Grammy awards were given out last night, and I didn't watch. Anything I want to see from that event will be on YouTube; this freed up my evening considerably for practicing and chatting with friends and Thinking About Things. I do want to make one comment on this year's music biz love-fest: Esperanza Spalding is very good, and I am very happy that a female jazz musician/singer of her caliber also has the good looks and the good industry support to take the award in the Best New Artist category. This meant, among other things, that an actual living jazz artist was on the televised part of the show, and not relegated to the pre-ceremony announcements. I can't think when a jazz artist – jazz, not jazz-y, jazz-like, or jazz-lite – won that award, and I find it quite remarkable. Let's hear it for the girl! None of the other awards surprise me.
Because of Esperanza's Grammy, I predict a surge in enrollments at Berklee College of Music and in high school jazz programs (if any are left after the horrifying cuts in education that seem to be on the way). Several years hence, the surgers will graduate with jazz degrees and impressive tuition-induced debt. But there aren't now, and won't be then, enough venues in which to play. Wait – there are venues, but most of them don't pay enough to bring musicians within riffing distance of the poverty line, much less allow them to crawl over that low bar. Same thing is going on in theater education: more and more graduates, fewer and fewer theaters.
Nevertheless, we are going to be singing songs forever, whether we are paid or not, and therefore I have something important on my mind, something I think about every time I teach a master class, or attend a singer's performance. Coaches and critics talk often about the necessity of commitment when singing (and acting. Non-singing actors reading this can substitute "scene" for "song", and "line" for "lyric", because they're the same). No matter how beautifully or convincingly it is done, when a someone sings a song, or even a single word in a lyric, that he or she does not completely understand, I can tell.
Furthermore, the whole audience can tell. We can tell that you don't know what you're talking about. Even though your listeners might not be able to put their fingers on how they know this, and what exactly is amiss, their exquisitely sensitive bull-detectors will ring a tiny alarm. Ring that alarm often enough during your performance and, though your audience members may be sitting in their seats, they will be emotionally and intellectually gone, thinking about the laundry, or the events in Egypt, or the likelihood of being downsized, all of which they could be doing at home in a much more comfortable chair.
We singers especially can be a lazy lot, but don't be lazy about this. Get help. If it's a word you don't understand, look it up. In an ideal world of my designing, I would send you to your personal copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, but for heaven's sake, who can even lift the thing, much less afford it? You all have computers. Google away. Type "distingué: define", and discover what Strayhorn really meant in Lush Life, and why he chose that word over others that mean roughly, but not exactly, the same thing. Learn how to pronounce it, too. And if it's the meaning of the whole song that's eluding you, do some homework. Dig deep into it. Ask a director. Ask a coach. Ask an elder. FIgure it out. If none of that helps, and you have the choice, put it on the shelf and live a little longer, and then try it again. Meanings matter. If you know what lyrics mean, your audience will, too, even if they didn't before you sang them. Until you have experienced this a few times, just trust me on this. It's magic. And it's true.