I would venture to say that Esperanza Spalding is one of the most virtuosic singers of the time; in any genre. And for this reason, her songs are essentially irresistible to me.
As one always up to a challenge to see how far I can push my mind and abilities, I relish the opportunity to look Spalding’s song Chacarera, in the eye and just maybe, overcome. The song was written by Leonardo Genovese, but clearly intended for Spalding’s facility and skill. Few can sing this song. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to maneuver through it well enough to perform it on stage. But the sheer benefit of studying a piece like this is unmeasurable.
But with a piece like this, how do I attack it? Trial and error. There’s not much out there teaching us how to approach something like this. If we’re not an instrumentalist (and I am enough of a realist that I don’t claim to be an instrumentalist, although my keyboard skills get me through many situations), then we have to look at it in another way. This is my journey through this beautifully beastly piece of vocal acrobatics.
Step one is to acquire the music. Spalding’s site has it for sale in digital form, which you can download and print as you need. I printed the music and placed it tentatively in my “In-Study” section of my binder.
Thank goodness for YouTube. And so, I sit down with a pencil and my binder, in front of the computer and start to listen. The first few times, I’m just struggling to keep up and not loose myself. The thing to keep in mind is that this piece is almost equal parts precision and improvisation. There are these lovely little 2-measure vamps, hugged with repeats, that allow the piece to go on for a limitless amount of time. If you manage to figure out where “One” is in relation to the measure, you can count how many times Spalding and band chose to repeat the vamp. During these lovely interludes, the vocalist is free to improvise, along with the band. Coming back into the written notes is simple, since the rhythm stays the same, and as long as you don’t loose “One”, you’ll just come in when “the spirit leads”, and the band will follow. Or you can do the boring thing and decide in advance how many times you’ll repeat.
But let’s first figure out where we are in this piece of music!
So there’s basically two rhythmic shapes. Four, or three. The band is in six, but that’s too predictable and boring, over the polyrhythmic drum structure. So, we split it into two beats per measure. Okay, now I can handle that. And we count “one-e-and-a” or “trip-o-let” depending on the figure. There are duples, but those can be counted in the shape of 4. If you, as many of us vocalists, are rhythmically challenged, I suggest you take a yellow highlighter and mark the two beats of each measure, from the vocal line, through the piano staves. This will allow you to quickly see where your main pulse is, and it has helped me greatly in counting difficult pieces over the years. Since this song remains in a basic pulse, it’s not so difficult to keep in the rhythm once you use the highlighter trick. I use yellow, because it’s lightest and less distracting, and when you photo-copy the page for your accompanist (should you do so), it won’t show on the copy.
Now, I go through and, as with her other (and considerably more simple) pieces I studied in previous weeks, I indicate each breath she takes. Then I note where she extends or slurs a phrase where I might breathe. Remember, right now, we’re just analyzing what Spalding does, not creating rules of how we have to sing the piece.
Next, I sing an octave low, and while there is a huge range in this piece, I have a wide enough range that I am able to sing almost everything one octave lower. If you can’t do that, your challenge will be greater. And the first thing you need to ascertain is whether you are able to sing this song at all, given the extreme range. But when learning it, don’t strain to reach the highest notes. Indicate where you’ll sing down the octave, and do that when possible.
I listen to the recording, in order to catch the “groove” of the instruments (which is essential in this piece, and you’ll learn why after listening once or twice). And I only try to sing the outline of the basic shape of the piece. What does that mean? I sing the starting note, and the note I’m going to, or just the down-beat of each figure. In other words, I’ll sing the “One” and “two” of each measure (remembering we’re counting in two). I’m singing where my yellow highlighter indicated the pulse is. So in measure 3 (where the first vocalised portion begins), I sing D# to D-natural above that. The next measure I sing C# to the high A, but the rhythm changes, so I sing “trip-o”… and hold through the second pulse of the measure. The third measure of the vocalise, I’ll either “rest” on the “one” and sing the B, or sing “rest-A” on the first 2 beats of the triplet figure, to the B.
Now let’s look at a place where this process is easier and more helpful; measure 47 gives us a shape of 4, with Gb as the first note, going to a shape of 3 with a high F as the first note. Down to a D above middle C, up to a D, etc. Singing the shapes like this, with a metronome, and alternately along with the recording, will allow you to know where you’re going. This will help you to avoid getting lost when you add the other notes.
Next, I’ll take it apart rhythmically, excluding the notes. So back to measure 3 (beginning of first vocalised portion), I’ll give myself a big count of “one-two” per measure. Make it slow so you can be accurate. And then we count, “One-e-and-a, Two-and, Trip-o-(lit, trip-o-lit), (trip)-o-lit, trip-o-lit. Parentheses indicate the held or rested beats, but you still need to mentally count these. Try a metronome, so you actually remember to divide into equal 4 or 3 figures as indicated.
Other than that, it’s going back to the recording. Once you get the basic feel for the piece, listen to it no less than 50-100 times, following along, and notating everything you hear. Decide where you might change things to fit your voice. This is not a study in copying Spalding, but in learning from her so that you can be better at using your unique instrument.
Trust me, after several dozen repetitions, it will start to feel familiar…even comfortable. And once that happens, we start having real fun!