Sing and Play: Teaching Fundamental Music Skills in Vocal Jazz Ensembles

by Kathleen Hollingsworth, D.M.A.

I am the Vocal Music Director at an Oregon community college where I teach chamber choir and vocal jazz. I generally have students in my ensembles who have been members of their high school choirs and absolutely love to sing. As with all young college musicians, their overall musical aptitude would benefit from gaining some practical, hands-on theory skills.

I want to share with you how I’ve been teaching fundamental music skills in my vocal jazz ensemble because it helps them sing with greater aptitude, skill and musicianship.  Each term, my students are given a theory exercise to master over a ten-week session. Each exercise is based at the keyboard and the student must sing while playing the keyboard. For their final, they must be able to perform the exercise in all twelve keys.

If the student comes in with a good ear but knows very little about the piano, they learn basic keyboard awareness and to sing and play the line of fourths. Have them start at the bottom of the keyboard and sing/play the following notes in this exact progression: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F#, B, E, A, D, G, C, etc.  Beginners will be more successful if they simply move up the piano. If they have a bit more keyboard awareness, they can move up and down, staying in one range.  The important part is the progression of fourths, although they won’t understand why quite yet.  It is truly a macrocosmic lesson as the end result will be to recognize and understand traditional western harmonic movement while figuring out their way around the piano.

At first, they look at me like I’m crazy, but then they hear all my second year students singing it like they have known it for years. I remind the new students that  the older singers didn’t know it even just a term or two ago. They suddenly gain some confidence and dig in to the exercise.

If they have some keyboard awareness, I have them sing and play arpeggiated major and minor triads through the line of fourths. So, C triads, F triads, Bb triads, etc.  Even just this exercise to your young singer who has some experience and love for choir will grow just by mastering this simple exercise. Their intonation will become better and their understanding of major thirds and minor thirds will be working knowledge, not just something they understand by ear.  They will begin to hear those triads in your charts and sing with more harmonic reference.  Also, their keyboard awareness is growing.

If they play some piano and the previous exercise would seem repetitive, have them sing and play all their 7th chords. They will gain so much information and skill from this exercise. I have them arpeggiate the chords up and down and always through the line of fourths.  Saying the note names is also helpful, or have them use solfege if they already own that knowledge.  This is particularly helpful for tenors and basses as they will often be singing thirds and sevenths in typical vocal jazz arrangements.

Next term, teach them to use this information in a functional manner such as playing a simple ii7-V7-IMa7 progression. Even if the singer never studies jazz again and remains singing in a church choir or community chorus, if you teach them this, they will be so much more viable as a section singer because they will begin to see, hear and understand patterns. Bach and Coltrane are truly similar at the core.

Teach them the standard 3-note voicing for a ii7-V7-IMa7 progression. The left hand plays the roots only, ie D, G, C. If they memorized their line of fourths, the progression will already be in their working knowledge. The right hand plays the thirds and sevenths of each root , F/C, F/B, E/B. The motor skills are not difficult because in the right hand, only one note moves at a time. They should know their arpeggios before they do this exercise, although I’ve found it takes some time to transfer this information from arpeggio to functional progression.

Next term, take that knowledge and transfer it to Autumn Leaves or All The Things You Are, or any tune that has multiple ii7-V7-IMa7 progressions. Always have them sing along with either note in the right hand, as it teaches efficient voice leading.  Another idea is to have them play the root progression and have them sing thirds and sevenths. Now they know where they are, and can use the keyboard for reference while their ears are learning to hear these tones. Then have them play the changes while they sing the melody. If they can get to this level, you will have taught them something so fundamental and elemental to functional harmony. Their ears and capacity to understand a larger tonal reference will be so much stronger.

Next, teach them 4-note solo-piano style voicings, ie, left hand plays the root and seventh and the right hand plays the third and fifth. Use basic progressions such as diatonic 251, 16251, 14736251. Imagine sending off your high school or community college singers to universities with that kind of wide and practical knowledge. It might be heart-breaking to lose them, but they’ll have a greater chance at scholarship funds or acceptance into the best ensembles.

Yes, it can and will take time away from your rehearsal, but it will serve the overall quality of their performance and musical understanding. And if they perform with deeper understanding and reference, their confidence will grow and will want to use and share that knowledge.  They will also be motivated to learn what all the older students know.

In no way, should this exercise take the place of the intention to sing passionately from the heart!  Certainly, we love ensemble singing because of that wonderful and unique connection that we feel within the art of choral music. I know from my own experience that if we can mix both the passion and soul of vocal music with a deeper theoretical understanding, the music takes on an element of beauty and wisdom that only happens when both the heart and mind are balanced in their contribution to the music.  When your students move on, they will take this ability to balance beauty and knowledge with them wherever their musical life paths may lead.


A dedicated and passionate musician, Kathleen has been immersed in music since her childhood. Her unique path has allowed her to work with musical giants such as Phil Mattson, Dr. Edith Copley, Dr. Joshua Haberman, Fareed Haque, Michele Weir, John Medeski, Billy Martin, Martin Bejerano, Terence Blanchard, Danilo Perez, Gary Lindsay and Rhiannon. She is a skilled and inspired choral director, vocalist, pianist, writer and educator. She is currently the Vocal Music Director at Clackamas Community College, performs as a solo artist, church musician and leads her own original music ensembles in Portland, Oregon. Kathleen’s intentions are to continue to serve humanity through music.