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November 07, 2007
As promised in the last eNotes, here is the interview with Paul Stiller from Berklee College of Music. Here is his biography. I am very fortunate right now because he is producing the CD with my jazz a cappella group "The Wicked Pitches". We go into the studio in January 2008.
Paul Stiller is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He has been on the Ear Training faculty at Berklee since 1995 and has taught Ear Training 1-4, Rhythmic Ear Training, and Performance Ear Training 1 & 2 for Voice. Aside from his teaching, he has been an active adjudicator and clinician with numerous college and high school groups throughout the U.S. and Japan. He is a founding member, singer, producer, arranger, and vocal percussionist for the award winning a cappella group ďVox OneĒ, which is comprised of all Berklee faculty and alumni. He is also an active studio singer, keyboardist, and arranger/producer with other nationally acclaimed acts such as Club d'Elf, Rhythm Slam, and Toxic Audio. He has been the opening act for Stevie Ray Vaughn, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Charles, Chicago, the Woody Herman Orchestra, and the Count Basie Orchestra. His commercial work includes Sears, TCBY Yogurt, State Farm Insurance, Hood Milk, Pontiac/GMC, Superior Coffee, International Trucks, and Dr. Pepper.
Debbie: Paul, tell us about youíre a cappella group, Vox One
Paul: We got together in 1988, I think it was. The short story is Yumiko (alto in the group) asked us all to get together. We were all Berklee (College of Music) students at the time. She asked us to sing this chart for her. We did that. Then we kind of liked it and it was a good combination of people. Then we kind of started singing as a project group and people brought their arrangements in.
Debbie: What kind of music do you sing?
Paul: I donít know. I would say harmonically rich anything. Most people would consider us a jazz group but weíre not straight-ahead jazz by any means. We are very jazz-influenced. Basicly, the group turned into a writerís group for the most part. That has been the focus of how the group has matured. Of course, the performing part is a really important part too. Itís not that we havenít cared about that but the backbone has been the writing.
Debbie: What is fun about the writing and arranging?
Paul: Well, the coolest thing is being able to write for voices that you know. Knowing the capabilities of all the singers, you can really push people. Itís a little bit more daring. Itís fun and adventurous.
Debbie: Youíre a pianist as well as a singer, right? Do you think your piano playing has helped your singing and vice-versa?
Paul: Oh yes, without any doubt in the world. I started playing piano when I was 3 or 4 years old. I never really took piano lessons. Not really. I took them in 4th grade for a month or two. . Then I took from a blind man, Manfredo Fest, in college. So I wasnít doing any reading. All lessons were recorded. This was a jazz thing.
Debbie: Was this at Berklee?
Paul: No, this was in Minneapolis. He was a pretty famous composer. I was really lucky to be studying with him. He had a three year waiting list. You couldnít get a lesson with this guy. I went with a friend of mine who was studying with him. He asked me to play and said he could squeeze me in. I studied with him for 2 years. I would say that all of my theory, anything that helped me understand what I was doing as a singer came from piano. I firmly believe that every singer should play piano. Even if they play guitar, they should still learn piano. The way you visualize on the piano makes so much more sense.
Debbie: Peter Eldridge(from New York Voices) said the same exact thing about the piano Ė that the piano helped him to visualize music.
Paul: From every aspect of listening and understanding how things are put together, piano helps you.
Debbie: Itís good to hear you say that because I believe that as well. A lot of singers donít play, they just want to sing.
Paul: I would not consider myself a singer-singer. I am a piano player who sings. Singer-singers have a very unique approach to their voice in a way that I canít even relate to oftentimes. People who are great singers but who donít play another instrument often run into walls. They are kind of limited in their knowledge of theory and chords. At some point, they just have to suck it up and either take some piano lessons or study theory. And to make any sense out of theory you have to study piano! Singers are ďby earĒ people, no matter how good of a reader you are, itís all about your ear, so there has to be some connection to the theory and the best way to understand the theory is through the piano.
Debbie: What would you say is the best way to learn the chords? Say someone is a singer and wants to learn chords Ė do you have any method or recommendation or advice on how to get started with that?
Paul: Just start off with the major chords. Using number system or solfege, go through each chord. It is important to understand how intervals work in each triad. Like a major chord starts with a major third (four half steps) and a minor third on top (three half steps). The minor chords are the flip of that. Then playing them and singing them with solfege or a number. I think that really the best way for a singer to hear is to learn how to play. If you play these chords in a band or use the chords then you start to hear them. Having some kind of ensemble experience is a great experience. You may have just listened to them before, but now youíre going ďOh, thatís why that sounds like that doesĒ. I think that learning to hear harmonically is a slow process.
Debbie: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Paul: Itís so hard for me to even say. In jazz, I started out with Miles Davis then I was turned on to all the people who played with him. I kind of went through a jazz fusion phase and I still do like it - like Weather Report, Tower of Power, Pat Methany. Anything for me, if itís harmonically or rhythmically interesting, Iím going to like it. If itís not, I get bored really fast. I love Steely Dan Ė theyíre like candy. And Donald Faganís ďThe Night FlyĒ record. For a jazz vocal record, thatís one of the best records I have. The singing, the writing, and production is really great. I went through Bill Evans, all bass players, and I got interested in jazz and following different paths through the records. Of course, Take Six was revolutionary when they came out. And Bobby McFerrin was incredibly important. I never really got into vocal jazz singers that much. I like the instrumental approach.
Debbie: What do you teach at Berklee?
Paul: Ear training 1-4. We deal with major keys only for Ear-training 1. The students are solfeging (do, re, mi). We do dictation Ė melody, rhythm, harmony. They are also sight-reading melodies. We slowly add chromatic notes (half steps). Itís basically ďwhat do I hear and how can I communicate this to someone?Ē Everyone has to sing and read. The funny thing is that the singers donít want to learn how to read and the readers donít want to learn how to sing. But itís really good for them.
Debbie: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Paul.
Paul: You are very welcome. I really think that any insight on doing either thing is important. For a piano player to learn how to sing is a great idea too because there is phrasing. When you are singing, you are breathing. Listen to Art Tatum. That guy is singing while he is playing. I felt from an instrumentalist, he was very vocal Ė breathing induced. And it goes the other way. If you are a singer, and you donít really know what you are doing, the coolest thing in the world is find out what you are doing!
Debbie: Thatís a great way of putting it. I am always trying to integrate those two things (playing piano and singing) with my students as well.
Paul: Itís tough. You kind of have to sell them on it. But they have to discover it for themselves. They have to see the reality of how it helps them. Otherwise, you can just tell them until you are blue in the face and theyíll say ďwho caresĒ. When they do discover the benefit, theyíll think itís really cool!
Debbie: Well, thatís it, Paul. Thanks so much.
Paul: Youíre very welcome!
There are a couple of classes that still have room in them that I want to let you know about. The "Piano for Singers" class at my house is SOLD OUT. I guess it was the chocolate-chip cookies that did it! I will offer it again in the spring so keep a look out for it.
I am teaching a class called "You Can Play the Blues" at the Brookline Adult and Community Education Center on November 17th, Saturday from 9:30 - 12:30. There are a few openings. The very cool thing about this class is 1) I don't offer it at many places 2) It is affordable and comes with an excellent book and CD 3) Everyone gets their own keyboard to play on 4) The blues is SO MUCH FUN to play and will help you play all popular music. I highly recommend this class. Here is the link to their website where you can sign up.
Brookline Adult and Community Education
See you in 2 weeks with an awesome interview with John O'Neil, a well-known cabaret performer in Boston for many years!
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