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Singin' the blues: a pedagogic tool.

ONE PEDAGOGIC TOOL USED FREQUENTLY in my studio is a music genre called blues. A foundational element of American music and the root of many a popular song, blues has been around for well over a hundred years. With rhythmic and tonal patterns originating in West Africa, blues was birthed in the African American-dominated south, became a national craze in the 1910s, and to this day, continues to influence the global music market.

While many people associate the blues with heart-wrenching sadness played and sung in a slow tempo such as Bessie Smith's classic song, "St. Louis Blues," there are countless examples of happy, up tempo, dance-driven blues songs like the rollicking Chuck Berry hit, "Roll Over, Beethoven." In short, blues can cover all the emotional bases.

The most traditional musical form blues takes is a twelve-bar (measure) progression of chords in common time. In the key of F, the progression would look like this:

--Four bars of the tonic or I chord (F).

--Two bars of the subdominant or IV chord (B[flat]).

--Two bars of the tonic (F).

--One bar of the dominant seventh or [V.sup.7] chord ([C.sup.7]).

--One bar of the subdominant (B[flat]).

--One bar of the tonic (F).

--One bar of the dominant seventh chord ([C.sup.7]). This is the twelfth bar, or "turnaround" bar, the last bar before going back to the beginning of the progression.

The progression keeps repeating with theme and variations until the parties involved decide the song is over. With a bunch of musicians each taking turns on solos, the song can take quite a long time. At one of my newer student's lessons, however, her initial attempt at a blues song was a rather short one.

"So," I ask my professional opera singer who was told, "If you learn to sing classically, you can sing anything," and who now wants to learn how to sing in some Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) styles, "have you ever sung a twelve-bar blues song?"

"I'm not sure I know what that is," she responds.

A music genre that explores improvisational skills," I reply. "It's kind of like baroque ornamentation but with a bit more freedom and a very different vocal sound."

"I'm an excellent sight reader. Can we read through a blues song?"

"Actually, I was thinking of creating one ourselves."

"I'm game. How hard can it be? Throw me into the pool and see if I can swim!" (I love her attitude, but not her naivete.)

"Good for you! Do you have a favorite key?" I ask.

"How about B flat?" she answers.

I start playing what is known as a walking bass line that outlines the chords. In this case, the tonic chord is B[flat], so the left hand note pattern is quarter notes in common time for four bars starting on [B[flat].sub.1]: | [B[flat].sub.1]-[D.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[G.sub.2]| [B[flat].sub.2]-[G.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[D.sub.2]| [B[flat].sub.1]-[D.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[G.sub.2]| [B[flat].sub.2]-[G.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[D.sub.2]|. The tonic chord moves to the subdominant E[flat] chord for two bars: |[E[flat].sub.2]-[G.sub.2]-[B[flat].sub.2]-[C.sub.3]| [E[flat].sub.3]-[C.sub.3]-[B[flat].sub.2]-[G.sub.2]|, then back to the tonic for two bars: |[B[flat].sub.1]-[D.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[G.sub.2]| [B.sub.2]-[G.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[D.sub.2]|. What follows is one bar of the dominant seventh ([F.sup.7]) chord: |[F.sub.2]-[A.sub.2]-[C.sub.3]-[E[flat].sub.3]|, one bar of the subdominant E[flat] chord: |[E[flat].sub.2]-[G.sub.2]-[B[flat].sub.2]-[E[flat].sub.3]|, back to the tonic for one bar: |[B[flat].sub.1]-[D.sub.2]-[F.sub.2]-[B[flat].sub.2]|, then to the turnaround dominant seventh for one bar: |[F.sub.2]-[A.sub.2]-[C.sub.3]-[E[flat].sub.3]|.

"OK, now it's your turn to sing with me." I'm smiling because I know where this is heading.

"What should I sing? Where's the melody?" she replies.

"You make it up based on the chord progressions." I might as well have asked her to juggle three bowling balls.

"Oh." To continue the metaphor she started, she was thrown into the pool and is now floundering. She needs a life preserver because in this pool, she cannot yet swim. Music is not a universal language, and a professional opera singer trying to be a good blues singer is the equivalent of a professional football player trying to be a good golfer. The training and skills don't transfer. Each genre and each sport requires its own skill set and that takes lots of time and effort. The training now begins in earnest.

"Try copying what I'm doing in the walking bass line, only two octaves higher. Just sing those notes starting on [B[flat].sub.3] on the syllable doo." I restart the progression and she begins to vocally track the walking bass pattern. I ignore her tall, vibratoed vowels at this time. Blues vowels and straight tones can come later. (TMI.)

After a few cycles through the twelve-bar blues, she's much more comfortable. I could have written down the walking bass notes for her to see, but I wanted her to use her ears more than her eyes.

"You're doing fine. Now let's try to stray from just singing that walking bass figure. How about you sing your doo syllable on [B[flat].sub.4] for the first eight bars of the cycle? You can sustain it for the full eight bars or rearticulate it whenever you feel like doing it. Then on the ninth bar with the dominant seventh chord, move your doo up a whole step to [C.sub.5]. Drop it back down to [B[flat].sub.4] on the subdominant and tonic chords and then go up a fifth to [F.sub.5] on the final dominant seventh chord."

A few successful cycles of that and we add yet another improvisational component. "This time, let's add a bluesy flatted third to your sustained [B[flat].sub.4]. Hold your [B[flat].sub.4] doo for two beats. On the third beat, doo a dotted eighth note on [B[flat].sub.4], then a sixteenth note on [D[flat].sub.5], followed by a [C.sub.5] on the fourth beat and a [B[flat].sub.4] on the first beat of the next measure."

I demonstrate and she repeats the pattern. "Do your doo melisma [riff in blues terminology] every two measures except the last measure. Find a different last note, perhaps that [F.sub.5]. You can slur the notes a bit if you want to."

Over the next few lessons enormous progress is made as we add flatted (minor) sevenths to the two other chords in the progression; an A[flat] note in the B[flat] tonic chord, a D[flat] note in the E[flat] subdominant chord. (The E[flat] note is already in the [F.sup.7] chord.) During this time I am also changing the accompaniment by adding chords in the right hand and altering the walking bass patterns.

My opera singer is learning that her instrument can make microtones, "in-between" tones that only certain instruments such as the guitar, harmonica, and saxophone can make to create that bluesy feel. This will especially help her out if she ever auditions for the opera, Porgy and Bess.

Next we try major and minor pentatonic scales on each chord of the twelve-bar blues progression. For example, on the B flat chord, the major pentatonic scale would be B[flat]-C-D-F-G-F-D-C-B[flat], while the minor would be B[flat]-D[flat]-E[flat]-F-A[flat]-F-E[flat]-D[flat]-B[flat]. Her doo now has company as other syllables join it. She is scatting--skuh daba daba doo wah dwee!

We try the traditional lyric structure of blues: two repeated lines and then a third rhyming line. Elvis did well with: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, cryin' all the time; you ain't nothin' but a hound dog, cryin' all the time; you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine" ("Hound Dog"), and the aforementioned Bessie Smith sang: "I hate to see the evenin' sun go down; I hate to see the evenin' sun go down; 'cause it makes me think I'm on my last go 'round." ("St. Louis Blues").

Not all of my students are as musically literate as my opera singer. In fact, many who come to my studio don't know a B flat from the proverbial hole in the ground. They've learned everything "by ear"; but if they're into blues-based popular music, they'll usually pick up the twelve-bar blues a lot faster than my opera singer did. My approach with them is, "I'll play and sing some notes and phrases for you that are blues-based. Listen to them and repeat them back to me." Everything I did with my opera singer can be duplicated by rote with illiterate singers. Throwing in some music theory along the way, however, is a very good idea.

"Singin' the blues" is a great exercise for anyone involved in CCM genres, be they rock, pop, jazz, folk, rap, and now more than ever, music theater as it continues to draw upon a diversity of CCM styles. For some, like my student, April Mae (and the June Bugs), the blues are a profession. For others, like my opera singer, the blues serve as a cross training exercise and perhaps a doorway into new repertoire that values improvisation. Being musically literate can speed up the learning curve; however, the blues works with all singers, literate and not, because all can hear the notes and sing the notes without necessarily knowing what they are called.

As a teacher of singing, it is tremendously rewarding to help singers explore genres initially outside their comfort zones and to see some of them eventually gain mastery. Do consider adding the blues to your pedagogic tool kit to stretch a singer's range, aesthetic, repertoire, and audiation skills. Go on YouTube and do your homework. Try it yourself. You can introduce it briefly or spend entire lessons on it. You can change keys, change tempos, change from major to minor, go from scatting to lyric-based content created on the spot. (Last November, a student went off on the best blues-based post-election political rant I have ever heard.) You can challenge your singers to explore their entire vocal range top to bottom, register transitions included. If they've got three octaves, encourage them to use all three octaves. As they riff, scat, ornament, decorate, moan, laugh, cry, holler, growl, whine, whimper, shout, scream, and mumble, they'll discover through trial and error that the twelve-bar blues is one of the most user-friendly and liberating voice exercises they've ever done.

Robert Edwin, Associate Editor
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Title Annotation:Popular Song and Music Theater
Author:Edwin, Robert
Publication:Journal of Singing
Date:May 1, 2015
Previous Article:Assimilation.
Next Article:Challenges and revelations in the interpretation of short songs: teaching the "small".

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