The Magic of Vocal Scatting Brings New Hope by Diane Sawyers
VSA California, the State Organization on Arts and Disability, recently contracted Southland Sings to bring Poetry to Song Workshops to Hope High School as the music component of VSA California’s Once Upon a Thyme multi discipline arts residency. Hope School is dedicated to preparing students with special needs for lives of purpose, quality, contribution, and independence.
Diane Sawyers, one of Southland’s vocal and composition teaching artists, has been working with two classrooms at Hope.
When attending the VSA California Planning meeting at Hope High School in late February, I was thrilled to hear that the chosen music genre for this year’s “Pageant of Hope” was Jazz. I have been a long time Jazz aficionado and I was excited to have the opportunity to share my love of Jazz music in an Educational setting; however, I was not prepared for the profound effect this genre would have on the Music students at Hope
The element that has really opened doors for these students is a type of Jazz vocal improvisation known as scatting. For those who may not be familiar, scatting is when a Jazz vocalist sings seemingly random syllables in an improvisational style, often having characteristics similar to an instrumental solo. Here is a definition I think is particularly helpful: A type of jazz singing characterized by improvised vocal sounds instead of words.
I believe that the key here is “improvised vocal sounds instead of words”. The opportunity to make any vocal sound they wish, with no judgment of what is right or wrong, has created a freeing opportunity for the Music students at Hope. For example, one of the female student enjoys scatting with the word “Puppy”. She repeats it in a rhythmic fashion along with an instrumental track, often elongating the first syllable. The result is amazingly musical! Many of the students are able to duplicate simple rhythmic patterns using their scat syllables(s) when the pattern is demonstrated for them.
The live microphone also seems to have magical effect. When these students come up to the front of the class to take their turn, they all seem to understand what the microphone is for. Some of the most astonishing examples involve students who have been challenged in their verbal skills and/or those who are usually shy and cautious in their verbal communication. In my most recent session, one young man came up to the microphone, put his mouth almost right on it and joyously began making many different types of sounds. I have never heard him speak a word in any of our previous sessions. Adults in the room who have known this student for a while kept saying “Wow!” He had such a great time with his turn at the microphone we finally had to gently let him know “Great, thank you! Now it is time for someone else to have their turn.”
Another young man hasn’t mastered vowel sounds yet, but is doing very well with extending the “M” consonant and with various humming sounds. He also doesn’t usually exhibit strong verbal skills; however, he does extraordinarily well with the word “Yeah”! With encouragement, he is able to repeat the word “Yeah” rhythmically with the music, with the most infectious smile on his face. Another student who has some hearing impairment, enjoys saying “bah, bah, bah” with a good sense of beat. One boy enjoys punctuating scat syllables with people’s names. Some of the names he incorporates are those of his fellow students, some are of Paraprofessionals, and in one exuberant moment he even gave a shout out to Betsy Ross! One of the female students started out her scatting with lots of dah, dah, dah; she has a great “d” consonant. At first she was shy about vocalizing and needed lots of encouragement. By Session 6, she was able to come up to the microphone by herself, say her name and sing all of the lyrics of the Chorus of our original piece (not scatting but actual words) with a great sense of rhythm and pitch! It was so exciting to see her achieve that level of confidence.
For those students who don’t generally exhibit verbal abilities, the Big Macks have proven to be a great way for them to participate. A Big Mack is a device, which can be used to record words or sounds. The Classroom Music teacher and I record various scat syllables for them. When it is their turn to come to the microphone to scat over the instrumental background, they can play back the sounds that have been recorded by pushing the button on their Big Macks. Sometimes they need a little encouragement to start pushing the button but once they understand how their sound fits with the music, they often continue pushing it on their own with giant smiles on their faces.
While none of these students are yet scatting with the elegant musicality of Ella Fitzgerald or the complexity of Al Jarreau, every one seems to be enjoying the opportunity to take their turn at the microphone and vocalize using the sound(s) they like best. The growth in the responsiveness to the rhythm of the instrumental loops they are singing with has been to me, extraordinary. Even more important is the joy they have all discovered by participating in the creation of Music, both as individuals and as a group.