1 August 2015

Jazz Education Review: Tina May Vocal Workshop

Lou Beckerman reviews Tina May’s vocal workshop hosted by Brighton Jazz School


Tina May is an obvious enthusiast when it comes to sharing her knowledge. The workshop was well-attended with twenty-three vocalists of varying levels of experience attracted by an advertised afternoon programme covering:

  • Scat syllables
  • Interpretation and phrasing
  • Importance of knowing the form
  • Improvising within the chords
  • Making a song your own

Tina began with the importance of singing safely using good breathing technique and support. Breathing exercises were explored. She promoted the concept of not making a sound but rather releasing it and the value of listening until an idea comes and being in ‘the now’; to wait until it means something and to enjoy the spaciousness. With pianist Wayne McConnell accompanying, a twelve bar blues was used as a vehicle for a call and response scat syllable activity looking at rhythmic and percussive sounds. The group then worked in pairs trading four bars and then two, taking hold of a phrase then repeating and developing it. Participants were encouraged to listen and confirm – constructing a meaningful conversation and giving it narrative quality – scatting as if there were words – with the freedom to be expressive. With ease and fun Tina effortlessly made scatting accessible to even the newest beginners and to those whose inhibitions needed overcoming. She made the point that we only get nervous about the things we care about. Participants readily interacted with each-other.

The group was encouraged to practise scat every day and to vocalise sounds which emulate horns, percussion or double bass, as well as listening to some great blues and improvising alongside. ‘We become what we habitually dosaid Tina.

Participants presented some inventive improvisation on Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ (with the introductory verse which not many people had come across) as an example of up-tempo extemporising. They were again encouraged to find the creativity in the spaces and to not over-fill; to not be too pristine but to ‘dirty it up a bit’. Tina emphasised bebop as a means to finding a rhythmic language and the need to be ‘2 & 4 people in a 1 & 3 world’. The importance of being rhythmically aware also within a ballad e.g. Body and Soul was discussed. 

A number of songs which use Rhythm changes were explored (referring to the chord progression in Gershwin's I Got Rhythm which forms the basis of numerous – usually up-tempo –  jazz compositions). There was discussion around knowing the form but also allowing freedom within the form; learning the language from both vocalists and instrumentalists, and studying the riffs behind the soloists. 

Stating ‘You are what you listen to’ Tina gave many good examples of who and what to listen to.

The workshop had an improvisational quality to it which worked and reinforced the magic that can happen. Some participants were invited to contribute examples of their own musical influences. These were diverse and Tina encouraged people to incorporate into their repertoire the music they love – from whatever genre. The group was urged to share contact details and to pool their knowledge, and to ring-fence time to practise; to each take their journey as storytellers and to see where it leads.

There was some time for questions and answers; mic technique was discussed as was refraining from use of vibrato. The workshop drew to a close with a request for Tina to sing and the group was treated to her superb rendition of Body and Soul.

As participant Amanda Allen put it, 'The workshop was really fun and relaxed! Tina gave us a good mix of improv exercises that weren't too intimidating for any novices and strengthened this with lots of useful advice. I came away with a long list of daily tips and tunes for scat practice – and a renewed urge to do it.'

Tina said later: ‘We are all kindred spirits. I love it when people are curious to find this music. Sometimes they’ll get back to me and ask where they might find a song. Fortunately we have YouTube as a fantastic resource. I was lucky – the music was all around me – but what if it isn’t? You have to be quite curious to find it.’ With this brim-full vocal workshop she certainly inspired and whetted curious appetites.


Workshop reviewed by Lou Beckerman.


For more on Tina May: www.tinamay.com

For more about Brighton Jazz School: www.brightonjazzschool.com

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