This week, Nicole Ratté is celebrating the tenth anniversary of her jazz vocal courses – courses which are uniquely hers.

Nicole Ratté ©2011 Brett Delmage
Nicole Ratté ©2011 Brett Delmage

They're bilingual – breaking the English/French language barrier – and they're based on her own experience of learning jazz essentially from scratch.

Ratté is now a long-time vocalist on the local jazz scene, regularly singing in restaurants and in larger projects such as the concert this spring celebrating Billie Holiday's centennial. But back in 1996, she was a total jazz novice.

She's warmly voluble and enthusiastic describing how she learned jazz and then realized she could pass that knowledge on to other vocalists, even those who have never sung in public before.

Before she attended the JazzWorks jazz camp, she said, “I didn't know a thing about jazz before I went to camp in 1996 to '98. It took me a long time to understand how it worked because it was very unclear. By singing with groups of people whom I met at jazz camp over a period of years, I just started to understand how it was working. And that's what I wanted to teach.”

She started teaching jazz vocalists in 2004. “It was totally unexpected and it was a change of career for me. I was a project coordinator in a hi-tech company before and then I had to take a leave from that.”

The director of a music school where Ratté was taking lessons knew she was doing jazz, and asked her if she would be interested in teaching jazz one on one – the usual type of private vocal lessons.

But as Ratté started thinking about how to do that, she realized it would be difficult to cover all the material she wanted to in only a one-hour lesson each week, and instead decided to start a workshop, based on the masterclasses she had enjoyed at jazz camp.

“You learned so much while you were watching other singers and listening to the comments from the teacher. So that's what I wanted to do.”

She also wanted to try longer lessons, 2 1/2 hours in length, so that she could cover more material, like improvisation and stage presence, and do individual and group singing. “One very important part was jazz technique – what is a lead sheet, where does that come from, what is a jazz standard, and how it is structured, and what kind of info can you do, and how to count the musicians in, what is back-phrasing, forward-phrasing – all sorts of things like that that you don't talk about when you sing pop and classical.”

“And then there was a section where I was talking about the history of jazz style and explaining where jazz comes from, and there was another section where every week we would discover a new singer and listen also to the great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and be able to recognize these great singers.”

She prepared a detailed syllabus, with objectives for an entire 12-week session, and what students would learn from each lesson. Then she asked Jean-Pierre Allain, who is not only one of the region's best-known pianists and arrangers, frequently accompanying jazz vocalists, but is also an experienced school teacher, to review it.

“He told me later, if I hadn't been prepared, he would have sent me home and asked for more detail in the proposal. I was glad I was so well prepared. He told me, 'That's a great idea' and he gave me a couple of ideas on how to break the ice at the beginning of the first course.”

She called the course Les Ateliers de Jazz Vocal. The first year was a pilot with only five students, run in a student's living room – “very warm and casual”. But Ratté said they've done well ever since they started formally in 2005. This year she's running two courses, one in Gatineau for beginners, and one at Alcorn Music Studios in Ottawa for intermediate and advanced singers.

Teaching in both English and French

For the last three years, she's been running the courses in French and English together, which she said works particularly well because Ottawa is a relatively bilingual city. “I really like that because it includes everybody. It's not 'Oh, it's a French course – we can't go', or 'it's an English course – we can't go'. It just removed that thing. It doesn't matter what language you speak.”

“I speak French very slowly. I speak slowly so the anglophones can understand. But also, if I see a question mark in the eyes, I repeat it in English. I'm used to that because my husband is an anglophone so I spend my days speaking English and French – it comes naturally! I don't have to make an effort.”

“And some anglophones are happy because they can practice their French, and some French are happy because they can practice their English. So everybody's happy with that. And also the thing is that for francophones you know most of the time there is lots of jazz that is being done in English, so it's all right if they can practice things in English.”

She's also made a point of including the French jazz repertoire, such as Michel Legrand or Georges Brassens – which has allowed her to discover how large this repertoire is. “I could do a lot of shows without ever singing the same song in French. It's very fascinating to discover versions or adaptations that exist.”

Overcoming nervousness

The courses are now 12 weeks long, culminating in a public concert at Les Brasseurs du Temps where all the students sing, accompanied by a quartet of well-known local jazz musicians. She emphasized that the workshop format of the courses prepares students for that concert, because they become used to singing before the audience of their fellow students every week.

“Most of the people at the beginning of the session they are so nervous. They are just a bunch of nerves. And at the end of the session, there's been 12 times that they've sung in front of the other people. They are already way, way, way more relaxed.”

She also tries to make all the students comfortable in the course. “I always keep in mind that people have had a hard day sometimes. People have stressful jobs. So I try to make it fun and light and lots of humor. We laugh a lot. I want to keep that atmosphere.”

"And to see that you can make a difference – it's wonderful"

Some of her students are now singing professionally: for example, Claude Brazeau, whom Ratté said was a rock drummer before he started in her workshops, is releasing his debut jazz vocal CD this month. Jerry Sociedade is performing regularly with Wave, and “when he started in my course, he couldn't sing: he didn't even sing in his shower.”

“So to see these people develop and discover that 'Wow! they can do something', it's absolutely the best thing for me. It's heart-warming. And to see that you can make a difference – it's wonderful.”

Several students have been with her for the full 10 years, and “what is very warm to my heart is to see the friendships that have developed. There are lots of friends in the groups of students.” In fact, she said, they've gone out as a group to clubs to see fellow students or former students perform, or to the jazz festival.

Ratté learned a great deal herself from running the courses, and she's continued to try new approaches, such as a weekend workshop.

“For the advanced group, it forces me to always go further and find where am I going to go with them, so they feel they're improving and they learn something new. And I think that for my own singing it's been wonderful because I had to do so much research. When I started teaching I was not very familiar with the history of jazz. I didn't know much about it, so I had to read and read and read. Really it helped me for my own singing tremendously. It was fun.”

After 10 years, she is still happy to be teaching. “Every session is exciting because I have new stuff that I want to talk about and I have projects for the students. It makes me push the limit.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Nicole Ratté's Vocal Jazz Workshops will run for beginners on Wednesdays at the Studio of L'Avant-première in Gatineau, starting on September 23; and for intermediate/Advanced singers on Thursdays at Alcorn Music Studios in Ottawa, starting on September 24.

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