Rhiannon: Total Improvisation

Roseanna Vitro interviews vocalist and educator about her life’s work

Rhiannon is a unique and extraordinary vocalist, performance artist, composer and master teacher whose musical vision embraces jazz, a cappella, improvisation, world music and storytelling. Rhiannon has a brand new recording just released titled Spontaneous. I felt this would be the perfect time to interview this gifted artist and mentor. I have attended three Rhiannon workshops in the New York City area, where she has accumulated a very large following of singers as well as around the world. Usually Rhiannon's workshop's run for a minimum of two days. One can expect to play improvisational exercises guided by Rhiannon that will enhance and enlighten a singer’s ability to hear and create harmony. We worked on various time feels with accuracy while improvising with lyrics and scat syllables. In general, she builds confidence and musicianship in the participants. Her classes usually breed a feeling of brother and sisterhood, a unity with a strong bond in spirituality that says: music is not simply fast chops and notes on a page.

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Rhiannon

Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest memories of singing and music? Did you know you were a singer from an early age?

Rhiannon: I grew up on a farm on the banks of the Missouri River on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. I went to a one room country school house for my first five grades. There were eighteen kids in the whole eight grades. That educational beginning was amazing. It served me well to be in that one room hearing everyone's lessons and having the open country as my real textbook.

I spent loads of time wandering the pastures in the neighborhood of our farm making up stories and playing all the characters. I sang out loud with no inhibition, lucky me. I don't know if I was singing songs my mom played on the piano or making them up or both. There was a period of years where I buried small dead animals that I found in my adventures. I would sing as I buried them some invented blessing for their safe journey and make up details of their animal lives. That was very important to me. I felt the power of singing as part of ceremony. I didn't tell anyone but kept it as my secret world. My mother studied piano and French in college there in Yankton, South Dakota. She had some dreams didn't she? She played throughout her life and encouraged all of us. She knew tons of songs from the American songbook and I learned many of them without realizing. There is no other reason I would know all the lyrics to those old songs because I don't remember studying them. She infused them into me. My father was a farmer and a beautiful dancer. He had some dreams too. Both of them ended up on the farm, so they did the best they could to pass those dreams on to me and my sisters. What I got from them was that improvisation was a life skill. There is nowhere better to learn that than on the farm; weather, animals, emergencies of equipment, banks, changing seasons, all of it and you need to roll with it and not resist. Just go with it the best you can.

Did you study music in school and were you a disciplined student?

My parents realized my musical desires and gave me piano lessons starting about nine until I graduated from high school. I also took voice lessons starting at eleven. In a small town in South Dakota, the options were slim. I was raised Catholic and spent many years in Catholic schools singing in Latin for mass, funerals and weddings. It was great training in pitch, breath control and blend. In high school, I studied piano and voice from twin nuns, Srs. Jane and Jeanette. Their devotion to their art was an inspiration for a young girl with not so many options. I saw how they sparkled when they explained music to me. I am grateful to them and my parents for these early gifts of understanding ordinary people living a life where music, dance and art of all kinds make life better and are valued in a way that the big stages of the world never know. Their lives are better for it.

Music was the center of my life as a high school student. I was in an all girls school so distractions were minimal. I had lessons every week, a practice room I could always go to plus chorus and theater productions ongoing. What a blessing to have so much art in my high school. I know that is how I was able to imagine becoming a musician.

I don't think I was such a devoted student, practicing, practicing, but I did love it and find my core inside that music. I was busy growing up and acting out as well. These things take time.

Who were your first influences as a vocalist and which instrumentalists inspired you?

Gregorian chant and big band music were the main threads I heard until high school brought rock and roll. Because we were in the heart of the Midwest, we didn't even get many radio stations and we didn’t have television in our house until I was almost a teen-ager. The influences of the world were minimal, but the sky was huge, the seasons extreme, I swam in summer until I ached, and I could run and bike as far as I could get my legs to go. Freedom and nature, those were definite influences. I loved all the hit tunes of the day that we bought as 45's. The popular music started to bounce around with the Gregorian chants, classical music studies and of course the big band music that my folks thrived on for their dancing. I mixed it all together, that's the way.

When I graduated college with degrees in teaching and theater, not music, I moved to Hempstead Long Island for a teaching job at the local high school. The kids taught me more about city and multicultural life than anyone. I took lots of trips into Manhattan to hear music. I heard jazz for the first time and was hooked on the interplay, the improvisation, the capacity to choose second by second. What a shift from what I had studied, it blew my young mind. I found myself going more and more often to the clubs.

I heard Ella Fitzgerald live in 1967 in a small club in midtown. I heard Miles Davis live during the Bitches Brew years. I hung out with other jazz fans and learned the music in an informal gorgeous way of sitting in someone's living room with the stereo on and everyone telling what they knew about the music. I had a boyfriend with a huge jazz collection and lots of connecting information. I started putting it together with what I was hearing from live jazz. Later I took jazz history classes and jazz theory but at the beginning it was all about listening and exchanging ideas.

In graduate school, when I was working at my acting career, I heard Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I was awe struck at the multi-tracking, the concept of voices as instruments, the huge range of the singers and their astonishing lyrics and improvising. WOW!, I didn't know you could do this. That's what I love to think after hearing something new, the kind of inspiration to go to the edge of my own dreams after hearing someone follow theirs.

Then, there was Betty Carter, who I first heard in San Francisco. She blew my mind, her presence on stage, her extreme tempos, her physical relationship to the music and the musicians, the choice of songs and how she made them her own, as well as her own great tunes that no one but her could write. She had her own label way before it was the fashion. She was an original. She spun my head around. Wonderful! The list goes on and on. Very hard to be definitive when the whole world and all of life is inspiration. Did I say world music? Oh yes, that too, in a huge way.

Did you formally study music theory and do you play an instrument? Are you self taught?

I studied classical piano growing up and finally in San Francisco I took several semesters of jazz harmony and theory classes. I love to sit at the piano and improvise. I have written most of my songs sitting there trying to figure out what I am hearing. The piano is my old friend. I wish I had more theory and composition study but I have loved constructing my own life curriculum. My students have taught me a great deal and every bit of beautiful music I hear keeps teaching me to continue this study always.

When did you start performing professionally? What inspired you to become a totally improvisational artist?

I start gigging after ten years of making my living as an actor and teacher of acting. I was in a terrible play with a mad and obsessive director and thought, “this is it, I'm quitting.” I put up signs on the bulletin boards, before the internet, and advertised as a singer looking for a band. I found a trio and started working. I was learning jazz repertoire all the time I was in New York, and in Chicago I was in the wonderful Free Street Theater where I started singing, but really in San Francisco, is where I put together charts, band, repertoire and started practicing endless hours of scatting to try and figure out how it worked. It was all mixed up and perfectly aligned in some out of control way. I was following my intuition and the seventies was a great time to be in San Francisco, because there was so much freedom and expression. I met improvisers in all the arts. We met often to share skills and ideas. The boundaries were very transparent and what mattered was to be creative. My improvising then was mostly over chord changes. When I helped to found “Alive!” the women's jazz ensemble, I started thinking more outside the box using spontaneous stories and adapting my scat ideas to the original music we were writing together. It was a collaborative time that I will never forget.

Over the years as I have taught improvisation, I have gotten deeper and deeper into the concepts and realized it is a much bigger and more diverse field than I had known. In the early eighties, I met Bobby McFerrin and was part of the original Voicestra ensemble where we studied vocal improvisation in entirely new ways. That was graduate school for singers. Oh, what a group and to have Bobby to study with every week was chocolate, heaven, delicious, courage, mighty fine. We have toured together for 20 years in Europe and the US.

Somewhere in there, David Worm, Joey Blake and I started talking about leaderless improvisation; how to do it so that there could be chord progressions, changes of tempo and time signatures. Each of us were exploring on our own and with our students. We began to try it in performance and saw that it was not only possible, but inevitable. You can't go back once you have that freedom of expression, the possibility to find the way together with no road map. That is thrilling.

I was also working with Abraham Laboriel, Alex Acuna and Otmaro Ruiz during that time. We had finished an album of beautiful compositions and wanted to move on. We were working together at The Vic in Santa Monica where Ray Slayton gave us time and space to work improvisationally in front of a deep listening audience. The chord progressions and melodic shifts were there with instruments as well. It is a wonderful way to work if the group agrees to devote energy to it. Also it is important that everyone is willing to lead, start a piece, take big risks and then we just go. Just find the way. What a thrill!

Since moving to Hawaii, I live with my partner Jan on a nine acre farm where we are raising fruits and vegetables for ourselves and for trade with neighbors. Cacao and tea are our main crops. I have found once again the joy of living where I can go barefoot into the pasture and sing out loud. Growing food may seem like a radical action these days, but I am grateful to be on a farm once again.

I met a Shinto trained improvisational dancer named Shizuno Nasu who lives down island in Volcano Village. She and I have been improvising for three years now with several local events involving dance, voice, instruments and imagery. This is another frontier of improvisation for me, putting the voice with dance and finding new connections. She and I have a strong bond across culture and language. Sometimes we can’t speak about what we want, but we can show each other. After the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, Shizuno began dreaming up a tour that would link the art and destiny of Japan and Hawaii. I just returned from that amazing, collaborative and fully improvised performance tour. You can read more about it and see photos on my website.

All of my performance projects and teaching schedules are on my site. Margie Farmer is my booking agent and she has presented me online in a great new way with this site. Check it out if you like.

At what point did you decide to start your teaching career?

I started teaching in San Francisco as a way of increasing my capacity for music. I wanted to better understand how to sing for myself and I felt like I had enough classical training to support teaching vocal technique, then we could learn together how to improvise. I have always loved teaching much more than I expected to. It is a devotion for me and because it is mostly improvisation now, it is always different and keeps me on my toes. I love private teaching, but the week-long or ten day gatherings are full of personal change and musical growth. I get to watch the students learn from one another as they study the exercises I’ve developed from working with them called The Vocal River.

Tell us about your Hawaiian retreat residency classes and your concept behind: “All the Way In”.

I have been teaching in the Hawaiian Islands for 22 years. My current residencies are on the Kona side of the Island of Hawaii, in a little retreat center right on the coast. I believe we hear and see the ocean all the time, even in our dreams. That relationship to wild nature is perfect for studying music and improvisation in particular. The Hawaiian culture is ever present; the music, dance and the kinship to all of nature. I teach for ten days once a year, usually in January, when people love to escape the cold. The singers arrive and immediately let their skin and their souls take in the warmth of the air and the water, this takes the teaching and learning to another level.

“All The Way In” evolved as a way to extend the connection with the singers and to have time for the development of skills. I started it in the Bay Area in the nineties. We worked for three weeks, five days a week, six hours a day. It was life changing, but so strenuous for all of us that I stopped for a few years to think how to improve the idea.

This year I am in my fourth series of year-long work with a group of singers. We meet for three different weeks in three different settings. This year it is Kona, Hawaii, West Marin, CA and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Each week has a theme for the work of learning improvisation and the applications to music, community and personal growth. There is feedback, homework and a conference phone call so that the work can continue between sessions. We study my Vocal River exercises, the power of music as a healing source, the relationship of music to the natural world and in community, and finally collaboration and performance. There are guests at each session who add their skills and talk story with us so that the singers can have a vision of making a life in music that is diverse and unique to them.

What can your fans expect from the new Spontaneous album? Where can we order it?

This album was conceived after several years of live improvised concerts so it made sense to set up the recording sessions that way. We worked in a wonderful sound studio in Los Angeles, with a live audience for two performances. We also had a session with only the musicians in the room in order to hear the difference. The whole thing was videoed, since watching the magic happen is important as well as hearing it. Abraham, Alex, Otmaro and I recorded an interview about our relationship to improvisation and it will be released soon on video. I can't wait to get it out there because not much information exists to guide musicians in improvisation and the role of collaboration. I added three tracks from a live concert at Berklee College that same year with Jetro daSilva on piano. It was an exceptional evening made even stronger by the presence of the students and faculty who cheered us on.

I feel that I finally have this part of my musical life on CD. I want the listeners to know that improvisation can have spontaneous lyrics and the feeling of song form as well as the freedom of the moment. The bond amongst all of us making music is strong like a family because we are finding our way together in this mysterious, spiritual, musical world.

Do you recommend any particular books or programs for singers who would like to improvise?

Bob Stoloff's books
Judy Neimack
Jay Clayton
The Jamey Aebersold Book series
That's what comes to mind immediately, but there are more for sure. There is not enough however. It is a part of the musical experience that needs a pedagogy. I have written Vocal River which will be released this fall with DVD and instruction cards. I hope it will add to the development of improvisation as a legitimate performance form beyond singing over changes in jazz. I experience improvisation as a useful skill in all music and vital in life. My next work will be to help develop that pedagogy for Junior High, High School and College students and a training program and degree for musicians who want to teach improvisation.

If you were designing a college program for jazz vocalists, what classes would you require or design? As you know many fine conservatories still do not have vocal jazz programs in place.

I have concentrated deeply on the work of improvisation, so I don't feel qualified to design a whole vocal program, but I know that I would begin with body and voice connection. I would require movement, dance and choreography classes, Feldenkrais work, beginning improvisation, ensemble improvisation; any way to connect the singers to their bodies, their own particular voices, to the instrumentalists and to music as a spiritual practice. Of course, to that you would add theory, harmony, ear training, songwriting, composition, jazz and music history, and all the uses of digital music programs and connection to studio and soundtrack work. Having an international and multicultural student base is very important as music comes out of the cultures of the world and brings us to common language.

Berklee College, where I taught from 2009 to 2011 has an amazing array of classes and opportunities. Northern Michigan has a degree in improvisation but only for instrumentalists. Other schools are thinking about it I am sure, but there aren't enough teachers trained to teach vocal improvisation, that’s what is up next for me. I hope others will be interested and we can figure it out together.

I want to thank you Roseanna for inviting me to do this interview. It caused a memory lane ride through my life. At 67, that takes some time.

My heartfelt thanks to Rhiannon for taking time to be a part of my Voices in Jazz series of interviews. Do yourself a favor and check out her music. The new one is Spontaneous!.

List of Rhiannon’s CDs:

1. Flight -Rhinnon’s Interactive Guide to Vocal Improvisation
2. Bowl Full of Sound
3. In My Prime
4. Toward Home
5. Live on Tomales Bay
6. WeBe3 Live and Improvised with Joey Blake and David Worm
7. Alive - (75’-85’)....
8. SoVoSo and Truth and Other Stories

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