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Books

From learning to sing to playing jazz, listening is key

Playing it by ear

Doug Bartlett photo / Ottawa City Archives</p><p>Jazz trumpet player and vocalist Louis Armstrong may not have always had the perfect pitch, but his legacy stands the test of time.</p>

Doug Bartlett photo / Ottawa City Archives

Jazz trumpet player and vocalist Louis Armstrong may not have always had the perfect pitch, but his legacy stands the test of time.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/5/2016 (339 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Listen up, music lovers: You don’t have to be mystified by the sounds you hear, or are trying to make. You just need to learn how to listen.

For Ted Gioia, jazz pianist and author of 10 books, that means learning listening strategies that allow you to hear your jazz with subjective and objective ears — to like what you hear and to know why.

Dave Shafer photo</p><p>Author and jazz pianist Ted Gioia.</p>

Dave Shafer photo

Author and jazz pianist Ted Gioia.

Neil Wadhwa photo</p><p>Author Tim Falconer gets ready to belt out a tune.</p>

Neil Wadhwa photo

Author Tim Falconer gets ready to belt out a tune.

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For tone-deaf Tim Falconer, who desperately wants to sing well enough that others will want to listen, it means listening to musical notes, pitch, timing, volume and more in increasingly scientific settings in his quest to stop being a "bad singer."

Gioia admits reviewers, himself included, have not made it easy for fans to "appreciate" jazz recordings or live performance. There is no handbook on what star ratings are actually based on or what weight critics give to the various components of a performance. Fans can be left bewildered by two reviews of the same recording — one raving, the other panning it.

The former Stanford jazz instructor outlines his views — "hard earned, things I grasped only after years or decades of studying the music" — to make jazz listening a more rewarding experience.

When Gioia writes that "listening to jazz begins with paying attention to the individual notes," it is more that just stating the obvious. "Don’t just listen to the notes; listen to what the great jazz artists do to them," he adds.

Or as New Orleans jazz pioneer and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet told a student: "I’m going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note – growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking."

See how simple it is?

Jazz historian Gioia recommends listening to as many styles as possible and offers a guide to major styles and what to look for. He also highlights musicians whose legacy stands the test of time, from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman. He also recommends recordings from the major styles and performers.

He doesn’t dwell exclusively on the old masters of jazz. He includes a list of what he calls the elite 150 early- and mid-career jazz masters, a list that includes expat Canadians Darcy James Argue (composer and orchestra leader) and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, both based in New York City, and Montreal-based saxophonist and Juno-winner Christine Jensen (Ingrid’s sister).

Whatever and whomever you choose to listen to, Gioia predicts "you will not be bored."

• • •

If Gioia’s book can be considered a how-to for jazz fans, Falconer’s Bad Singer is a how-to for chasing the dream of being a good singer — or even an adequate singer.

The Toronto-based journalist and music lover recounts a years-long quest to overcome his amusia — tone deafness — to achieve his goal of singing in public.

"I may not be a musician and I may not have been born with a natural ability to sing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t born musical on some level," the persistent Falconer writes.

His tale begins at age eight or nine, when the girl next to him in the class choir complained he was singing off-key. He became the kid who was asked not to sing.

He argues that music has become so "professionalized" that people are discouraged from making it for fun.

Music stimulates the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the pleasure centre that produces dopamine; this same pleasure centre is also turned on by chocolate, cocaine and lust. So, you see what we’re missing when we can’t sing.

For most people, a diagnosis of amusia would simply mean a lifetime of singing in the shower, but Falconer has a burning desire to overcome his ailment, one that took him to vocal coaches and scientific labs in an effort to learn more about amusia — and maybe overcome it.

While on his quixotic journey, he also tried to understand why we love music and what we really hear when we listen to it.

Falconer, a journalist and instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto and the University of King’s College in Halifax, tells an engaging tale overall, blending the history and science with his own, often-frustrating attempts to learn how to sing.

"I wasn’t just bad, I was scientifically bad," he laments.

But as amusing and informative as his account is, it seems a tad too long, as if he went looking for more experts to expand what began as a National Magazine Award-winning piece that was followed by a documentary on CBC Radio’s Ideas program.

There are moments when a reader might ask of the author: Why are you spending so much time and money on a lost cause?

Falconer did reach his goal of singing in public. He sang two songs at a house concert, "And no matter how bad a singer I was, I was better than when I started."

Gioia can be a bit pedantic and Falconer a bit overwrought, but each book has some merit for music lovers.

Chris Smith is a former Free Press jazz columnist.

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