Instructing the Rhythm Section In a Vocal Jazz Ensemble

by Rosana Eckert

The addition of a rhythm section (typically piano, bass, drums, and sometimes guitar) to a jazz choir greatly expands repertoire choices, enhances the ensemble’s stylistic possibilities, and helps take the choir even more deeply into the jazz idiom.  This added element can sometimes be a source of anxiety for a director with little or no rhythm section experience.  Fear not!  It’s like anything else. A little basic knowledge will get you started, and then you will learn as you go.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Program wisely.  Keep in mind the experience level of your players in addition to that of your vocalists.  If you and your players are just starting out, stick with basic jazz grooves like traditional swing, bossa nova, and ballad. Avoid more complicated rhythms like Afro-Cuban 6/8, Salsa, or anything in an odd meter.  If you have an experienced rhythm section, you’ll be able to explore various grooves and levels of difficulty.  Sometimes, the level of the singers does not match the level of the rhythm section.  It is important to have realistic expectations for both the singers and the band, choosing repertoire that is appropriate for both.
  2. Look for resources. If your players are brand new to jazz or still getting the hang of interpreting chord changes, use arrangements that have completely written-out instrumental parts.  The big publishing companies (Hal Leonard, Shawnee Press, Sound Music Publications, Alfred) typically offer this type of rhythm chart, and many of the independent publishers are getting on board with that as well.  Study those parts yourself so you know what they are supposed to be playing. If you have time, rehearse the band without the vocalists.
  3. Listening is key.  A reference recording of your exact arrangement performed by professionals or an advanced school group is priceless.  Again, many of today’s publishers (certainly all the big houses) invest in making good demos.  Have your group listen to the demos many times, discussing various elements they hear regarding style, dynamics, time-feel, tone, etc.  You may initially choose your repertoire based on the existence and quality of a demo. As you listen, ask yourself:
    1. How active is the comping in each instrument (piano, bass, and guitar)?  What style of voicings are used in piano or guitar (as in, how dense, how open, how altered)? What range of the instrument is being at various points in the arrangement?
    2.   How loudly are they playing during the climax of the piece?  What about the softest section of the piece? When there are accented hits, how aggressively do they accent those?
    3. Do I hear anything that they are doing that is not necessarily notated on their music?  (Dynamics, fills, dropping out, reharmonization)
    4. If there are piano and guitar on the recording, how do they balance each other? Are they playing at the same time?  If so, what “role” does each player have throughout the arrangement (ex: main comping, filling with solo lines, rhythmic element, sustained chords, etc).
    5. Where on the kit is the drummer playing during each section of the arrangement (ex: hi hat, ride cymbal, snare, toms)? Is the drummer using brushes or sticks or something else, and does this ever change in the middle of the chart?  If the drummer is creating a lot of cymbal sound, what is the timbre of the cymbal and how long does is ring (some cymbals have more of a “clangy” tone that quickly dissipates while others can have a very “washy” tone with a long ring time, functioning completely differently in the texture of the piece).  The actual hardware of the drums (size of snare, pitch and ring of cymbals, size of sticks, etc) has a direct effect on the volume, style, and tone of the drummer.  This is important to remember. (Sometimes something as simple as changing drumsticks can have a positive impact on the style and dynamic of the piece.)
  4. Establish a clear goal.  The more knowledge you have about what the end product should sound like and the role of each rhythm section player, the more comfortable and effective you will be.  Take the time you need to do some research.  There are many wonderful resources on the market to help directors learn about teaching a rhythm section (ex:  “Rhythm Section Workshop for Jazz Directors” by Shelly Berg, Lou Fischer, Fred Hamilton, and Steve Houghton).  In addition to studying their parts, listen to various recordings in the styles of your repertoire. Focus your ear on each different instrument for awhile, and perhaps try to play, “air play,” or sing the basic elements in each part.
  5. Monitor the rhythm section in rehearsal.  Sometimes when there are so many things to work on with the singers, it can be easy to forget about the rhythm section in rehearsal.  Whether your players are young beginners or older professionals, they still need guidance from the director.  The director is the only person standing in front, able to really take in the entire effect of the ensemble.  In rehearsal, try and monitor the following in the band:
    1. Style:  are they playing the appropriate groove?  (This is where your research comes in, and where a written-out chart can be helpful.)
    2. Time-feel:  Is the tempo steady throughout the performance? Metronome!
    3. Dynamics:  Do their dynamics coincide with those of the vocal parts?  Are they observing them to the same degree as the choir?
    4. Confidence:  Are they making a full sound without competing with the vocal?  This can be a tricky coordination.  An insecure sound from the players will negatively affect the vocal production, but we don’t want to drown it out either.
    5. Comping: If you have a pianist and a guitarist, make sure they aren’t both trying to comp in the same way at the same time.
  6. Ask for help.  If something is not working well in the rhythm section and you aren’t sure of a solution, sometimes it can be beneficial to ask the players themselves for help.  Simply communicating the problem and asking them to try something new can help shed some light.  (This could include asking the drummer to play the same rhythm somewhere else on the kit, or asking the bass player to change octaves for a section of the song, or asking the guitarist to tacet in a certain section where the piano is more active.)  If you still aren’t sure, try asking another educator.  Reach out to the Jazz Education Network.  That’s why we’re here!  Contact someone on the Education Committee, and we’ll get you in contact with someone who has some suggestions for you.  We’re always glad to help!


Rosana Eckert is Senior Lecturer of jazz voice at the University of North Texas, teaching private lessons,songwriting, performance techniques, and vocal pedagogy.  An internationally recognized live and studio vocalist, she has released four solo CDs and can be heard on hundreds of commercials, radio IDs, publishing demos, jazz educational materials, and album projects.  Her many published choral arrangements have been performed worldwide.  Rosana is a proud charter member of JEN.