Yesterday would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 96th birthday.
As I started my day with the usual ‘I-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed-yet’ trawl of the social media sites from the comfort of my duvet, I was treated to a collection of Ella songs, videos and a wonderful BBC Radio 4 programme about the Ella in Berlin recording of Mack The Knife – one of my favourites – and for those few moments, my mood was elevated.
Music, as we all know, has such power to enhance or adapt the way that we feel in a given moment; we can use it to reflect and empathise with our heartbreaks, cheer us up when we’re needing an energy lift , or even give us the kind of relief you get when you finally get angry and shout aloud. Trust.
And that is magical; truly a wonder.
I went to school with the words of Ella ringing in my mind:
The only thing better than singing is more singing
and went about my day of teaching, much like any other Thursday.
It started with a pupil who is seemingly terrified of singing. Or rather, singing “badly” and being heard. So self-conscious, most of her lesson is spent with me singing loudly to ‘drown her out’ so she has the confidence to be audible; it took me 4 weeks to get her to even sing a note. And she needn’t be at all worried, as she actually has a beautiful tone (from what little I have heard) and great pitching.
I have struggled (and still do) with shyness and confidence issues in the past, but singing (and more recently dancing) have played a great role in helping me over come that, and I think it’s a great tool for doing so.
Following that lesson, I had another pupil. We are working on projection and vocal strength. Today, we used the bridge section of ‘Hometown Glory‘ to get a really strong and powerful sound. We discussed how lyrics can fuel the energy and delivery of a song, and how powerful it can make us feel if we choose to put our all into a song. She commented after one particularly strong rendition how it felt like she’d ‘just done a workout’ – such was the control and energy needed to maintain safe projection and secure breathing.
It made me consider how singing, and good technique, can both empower us in an emotional sense, and keep us physically fit; we need great ‘core muscles’ to hit those big notes safely. It also got me thinking about the beauty of a strong lyric, and the power that comes from a personal delivery.
A little later in my day, I got to meet a new student. My first lesson with anyone is always spent having a chat, working out what they want to achieve in lessons, what experience they have, and what kind of things they’d like to focus on. We talked about what music she listens to, what she likes to sing, and then we chose a song to sing together.
I love how singing can bring people together and onto the same page; I am probably 17 years older than this pupil, and yet through talking about music and singers, and performing a song together, we are equal.
There are 2 more lessons I wish to tell you about, my lovely reader. The next is with a girl who is developing a love of Jazz and improvisation (through careful persuasion on my part!) and who today I introduced to the Birthday Girl; The First Lady of Song.
I played her ‘Mack The Knife’ and could see her enjoyment and amazement as the lyric-lost Ella led her band with confidence, even whilst making up all the words. We then learned ‘Summertime’ and I played her a handful of different versions.
This is one of the things I love about the Standard repertoire; you can interpret the same song in a hundred completely different ways. You can make it upbeat, or contemplative, or funny, or sad, or full of bitterness, and you can interpret certain lyrics one way one day, and in a totally different way the next. The freedom is inspiring.
My last session of the day was with 2 girls who are going to be performing in the concert next week. This is huge in itself, given how un-confident they first were when I started working with them, and it makes me hugely proud. We went to the main school hall to practise being in that large, resonant (and scary) environment, and they sounded brilliant. They filled the hall, and the sense of accomplishment (and relief) after the song was palpable. During a run-through, the emotion that they captured in their singing actually moved me, and I felt that swell of emotion you get when you know you’re hearing something full of truth and heart.
On my drive home, I considered all these things:
How singing can make you feel empowered; how it can change, or cement, your state of mind (the same way listening to music can); how it keeps you fit; gives you freedom to express yourself; how it can focus your emotions and put you right ‘in the moment’; how it can connect people; move people emotionally, and how Ella said it was the best thing that there is.
I considered all the things I have recently been viewing (and re-viewing) about how creativity and artistic nature can lead to emotional instability and mental unrest, and how the Creative often has conflicting personality traits that may lead to a difficulty in being understood/understanding themselves.
I thought about how sometimes it’s difficult to put on the ‘performer mask’ when you’re not feeling up to facing the world, and how, particularly in teaching, you have to put away how you’re feeling for the greater good – for the sake of your students.
Then I remembered I had a gig.
And I thought about that gig in relation to everything else that had been occupying my mind throughout the day, and I decided that have one of the greatest jobs in the world.
In a gig like the one I was lucky enough to have tonight, I don’t have to put on an ‘act’. If I’m smiling, it’s because the enjoyment of the song, and making music with the talented friends I share my stage with, makes me want to smile – nothing else is in that moment with me. And if I choose to sing a song that’s emotional; full of pain, or heartache, or anger, I am in a space where I can allow myself to be vulnerable, but safely so. It’s a place where I can explore my feelings and feel empowered by the lyrics and the freedom that Jazz music gives me, and where my audience allows me the freedom to do so.
Tonight, I sang ‘Round Midnight; a beautiful ballad I haven’t sung in quite a while. It was cathartic. It was freeing, and empowering, and it captured every one of the audience member’s attention. For a moment, I connected with every one of them; the room was silent and listening.
After the gig, an audience member told me that ‘Thelonius Monk had never sounded so beautiful’ and commented on my ‘perfect delivery and technique’. Whilst I can’t fully agree with his compliments, the fact he was moved makes me very glad.
And that’s why the only thing better than singing is more singing; it’s a form of expression, and therapy, and connection. It gives the ability to purge yourself of negative feelings, or remind yourself of positive ones, and in a place where that is allowed and where you won’t be judged for it. That is seemingly rare in the ‘real world’.
My students all seem acutely aware that singing in such a personal way is terrifying, and I agree. Putting yourself ‘out there’ like that can be one of the most excruciating things in the World. But the benefits can often be greater than you could ever imagine. Music allows people to do that in a way that is acceptable, and beautiful.
And that’s why I want to recognise how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do what I do. And also why sometimes I need to remind myself that a ‘good sing’ can go quite a way to curing a lot of ills; it won’t fix everything straight away, but you can be damn sure it will a lot cheaper than a few bottles of wine, or many weeks of therapy.
So, dear Ella, you were of course right. The only thing that can ever beat musical expression, is even more musical expression, and I can be truly grateful for a life that is built around that.
Happy Birthday, Queen of Jazz. And thank you for the inspiration.