons for the phenomenon.
It was only in fairly recent times that it has become clear to me what the act of singing means to singers as opposed to players. As a player, I have found that when it comes to memorising things to play that if I can sing them I can usually play them. I try to encourage my students to try this as well. As a double bass player this has extra significance because on the fretless instrument the best way to play in tune reliably is to "hear" the note before you attempt to play it. This means I'm using the medium of singing to fix things in my mind and to help me firm up ideas. On this subject, a conversation I once had with a well known American jazz guitarist confirmed the truth of this; he was complaining about the intonation of some professional string players that he had hired to play his arrangements for a jazz album. It seemed clear to me that they just couldn't "hear
" those notes if you spend your life playing Mozart and Beethoven, your ability to pitch a sharp 9 or a flat 13 on your fretless instrument is going to be limited; even if you have absolute pitch. The important skill necessary is to understand is how the notes in the chord relate to one another. As all music teachers who take aural skills classes know, if the student can sing it, they can hear it.

To someone whose primary instrument is their voice, particularly if they have come from a non-jazz background, lyrics are one of the primary tools of the trade. Singing is therefore the most direct form of communication with an audience. What I have realised in recent years is that many singers can hardly conceive of opening their mouth to make a noise without having that sound attached to a lyric. This makes the act of learning to sing parts, particularly those whose words consist of oohs and ahs, as backing vocals often do, a task that involves a major new concept.

I always think human beings on the whole are amazingly good at learning melodies. A crowd at a concert will copy and remember a tune easily with the encouragement of a performer, and the majority always seems to have reasonably good intonation. If you asked the same crowd to listen to the bass line and replicate that, the results would be a lot less impressive. It seems the other end of the sound spectrum is barely perceived by the average person, let alone all the harmonic details in between.

The invention of the tempered scale has enabled western music to develop harmony in a way that could never have been imagined 400 years ago, and jazz has taken this harmony to a high level of intricacy. Chords that we jazz musicians relish would have been just plain discordant to the ears of music-lovers in the centuries before. In many other cultures, single line music is still the prominent feature, and complexity has instead been applied to the rhythms, ornamentation and so forth.

But I'm getting off my subject. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I would like there to be a move in music education to bring singers and instrumentalists closer together in the matter of using singing as a means of clarifying understanding of musical, especially harmonic information.

I'd be very keen to get feedback about this from both singers and players, because as I mentioned at the outset, I can't really put myself in the place of the singer.

2012 Helen Russell

Have Your Say
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OMG! I have SOOOO much to say on this very topic that I won't go into it here in depth. I am a singer, a singing teacher and only had some formalised music education later in life after quite a few years of just getting out there and doing it, often executing very musically complex material but from a totally "garage" method - DIY all the way. So I am completely from the other side of the coin to Helen (as she well knows :-) I see being a singer and being an instrumentalist as being very very different things - which can happily cohabit the same person, but quite disctinct facets. Some singers I know who are the best at the communication side of things are quite often the most bewildering and bewildered by the technical side of music - the 'idiot savante' factor perhaps? I don't really think so. More and more I think it is a brain function thing, ie singing comes from such a different area of the brain than manual manipulation of a device or instrument and one of these days I will hook up with a neurologist to discuss this. The most beautiful experiences one can have as a singer is when these various facets of the mind are firing at the same time, in flow, so that the notes are perfect and the full emotional spectrum is delivered to the listener. Such a rich topic, and close to my heart, thanks for this Helen xxx

Posted by Pearly Black on Thursday 10 May 2012

Yes, Glenn, I am Helen's big sister! She and I have been working together on and off for a long time. Helen, this article is great - it really hits the nail on the head in many respects. I agree with Ian too. I as a jazz vocal educator am coming from the other end of the spectrum and trying to encourage singers to sing not only melody lines, but to dig into the fabric of the song and sing (and play on keyboard) the bass line, the chords, the guide tones - to hear the "whole" song to it's foundation. Basic comping with nice voicings is my ultimate goal with all my singing students, because I know well it connects their intellectual understanding of a song with their ear. Bravo. Let's keep plugging at this concept.

Posted by Sharny Russell on Thursday 29 March 2012

Hi Helen, your observations are spot on. It would be advantageous if vocal students were required to become proficient on piano as part of their studies. The voice is the ultimate musical instrument, but sadly, many "singers" don't learn how to play it.

Posted by Ian Beddows on Monday 27 February 2012

Good one, Helen! You must be related to Sharney Van Herp, nee Sharon Russell, with whom I shared many pleasant vocal /instrumental trading of fours years ago in Adelaide's jazz attic, the Creole Room. My experience as a jazz player working in education and theatre has been similar to yours. It would be a good thing to try to bring both camps, players and singers, closer together!

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Friday 24 February 2012
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