Charles McNeal recently posted “10 things I’ve learned in my musical career”. I liked what he had to say, but I found that certain points might benefit from being modified/clarified for vocalists. This is my humble attempt to ‘re-invent his wheels’:
1. Hire the best band possible. Just because your best friend, Charlie, plays drums doesn’t mean he should be on the gig!
Take a long, hard look at yourself, where you are now. If you are the least bit unsure about your ability to arrange songs, write charts, or lead a band, get help. Working with someone who knows how it’s done will be a big boost, if you remain actively involved in the process, so you can learn and, eventually, do it yourself. This is what you can do to hire the best band possible: start with a strong music director.
2. If you’re playing as a quartet, play about 7 to 10 songs per 1-hour set. Less means your solos are too freaking long, more means you’re not fully exploring the songs you’ve played. (IMHO) …plus more than 10 songs is just too many damn songs per set!!
For singers, recognize the fact that singers and players hear music and see performances from a different perspective. Having a player with great chops is an asset, but your real need is a patient, sensitive accompanist. An accompanist understands that a successful gig is one where the featured musician (vocalist or solo player) is made to sound better by the group. If that’s not the goal of all concerned, struggles will ensue.
3. Horn players, Don’t Eat The Mic!! The sound of most horns carries quite well. If yours doesn’t that means it’s time for more long tones!!
A singer cannot spend too much time on their breath control – it feeds everything you’ll need to do. Intonation, volume, dynamics, long, relaxed phrases, scatting – any problem you have will benefit from better breath. Then, when you sing, project to the room, not the mic; it’ll pick up your voice as you sing past it to the room.
4. If you’re playing a straight-ahead jazz set that consists of songs from the Great American Songbook and jazz compositions by the Great Composers in Jazz…Play at least 1 BLUES a set!!
Far too many singers only the Great American Songbook, ignoring jazz composers entirely. Challenge yourself to sing at least three songs per gig by jazz composers: Tadd Dameron, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, etc. This means at times you’d need to listen to jazz without lyrics, at times without vocals. Many lyricists have written words for jazz tunes; if you like an instrumental, do a bit of research; chance are if you like it, some other singers did too…
5. Your solo should only be as long as you can keep it interesting. This one is mainly for us saxophonist!!
Scatting is a wonderful device for any singers, especially jazz. But if it’s not your strength, start slow. Scat the intro or the coda to a song, trade fours with the band, practice with a metronome of a rehearsal tool (iRealPro or a similar program). Sing along with solos from singers and players. If you rehearse with your group, try things out, without pressuring yourself to perform it live. ’No wine before its time’; no solo until you know…
6. Even if you’re a GREAT sightreader, try not to sightread on the gig. Hey, the chart could be wrong. This one is unavoidable sometimes but when it can be avoided it should be!
There are five elements of jazz music: melody, harmony, rhythm, lyric, form. By learning the words and the tune, you’re starting to learn two out of five. I say ’starting’, because if you say you ‘know’ the words, now you need to work on altering the phrasing, adjusting the lyric to fit your new melody/harmony, maybe repeat or expound on a certain line or idea, and still find your way back to where you need to be in the lyric. And what happens if you hear a chord you didn’t expect, or the rhythm shifts? Do you still ‘know’ where you are, what you’re saying, what you’re singing?
And that’s just two elements, outa five…
7. If you’re not qualified to do the gig…Just Say No!!! This also applies to bands. If your band is an acoustic jazz band and you get called for an R-n-B dance show, just say no. A funkified version of Stella By Starlight will NEVER fill the dancefloor!!
Yes, turn down any gig that is out of your reach, but if you want to play those gigs, work on the vocabulary of that style, so you can approach it with some degree of authenticity. That way, you’ll be saying ‘no’ but meaning ’not yet’.
8. If you’re a jazz musician and you get called for a gig that doesn’t have a solo for you to play, just smile and do the f*cking gig! I’ll admit I’m still working on this one.
In the big band era, the was a girl singer and boy singer in most bands. The band would play a tune, then bring in a singer after a chorus or two. In other words, ‘singer’ did not mean ’star’ or ‘diva’ – you played your part in the band, like everyone else. Nowadays, singers (and players) don’t have the finishing schools that big bands provided. If you are asked to sing with a group or on a project where you are not the center of attention, take the gig and learn. Every musical gig is a chance to at least play music. Grab it, and be grateful.
9. Once you know all the details of the gig and you say yes to playing the gig, your right to complain while on the gig has been waived. …but if the details change during the course of the gig, you are allowed to cuss somebody out!!!
Whatever your needs are, state them upfront. If they’re important to your ability to do the gig well, insist upon them, refusing the gig if necessary. It is imperative that the group respects you as an equal member and treats you as such. But always remember: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want’. The pianist soloed through your vocal choruses, the drummer doubled up the tempo while you’re singing a ballad, you were waving frantically to cue the ending, only to be ignored? You got experience, right? Explain what you want again, but the after the third strike, cuss somebody out…
10. Enjoy this musical career you’ve chosen! A life in music, even with all the pitfalls, is easily in the top 10 professions one can pursue in a lifetime.