This semester I adjudicated more than 60 vocal jazz ensembles at 5 different festivals in 5 different states. Here are some of the comments I repeated the most:

(in no particular order)

-Every singer is responsible for the time, just like the drummer and bassist.

-Jazz requires a conversational lyric delivery. Sing the words the way you would say them. Emphasize the most important syllables in a natural, speech-like way.

-You have to love the sound of the most dissonant interval in the chord.

-If you learned the notes wrong, being stylish doesn't matter.

-If you aren't singing in tune, nothing else you're doing is cool.

-You're in tune, but the vowels don't match.

-You got too loud too soon and too often.

-When you got quiet, you got wimpy.

-Try singing this ballad without the conductor.

-Rubato means wait longer between phrases. I shouldn't be able to tap the tempo along with you.

-Improvising soloists, you're too worried about note choice and not worried enough about time, rhythm, and compelling horizontal ideas.

-When you're improvising through multiple sections of the form, blur the seams. Don't stop in the last bar of section 1 and then start a new idea as section 2 begins.

-You're rushing the offbeats.

-Offbeat entrances weren't together.

-Find a way to show the groove physically, it helps us trust you (i.e. SNAP).

-This song needed one soloist, not four. Pick the best singer for the chart, then let them tell the whole story and develop their ideas.

-That little bit of organized movement wasn't necessary.

-That full-on choreography wasn't necessary.

-The hats weren't necessary.

-Don't overact or put on hyper-smiley personas. Let the music do the work.

-I probably wouldn't give this lyric to a middle school group (etc.).

-Your vowels are too tall (save it for concert choir).

-You're over-enunciating consonants (save it for concert choir).

-Neutral syllables are not text. Just use them to make the lines feel instrumental.

-These charts are too hard for this group.

-These charts are too easy for this group.

-Piano alone is not enough for this music. Beg/borrow/steal to get a rhythm section behind these singers.

-Have you checked out any recordings of this tune?...


I’m teaching Music Theory II in a summer session at UNL right now, and last week one of my students asked why we make them do traditional part-writing. He wants to be a music producer, and he doesn’t anticipate composing any Bach-style harmonizations in his career.

On the one hand, I understand this. The rules are pretty rigid. No parallel fifths or octaves. No voice crossing. Resolve the tendency tones. Don’t double the wrong voice. Make all four melodic lines interesting, but not too interesting, and by the way, they need to line up into complete chords that progress according to specific functional principles. This certainly isn’t a rulebook that contemporary classical composers or pop songwriters are bound by.

So why should every music student have to learn part-writing? Here’s why:

  1. Strict part-writing instills the broader concept of balancing the horizontal and vertical dimensions of music. Composers of every style and time period confront this challenge, and performers and conductors need to consider it as well. Strong melodies and strong chord progressions both want to dominate the musical texture. Managing these two competing elements requires craft and compromise. Part-writing develops this skill, which is then easily adapted to styles beyond common-practice harmony. 
  2. Functional part-writing is part of a complete toolbox of compositional techniques. If someone doesn’t understand a rule, then “breaking” it is meaningless. Learning to part-write means also learning the distinctive sounds that result when the rules *aren’t* followed. As Hawley Ades says in Choral Arranging"The experienced arranger will not be rigidly confined by these rules in all situations, but they should be carefully observed by the beginner. Gradually he will recognize with assurance those situations in which these principles may be safely disregarded."
  3. The terminology of part-writing permeates how we talk about music of other styles. Learning the language allows you to communicate more effectively about whatever music is in front of you. For example, right now I’m mixing an album of my original jazz compositions - pretty stylistically far from Haydn and Beethoven. And yet, the mix notes I send to our engineer say things like:

    “The parallel octaves in the horns at 1:35 aren’t quite lining up.”

    “Let’s bring out the leading tone resolution in the bass during the
    C2/E-->Fma13 progression.”

    “The open-spaced triads in this section feel really sparse,
    do you think close voicings would be more effective?”

    This process is more efficient because we can both describe musical events by their specific names.
  4. Following the principles of voice-leading makes the performer’s job easier. Whether the music is for voices or instruments, it’s worthwhile to learn what makes a melodic line “singable.” Even though we derive these rules from a relatively old musical era, the part-writing guidelines for range, motion and melodic intervals are generally still followed in many different genres.

  5. Every musician (composers, conductors, performers, and anyone else) will be stronger if they can spell and recognize chords quickly. Part-writing demands this skill and places it into an immediate musical context. As I tell my students, your ability to spell chords is only as useful as your ability to do it immediately.

Part-writing is difficult for many students, but I think there is tremendous value in learning this skill, for the same reason that an aspiring novelist (or book reviewer, or English teacher, etc.) should know Shakespeare. Even though some of the stylistic elements won't apply to every situation, musicians-in-training should soak up the broad, rich musicianship that part-writing builds.