I was reading a FB post on a teacher group where someone had mentioned that their student was recording some repertoire that was wildly age-inappropriate, both lyrically and vocally. This was repertoire that the parent had chosen but that they wanted help on from the teacher.
I don’t teach pop. It’s not that I feel that classical music or Golden Age musical theater is the “one true way” to develop vocal technique. It’s not that I don’t like pop music. I love Lady Gaga, John Legend, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Lizzo…. But I feel like contemporary pop music is so artist-driven, and written for the particular range and style of an individual singer, rather than for the masses. And often, the lyrics are more adult-themed than I think a middle school student should be singing (this also happens with musical theater for that matter – I had an 11 year old whose mom wanted her to sing “Mama, who bore me” from Spring Awakening because Lea Michele sang it and she liked her on Glee; I had to explain what the show was about and then she agreed with me that no, it was not a good audition piece for show choir).
I like finding what’s right for a student based on who they are at this point in their vocal journey, and what’s going to take them to the next level. And my comfort zone is musical theater (both contemporary and Golden Age) and classical. I’ll also use Great American Songbook rep and folk songs, but rarely will I use contemporary (post-2000) pop unless I find something that I think will suit someone. I can’t remember the last time that happened. And especially not with a new student.
A few exceptions:
- Contemporary musical theater – it’s pretty pop-y, but I still feel like it’s not as limited as far as singability as commercial pop music.
- Jukebox musicals – if you’re auditioning for Rock of Ages, you’re not going to sing “Oh what a beautiful morning” for the audition, so we’ll need to find something with a harder edge.
- You’ve been with me awhile and you have something to sing for a school event and you’re having trouble with it. In which case, I need:
- Sheet music or at least a lead sheet with guitar chords. This should be in the right key for you, not necessarily the key in which it’s written.
- An accompaniment track so I can hear what it’s supposed to sound like.
- A recording of it in advance so I know what I’m getting into.
Again, not teaching pop is not about me not liking pop music or wanting to impose my musical tastes on you. It’s the best way I know for the studio to serve you, based on my skill set and my experience. Pop music, even though I’m certified in contemporary commercial music pedagogy, is not in my superpower wheelhouse (that’s an upcoming blog, BTW). So if you really, really want to sing pop music and only pop music – then I’m not the right teacher for you. In which case, Godspeed, and I’ll help you find the right teacher if I can.
The biggest reason I moved back to the east coast from Milwaukee was because I was not performing at all. Or hardly at all.
On the up side, this allowed/forced me to focus on developing my teaching/business skills, and I discovered that I’m really good at this. But performing was important to me, both because I am a performer, and I’m really happy on stage, and also because I think it makes me a better teacher.
This was reinforced in an article by Brian Manternach, a tenor on the voice faculty of the University of Utah’s Theater Department, and also a former resident of Milwaukee. (I think I might have judged him at NATS at one time….) This article appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of the Journal of Singing, and is titled “The Value of Performing.”
I’d like to summarize his points (in bold and italics) about why performing informs and benefits our teaching, and draw some conclusions of my own.
- Teachers who perform may be better able to demonstrate the techniques they are encouraging their students to build. I know a lot of teachers who don’t demonstrate, just because they don’t want to encourage imitation. And I get that. If you are 14, you shouldn’t sound like someone who is… older. But if I can show you just what chiaroscuro is supposed to sound like, I will! I will also show you what it shouldn’t sound like. (There will be another blog in a few days about imitations/accents/funny voices and how this can help you find things out about your voice.)
- Teachers who perform must maintain a regimen of vocalization that keeps their own instruments flexible, pliable, and healthy. I “joke” that during the last or so years I was in Milwaukee, I became really good at singing in E major. Because that’s where I started a lot of exercises. Whether it was a descending 5 note scale starting on B4 or an arpeggio coming down from E5, I’d demonstrate that, my students would sing it going down, and then I’d go to the same spot and go up. (It wasn’t a very funny joke.) I had no reason to practice. I intended to, but I had so many students (30 at home, 10 at colleges, plus teaching classes at Carroll) that I just didn’t have time. And it showed when I gave a recital in September 2011 at Carroll and realized that I did not sound – or feel – like myself. I had to work with Connie Haas to find the singer I had been and would be again.
- Teachers who perform have the ability to thoroughly learn new repertoire. Again, I had no reason to learn anything. I had worked with a pianist in the early 2000s who introduced me to a lot of pieces that were wildly out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, they were exhilarating. But he took ill, and retired from performing. And my cabaret pianist was in high demand and became too busy to work on shows with me. I had a few opportunities through the MacDowell Club, a performing group, but they were few and far between.
- Teachers who perform can empathize with their students who experience music performance anxiety (MPA). Boy, can I relate to this. I had terrible MPA (a new term for me). And because I didn’t have performance opportunities, I didn’t have the opportunity to conquer it. Each performance I did had so much riding on it. There wasn’t necessarily a “next time.”
- Teachers who perform can bring first hand knowledge of age related voice changes to their studios. I wish I didn’t have this … but I do. I’ve done pretty well so far, except for one 3 month period that coincided with a particularly bad bout of bronchitis.
- Teachers who perform have additional opportunities to network and build relationships with other musicians. To a certain extent, I’ve gotten this from a lot of other sources:
- Social media (performance/teacher FB pages)
- Speakeasy Cooperative
But there’s a special bond between people who make music together. They inspire each other to do better, to take it to the next level.
Teachers who don’t perform aren’t lesser teachers than teachers who do. But, for me, I need to have both. Right now, I feel like I have a good balance of teaching and performing. Perhaps later, I’ll change the ratio (or have it changed for me).
I consider myself a teaching artist, and even when the day comes that I perform less, I will still consider myself that.