By Dr. Art Lapierre
Throughout the years, I have enjoyed working with singers who have a more traditional awareness of music. Oftentimes these singers have experience singing in classical choirs or pop/rock bands, and have little experience singing in four-part harmonies with upper extensions. Other than passing tones, most of these singers have sung in four-part triads and a few seventh chords with approach notes. Because of the more diatonic nature of their musical experience, I have developed a few vocal warm-up exercises to help them transition into hearing and singing in the more chromatic nature of jazz. These warm-ups will also help lead to the tone, enunciation (voiced and unvoiced consonants for legato ballad singing), and ear training appropriate for vocal jazz singing.
On the first day of rehearsal, I observe whether or not they can arpeggiate simple seventh chords: 1-3-5-7 (do-mi-sol-ti); 1-3-5-♭7 (do-mi-sol-te), as well as minor, half-, and whole-diminished chords, and design exercises to help them do so. The idea that they will need to sing an unprepared “non-chord” tone is oftentimes foreign to them. And, of course, few have yet to explore the extended notes of the 9, 11, and 13.
Here are a few exercises you can try in an effort to familiarize your singers with non-chord tones.
- Have them sing an ascending/descending major 9th arpeggio (1-3-5-7-9-7-5), using various vowel and word combinations. I use the words “name-the-tune-and-I-will-sing” for its combination of vowels and voiced consonants. Accompany the singers on the piano with a tonic major seventh chord.
- Repeat exercise 1, except this time move to a subdominant major seventh chord in the accompaniment, as they sing the 7th and 9th scale tones in the exercise. You may choose to put a fermata on these notes so that the singers may become more familiar with the sound and sensation of the resulting #11 and “add 6” harmonies created.
- Have the singers sing an ascending/descending dominant 9th arpeggio (1-3-5-♭7-9-♭7-5) with the same lyrics, and in the piano accompaniment play a tonic dominant chord.
- Try the same exercises, but over a tonic minor chord (1-♭3-5-♭7-9-♭7-5). In the accompaniment, similar to exercise 2, try the same arpeggio over a subdominant minor chord. Again, you may want to put a fermata over each note in the arpeggio to familiarize your singers with these newfound harmonies.
When the singers get comfortable with the sensation of extended chords, alter the arpeggio for more chromatically altered chords that include the ♭9, #9, and ♭13.
I have found that in very little time the singers start hearing and enjoying the extended notes of a newfound harmony—the harmony they will encounter in much vocal jazz repertoire!
Dr. Arthur Lapierre is the director of the DownBeat Award-winning American River College Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and teaches voice in Sacramento, CA. Lapierre also conducts vocal jazz workshops and clinics in the United States and Europe. He has taught at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, CA. Learn more here.