One day I had a lesson with my vocal coach Jane Sharp (yes, that really is her name). She was teaching me the song "The Very Thought of You." "Jazz is constant variation," Jane said, and we were working on the possible variations in this charming, sincere, rather straightforward tune written in 1934.
To be a jazz singer means exploring one's unique interpretation of a song, playing not only with melody, but also with the rhythms of phrases and their timing too — pushing them ahead or laying them back as the count of the song ticks on.
But meanwhile, as Jane has reminded me many times, we also have to sing the meaning of the words — say the sentences, tell the story. We emphasize certain words, we pronounce some more crisply than others, we are actors. The meaning of the lyrics influences our other musical choices. The possibilities can seem overwhelming. But if I'm guided by how I would truly speak the lyrics to someone, I find the right path: Make music, be inventive, but in the end, tell the story from my mind and heart.
Jane is an amazing teacher. Once I came into a lesson close to tears and attempted to sing a sad ballad. Jane was full of empathy, but she remained the wise and helpful coach. She said something I've never forgotten: "In life, we're destroyed. Then we sing. But not in the same instant."
Today we kept looking at a little bird outside the window. It had flown right up against the window of the lesson room, and then it hopped stunned to the roof of a shed just a couple of feet away. It was a baby. It sat silent as we worked on the new song. Finally, we were done, and my (and Jane's) singing subsided.
Then the baby bird started to sing — or call for its mother. In life, we may be destroyed. But then we sing.
copyright 2009 Lisa Bernstein