Starting, Sustaining and Stopping: Adding Nuance to All Three Parts of a Note in Vocal Jazz Ensemble Performance
by Kerry Marsh
Vocal jazz ensemble music lives and develops predominantly in educational institutions, with a few world-class professional groups that those of us in the community seem to unanimously admire. This phenomenon creates both the opportunity and the responsibility for vocal jazz educators to play a major role in the direction and future of this beautiful and unique form of expression. In advancing the art of vocal jazz (which today encompasses a much wider spectrum of music than that which has traditionally been labeled “jazz”), I would advocate for the pursuit of a nuanced approach to performance.
Directors working at any level who pursue this goal must plan ahead to set up an environment in which nuance and subtlety can live and flourish. To this end, working regularly with sound reinforcement is an important starting point, although much of what I’ll discuss below is possible through acoustic singing as well. Directors should also strive to choose literature that facilitates this pursuit in their rehearsals all year long. This may mean being careful not to program music that is too far beyond the students’ current skill sets, leaving rehearsal time available for taking the detailing process to a deeper level. It may also mean utilizing professionally-sung demos of the repertoire along with sung part-learning tracks when available, particularly on more advanced pieces. Part learning tracks such as the ones I’ve dubbed “Part Tracks” at KerryMarsh.com allow students to get through the early-stage learning process outside of class at their own pace, leaving time for developing all aspects of the performance.
To begin looking at a few nuanced techniques that work well in the vocal jazz style, let’s start, appropriately, with the onset of a note, which can be handled in a variety of ways. The vocal jazz style calls for the use of deliberate, audible and unified scooping by part or all of the group much more often than any arrangement will notate. This device serves to humanize and personalize the performance, and it helps the singers communicate a sincere message to their listeners, whereas the wholesale lack of a nuanced approach to note onset can result in a less interesting and more pedestrian sound. A precise guide for when to utilize scooping as a stylistic device is beyond the scope of this article, however referring to the stylistic use by Bonnie Herman on recordings by The Singers Unlimited is a great way to begin exploring its use. I’ve found that the most effective strategy for unifying scooping is to train an ensemble to sing them mostly as either half-steps or whole-steps, basing the decision between the two intervals on the scale-of-the-moment in the harmonic progression.
When a word begins with a vowel, it can be sung with a noticeable glottal onset or a more gentle approach that quickly blends a bit of air into the resonating tone, likely using a light or inaudible “H”. The glottal onset can be a useful way to add emphasis to a lyric (“You are the angel glow…” as opposed to “You are thee-yangel glow”), and may be effectively supplemented by a measured scoop as well.
When sustaining a note in an ensemble, most vocal jazz directors subscribe to the notion that every long note must be performed with a crescendo or a diminuendo. Although that may be a slight exaggeration, it’s certainly the case that the best vocal jazz groups do make dynamic changes to the vast majority of their sustained notes. I’ve enjoyed utilizing a deliberate “static” dynamic with my groups when a particularly strange, mysterious or interesting effect is called for. More commonly, if the number of ups and downs built into the performance plan accumulated to the point that further drastic dynamic moves would cause fatigue in the ear of the listener, the static approach may occasionally be used to good overall effect.
Performing crescendos with integrity and impact requires a degree of patience on the part of the ensemble. The most satisfying results often come from holding the dynamic steady for the first half of a note (or longer), then performing most of the crescendo for the remainder of the sustain. Singers must fight the tendency for a crescendo to push them out of tune should be proactive in resisting over-singing and losing support. Additionally, drawing upon the concept of “tone crescendo” can often be a helpful supplement to an increase in loudness by the group. A “tone crescendo” can be described as a gradual brightening of the sustained vowel over the course of a note.
Perhaps my favorite musical gesture to develop with a vocal jazz group, though, is a well-controlled diminuendo, which I feel is an underutilized technique due to its technical difficulty for singers. Contrary to the technique for performing a crescendo, diminuendos seem to sound better when performed with what we might call a “linear” approach, meaning that the rate of dynamic change is fairly constant from the start of the diminuendo through the release. However, most developing singers will drop the bottom out of the sound as soon as the notion of a diminuendo occurs to them, forgetting that the first portion of the move is actually meant to be about as loud as they’d previously been singing. The imagery I like to use to combat this quick drop-off tendency is of two people working together to slowly and deliberately lower a heavy, fragile item from a high place to the floor.
The top priority regarding note releases is to have clear decisions made and internalized for the timing of the cutoffs for each sustained note in a performance. Both the director’s and student’s sheet music should be thoroughly marked up with “-2” and “-4+” and the like (“off on beat two” and “off on the ‘and’ of beat four”), especially in cases in which the written rest doesn’t make the cutoff clear to the whole ensemble. When a release involves a terminal consonant, the placement, pronunciation and dynamic level of the consonant should be determined and unified. When a sustained note cuts off with a vowel (more common in vocal jazz due to the wordless vocal sounds we rely on so heavily) and a crescendo is utilized, a “breath release” is an effective and idiomatically appropriate way to release the note. A breath release, at least in vocal jazz parlance, is one in which an extra impulse of air is added at the moment of the cutoff, resulting in something like a half-strength cough. The effect is to unify and intensify the release, providing a sense of rhythmic energy and clarity. Finally, a tapered release from a carefully controlled diminuendo can be well executed by gradually bringing breath into the sound until no tone remains at the moment of the cutoff. When exposed in the writing and well-executed by the ensemble, such tapered releases can be highly emotionally evocative.
When directors work to incorporate shading and subtlety into their ensembles’ performances, their students are implicitly encouraged to listen actively to the music they’re creating. They begin to notice the fine details, eventually learning to adjust smoothly in the moment to create beautiful and exciting sounds and to tell cohesive and coherent stories. Students may also learn that a “safe” approach, avoiding many available nuances in favor of absolute unity and simplicity, is often unfulfilling to both the listening audience and the performers. From a purely musical standpoint, a nuanced approach serves the purpose of furthering and developing this pliable, still young art form. Every time a director makes mindful musical decisions about nuanced details to incorporate into a performance, communicates those details effectively to their ensemble and holds the individuals accountable for achieving them in rehearsal and performance, some measure of artistic legitimacy is added to the micro-universe of ensemble vocal jazz as a whole.
Kerry Marsh is a composer and arranger specializing in contemporary music for vocal jazz ensembles. He graduated in 2000 from the University of Kansas with a B.M.E. in Music Education and in 2003 with a Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas. Kerry is a proud member of the jazz studies faculty at The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he directs two advanced vocal jazz ensembles and teaches applied jazz voice.
For more information, please visit www.kerrymarsh.com.