|The Music School of Delaware Jazz Choir Director, Marty Lassman|
Can you tell us the differences between leading a jazz choir versus a traditional choir? Are there different techniques for singers to learn?
Firstly, thanks for these questions! I should realize that what seems obvious to me is sometimes not as intuitive for non-jazzers. Leading a jazz choir has many similarities to leading a traditional choir, except that in the performance, the focus is on the singers not the director/conductor. The ‘European-based’ method of choirs that we have inherited in our country focuses on how the conductor will interpret the written score.
However, the U.S. model is built upon the concept of independence and freedom, so jazz allows the singer/performer to interpret the music based upon their own experiences and level of expertise with the genre. The novice can sing simple riffs and show off the beauty of their voice. The more experienced jazzer can also use scales, licks and sequences to take the listener into unexpected and delightful aural places.
As for the singing techniques, there are differing opinions. But I agree with Dr. Paul Rardin (who now directs choirs at Temple) who is knowledgeable in both traditional and jazz music. He teaches that tone production is the same for both styles with two exceptions. We sing jazz with the soft pallet dropped (unlike classical music) and with vibrato only used in solos and only for a deliberate effect. There are techniques that we all know from pop music – which originated in jazz – that we use, but basic tone production remains the same. Some directors prefer a brighter vocal tone but I do not. I prefer a traditional non-vibrato choir sound so we can sing in tune on ensemble sections.
Can you give us examples of music you plan to include in the choirs' repertoires?
I am waiting to see what our voicing will be before choosing repertoire – we can adapt to anything – but I intend to include newly composed as well as standard pieces. Members can expect to sing in swing style, Latin (e.g., Bossa Nova) and funk. No one needs prior experience. The complexity of the music will be based upon the level of musicianship we have in the ensembles. We may also sing a few standards in unison, which will provide more opportunities for improvisation.
What are the main things that students should know when preparing to audition for the jazz choirs?
I’ll be listening for the ability to sing in tune and rhythmically. Our unisons must be true unisons. I’m also listening for beautiful tone production. I’m not going to be upset if someone sings wrong notes or words, as long as those notes are in tune and on time. I’m not asking for improvisation as a requirement. Most non-jazzers are terrified to improvise. It is not simply ‘singing what you want.’ There are flexible rules and learnable techniques. I will teach easy ways to get started, so that each singer’s confidence and abilities will grow.
How does the audition process work?
I tried to find the most non-threatening way to audition singers. The singer gets to practice as much as they wish and create their audition ‘tape’ as often as they wish until they are satisfied. There are several specific song selections I’d like singers to use, and all can be found on YouTube. (A list of the songs can be found on the Music School’s Facebook Event for Auditions. Singers can find sheet music for the songs online and can also find recordings, including ones on YouTube, of the songs.
Then, set your recording device – a smartphone, tablet, computer or actual recording machine like Zoom – where it can hear (and optionally, see) you sing while we also hear the YouTube clip. (The clips I chose have the words on the screen to make it even easier!) It really is fun! Then just email the recording of your singing (with the YouTube clip in the background) to the Music School.
What are your goals for the two choir groups?
I want both groups to have fun and look forward to Wednesday night as their favorite night of the week! Both groups will perform similar literature, but the adult group will be able to learn techniques and become comfortable with literature that can be used in school choirs (or similar) at any skill level. In addition, I am unaware of any community jazz choirs that exist in the state (or tri-state area) for teenagers or adults, so this will be a unique opportunity to have fun while singing music that is suitable not just for concerts but also for ‘events.’
What are some of your favorite works for jazz choir?
More than favorite works, I have favorite arrangers. I am fond of Paris Rutherford’s arrangement of Autumn Leaves because it is challenging, is a great teaching piece and sounds even harder than it is. I also enjoy working on any arrangement written by/for the New York Voices but those are intended for advanced choirs. I also like Rosana Eckert’s arrangement of Sandu because the composer, Clifford Brown, lived in Wilmington and is buried in a cemetery across the street from Cab Calloway School of the Arts. Local roots!
What is your best advice for young or "emerging" singers to improve their craft?
Learn classical music. The foundations for every genre of the Arts – music dance, visual art, etc. – are all based on fundamental techniques taught by performing, recreating or studying the works of the masters. Additionally, all the fundamentals of music – pitch, rhythm, tone, technique, etc. – are learned through traditional choir work. However, musicians living in our contemporary world also benefit from being versatile enough to do perform any style of music, including jazz and pop.
Martin (Marty) Lassman received his Bachelor of Music Education with a trumpet concentration from the University of Delaware and his Masters of Education with a piano concentration from the University of Iowa. His faculty instruction resume includes work with H.B. DuPont Middle School, Talley Jr. High School, Wilmington Friends School and Cab Calloway School of the Arts. His teaching experience includes band, general music, jazz band, vocal music and jazz choir at Cab Calloway. He is the Past President and Treasurer of the American Choral Directors Association and served on the Jr. High All-State Chorus Committee for violin.