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Singing Advice

Modern Melismas and More

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Modern Melismas and More
In contemporary styles such as pop, R&B, and jazz, vocal improvisation is a vital component of an exciting performance. But many well-trained singers can freeze up when asked to improvise. When breaking away from the printed page, the singer in effect becomes a composer, creating new melodies and rhythms based on the existing ones. To do this properly requires new types of vocal exercises and ear training.

Bill Schneider is a Los Angeles–based accompanist and vocal coach who has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Bette Midler and Madonna. He has developed a system for guiding the singer into the world of improvisation. Schneider works with singers not only in the L.A. area but, through the Internet, all over the world.

FUN IS GOOD

Schneider believes in keeping the process as enjoyable and nontechnical as possible. "You have so many scales: minor, harmonic minor, Locrian—it just goes forever," he says. "If you get too technical, you often lose the student. You've got to make it fun."

As he introduces new scales and sounds, Schneider doesn't tell the student what he's doing. "Once you bring in the names of scales, it just reeks of theory and math," he says. He prefers to keep the process rooted in sound and feel: "If a student understands everything technically but doesn't get the feel, then it's of little use in performance."

GETTING BLUE

To start, Schneider usually gives the singer a simple blues progression. "You're only dealing with a limited number of chords, so the student doesn't have to use their ears too much," he explains. "It gives them a sense of being able to improvise without getting frustrated."

The blues is so important because it utilizes harmonic devices not found in most classical or traditional Broadway music. "The blues is the basis of so much contemporary music," Schneider says. He introduces these new sounds gradually. "It needs to be worked in naturally, so the student really hears the notes."

Other styles are brought in as the student gains new skills. "After the blues, you can move into more-advanced things," he says. "I often use a torch ballad like 'God Bless the Child.' These songs go slow enough so the singer can really tune into each chord. From there we can branch out into jazz."

As students begin to master some of these sounds and scales, they will often want to know what scales they're using, the coach says. "I'll sneak in the theory when the student is ready."

RHYTHM AND PHRASING

Schneider begins by taking vocalizations the student already knows and plugging them into the 12-bar blues form. "I'll take a major scale on a 'mum,' for instance, and have them simply go up and down as I play the chords. I then have them start doing thirds, changing the patterns. This enables the student to begin hearing how the notes work over the different chords."

Rhythm is another important component of contemporary styles. Again, Schneider breaks it down to its simplest parts. "I find it best that they not think notes at first," he says, "so I'll have them sing over the blues on just one note. After that, we put words to this single note."

Then he works in the skills of contemporary phrasing. "I ask them to come in early and then wait a little bit, or come in later," he explains. "I show them how to drag the phrase." At this point he reintroduces melody. "I will then ask them to add one of the scales to it, do some of the words on the same note and some on the scale."

LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN

Schneider also suggests learning by listening to great singers, but some are better to start with than others. "Diving straight into Christina Aguilera can be overwhelming," he says. "I have them go back to simple 12-bar blues and then into gospel, such as early Aretha Franklin. Once we move into jazz, I recommend Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett." Contemporary pop singers come later. "Pop is a combination of the whole thing," he notes, "so it's best to build up to it."

KEEP IT CLEAN

Keeping the riffs precise, not blurring the notes, is key for
Schneider: "I'll stop and say, 'That was a good one, but let's clean it up.' " He then has the student slow the lick down and work it note by note. "The singer must be able to hear the note and sing it precisely," he says.

NEW LICKS FOR OLD

Problems with contemporary improvisation can start with traditional vocal exercises. "I think they're great for developing the registers," Schneider says, "but you would not use these exercises in today's music." He believes in developing these improvisational skills in a new way, advising, for example, "Take some of the licks that Mariah Carey might use and go up and down the scale using these new patterns."

Schneider encourages voice teachers to have their students work on style right from the beginning: "It would be great if voice teachers would start using some of these modern licks in their exercises."

Bill Schneider can be reached for private lessons at (310) 415-6292 or schneidermusic@mac.com.

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