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Spoleto Vocal Jazz Workshop
Spoleto, 6th - 12th august 2006
by Chrissie Carpenter Oppedisano

Fai click qui per leggere la versione in italiano

What is Spoleto Arts? Spoleto Arts takes place every summer in Spoleto in Umbria. Spoleto Arts was the idea of C.J. Everett, drummer and percussionist from New York. The idea of Spoleto Arts was to bring American opera singers to Italy to study where opera had its beginnings and to study with the best Italian and American opera teachers. More or less a 'study abroad' program. The Vocal Jazz Workshop started in 1998 at the recommendation of pianist and composer Renato Chicco. C.J. Everett told me that the Vocal Jazz section was birthed as a result of wanting to give something of American musical culture back to the Italians and so, the course on jazz improvisation was born! Its main goal was to work with jazz singers whose first language is not English. I was astonished when C.J. told me that he began to see that the major music schools in NY and in many places were removing the vocal jazz programs! I asked him why this was happening. He told me that at one university, the faculty felt that the singers did not come well enough prepared and were not willing to work in the same fashion as every other musician in the programs on music theory, piano, vocal technique, harmony, arranging… all the things that would create a responsible vocalist on the level of a responsible, capable trained instrumentalist such as we have in the form of Michele Hendricks!

And so began my week of fun, fatigue, and fellowship! The first day everyone met to do a little performance and have Daniela Panetta, vocalist and instructor, and Renato Chicco, pianist and artistic director, place each student into the intermediate or master class. The next day we all met together and worked on some basic vocal technique, the blues structure, that is, learning the bass line, and then the walking bass line. One of the most wonderful things about Spoleto Vocal Jazz is the size of the classes!!! They are small! Never more than 14 students in each level (this year there were 9 in the master class and 5 in the intermediate class) which allows the students many opportunities to sing and to apply what they are learning.

The first evening some of the students gathered for a lovely dinner together where we got to know each other! Many students came from different parts of Italy and there was even an American gentleman who came to Italy specifically for the workshop!

On Monday Michelle arrived with her smiling face! She is an educator who puts you at ease and is always full of positive feedback which results in immediate changes that help the singer to improve. It is obvious that she loves what she does and she gives a lot of herself! In the mornings the master class met with Michelle where she immediately began singing the bass line to a standard and with lots of repetition, we began to memorize it! Then came the walking bass line! This is challenging stuff! Most singers never listen to the bass line and we had to really concentrate!! Michelle really likes singers to work with using their memory and their ears rather than looking at a lead sheet with the chords! She feels that if you look at a lead sheet, you never memorize a piece…. she may be right!!! Much emphasis is placed on learning to sing the chords, singing the bass line and applying this concept immediately. The goal is to be able to improvise acapella always keeping the chords in your head so you don't lose the structure of the tune and you know what's coming! We also worked a lot on rhythms (that being one of the most important aspects in improvisation) and attitude!

In the afternoons the intermediate class and the master class met together with Michelle to work more on improvisation and also on three choral pieces that were performed in concert the final evening of the workshop! In addition to the improvisation work, each student was able to perform 1-2 songs for Michelle and receive her feedback on how to improve. And each student performed a solo or duo at the final concert!

The organization of this workshop is very good and we were treated so well! Each day we had a wonderful lunch and almost every evening there was a jam session or activity to be involved in! Yes, I am ‘old' and I didn't have the stamina to stay out late every evening (smile!), but the opportunity was there for everyone to sing and have fun! Special thanks to Guido Di Leone and Giuseppe Bassi for their commitment to play at the jam sessions in addition to accompanying the singers during the workshop!!!

Congratulations to Paola Folli who won this year's prize! Here's what she says about the workshop. "I came to Spoleto, a bit by chance and it was a very interesting experience… very tiring, very instructive but thrilling! Thrilling because, after the first few days of complete chaos in our heads, we were able to improvise with eighth notes! Eighth notes and double time feel, and even though the beginning was very exhausting and slow, with Michelle's help it was really great! It was truly a positive experience and I met really wonderful people.''

Benedetta Orsini said "One thing that was really appreciated was the organization of the course. I felt embraced and cared for by everyone… for whatever thing… there was always someone available and we never felt alone! It was like being with family.''

Mark Hinkley "It is different and better than I expected. I didn't know exactly what to expect but I find the musicianship of the students, the teachers, the actual content of the songs we sing to be spectacular. It is tiring and you learn by making mistakes and you learn by talking to others and listening to others, so I had a good week!''

In addition to the students comments, I wanted to get a perspective from a musician and a singer regarding music and our relationship with each other… So, I asked Renato Chicco the accompanist and artistic director of Spoleto Jazz…. "Renato, if you could speak to all the singers in the world, what would you say?" And he responded "Singers should learn to be musicians. That means they should learn the insides of the music… theory, harmony, form, rhythm…. all those things that all musicians learn. A great tool to achieve that is with the help of the piano. The piano should be a singer's best friend! You don't have to play like a pianist, but know your way around the chords and how to apply this to your singing immediately. Be able to play for yourself.''

I asked Daniela Panetta, instructor of the intermediate course, if she could speak to all the musicians in the world, what would she say as a singer? She responded that, "It is very important that musicians understand that we are singers! We don't have an instrument in our hands… We don't have keys to press… We have to think about the note in our head and realize which note we are going to sing, especially when we scat, or even when we sing and then we produce the sound with our head…. we have our instrument inside us and so our emotions and mood can affect our voice…. If we wake up in the morning sad, our voice will be different than it was yesterday… Musicians must understand that singing is just not mechanical. It depends on our head and our heart and they should learn to listen. A musician who accompanies a singer must work in a different way. He has to listen carefully… not to play over the voice for example… and to be very sensitive to the vocalist! Make space for the vocalist and help them…. For example, in an intro, don't play the 9th… play a simple chord so that the vocalist can hear the key. I suggest that all musicians learn to sing! This will help them to understand some of the challenges that we face.''

Well, if singing isn't your passion, Spoleto Arts offers writing courses and cooking courses with the idea of cultural exchange and an educational tourism in mind. I can say that I received so much at Spoleto Vocal Jazz where the focus is really on the singer and improvisation! I received so many practical tools to apply to my singing and to improvisation. So, if you'll please excuse me, I've got to get back to learning the walking bass line for "Bye Bye Blackbird"!!

Hope to see you next year in Spoleto!

Related articles:

Interview with Michele Hendricks: "...one of my battles when I teach is that I'm trying to get rid of that bad reputation that singers have. Singers should know a little bit about what they're doing. They should understand the chord progression...they should have the same understanding of what's going on in a song that a musician does..." (Chrissie Carpenter Oppedisano)

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Publishing Date: 16/09/2006

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