Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Thanks to the popularity of song interpretations on The Voice and American Idol, many singers today want to make every song their own by adding riffs and other ornamentations. Some are naturally gifted at this, others are not. For those who fall into the later category, it helps to have some guidelines of what is possible before trying to alter a song. Today I am going to highlight the work of my friend Dr. Trineice Robinson-Martin from her book So You Want to Sing Gospel. Dr. Trineice is the creator of Soul Ingredients, a teaching method for developing musical abilities for those interested in African American folk based music styles (jazz, gospel, R&B, the blues, etc.). She is also on the faculty of Princeton and Rider University.
In chapter 5 of So You Want to Sing Gospel, Dr. Trineice details melodic, rhythmic, and textural tools for improvisation. Today I am going to address simple alterations of the written melody (see pages 125-129 for the original descriptions).
Let’s start with a basic melody – Amazing Grace.
The first variation is a slide or portamento. This is when you connect one note to the next in a continuous motion.
Next is a dramatic slide or glissando. This is slower than a slide and all of the in-between notes are emphasized on the way up.
Next is the lean or appoggiatura. This is when the singer lands on the intended note with a quick descending slide from the upper neighbor.
Bends/blue notes are when you sing a note slightly above or below the melodic pitch for expressive purposes. It is usually a pitch that is a half step or less above or below the intended pitch.
Falls occur when a pitch is sounded and then the singer lets the pitch fall both in frequency and intensity without targeting a specific final pitch.
Scoops are when semitones are sounded as the singer scoops into the intended pitch. In a slide you begin the ascension to the target note from the previous pitch. In a scoop, the motion to the target pitch does not necessarily begin on the previous pitch. To simplify: a slide includes all semi-tones between the previous pitch and the target pitch. A scoop does not include all semi-tones between the previous pitch and the target pitch.
Neighbor tones are notes directly above or below the intended pitch. These are similar to bends but may include intervals larger than a half-step.
Passing tones are when one or two pitches are inserted between notes of the melody.
Finally, escape tones are when the first added note moves in one direction and the second moves in the opposite direction.
This is a very brief summary of these ingredients. As I mentioned above, there are also textural and rhythmic variations that are not mentioned in this post but can be found in chapter five of So You Want to Sing Gospel.
Do you have other melodic tools that you discuss with your students when working on improv? If so, please leave a comment below. If you are not already following the blog, please sign-up on the bottom right of this page. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week! ~ Matt