JaZZmine and the Nature of Hearing

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jazzmineWhilst I write up all my full-day or full-evening coaching sessions and workshops here (for the combined purpose of reflecting on them for myself and the enesembles, and for sharing what we learned), I don't always write up shorter sessions. An hour by Skype has a different rhythm to it from a 2-hour+ intensive. It tends to be more about sorting out details and consolidating partly-grasped areas of development than breaking new ground.

But sometimes one of these sessions will throw up something that is really asking to be written about, either for the practical techniques involved, or for what it can teach us about how people think musically. Or, in this case, both.

Last Thursday, I spent an hour by Skype with JaZZmine, mostly working on the relationship between musical shape the lyrical narrative in one section of a song (i.e. sorting out details). But towards the end, we homed in on two chords that were not working reliably - sometimes one or other came into focus, but just as often one or both just didn't gel. Both were perfectly 'normal' chords in type (dominant type 7ths), but they were both tricky in having chromatic relationships with the harmonies either side, and in being widely voiced.

An 'external' diagnosis of the difficulties would identify balance, placement and vowel matching as needing fixing. But in fact, these technical elements were themselves out of true due to a more fundamental difficulty in hearing the chords.

Now of course the quartet could hear the chords in a literal sense - that after all is how they knew they needed attention. But they were hearing the sounds, rather than the harmonies. Chords are composite things - they are made up from multiple notes, but they emerge as entities in their own right. Like the object depicted in a line drawing emerges when the brain pulls it and puts it together from a collection of lines. Perception is an active, cognitive as well as sensory process. So what was elusive was this sense of grasping the whole from the parts.

So we had two chords, and we used two different techniques to sort them out. With the first, a Chinese 7th, we started by singing down all four notes in unison as if it were a melody. Then we sung it as a top-down blossom effect (top-down because the Chinese 7th is a cantilevered chord), as a mid-way step to singing it in context.

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The key moment here lies in the cognitive work people need to do to make sense of the notes melodically: they are actively gauging the distance between them, needing to internalise where they lie in order to land on each accurately. Once they can do this, then hearing all four notes at once as a chord becomes much easier because every singer has themselves developed an active musical relationship with every note in the chord.

The second chord was part of a bII7 - I resolution spread over two octaves. We dealt with this one by bringing the lower two parts up an octave to hear the progression in tight rather than open voicing.

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This separated out the challenge of the chromatic progression from the challenge of connecting across different vocal registers. So once everyone had got the feel of the harmonic content with their voices close together, they could hold onto that mental image when the chords were attenuated out into their wider position.

Now of course the magic here is that the vocal issues of vowel matching, balance and placement all sorted themselves out once the chords were making sense to the ears. Once the syntax, the sense of the harmony falls into a coherent concept, the execution is no longer a problem.

What I find really interesting here is the relationship between concept, perception and action. When the idea of the chord was fuzzy, it was hard to hear and therefore hard to execute. But the means for developing a clearer mental image of the chord was through the act of singing it. This is another instance of that feedback loop that exists between perception, imagination and technique. At a practical level, the trick is to spot where the loop is broken, and find an exercise that will help the performers connect the three up again.

It was an amazing experience Liz and totally new to me. Amazing in that it helped so dramatcially to find what I perceived to be the missing link in both chords. Thank you!

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