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Anna-Lisa Kirby: Coaching the Next Generation of Singers

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This August, the University of Manitoba will attract a new band of junior high and high school musicians, along with a handful of adult weekend warriors, for the annual U of M Summer Jazz Camp, now in its 24th year. For a full week, these musicians learn new repertoire, gain new levels of accomplishment on their instruments, and make music together in jam sessions. At the end of it all, they perform for one another and for proud families and friends.

One long-running component of the Summer Jazz Camp is specifically structured for singers interested in exploring vocal jazz. Year after year, Anna-Lisa Kirby, the vocal jazz instructor in the U of M’s Jazz Studies program and one of Winnipeg’s favourite singers, gathers these eager vocalists and works her magic. Between the first day, when many are almost too nervous to make a sound, to the final day, when all of them perform with remarkable stage presence and musicality, Anna-Lisa Kirby is both coach and companion. I caught up to her to ask for her perspective on these transformations.

Tell me about your role at the U of M Summer Jazz Camp.

I’ve had the fun job of working with budding jazz vocalists at the Jazz Camp since 2004, and over the years we’ve evolved a workshop structure that provides a supportive, interactive, and fun learning environment for singers. The five-day workshop is designed for vocalists of all ages and levels who want to work on their solo vocal performance skills. We have our own rhythm section (piano, bass, and drums) consisting of students from the U of M jazz program, so I can really focus on individual singers. Because everybody is present, they are also learning from and supporting one another.

Who is suited for the vocal track at the Jazz Camp?

You can be a junior high or high school student who enjoys choir, but has a desire to step out as a soloist. You can be a singer who mostly does musical theatre or pop music, but wants to know what jazz is. You could be someone who has never taken a voice lesson, but wants to sing. Maybe you play in the wind ensemble at school but want to try out something different. Maybe you play classical music and want to branch out. Jazz Camp is for any and all of these people.

What might surprise a singer about the vocal jazz experience?

There is a very rich tradition of choral performance in Winnipeg, and singers here are more likely to have encountered jazz choir. The way I do things offers an option for singers who wish to step out and sing solo with a rhythm section and learn even more about improvisation and what it takes to be a vocal jazz musician on their own. Jazz Camp gives them a sample of that. Once they are bitten by the bug, there is no turning back! Most of my vocalists in the Jazz Studies program started out as students in the Jazz Camp.

How does it work?

Each vocalist will be assigned two jazz standards and will sing every day with our rhythm section. We focus on communicating with a rhythm section, jazz phrasing, jazz vocal improvisation, jazz listening, basic jazz theory, jazz repertoire, and vocal development. The week culminates with a student performance on Saturday, August 19. That performance is always so much fun! The singers get dressed up and they all have a really good time performing for each other, and for their parents and family members. I’m always amazed at what they’ve accomplished!

What’s the hardest thing about learning to be a jazz vocalist?

Improvising in front of each other! The funny thing is, young musicians always come in worrying that they’re supposed to know how to improvise already, or feeling that everybody but them knows what they’re doing. Or here’s my favourite: “I don’t know any theory and I can’t read music and everyone else will be able to, so I will look stupid.” These things are completely untrue. There’s often a singer or two who have been to Jazz Camp a couple of times already so they are more familiar with the process, but the atmosphere we foster in the vocal workshop is one of nurturing and mentorship: the singers all learn from and support each other. Yes, it will be hard to improvise in front of the other students for the first time, but everyone feels the same way, even if it’s their 100th time! Knowledge of theory or the ability to read music is not necessary for Jazz Camp—all you need is just a curiosity about jazz and a love of singing and a willingness to learn! (We hope that the fun you have at Jazz Camp will inspire you to learn how to read music and get some theory under your belt, because in the long run, you will want it.)

What stands out for you about being the Jazz Camp vocal coach?

Watching the student grow. Getting to witness that moment when they fall in love with the music and the process. Seeing the growth and the understanding blossom in them every year. Watching them begin to do their own research and start listening to jazz and loving it. By their final year in Jazz Camp, the really keen singers tell me what repertoire they are interested in working on during the week!

My most memorable experiences involve students who fall in love with this art form, soak up Jazz Camp for a few years, then audition into the Jazz Studies program and study with me for four years. It’s such a privilege to witness their journey from a child to an adult, both as singers and as human beings. I take it very seriously and try to pour as much information, knowledge, and joy into each one of them as I possibly can in hopes that they will take that and pay it forward as they transition into their lives as performers, educators, parents, or whatever career they end up in.

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