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Jazz Choir in Three! - The Conductor
Submitted by Frank DeMiero
November 1, 2011

In an eafrankrlier article, “Jazz Choir in Three,” I pointed out the importance of three specific strengths required to ensure a quality jazz choir program, or for that matter any kind of choral program. The three specific elements are the conductor, the students and the music/literature.

This article in the series will address, in more depth, the conductor. If I had to select the most important element it would be the conductor, the teacher, the music educator, the facilitator.


The Conductor

Think back to your high school or college days. Was your music teacher, the conductor of the choirs in you high school or college, an inspiration to you? In many cases we find onequote3 of the reasons we have chosen to go into the business of music was because of an inspiring music teacher. What were the important traits of this motivating individual?

Why were we drawn to this person, this mentor? What does it take to be a successful choir teacher, an inspiring facilitator/mentor?  Discovering the answer to this question may be more meaningful than we could ever imagine.

Author Todd Whitaker, in his book What Great Teachers Do Differently points out that, “It’s not what you do but how you do it.” Today we teach in a cacophony of educational programs and circumstances; special building designs; schools within a school, block scheduling, portfolio programs, back to basics, outcomes based instruction, direct instruction, open class rooms, site-based management, Schools for the 21st Century, decentralization, technical logical wonderments... and the list goes on and on. Like Jaime Escalante said in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” when the office manager shared so excitedly, “Jaime, guess what, we got the computers,” Jaime responded, “Yep, that’ll do it.” That’ll do it… all of these panaceas deal with what we do instead of the more important how we do it.

Actually, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these programs. In fact some of these ideas are quite useful. The “idea” is usually good. And, now the “however.” It is not the program; it’s the teacher. Is there anyone who doesn’t already know this? Why do we continue to look for the answer somewhere else? Whitaker states, “It’s people, not programs,” that make the difference in our schools. Just think of the amount of time and money we have spent on summer programs, facilitators, workshops, materials, constructions... all wasted money! Okay, a quick story here. (Italians have special license to tell stories.)

One year I was invited to a particular school district to help a young teacher get a music program energized. The young teacher was a joy to work with and as we analyzed the music program from grade school through high school, it was suggested that I visit some of the feeder schools that send students to the high school.

One of the newest schools in the district was a grade school. When I arrived, the general music teacher greeted me with a warm welcome. She invited me into her building and gave me a tour of her new school. No sooner had I walked into the school, I instantly realized the building was a dome. A dome much like the gym at Mountlake Terrace High School where I taught in the late 60s and early 70s. Now, from the sky, a dome building really looks great. It is different and it has personality. Once you try to use the dome building you quickly find out that not many things work well in a round building.

This particular idea of the elementary school’s domed building came about because of a school needing extra space for a couple more classrooms. The principal of a crowded elementary school called a staff meeting to see what could be done with so many new students and two of the best teachers in the school agreed to use an old utility building for their classrooms.

They cleaned up the facility, brought in good lighting and heating and set up their respective classrooms on opposite sides of the building. Within a couple of months the two teachers were collaborating, team teaching, creating interactive assignments, bringing in exemplary speakers and presenters, creating music programs, sharing art opportunities, because of the awkwardness of the facility, parents volunteered and assisted daily. Hey, remember these were the best teachers in the school. These two teachers developed a safe and nurturing learning environment for all of their students in this musty old utility structure.

Not that they were forgotten, but the other teachers certainly did not want to have to take their turn in this big ugly barn of a facility, so they shared their appreciation to these two teachers, but kept their distance. By mid-year tests were administered. And, guess what…you guessed it, the test scores of these two classes soared.

Parents were excited, school board members were impressed and the administration became observers, bragging about the accomplishments. Because of these test scores climbing so high in such a short amount of time, media folks became enamored and newspaper and TV coverage was strong. Now we had administrators, school board members and community officials visiting the two classrooms.

With a resounding vote of approval, it was decided to use this incredible situation as an example. In fact after much deliberation and a thorough study of this building, design folks were brought in and you guessed it again, it was decided a round building with no partitions between the classrooms was what made all of these test results soar so high and this educational model such an incredible success. A new dome building was constructed with the school library located in the middle of the building for easy access.

Those of us who have been in the education world for forty or fifty years have seen this scenario only too often. Remember what Whitaker said, “It’s people, not programs.” Of course, the two people who should have been included in this fiasco, the two wonderful teachers, were not even approached or consulted about the new building’s design.

It doesn’t take much conjuring to come up with the fact that the acoustics in a round building are strange and obtrusive. Without dividers or walls, it was impossible to hear the teacher speak, music was impossible unless the whole school had music at one time, no videos could be shown because of the interruption factor, and within a short amount of time, dividers were installed, with little or no effect. I think the picture of this situation is only too vivid.

How important is the teacher? The teacher is the answer to creating a high quality choral program. A program that should include America’s only true art form – Jazz!

Know thyself
When we were very young some of us knew what we wanted to do when we grew up, some of us didn’t make that decision until later in life. When did you make the decision to become a music teacher? What were your reasons and encouragements? Were you inspired by one of your music instructors to become a musician, a teacher of music? My guess is you were in an excellent music group - a music group that gave you a sense of joy and fulfillment.

First, a sense of honesty must prevail, when we stand in front of a music group, it is essential to be ourselves, to let our personality shine through, to emit a sense of confidence, and to be passionate about our efforts. Members of our music groups can read through a curtain of false representations. It isn’t necessarily simple, but being ourselves is essential. Allowing our personality, our sense of humor and our musical values to shine through and become established in our classrquote2oom will ensure a classroom of trust and integrity.

James Jordan, in his book The Musician’s Soul says, “If there is a person who stands at the front of a group of persons, then the humanity of that person is an important catalyst in the dynamics of musical creation.”

We teach by example, more than we realize. If we are avid learners, our students will be avid learners. If we are open to suggestions, our students will be open to suggestions. If we present students with opportunities to learn, they will learn. Most importantly, if we nurture a healthy, open, safe, positive and creative environment so our students can learn to learn, then our music journey will be filled with joy.

One of the comments I hear on occasion is, “I tried to have a jazz choir in my school, but the kids didn’t like it.” Was it how the students felt or was it because of the way it was presented?  I find many teachers are concerned about working with rhythm sections or learning how to use a sound system. Rarely are these areas addressed in our choral music college prep classes. However, it’s also rare that we are to conduct an orchestra. Will this hold you back from doing major works with your concert choirs? I hope not. The ability to work with an orchestra or the rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) required for a good jazz choir is a must to be a well-rounded choral director. Here again is an opportunity to set the example of a learner for your students. It might even be a fun learning experience to take drum lessons for a few weeks.

Artistry, we earned it, now let’s use it
The essence of the educator’s confidence may best be explained by a quote from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers  “… the people at the top don’t just work harder or even much harder, they work much, much harder.” In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magical number of hours for true expertise… ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours of practice, of study and of passion filled effort. And these hours of work have to be with enthusiasm, passion and love.

Remember, it’s not what we do, but how we do it. Now, think about it. How many hours have you practiced; how many hours have you spent researching; how many hours have you spent searching for the right music for your music groups; how many hours have you spent studying scores; how many hours have you spent standing on the risers performing; how many hours have you spent analyzing, arranging, composing, or practicing and playing a musical instrument or singing? How many hours? It does add up fast.

As we well know, to be our best requires dedication and passion… without watching the clock. Aren’t these the characteristics you expect from your students?

We must strive to be what we want people to see in us.

So, we go to college, take our music courses to learn what we believe we will need when we step into the classroom. Our music education classes supposedly are geared to present what we will need to know when we stand on the podium, music on our stand, a group of people looking at us, all ready to make music.

Of course this is a naïve thought. Well, it is sort of this way. We know there is a great deal more to this thing called teaching than what we learned from a book or in a music education class.

The essence of artistry and aesthetic values comes from our personal experiences in life, our ability to put our feelings and emotions into our art form. The spots on the page are simply that, spots that are like a recipe waiting to be put into a rendition, a personal interpretation. How many styles of music were we able to experience in college? The folks in band did get to play many styles of music; only in a few select colleges are there opportunities in concert choir and jazz choir. This is sad considering jazz is an American treasure, and a true art form, perhaps the most influential music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Student teaching is so important in our preparation to be teachers. There is no better way to learn to educate than to educate. After spending years of preparation, developing our aesthetic choices, we rarely get to use the full extent of our artistic abilities.

At times we are like Mario Andretti. We have all of this knowledge, all of this ability to conduct in a most advanced way, but our group is more like a bumper car. How can we get our group to be a Ferrari? Don’t lose the artistry. Bring your groups up to your level, your skills and your artistic abilities. Your students, your choirs will be as you are.

Here are several important experiences needed to be at your best as a facilitator, as conductor and as a human being who stands in front of a group of people to help them make wonderful music.

Personal experiences
Take time every day to listen… no, I mean listen. No phones, no interruptions, just listening. I promise you it is worth it and very hard to do, if not impossible. At the Frank DeMiero Jazz Camp, we start each day with twenty-five minutes of listening. I had students and teachers leave their folders, pencils, paper on the floor… no taking notes, not talking, just listening. I found this an almost impossible request. We are programmed to be multi-task people. Or at least we think we are.

Develop a list of exemplary soloists and groups to listen to on a daily schedule. A good list of recordings for jazz choir development should include groups like: Axidentals, Anita Kerr Sinquote1gers, Skip-Jacks, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, 6 ½, New York Voices, Four Freshmen, Hi-Lo’s, Manhattan Transfer, Singers Unlimited,  Take 6, John Laselle Quartet, Double Six of Paris, Blue Stars of France… well, this is a start. I have over a hundred groups I am presently listening to, a few every day. As for soloist, I believe there is an abundance of jazz singers to listen to, especially with the Internet at hand. Just make sure they are JAZZ singers. 

If you haven’t done so yet, find an opportunity to sing.  Join a great choral group. Experience the joy of being a part of musical blend and balance, the thrill of a musical phrase that lifts you right off the floor, an emotional set of lyrics that brings tears to your eyes and a foot stoppin’ rhythm that is down-right fun.

Personal experiences in music are essential to our musical growth; they help to establish our musical standards, our expectations and an ear for what we know is good music. Use your life’s personal experiences. James Jordan explains in The Musician’s Soul how personal tragedies and joyful experiences help form our character and our center of emotion. Jordan points out that as we embrace these personal experiences, our understanding of expressive and meaningful musical renditions will occur.

Arrange a selection for your choir. You will experience what chords and voicings really sound like especially when you have written them. There is a completely different respect for music after you have arranged and performed your own selection.

Study poetry. Develop a comprehensive understanding of the musical text. Create your interpretation of a choral piece by bringing out the story through dynamics, phrasing, nuances and word manipulation.

Conducting and directing are two completely different processes. Directing is what we do when we are preparing a selection, helping our group to learn their notes and rhythms; it’s what we do when we rehearse. Conducting, on the other hand, is the artistic aspect of bringing out the meaning of the phrase, telling the story. Practice conducting! Use your hands expressively, descriptively and artistically. Keep your hands in front of you, near your face so your singers can watch your face and hands.

One more story. If possible, don’t have an Italian mother. They are relentless, demanding and they will drive you crazy with their persistence. As a young lad, I would play my accordion at the Bremerton Naval Hospital for the patients on weekends. If I played as if I were in a hurry or without “heart,” my mother would be very upset with what I had done. All the way home she would point out that this was a musical sin, was not up to my abilities, then she would share this with my whole family, who would threaten to sell my accordion. Then she would bring it up before I went to bed.  No, she wasn’t done. At anytime of the morning, 2:30, 3:30 am, she would come into my room and wake me up and remind me to play from the heart and to make the music have feeling. She still sits on my shoulder and reminds me of this important aspect of music.

Know you scores. Use the artistry you gained by watching other exemplary conductors. Drive your Ferrari!

Preparation is the key. Be prepared! James Jordan says, “Soulful human beings create profound music, regardless of their level of musical achievement. Such music is, at the same time, honest and direct, and speaks in the most direct way to all who hear it.”

Our music is an outcome of all of our life experiences. When we conduct we are nurturing our singers to make sounds that express and tell stories. These sounds will be more beautiful if we allow our personal experiences to come through. Honesty, personality, humor, expressiveness, aesthetic choices all make for wonderful music. In the jazz ballad there are many opportunities to be interpretive, to present your rendition.

If I grow, they will come
Burn out. What causes burn out? Some believe that burn out occurs when a person is overworked. This is partly true. However, burn out is primarily caused by two specific factors: 1) being overworked and under-appreciated, and 2) when personal growth is stymied.

Have you ever felt like you are putting more than the required hours in your work, but it really doesn’t seem to matter? Spending a great deal of time creating the best groups that have ever been heard in your area and only to find that it is completely meaningless to your groups, administration and your community? Burn out is just around the corner.

Being valued for your efforts is essential. I take exception with Stephen Covey’s assertion in Seven Habits of Highly Successful People that the only real appreciation we need is the personal satisfaction we get from the quality of our efforts. Not true! This can be a pretty lonely world as a music teacher.  When we find ourselves in these kinds of situations it is time to have an evaluation and reorganization of our teaching schedule and our purpose. There has to be a better way.

The importance of personal growth is greatly underrated. A person can only give and
give and give so much. We also need to grow. If there is no personal growth, burn out is the next step. We love to give, we love to share, but we also need to be appreciated in order to grow. Develop a good exchange program with a local school. Have your neighboring choir director come to visit you, listen to your groups and write suggestions.

Then you reciprocate. Attend ACDA conferences, reading sessions, workshops, clinics, festivals, and concerts. Make personal time! Join the American Choral Director’s Association. Spend time reading and listening. Schedule thirty minutes a day to invest in your personal growth. You and your students will be much better for it. Be the example of a learner by being a learner.

Circle yourself with learners. Make the invigoration of being a learner a top priority. Being with people who “know it all” is not a good gig. Life is a work in progress and so is being a choir conductor/a jazz choir conductor.

If there isn’t a circle of learners in your musical community, create one. If we have learned anything about the business of conducting choral groups it is the fact that nothing is ever quite the same. Groups change, almost on a daily basis. What worked yesterday may not work today. Our ability to be focused and spontaneous all at the same time is essential. The choral music program we create will exemplify our willingness to be a creative learner.

Frank DeMiero


July 16, 2010

American Choral Directors Association NW Notes Article

“Jazz Choir in Three!”

Submitted by Frank DeMiero

Tdemierohere are three specific requirements essential to producing a successful jazz choir. But, first a bit of jazz choir history. As I travel around the country, and for that matter, around the world, I continue to hear that the Pacific Northwest is known as the “hot bed” of vocal jazz or jazz choirs. Many musicians point to our area of the world and give us credit for creating this wonderful art form and I believe that is probably true.

Professional bands were undoubtedly the primary inspiration for the beginnings of school jazz band programs. College music departments soon included jazz bands in their curriculum and then high schools, junior highs and now elementary schools have wonderful instrumental jazz programs.

If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.       ~Louis Armstrong

The opposite is true of the jazz choir movement. The types of professional groups singing jazz were small vocal ensembles - trios, quartets, etc. The jazz choir movement had its origins in high schools and community colleges.

Basically, choir directors with jazz band experiences and band directors with choral backgrounds thought if school bands could learn to play jazz, choirs could learn to sing jazz.

This brought a higher level of musical expectations to the singers in school programs. It required an individual, independent, musical ability from each vocal student.

At first, most groups sang and performed a few jazz charts along with other choral selections usually from a musical. With choirs exchanging concerts, lots of sharing and the advent of choral festivals, jazz choirs became a legitimate curriculum offering in high schools, community colleges and then at colleges and universities. We even have middle/junior high schools with solid jazz choir programs.

When festivals like the Northwest Jazz Choir Festival (Mt. Hood, OR), believed to be the first of its kind, started in 1968, groups finally had a place to demonstrate their jazz performance abilities.

Soon the Green River Community College Jazz Festival (Auburn, WA) the Metro Jazz Festival (Shoreline, WA), the Reno Jazz Festival and many others offered even more opportunities for groups to present their jazz choir abilities. These festivals soon became full-fledged competitive festivals that offered an incentive for schools to include jazz in their choral programs.

New Orleans is the only place I know of where you ask a little kid what he wants to be and instead of saying, "I want to be a policeman," or "I want to be a fireman," he says, I want to be a jazz musician." ~Alan Jaffe

I have had numerous conversations with folks who remember back in the 60s when choral groups started singing forms of jazz. Professional vocal groups who were inspirational included the Pennsylvanians conducted by Fred Waring, perhaps one of the first choirs to sing popular music; the Double Six of Paris conducted by Mimi Perrin; The Four Freshmen with Bob Flanagan; Lambert, Hendrix and Ross; the Hi-Los with Gene Puerling; and more locally, the Axidentals from Portland and the Signatures from Seattle.

From the late 40s on, small vocal jazz groups sprang up all over the world. There were women’s and men’s trios, quartets and small vocal ensembles of all varieties. Again, the kinds of groups jazz choir directors emulated were not choirs, but small vocal ensembles.

The biggest concern in the early days of jazz choirs was the lack of jazz literature or charts. Good vocal jazz charts were just not available from publishers. One of the first published charts that I remember was an Anita Kerr arrangement of “God Bless The Child.” This chart, in twelve eight, was written by an internationally known composer/arranger and a cross-over Grammy winning artist. Anita Kerr was as well known as a country western musician as she was known as a jazz musician.

Jazz is rhythm and meaning.        ~Henri Matisse

Ken Kraintz, one of our own icons in the field of music, started publishing original vocal jazz charts for jazz choirs in the late 60s. Eventually, with the growing popularity of jazz choirs, more literature became available along with programs that helped to nurture this original American art form. Good literature or available jazz choir charts was one of the primary needs in the beginning.

Today there are hundreds of excellent charts offered by a number of publishers.

This brings us back to the three essential elements of a successful jazz choir. These secrets are about to be shared, so take note and be ready to address these important areas of creating a better jazz choir in your school.

Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.
~ Ahmad Alaadeen

A triangle has three points, all equally important. In the case of creating the best possible jazz choir, there are three essential elements and like the triangle they too are of equal importance. These three areas are: The Conductor, the Students and the Jazz Choir Charts. I will give a brief explanation of these three requisites, but in the future I will go into these three elements in more detail.

The Conductor:
The first element I choose to address is the essence and importance of the conductor, the teacher or more directly the educator.

As conductors, we teach more by example than we realize. If we are avid learners, our students will be avid learners. If we are open to suggestions, our students will be open to suggestions. If we present students with the opportunities to learn, they will learn. What we are really doing is facilitating students to learn to learn. Most importantly, if we nurture a safe environment so our students can learn to learn, we are really doing an effective job. The essence of the educator is a topic that will be covered in more detail in another article. Here, I want to establish the fact that the educator/conductor is of primary importance when it comes to the development of an exemplary jazz choir program. The conductor is on a journey - a journey of continuous discovery of new methods and materials that will educate, inspire and nurture the importance of interpretation, improvisation and spontaneity. All of this will occur if there is a safe and positive learning environment.

The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician.     ~Louis Armstrong

It is imperative for the educator to have a working and growing knowledge of all the jazz styles including blues, a cappella and accompanied ballads, be-bop, swing, Latin, funk, jazz waltz and fusion. One of the bigger challenges for most educators is to develop an understanding of the “tapestry” of sounds required in producing an excellent jazz choir.

As concert choir conductors, there are times when we are required to work with orchestras to accompany our concert choirs. We work with strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. In many respects this is no different than working with a group that includes voices, piano, bass and drums. A jazz choir is, at least, made up of sopranos, altos, tenors, basses, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer. Some of us also use a guitar, brass and woodwinds as part of our “total” jazz choir.

The necessity of working with a rhythm section along with the voices has discouraged a number of choral directors from including jazz choirs in their choral music program. This is most unfortunate considering the example this presents to the students. There are a number of a cappella jazz choirs performing today, however the music becomes rather redundant and doo-wop oriented rather than jazz. It takes a short time for an educator to develop the knowledge necessary to include a drummer and a bassist as part of the choir. And, the rewards are double fold for the efforts.

By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with.                                    ~Duke Ellington

Just as a side note, I remember those educators who were most impressive, most inspirational in the choral field when I was learning the ropes. Do you recall those who inspired you? One of the strongest aspects of these inspirational folks was their thirst for knowledge, their drive to find a better way to make the sound more beautiful, the essence of their uniqueness, and their openness to new and innovative ideas.

This kind of drive was definitely exemplified by so many of the choral icons of my era.  Just to name a few: Maurice Skones, Gunnar Malmin, Richard Sparks, Frank Greene, Bernard Regier, Rod Eichenberger, Joan Conlon, Ralph Manzo and Wayne Hertz.

Of course, in the mid 60s and early 70s there were wonderful high school choir directors too. To mention just a few: Jack Kunz, Rudy Schmitt, Wally Englebrecht, Bob Burton, Dave Cross, Waldo King, Ken Kraintz, Neil Lieurance, Rich Nace, and so many more.

Now, we know that all these folks didn’t have jazz choirs. However, their creativity, artistry and their continued desire to grow were exemplary. And, a good number of these folks did have a strong jazz influence in their lives. I have often wondered what a choral program would be like if only music by Brahms was selected for the choral curriculum? Music education is a dynamic process. It is ever-changing and filled with the exciting opportunities to grow, learn and experience.

If we want to set a positive example for our students, it is imperative for us to be open and willing to learn and change, to sing different styles and create different genres of choral music. The sad news is, in fact, there are choir directors who would rather spend more time teaching choreography and selecting costumes than learning about America’s true art form, the music of jazz.

If it has more than three chords, it's jazz.    ~Lou Reed

The conductor sets the musical standards, leads by example and inspires by his or her sense of inquisitiveness. Think about those conductors that inspired you. What were their values? What did they do to inspire? How did they nurture a safe learning environment? The conductor is the key. Look at any successful choral program and you will see a fantastic choral educator busy, working hard and being creative. Educating with a spirit of exploration is what it is all about.

That's the thing about jazz: it's free flowing, it comes from your soul.    ~Billy Crystal

Attend jazz choir festivals, summer seminars and workshops, and visit with jazz choir educators. Go to jazz choir reading sessions and work to create a program that is both educational and fun. Listen to jazz choirs in concerts and on CDs, develop a strong collection of CDs. Listen to good examples of what you are working to create in your school. There are wonderful CDs available by university, college, community college, high school and even junior high and grade school jazz groups.

Help your students learn by listening to the right recordings and by having them sing the right kinds of music, charts that include the important elements of jazz. Select music that is spontaneous, interpretive, open to soloing and scatting and is created to swing. 

The conductor is the first of the three points of our requisite triangle. Be an inspiring educator and you will have crossed the first “T” in the triad of success.

Jazz is the music of the body.               ~Anais Nin

The Students:
The second point of this triangle of jazz choir program building is the importance of the students.

Finding ways of helping our students discover and learn is both exciting and without question personally gratifying. Many choral programs in our area are constantly under attack with changes in class scheduling, reduction in teaching force, you name it. It is so disheartening to hear when outstanding choral programs are being cut or reduced. Often jazz choirs become “clubs,” extracurricular activities, and have to meet in the evening, before or after school. We all know how destructive this is to the “whole” child, the whole student. Again, school arts budget is another topic that needs to be explored in depth at another time.

Before students are selected for the jazz choir a number of issues need to be addressed in the audition process. The students must meet two important criteria: competency and character.
a. Competency - Students must have the potential to learn or be able to:

      • sing with control, sustain a given pitch,
      • hear - have a good ear so they can learn by ear as well as by sight,
      • sing with an appropriate range,
      • learn skills to sight read,
      • sing dissonance with confidence and control,
      • blend and then balance the vocal parts,
      • have or develop the ability to continue to grow in their development of good vocal techniques (You can’t swing if you can’t sing!)
      • control vibrato,
      • develop good breath control for sustaining long phrases,
      • sing in tune,
      • sing different dynamic levels,
      • sing with confidence, and
      • have fun trying new ideas, creating new melodies.

b. Character - Students in a jazz choir must:

  • have the ability to work with others,
  • be positive and supportive with other students,
  • sing with emotion and expressiveness,
  • be willing to develop good entertainment skills,
  • be willing to be adventuresome trying new ideas and music styles,
  • be able to sing under pressure,
  • have excellent attendance for both rehearsals and performances,
  • maintain good grades in all classes,
  • not be a prima donna or a person who already ‘knows it all,’ and
  • be a good example to other potential student participants.

Our students are inspired by exemplary music experiences. We all learn so much by having exceptional artists share their abilities. There are many ways to nurture a safe, learning environment.

And, one thing we all know is our students learn by example much quicker than any other way. By teaching by example, by bringing in guest artists who sing various vocal styles and/or perform on a variety of musical instruments, by introducing our students first hand to new and innovative ideas, we establish music standards and expectations that we can all take pride in. Having our students listen to the likes of a Greta Matassa or Rich Cole, Bill Ramsay, (all local musicians) etc., will help establish appropriate high musical standards as well as help our students reach their respective potential.

Create the potential for students to take private music lessons. This can make a huge positive difference in your choral program. Have solo nights so students are encouraged to practice, listen, learn and perform. Encourage students to attend specific concerts that represent the appropriate musical standards that you are trying to achieve. Encourage students to learn by doing. Students will become what they want to become, so it is important to develop strong values, to develop high musical goals, to help create musical tastes, and establish appropriate musical heroes. Reward those students who achieve these accomplishments. Nurture a sense of independent learning and retention. Integrate music theory into your daily lesson plans. Help students to learn music theory by experiencing it. Encourage students to start arranging for their jazz choir.

The students are a key factor in developing a successful jazz choir program. The better the students, the better the jazz choir.

Jazz will endure just as long as people hear it through their feet instead of their brains.
 ~John Philip Sousa

Jazz Choir Charts:
The third point in the tapestry of jazz choir elements is the importance of rehearsing and performing the best in jazz choir literature or in the vernacular, the best jazz choir charts. If you are the best conductor you can be, and if you have enrolled the finest students you could possibly have, all you need to do now is sing the best available charts. Yes, we have all heard pretty good groups with good students and good directing, but if they sing average music they will be and “average” group. Gravitation will pull the group to the weakest triangular point.

In classical music, love is based on bitin' -- imitation. It's not based on interpretation. A jazz musician, if he plays someone else's song, has a responsibility to make a distinct and original statement.                                                    ~Todd Boyd

What is the difference between a chart and a score?

The Score - When preparing a major work or composition by one of the great European composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Brahms, the conductor is obliged to re-create the music with the intent of the composer at heart. This requires knowing about the era, the people who lived during the time of the particular composer, studying the life of the composer to determine the reasons he composed the particular work - was it for a ceremony or a particular celebration or perhaps it was a commissioned work for the church? All of this, and more, must be taken into consideration before the conductor rehearses and performs a major choral work. The conductor is obliged to create the intent of the composer. Based on all of the information that can be derived, the conductor recreates the intent of the composer. This is why we call it a score.

The Chart - A chart is exactly that, an outline, a suggestion with specific parameters. In this case it is the conductor’s responsibility to study the chart, keep the integrity of the composer’s intent, and then to produce a personal interpretation of the music. As an example, let’s imagine that three great ladies of jazz were to sing the same song at a concert. So, if Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Ernestine Anderson each were to sing ‘How High The Moon” one right after the other, would we hear the exact same rendition, would we hear the same tempo or the same meter? Absolutely not! In fact if any one of these ladies were to sing “How High The Moon” on consecutive nights we would hear a different interpretation each night. Some of the differences might be in the tempo, in the style with one choosing to sing the song with a Latin beat while the other choosing to use a different meter all together. As long as the integrity of the music and lyrics is the foundation of the chart, the conductor or performer is obliged to present his or her own interpretation. A chart is to be interpreted by the performer or the conductor. Yes, using all of the information possible, but then it becomes important to create a personal interpretation.

It's taken me all my life to learn what not to play.                               ~Dizzie Gillespie

Literature has always been one of the primary separators with regards to music groups. How often do we go to a choral festival or competition and hear a pretty good group, good conductor, good students and then average or poor literature? Or, have we heard a conductor share concerns about lack of attendance at his or her concerts and then we discover that their choice of literature is incredibly boring.

Yes, choral music should be entertaining!

I am so inspired when I adjudicate at a festival where the literature is of the highest caliber. The best jazz choir concerts will exemplify choral charts that show innovation, improvisation, a personal interpretation and a sense of spontaneity. And one of the best ways to build an excellent jazz choir program is to perform the best and most appropriate jazz choir charts or literature for your group.

First, start by developing a program of music that is challenging, yet achievable, that is educational and entertaining, that is filled with techniques and still is fun. So often I will ask what the conductor is working on with his or her group and the response is pretty insipid, usually a ballad and a swing chart. I recommend the following:

Start the year with 6 to 8 easier charts to build experience and confidence. Then add at least 6 to 8 more charts to the folder. Start with a blues, ballad, be-bop, fast swing, easy swing, Latin, a cappella, jazz waltz and a funk chart.

Just for the fun of it, put in a couple holiday charts and a patriotic chart or two. You will now have 13 or 14 selections in your folders. “Yes”…. that is the answer when your students ask you what they should be working on …  just say “YES.” Answer: “Yes! All of them.” Trust me, students will pretty much only do what you ask them to do. Seeing three or four charts in a folder is not a good thing.

We can teach blues easier if we compare the rhythms and “feels” to a swing chart. We can teach a jazz waltz easier if we compare it to a Latin chart. We can teach a rubato ballad easier if we compare it to an up tempo swing chart. Working on a swing chart and an a cappella ballad for three weeks is not the best approach to helping students to learn to learn. There is nothing better than putting a good program of charts together and then presenting them in a performance.

Count Basie don't do nothin'. But it sure sounds good. ~Anonymous Basie band member

Today’s world of music is filled with hundreds of wonderful arrangements of songs for jazz choirs. Many publishers carry good jazz choir charts and a few carry incredible charts. Be fussy about your choices. Select music that is open to interpretation, has a feeling of spontaneity, utilizes good rhythmic figurations and harmonies that create rich jazz qualities. Select charts that are open to soloing, scatting and improvisation.

Some music may say Vocal Jazz on the cover, but does it sound like Vocal Jazz when you sing it? It is not always safe to go to specific arrangers or composers. Some of these folks arrange in what is called a formula style at the demand of their publisher. Formula arranging has a simple introduction and ending, it also will have limited soloing, chord structure and simplified rhythmic patterns.

Good charts will have extended harmonies of 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and even 13ths. The rhythms will be somewhat complex but certainly within the reach of good jazz choirs at any level. There will be open sections for soloing and scatting. Primarily, choose music that provides the opportunity for interpretation.

The trilogy: the Conductor, the Students and the Charts - If each one of these components is working in concert, your jazz choir program will be wonderfully successful. If any one of these requisites is weak, the program will gravitate to the weakness. Keeping all three areas strong is a fantastic challenge, but one that is filled with much musical success.

The best to you as you prepare for a fantastic year with performances of America’s music-JAZZ!

Frank DeMiero

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