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It’s Talk Thursday!

This time around, in line with the topics proposed, “How To Sing Jazz & Riffs”, I’ve decided to kick off our chat with a jazz classic, “Teach Me Tonight”.

My session didn’t start at the usual 9pm, as I got off work late and I had to cut my fingernails very quickly before I could go live on FB! If you’re wondering what the fuss with the nails is all about, it’s because it’s impossible to play chords on the guitar properly with long nails. And of course, I would have much preferred to have my manicure professionally done or at least, properly cut with a nailclipper, but having not thought about this much earlier, there was no nailclipper at the studio and I had to resort to using a pair of scissors! :S

Anyway, moving back to “How To Sing Jazz & Riffs” as requested by Adam & Sam Pei last week, there’s just so much to talk about when it comes to these two topics. Given the little time that I had on “air”,  I decided to break it down to a few points to help any beginner quickly get acquainted to singing jazz and to singing riffs with better control.

How To Sing Jazz

Song Example: “L-O-V-E” by Nat King Cole


As with any other genre of music, familiarising yourself with the structure of the song is important so you know when to sing what. In jazz, this is easy if you are using an instrumental track of which you can study before hand. However, in a live jazz jamming seession, everything is usually pretty spontenous. That said, however, there is usually a song structure/form that jazz musicians traditionally stick to so that everyone’s on the same page despite all the improvisations that they’re going to do in the song.

So the first step in performing jazz, especially in a live jam sessions, is to recognise or determine the song structure that you and the rest of the band are going to follow.

The usual song structure/form practiced is as the following, though not always limited to this.

The song will usually be played 2 or 3 rounds.

1 round would mean the full song, which includes both the verses and the chorus of the song.

This is how the 2 or 3 rounds would normally be sung/played.

1st Round:

The singer (or lead instrumentalist, if there are no singers) would first establish the tune (with very little improvisations) so the listener can first identify the melody of the song. This is the part where the singer introduces the song to the listener first. As such the delivery is usually kept simple so the singer can identify what song it is to begin with.

2nd Round:

The singer would normally leave the verse (or sometimes we call it the “Part 1” of the song) to a musician to improvise and sing again (with improvisations) when it comes to the chorus (or “Part 2” of the song).

If not, the singer, may leave it to the musician to improvise the whole of Round 2.

Alternatively, the singer may also choose to improvise (with scatting and such) for the whole of Round 2.

There isn’t a fixed rule to this, usually, in a live jam session, the singer and band would decide on this impromptu 🙂

3rd Round:

The singer & band may decide to end the song at the end of Round 2, or get another round going.

In this case, the 3rd Round is normally sung & played more elaborately with more improvisations made – together.

Again, there’s no fixed rule to this, and it’s all impromptu – which is why communication, signals and chemistry between musicians do matter.

Just to make it clearer, here’s a little scribble I made for you on understanding the “traditional” jazz song performance structure.


The emphasis of the swing is something to take note off when singing. Feeling this swing can help a singer keep track of tempo properly when singing jazz, and it also help a singer tremendously when applying any rhythmic displacements during improvisations. The punctuations of beats in the swing is usually on the second and fourth (if you’re counting the beats from 1 – 4). Check out the video as I point out what beats are emphasised in the swing.


One of the most oustanding things about jazz is the creativity of its musicians in their improvisations. Unique interpretations can be delivered through various improvisations, and it’s nice because you would rarely ever hear the same thing played twice. This often makes jazz improvisations highly prized. Which is why, improvisation is something we definitely want to do in jazz singing. However, more isn’t necessarily the key to good improvisation, in fact, very often, less is more 🙂 It is more important that the improvisation is purposeful and played with conviction, than to be a whole series of a incredible riffs or scales that doesn’t seem to gel wit the mood of the song.

How to improvise? Start by playing around with the musical ideas you have in your head – sing them out and work them out from there. It’ll probably feel a little odd in the start, but no one starts off improvising perfectly 🙂

How To Sing Riffs

Song Example: “Are You That Somebody” by Aaliyah


Select a song you’d like to practice singing riffs with – pick one where the singer is actually singing riffs 🙂 Of course, once you get the hang of singing riffs, you can sing riffs with any song. But to start with, learning how to sing riffs can be much easier by studying how some of our favourite artistes do theirs!


In the song, highlight the parts of the song where the riffs are performed by the singer. And then take the time to listen to those parts over and over again, and figure out what notes are in the riff. You may have to sing them out slowly, or even try playing them out on the piano to be sure what they are in the beginning (especially if the riffs are very complicated). Once you figure out what those notes are, sing it over and over again to memorise the pattern of those notes. Once you can sing the riff notes correctly consistently, it’s time to add some punctuation. Pay attention to which parts of the riff the singer emphasises more than the rest, try applying the same emphasis in those parts. This will make the riff sound much more fluid and snappy rather than bland.


Remember to just let go and do it! Most people are so afraid of singing the notes in the riff wrongly that they never allow themselves to commit and sing through the riff fully, as required to make it a success. In the beginning, you’ll likely screw up on the notes or on the punctuation, but with some practice, one can master a riff properly! And once you can do this with your favourite riffs, you can probably create your own riffs and try them out with other songs.

Phew! That’s quite a lot to cover this time around. But hey, if that’s what you want me to talk about, I’m gamed!

Hope that helps you sing your heart out in jazz and attempt riffs more adventurously 🙂

Until the next Talk Thursday, remember,  you can post your suggestions on what you’d like me to cover next below, or send me a message on facebook.com/JaniceYapFB.

*Talk Thursday is a live Singing & Q&A Session with Janice Yap, Author of “Unlock Your Voice – The Secrets to Singing” which happens every Thursday, 9pm at Facebook.com/JaniceYapFB.*
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Talk Thursday: Quick Tips On How To Sing Jazz & Riffs