Jazz 101 for Classical Singers: Tempos, Tempi and Tempuses

Is this you? You majored in vocal performance or just earned a graduate degree in vocal pedagogy or performance.

You don’t know much about teaching the broad genre of jazz, but you are now teaching students who want to explore it. Technique is technique, right?

My first Devil’s Advocate question is, “why would you teach something you know little about from a musical point of view?  Or teach a genre in which you’ve never performed or, more importantly, haven’t listened to deeply or experienced in live shows over years and years?

So I never was a real jazz singer, but I grew up listening to my Italian grandfather’s considerable jazz vinyl collection which included Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Art Blakey, Count Basie, Miles Davis,John Coltraine and beaucoup de others. We listened to Grandpa play piano standards by ear, like Alley Cat.   He was an amateur jazz drummer in Chicago in the 40’s through 60’s. He’d practice his drum riffs gently on his grandchildren’s heads, and we’d stand there dutifully being his drum pads. It never hurt, and we were also entertained by the vocal sounds he produced for high hat and bass drum.

I began listening to jazz singers on my own in the early 1980’s and couldn’t get enough. I wanted to sing both classical and jazz, but back then, it was all classical in the academic training and in throughout my whole psyche. I probably did better than most classical singers at singing “jazz,” but my “feel” for the genre was, er, classically spastic.

Then my husband and I spawned and raised Adam Neely. So you can see that jazz is in the genes somewhere. Usually what many singers mean by “jazz” are songs that are included in The American Songbook.

And if you are not sure what is meant by The American Songbook, or even if you think you do, check out this article in Time Magazine.

Or your students want to ‘scat.’ Imitating recordings can be useful, and your student may do well at imitating licks and syllables.  But put your student in another key and another arrangement and they will sound ridiculous if they haven’t studied pitch and harmony relationships.

Start by finding out what your student means by “jazz.” Some are content to use music purchased from a place like Music Notes or in a collection from of a music book.  These arrangements only work in one tempo and the piano/harmony “arrangements” leave a lot to be desired. So if your student has a personalized arrangement by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald in mind, the standard printed music will be difficult to work with except for learning pitches. Most professional jazz singers arrange their own tunes or work with arrangers.

One of the things you need to make part of your work with them is the learning of Jazz forms. Form can be considered a tune’s “musical blueprint,” allowing each musician (and educated listener) to keep his/her place in the structure of the song. Many people sang with their high school jazz band, and learned the arrangement that was created for jazz band by publishers selling to high schools. But they only learn this arrangement and its form.

And I betcha they sounded pretty fantastic, too!

However, not knowing basic jazz forms means they can not communicate with other jazz musicians in other places and performance situations.  And the instrumentalists think “there goes another singer,”  not in a good way.

So, unless you are a gifted jazz pianist or can read charts and provide walking bass lines in various harmonic arrangements, purchase the app “I Real Pro” and learn to use it. Your students will think you are amazing. It is useful in a myriad of ways and especially for implementing teaching ideas for today’s post.

Classical musicians are used to identifying a unit pulse by names such as








But “jazz” takes a tune and can turn any tune into a “feel.” Remember–I am trying to be a bridge here between classical, musical theater and jazz, and the way I am choosing to do so is by comparing “feels” to “tempos,” which are not the same “groove,” but it is one place for classical/MT sorts to start.

Matching jazz tempi to a metronome beat (This info provided by the good folks at Talkbass.com)


UPSWING 208-252







Your student can start to identify these various tempi on any tune. Have them listen to an artist and figure out beats per minute, then match those beats with the chart above. Then when someone in a band calls a tune and says “Moderate Swing,” they’ll have a feel for it and feel like one of the band. Some singers can skip this step, but if they can’t get it intuitively it is time to bring out the click!

This kind of work can take awhile to take root, so don’t be afraid to keep coming back to it or review.

If you liked this post please comment, like or share! Thanks for being here.



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