When Jazz Yukon and Music Yukon announced a vocal jazz workshop with Vancouver vocalist Karin Plato, I was quick to sign up.
In my days as a CBC Radio host, Plato had been a favourite choice as I picked music for the noon show. I loved her sound. Getting to learn from her was going to be a thrill.
I have sung all my life, mostly in choirs, with a few solo performances here and there. My background in vocal jazz is pretty teensy.
So when the first day of the workshop arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
It was a fine spring day as we gathered in the darkish Production Room of the Yukon Arts Centre. There were several levels of singer present, including professionals who gig on a regular basis, choral conductors, music teachers – and amateurs, like me.
Within moments, we were singing together from our seats. A few minutes later, Plato had us up at the mics. Singing. Alone.
For anyone who has never suddenly been thrust in front of a microphone, trust me, it’s weird.
I’ve used mics in radio, but it’s a different thing to be singing into one, with a visible audience and your sound amplified around the room, trying a tune you don’t really know.
Oh yeah, and trying to breathe.
It may not have been as much of a challenge for everyone, but I certainly learned a raft of unpleasant sounds that my voice is capable of making.
I suspect that even those who sounded superb felt a little uneasy putting themselves out there in front of a bunch of strangers and an award-winning professional singer.
But the magic of that session, and of the whole week, was that each time we took our turns singing, we became more relaxed and our sound was better.
This was largely due to Plato’s amazingly supportive coaching. She finds good things about every performance and other elements that can be improved.
When you sneak a peek at her listening to a student sing, she is perched on the edge of her chair, body moving to the rhythm, an appreciative smile on her face, eyebrows lifted, fingers snapping, the image of focussed attention.
It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit good about yourself. And that makes you willing to give it another go, the next time it’s your turn.
The other bit of magic was working with a band. Ann Turner on bass, with Annie Avery and Grant Simpson taking turns on piano, brought style, texture, rhythm and mood to every song, no matter how insecure (or exquisite) the vocalist might be sounding.
Each day was a new challenge. Sometimes I’d come in thinking I was getting the hang of this genre and wouldn’t feel quite so out of my comfort zone. Every day I was pretty much wrong.
A good example was the second-last night, when Plato suggested we try a little scat.
Scat. I had never done that. At all. Improvise to a tune, using no words? You must be joking.
Plato and one of the more experienced singers began by “trading four bars” of the song “Centrepiece”. It was great fun to hear: two singers using their voices in a purely instrumental way, finding new places to take their sound, playing off each other. Not thinking, just improvising.
We all tried it, even me, and wow! It was so … much … fun! There was immediate talk of a scat party.
Although singing was the major activity, Plato also spent time talking about jazz – the different forms and what defines them – and answering questions. I learned musical terms I’d never even heard of before.
We practised counting in our songs and communicating with the band, setting up how to present each song. Although I’ve been counting for several decades, counting in is a whole other can of worms. Another unexpected challenge.
When the final evening arrives, we are all tired, but sorry the experience is coming to an end. We try to cram a lot into a few hours: questions and answers, advice about vocalists we should listen to, more singing.
After some cajoling, Plato agrees to sing. She gives us a version of “My Favourite Things” that is unlike anything I’ve heard before.
She skips all over the tune, playing with the notes, the harmonies, the words. It’s ethereal and light and sexy … not at all like how I had sung it earlier that same day.
Plato improvises on her imminent departure from Whitehorse and a trip to Mexico in two days’ time. She wraps by singing some encouraging words to a workshop participant to whom she had just given a private lesson, wishing her well in an upcoming audition.
Everyone applauds. In my mind, we are all feeling lucky, in unison, to have heard this and to have been there the whole week. The evening goes on awhile longer, with more duets, a trio, solos and a final unison rendition of “Joyspring”, one of the tunes Plato taught us.
It’s a vocal warm-up that sends the voice tripping up and down the octaves, hitting sharps and flats galore, all in a spicy little rhythm that feels just like the spring weather that has shone down all week.
I leave with one thing reverberating in my mind, something Plato said in the last hour of the workshop: “If you like singing, jazz is going to treat you well.”
Karin Plato will conduct a second vocal jazz workshop in September. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.