Lenora Helm: Enterprising vocalist-educator

There are some artists who are just plain enterprising. These are artists who don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring, who don’t cry endless tears about the lack of gigs, lack of opportunities, empty pockets, who eschew the “woe is me/us, no one will help me/us” syndrome. These enterprising artists I’m speaking about – a recent classic case was the new Likemind collective we interviewed a couple of weeks back (scroll down); self-starters who are all about creating their own scenes, who are entrepreneurial about developing new projects and career enhancements.

Such an artist is the vocalist Lenora Zenzalai Helm. Several years ago she took her Berklee degree and teaching interests on the road and left the New York jazz wars for a teaching position at North Carolina Central University’s thriving jazz program. More recently she’s launched her own vocal education program; obviously some questions were in order for Lenora Helm.


What made you determined to establish your Vocal Musicianship Academy?

Lol, I like that you said “determined” because it means the passion and intention was felt. I couldn’t sleep at night after many vocal auditions and vocal lessons with students. A troubling pattern emerged of vocalists’ level of musicianship substantially below their instrumental counterparts. This wasn’t a new insight – instrumentalists often have more capacity than vocalists at music theory, and the overall language of music. But audition after audition, a singer would not be able to demonstrate proficiency beyond singing the words and lyrics to their songs. The literacy gap is a problem essentially because it impacts a singer’s ability to sustain a career and thrive as their instrumental counterparts. The dumb singer jokes are so prevalent, and the assumption that a singer doesn’t know is so common, instrumentalists can usually count and identify singers who they regard as true musicians on one hand. When my article Process vs. Results was published in JazzEd Magazine this past January, I received lots of supportive emails and comments from vocal educator colleagues and musicians about points made in that article. There is much agreement amongst musicians and educators of the need for raising the bar and establishing standards for vocal musicianship. This consensus is not only inside of academia, but across the music industry in general.

I wanted to create a vehicle for singers and vocal educators to have access to tools and resources, on-demand, online, to level the playing field for those unable to pay to attend costly programs or institutions, and to create a community to begin a movement toward raising the benchmark and creating standards about what singers should and need to know. I created Vocal Musicianship Academy™ upon coming to understand that many trained singers are years behind their instrumental peers, and a large percentage of singers who are gifted or have a talent for singing are functionally illiterate in the language of music. Singers who may have a spotlight and/or a busy performing career often have a fraction of the knowledge of the inner workings of music compared to the instrumentalists with whom they work. This pervasive illiteracy exists even though vocal programs and resources in academia – K-12, community workshops, etc, are available.

A lack of musical literacy is also a barrier for a singer to earn multiple streams of income in other areas of the music business. What created an urgency for me was, after my informal research amongst my academic colleagues, and professional singers, that even in an academic setting – where singers are counting on the integrity of the coursework to equip them for careers in the industry – a construct exists that enables and sustains their deficiency in music literacy! This construct finds shape in ways large and small in vocal curricula in academia or community based vocal programs. It is as glaring as programs of study that do not require singers to have basic piano proficiency, which is a door to developing musicianship. Or in the case of jazz programs, camps and residencies, having no vocal teacher, vocalists are required to study with an instrumentalist.

In some cases where there is a jazz studies program, and no vocal teacher, the classical voice professors will flat out refuse to train the vocal student who declares an interest in studying jazz. This is absurd! An instrumentalist can certainly teach music theory and ear training to a vocalist, but when the vocalist needs coaching for applying that knowledge with an eye toward vocal health, all measure of problems abound. There are many other scenarios that could fill volumes, but I will stop there.

My other call to action for creating Vocal Musicianship Academy™ was traveling to countries to do workshops or residencies and observing the singers in those locales having the same issues as singers in the U.S., whereby they were meeting the same deficient construct. Within this universal construct is an eerie kind of collective compliance or agreement that yes, singers know less than instrumentalists. But so what – do they really need to know more? I hope Vocal Musicianship Academy™ can fill the void and help to change the paradigm about singers and musicianship and provide access for any singer, anywhere to get what they need to master the language of music, and master the art of working as a vocal musician.

Calling it the Vocal MUSICIANSHIP Academy, as opposed to the Vocal Music Academy or simply the Vocal Academy, has a certain implication. Talk about your sense of Vocal musicianship. Instrumentalists acquire a measure of musicianship as a by product of learning their instrument – learning to read, having to navigate the relationships of elements of the music through notes, intervals, harmonic structures, song forms as their fingers move around their instrument. Singers traverse most of this information aurally and by immersion. As a result, a singer can actually circumvent acquiring the necessary level of musicianship that would sustain a thriving career, and not realize what they don’t know.

Now in the circumstance that an instrumentalist learns solely by ear and never learns to read or write music, they still develop a basic musical aptitude that a singer may never reach. Its because apples to apples, singers still don’t have that extra tactile step – working through an instrument, which activates the brain’s multiple intelligences – the recall, retention, and understanding of the information. We absorb information best if we use multiple senses or modalities of learning. Singers are not using the same number of senses (auditory, verbal, kinesthetic, tactile) at the same level while learning or performing music, as instrumentalists. As a result, singers must be intentional and work in a structured way to learn the same information, and fight against the urge to skip developing musical literacy. The problem is, singers don’t learn that musical literacy has an impact unless they are in an environment that fosters or requires those competencies. As an analogy, we generally can talk before we learn how to read and write, then we attend school around age 4 or 5, and begin the journey toward literacy. If you never learn to read and write, you can travel through life as illiterate with some measure of success, but you have a ceiling that you can’t penetrate because of your lack of literacy. A large number of singers are like that 4 or 5 year old who is yanked out of the subsequent stages of development with the bare minimum of musical literacy. So many singers start from behind, and for the most part never catch up.

Eventually most singers without musicianship become dependent in varying degrees on instrumentalists to navigate and interpret for them all that takes place in a musical setting. Musicianship is artistic sensitivity and expression and is bred from knowledge and skill in performing and creating music. Musicianship allows you to communicate with your fellow musicians and articulate your ideas, inspire and cultivate interaction within a performance. Musicianship is a door to creativity – and developing an increased capacity for creativity is important for any artist, no matter their instrument.

Its kind of remarkable then that there are singers who thrive with limited musicianship and are able to sustain careers with multiple streams of income (sideman gigs, composing, arranging, collaborative projects amongst band equals). But imagine if a culture could be created for singers to raise the expectations and standards of what singers should know. The landscape would be quite different. If you put together playlists of singers, even generationally, over the last 80 years or so, you would hear very little change, beyond a handful of iconic vocal masters. I don’t believe there exists a lack of tolerance for new, different, and adventurous vocal music amongst listeners, such that audiences only want to hear the American Songbook.

I was intrigued by and amused over the fact that the GRAMMY for Best Vocal Jazz album for the last two years has been awarded to recordings from instrumentalists who happen to sing (Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spaulding). I think an audience does exist for vocal records that are creative and different and singers need the support (and training) to venture there more often. I would love this shift to happen for singers – that creativity is engendered as a result of a collective disdain for low standards, mediocrity, or a paradigm of “sticking to what has worked for the last 100 years.” It’s incredibly stifling to have the impression – and then confirmation by way of what garners media attention – that singers should stick to the American Songbook or clever arrangements of pop standards in order to have a measuring stick against which to be judged if you “are doing a good job or not.” (I actually had an industry professional say that to me.)

I would love to see more singers winning the large fellowships and grants for their compositions. These awards – like the MacArthur and Doris Duke fellowships are often given to instrumentalists. Singers with stronger musicianship skills could have a shot at these awards, and because those two aforementioned fellowships are peer nominated, you have to have a proven track record of winning previous smaller awards. Not many singers are even in the minds of their peers in this way. In order for vocalists’ contributions of expanded repertoire to shift the vocal lexicon, pedagogy inside and outside of the academy at all levels would have to change. Changes have come about over the past couple of decades in what vocalists are being taught, simply because in music education, and jazz music education in particular, educators are communicating, sharing best practices, and identifying the impact of the curricula. Vocal Musicianship Academy™ is committed to helping that change to occur outside of academia in the general marketplace.

The name also suggests that perhaps you are reacting to what many trained musicians – as well as folks who appreciate real craft in musicians, particularly singers in this case – react to when the subject of the American Idol-ization of vocal artistry comes up; that is the fact that suddenly people lacking true vocal training, whose only real singing experience might be in the shower, or at best in their church choir, suddenly have these national television platforms promising them stardom if they make the cut. Is that an accurate assessment of your impression of that phenomenon?

Funny you should ask that question, Willard. This is exactly my point about the paradigm around singers and what is necessary for singers to know to be successful. As we see in the commercial marketplace, even the small positive changes in academia barely drizzle to the general public to change perceptions about what singers should know or can be expected to demonstrate. For the growth we’ve seen, we’ve also seen the onslaught of a plethora of singing competitions that send a message about what good singing is or isn’t. I certainly respect singers who have natural gifts because even with vocal training, you are not guaranteed that your expression will be what others want to hear. These reality TV singing competitions send the message to the naturally gifted singer who by virtue of the fact that they can sing, are hard pressed to come to an understanding of why they would need training. Those shows are misleading and support the mindset of many untrained singers that what is needed is a “big break” and success is just a few votes away. I’ve also seen singers on these shows with some experience – background singers for major artists, (lets call them the “veteran gifted singers”) who never learned the impact of musicianship, and struggle to make a living. It’s heartbreaking to hear some of the stories from the singers in interview snippets where this show is a “do or die” for them. What is even more insulting is the comments and “coaching” from judges that would be hysterical if it weren’t so pathetic. A musician friend I know once said hearing the barely-talented-if-at-all judges’ comments and coaching is like witnessing the blind leading those who can see. It’s scary indeed.

Reality TV is designed to be entertaining. Singing competitions have become a source of entertainment and are very popular. I just wish the shows were prefaced with a disclaimer, because they perpetuate myths about what it takes to have a successful career as a singer. One of my students who auditioned for one of these shows shared the content of the documents they were required to sign in order to participate. The stipulations included agreeing to being misquoted, disrespected, insulted and other specifics that would demean and demoralize the singer(s). I knew there were some shady stunts pulled for the sake of entertainment, but when I learned this, I was literally stunned. These shows make singing look easy. Maybe that’s why we find folks wandering into the vocal jazz category who were once actresses or in some other field. From the outside looking in, it can look like you just sing those beautiful melodies with passion and you can make a jazz record. I’m been a little sarcastic here – and I don’t mean to disrespect anyone’s efforts at artistic expression. But when expectations are low, and benchmarks don’t exist, it’s anyone’s game. Reality TV singing competitions also reinforce the perception that a singing career may be an undesirable career track. If your child announces that what they want to be when they grow up is a doctor, engineer or astronaut, everyone is thrilled. If the announcement is that of an artist – and god forbid a singer, the first thing the parents say is “you need something to fall back on.” If the aspiring musician then agrees to study to be a music teacher too, there is some sigh of relief from the parents – some. Why? Because it’s accepted that a course of study and a level of technical ability must be achieved to receive a teaching degree. To many parents, aspiring to be a singer is like wishing on the moon. I can’t tell you how many parents I talk to every single year about their presumption that an incoming voice student needs to double major in something other than music for job security.

Lenora Helms’ latest record is
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing.

What level of vocalists are you seeking to impact with the Vocal Musicianship Academy?

Vocal Musicianship Academy™ is for any level of vocalist. It’s for the independent vocalist, or for a vocalist who may need to fill in the gaps of their existing vocal program of study. Whether you are starting from scratch, if you are using it to brush up on skills, or as a veteran performer – you can find resources, and a viable community of singers to build your repertoire, grow your ear and enhance your network. Whether a soloist, ensemble or background singer, you can improve your creative contributions to the field, and become more competitive developing writing and arranging skills. Singers who are soloists often have to be bandleaders before they have training or experience. Often, they are working too without the advice or guidance of a mentor. Early in my career I had the blessing of the mentorship of veteran blues singer in Boston named Jelly Belly. I didn’t fully understand how to apply much of what I learned from him at first, but over the years I was able to use his advice. His tutelage helped me navigate all I needed to begin working in clubs, putting together a band and finding agents. Later in my career, though most of my music mentors were instrumentalists, I did have a music business entrepreneurship coach in New York based Cobi Narita. Her guidance has been priceless. (She has had a profound impact on the careers of countless musicians and I can’t for the life of me understand why she has not yet received an NEA Jazz Masters Award.) Having access to veteran vocal mentors and sponsors is important, and it is my vision to create a community that can support generations of successful vocal musicians on an international scale. Vocal Musicianship Academy™ will give singers access to mentors, music business entrepreneurship training, musicianship coaching, a supportive community of like-minds and networking all in one online portal.

You close your pitch for the Vocal Musicianship Academy by saying “Its about time for singers to take a stand…” That’s a somewhat loaded clause; tell us what you really mean by that.

The same way education advocates addressed the dangers of lack of structured programs to facilitate successful outcomes in reading and math literacy, and creating standards and benchmarks necessary for academic success, there is a need for this same stance in music literacy for singers. It will require withstanding the rigors of the cycle upon which any change is made – consensus on what is wrong, how to fix the problems, and committed educators and musicians to create resources and answers. There was a comment on Facebook not long ago in a vocal educators group about arrangers’ common practice of giving vocalists lead sheets or music to work on without chord changes. There were many responses from the group echoing everything from annoyance to disgust with this practice. I once asked an arranger who gave me music for my vocal ensemble where were the chords for the vocal parts and he said, “I didn’t think they would need them.” The chords are the information used to navigate the music successfully. A lead sheet with melody and lyric only, without the chord changes, is like reading a book with only pictures, and no words. I train my vocal students to refuse to be quietly pigeoned-holed in this way. When bias is this insidious its hard to know where to begin to unravel the construct that exists.

Any closing thoughts?

There is a point for even the most successful artist when they realize (hopefully) if they don’t continue to grow, their creativity suffers. This stunted creativity is hard to discern, especially if you are at a level of renown and are working steadily, but your recordings always tell the truth. If recording 10 sounds like recording 1 – get busy and move past your comfort zones. There are some young singers out there tearing it up – sounding great, with large imaginations and fearless courage. I am betting on them to create the new vanguard of exciting vocal repertoire. I’m so happy that online courses and degrees are now readily available. I’m hoping the veteran performers who are tired of touring will be willing to be of service to the vocal community, take online classes to bolster their musicianship, and consider teaching in academia. They are desperately needed because they have the real world experience a lot of academicians lack. I love the ancient proverb that goes “one generation plants the trees, the other gets the shade.” I am optimistic that vocal educators and vocalists of this present generation will be willing to usher in deep changes. My intention is for Vocal Musicianship Academy™ to serve the international vocal community such that any singer who wants to learn, grow and thrive is equipped with resources, tools and support.

Lenora Zenzalai Helm
Lenora Zenzalai Helm is a jazz vocalist, vocal musicianship coach, composer, lyricist and educator with six solo recordings, her own recording and publishing company, Zenzalai Music, and an extensive discography with some of the biggest names in Jazz. Her latest CD, I Love Myself When I’m Laughing was listed on Independent Ear’s 30 Recommended 2012 Record Releases amongst an esteemed list of jazz artists, and elected for placement on the GRAMMY ballot in two categories. Helm’s achievements in music have spanned more than two decades garnering her inclusion as a subject of biographical record, for Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Women and Who’s Who in the World. Her students have not only earned positions as educators, but have also become leaders in the music business as recording artists earning top prizes in competitions, concert tours with top charting artists and Grammy award nominations. She has published articles in music magazines on vocal pedagogy, vocal musicianship and the music business, and written vocal syllabi for international universities. www.VocalMusicianshipAcademy.com and www.VocalJazzOnline.com

Though most of Helm’s 25-year span of musical achievements as a Jazz Vocal Musician specializing in Classic, Traditional jazz standard and original repertoire to critical acclaim, she also has touring, recording and performing credits in many genres — including R&B, Neo-Soul, and Pop, Theater and Opera. She holds a B.M. in Film Scoring/Voice from Berklee College of Music, a M.M. in Jazz Performance/Voice from East Carolina University and is working on her doctoral degree in Music Education at Boston University. Helm is on the music faculty at North Carolina Central University in Durham, and co-directs their NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Lenora now makes Durham, NC her home where she lives with her husband, Fred Hammonds. Visit her online at www.LenoraHelm.com.

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