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Vocal Improvisation & The Creative Process

Interview with Patti Cathcart Andress conducted by Arianna Rose

Together, Tuck and Patti have recorded Tears of Joy (1988), Love Warriors (1989), Dream (1991), Learning How To Fly (1995), Paradise Found ( 1998) and a Greatest Hits CD. (All were on the Windham Hill label with the exception of Learning How to Fly, on the Epic label.)

This interview took place at Tuck & Patti's home February 2000, where they were busy rehearsing their seventh CD and preparing for their upcoming tour. They graciously took time out of their schedule to entertain my questions.

How do you create your music?

I tend to hear in string quartets or orchestras, large ensembles. Many times I hear gospel choirs. My partner happens to be someone who plays in an orchestral style, so it just all feeds into each other.

I've always heard an ensemble kind of music; even when I sing in folk music, it sounds like 1001 instruments. It's funny, when we are playing it's not like I am thinking about a band or anything, so when I write for us, I don't think about a band, I am just thinking about whether the style lends into what we are doing.

Tell us about your songwriting process.

I played violin for about twelve years. I can pick melodies out on keyboard or guitar. Most of the time now, since I've gotten better at it, I just sing the lines, arpeggiate the notes and do it that way. Tuck and I have worked together long enough now that we have a musical shorthand. I can sing my ideas and he translates that to the guitar. Often I will sing one line into one tape recorder, and another line into another tape recorder. It gives more texture to the piece than just Tuck coming up with ideas.

You write most of your original songs?

It's amazing to me, that because I am a singer and not an instrumentalist in front of people, they just assume that Tuck writes the music. He tells them "no, she sang every part to me" and they still don't believe him.

It's very interesting to me; I wonder if I was an instrumentalist if they would feel still that way...probably not. I don't know if they would do the same thing to a male singer.

People assume that perhaps I created the melody and the lyric. I wrote the whole music - chords and everything.

It's really trippy that way. Sometimes Tuck has contributed more to a song, so we share songwriting credit. But then I also didn't want to do the typical thing of sharing it when I know I wrote it. So as a singer, to take power on as a songwriter, knowing I would get flack for it, that was a big step for me. To take credit . Yeah, I wrote it, I wrote it all. Yes, the part that goes 'duh duh duh', I wrote that too.

Do you write Tuck's instrumentals?

Sometimes. I usually back off. Tuck has a way he likes to do the instrumentals, but then he always call me in to say yay or nay. Tuck is formidable. He makes things so hard even he can't even play them! It's valuable to have someone else listen and say, "this section is cool, but we could get the same effect and do it simpler by playing it this way."

I tend to think of myself as an editor for the instrumental stuff. Sometimes I orchestrate and arrange it. Tuck and I really have that collaborative thing going.

Tell us about how you collaborate.

The collaborative process for us was very difficult in the beginning - we both talked about it. For me to be telling him, this formidable musician, how to play the guitar or what texture I wanted to hear on the song was very nervy, but it's made all the difference. It's opened doors for us, and created the 'Tuck and Patti sound'.

Tuck brings his genius to his instrument and approaches it in a way very few people approach it; and then he allows me to come in as a non-guitar player and write things. When I'm writing I'm not thinking about the limitations of the guitar, and Tuck has told me that it opens doors for him. If I tell you to do something, then you know what your boundaries are and you tend to operate within your boundaries. Whereas if I go, here it is, and it's way higher than you would normally put it for yourself but you try it and you say hey, yeah, I can do that, it opens doors for you.

What inspires your song ideas?

At times it will be a piece of poetry that I hear, and I will maybe get one musical phrase out of that. At other times the music is all there, textures I want, everything. We write the music first and then the lyrics come later, they're the last part.

I often get ideas in the dreamtime...I'll wake up, turn on the tape recorder and get the song down! One time I didn't record it, thinking, oh, I'll remember it in the morning, and that was a good lesson to learn - the song never came back.

It's very good for people to have tape recorders around as you rehearse. You receive ideas, progressions, but if you don't get it taped right then, you can get something similar but you won't get the same thing again. I wouldn't have exactly the line that I was hearing and sometimes it is hard to get back to it. Tape recorders give you instant access.

Do you have any tools or exercise you use in the songwriting process?

When I write lyrics, I might write a whole page, free association. Just type down all the words, don't censor it. I might have an idea for something and start singing it and just keep taping the whole session and out of that, maybe use one little line of it, or one part of it. For melodies I do the same thing, have an idea for something and just keep taping it, maybe use only one little part and one musical phrase becomes a song. All the rest of it might wind up on another song that's in a completely different style. I never know, I try not to prejudge what's going to happen and try not to beat myself up.

I really try to stay in the moment when I'm actually starting to write a song, and not judge it. I don't judge whether it makes sense, whether it's a great verse or bridge; I just let it come out and then go back and complete it.

That's probably the biggest tool to get ready to write. Your preparation is to get all that noise, all that static out, don't judge! Don't put boundaries around it. Take the pressure off yourself that you have to create THE masterpiece song or recording. Just let it be what it is supposed to be. You don't have to write the definitive tune, erase all that and JUST DO IT.

Where else do you receive inspiration?

I receive inspiration from other musicians - Kenny Garrett gave an incredible concert here in California a few months ago. He's an amazing sax player on fire! I also receive inspiration from dance, painting, sculpture.

I went to this exhibit once at a museum..around the time photography began, many artists' paintings were based on postcards and photos and then they painted them. Many of Degas' paintings, they were from photographs. It was a matter of shame for painters for people to know this rather than looking at photography as an art form and so they hid the origins of their paintings..

It reminded me of the way musicians who have been in the pop mentality are forced to pretend that their music has not been influenced by anyone or anything, and that everything they do is new, which is a total crock. You can't live now and not practice an art form that hasn't been influenced by everything on this earth! Like me pretending I didn't listen to 50 CDS and listen to what's going on before I make a record. As though it's humanly possible in the age that we live in... I may never have heard Sarah Vaughn, but if I've heard any modern jazz singer sing, I've heard Sarah Vaughn because her influence is there. It's that way with everyone. You end up by inspired by it but not in the way you thought it would happen.

You and Tuck have been married for many years, and are also business partners. Is there a difference between your personal and professional life? How do you unwind?

There is no line of demarcation - it's not like we are different people when we step on stage. We often have intense work periods of working on music. When you do what you love, there is no separation of the work and your life.

I read a lot of science fiction. I've read the classics several times. I used to do my heavy reading, and read five books a week. I use reading now as a total form of trash and relaxation. It's very relaxing to me, especially on the road.

When we need to unplug, we go on vacation and don't even bring a guitar!

What were your music influences?

Everything. I was influenced by every style - gospel, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, classical music, opera. I love the impressionist style of classical music such as Ravel, Debussy, Satie. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, all those guys, as well as more modern composers.

I watched Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple movies, the ones in the thirties, the music was supreme. I knew all the music from Peer Gynt, I used to sing it from the beginning to the end! My violin teacher would stop the orchestra and you'd have to sing everything you played.

What were your specific vocal influences?

Ella Fitzgerald was my favorite. Mahalia Jackson, gospel singers and groups, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles...I loved to listen to country radio, Patsy Cline... I was into everything. I'm a music lover, since I was a little kid, doesn't matter what the style. As a child I always had a radio on and listened to all the stations. I love music! I remember watching Ima Sumac movies on tv late at night, and thinking, this is wow, sounds like the forest, she could sing anything, She could sing from low to higher than high. I used to love her.

How do you practice vocal improvisation?

The best way to first start to do vocal improv in jazz, and anything, is to learn the song, note for note. If you are singing a favorite pop song that you really like, that's great. Learn the musical lines. Sing. the piano, guitar, bass, drum lines, really learn the song, not just the vocal lines. Get your vocabulary. You may not know about bebop but you can listen to Charlie Parker - from then on, you will have some kind of be-bop vocabulary.

How do you keep your arrangements and improvisations fresh?

Even when you are improvising, you find yourself getting into patterns. The way I keep it fresh is by realizing that it may be the three thousandth time I've sang something exactly the same way, but I get into the beauty of it - the moment of it - and that is what keeps it fresh. I'm not so concerned about being innovative but about being true to the music and true to the sound. You have to rise to the occasion and do what serves the song best.

What is your advice for someone who wants to do vocal improvisation?

Just start singing.

Always have a tape recorder handy and record your singing all the time.

Turn off the critic and the judge.

Do free improvisation.

Ultimately, playing with other people is a conversation. Improvising, I might want to answer you or relate to you although oftentimes, people who aren't used to improvising think of it as this free form thing. Once you do it you have got to be listening to each other. It is a free form- of deep listening!

Singers, as a lot, don't listen at all. They don't have the concept, they haven't been taught about true conversation. When I was teaching, a big thing for me was informing the singer that the band was someone to relate to. Accompany means to be with. It doesn't mean that you jumped out in front and the band followed or that you lead. Or that someone was behind you.

To be with. It's a really important concept to get. It's a conversation and you have to relate to the people that are playing. Singers get so caught up when they are singing, they forget how they would feel if they were talking and no one was listening.

Singers tend to sing too loudly when singing in a group. They forget what singing is, to LISTEN TO EACH OTHER. It's about relating to each other. If you want to communicate with people and music is how you want to communicate, then you have to commit to make contact. Connect.

I think the most exciting moments at your concerts is when you suddenly make up a brand new transition from one song to the next...I can physically see you and Tuck deeply listening to each other, and this magical thing happens...

The music is NEVER the same if you are listening. You harmonize and all of a sudden you find something new.

There's always some kind of subtle difference in our songs. The segues just kind of happen. Then you say, oh that sounds kind of cool, and then you do that segue for a while. Sometimes I'll say, let's go into this song after this one, and we haven't worked out HOW we are going to get into it, we just know at some point we will get there.

Often people think Tuck and I have it planned, but lots of times we are just jamming along and find something new, like dolphins jumping up and down, swimming around each other. Lots of times even when the arrangement is so planned, we are just jamming along, in and out.

How large a part does improvisation play in your performances?

A huge part! A huge part in our playing is improvisation. We can rehearse something for three hours and then when I go into the booth something else happens. I leave room for spirit because you can't plan every second. However, when I am with a symphony orchestra, a specific orchestration, I don't have that freedom.

You tour nine months out of the year. How do you practice voice care?

Shut up - that's the best way to take care of your voice! When we tour Japan, we have 36 shows in three weeks. I get quiet. I sightsee very little, take days off and time off, and just get quiet.

I keep the vaporizer running and stay low key. Talking is so much more hard on your vocal chords than singing, it's actually better to be silent. Take care of yourself on airplanes.

When you are ill, drink some hot water and relax and you'll be fine. I've been on the stage with a temperature of 103 and a flu and apologized, and the audience laughed, what flu, because they don't know. I know because I'm judging it all beneath a microscope, but they don't know.

Do you make adjustments in songs when you are not 100%?

Different keys make all the difference in a song. We always keep the adrenalin and exhaustion factor in mind when we set keys.

I often hear singers, 25, 30 years after they recorded a hit song trying to sing it in same key. That's a disservice to the song - you often can't do it in the original key. It's important to take the ego out and serve the music. There comes a time when you are going to have to change the keys! What's amazing for me, is that my vocal range is actually getting higher in some ways, as I get older. I sing way higher now than I did on some of our first CDs.

You have a very interesting sound system. Would you describe it?

We use our own monitors. 17 years ago it was a big deal, now everyone is using it, it's much more common. We have stage monitors in our ears, custom made pieces molded to our ears. What headphones are to speakers, these are to headphones. I hear perfect, minute details. What you hear is a perfect stereo picture of what you do. Tuck can hear the breath, we can tune in to each other. Don't have to count off, can just tune it. Hear both of us in both ears, do it the way it would be in real life. Feels more real. You can then turn the audience volume up and down.

I'm panned a little bit more to the left and he's panned to the right, the way we are standing in real life. You can then turn the audience volume up and down. I wouldn't hear you clearly in the audience unless I turned my volume pedal up. What it's done is that I can sense the audience. We've gotten more into our senses and being able to read the energy in the room.

What are your goals?

I would love to be able to teach more. It is difficult to take so much time out of our busy and intense schedule. I would like to do that more, co-teaching classes and seminars with Tuck, perhaps at music universities.

This year we are moving into symphony work, performing with symphonies. It's something that we always wanted to do. I have the opportunity to hear symphony versions of our original tunes, great symphony charts. When I was writing the song "Wide Awake" I heard a symphony in my head, so now I will get to REALLY hear the symphony version!

Tell us about the new CD.

It will be released on Windham Hill on June 15. As of right now [February 2000] it is untitled. I have written six originals for this CD, which will be lucky Number 7 for us! You can find out more about the CD and our tour schedule on our website,

Any closing thoughts for us?

It's great to sing. You know what I always say - sing it from your heart! Sing it wide open and sing it from your heart. Most questions that you ask, my answer is, just get out the way, don't judge, be open to the magic , don't put boundaries, don't cut yourself off. All the time, sing, do it, it's your gift, just do it. Go into hospitals go in into nursing homes, just do it. SING!

This interview originally appeared in Music For People's newsletter, Connection.

About Arianna Rose:

Singer; Music & Theatre Instructor; Writer

Arianna Rose is a professional singer, writer, and teacher, originally from New York City. She holds a theatre degree from Bucknell University, is a Certified Music Improvisation Instructor and currently is the chairperson for the Teacher Traning Program of David Darling's organization ""Music for People". Arianna is an artist-in-residence with PROJECT LEAP in Palm Beach County in South Florida, and co-founder of Anam Cara: Angels of Acappella, a 4-women vocal ensemble.

Arianna is the co-founder and teacher of the upcoming week-long workshop "Sounding the Well - Explorations in Vocal Style, Self and Spontaneous Song" being offered as part of "The Art of Improvisation with David Darling". Please call 1-877-44MUSIC for more details, or visit the Music for People website at

She has been fortunate to attend two of Patti's singing workshops, one at the Omega Institute in 1992, and one at Jazz Camp in Aptos, California in 1993. She has seen Tuck & Patti in concert numerous times and is a fan of both their music and their message.

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