Why I don’t teach pop – usually

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.

Cabaret as Personal Musical Theater

I was looking through my past blogs to see if I’ve defined cabaret before and couldn’t find anything.

This past Friday, I was thrilled to reunite with Ryan Cappleman to perform a revised version of my first cabaret, “Oh! To Be a Movie Star!” at Germano’s in Little Italy (the revision includes the addition of the exclamation point after “Oh!” where there had previously been a comma). We had a terrific turnout, unlike the performances that Ryan and I did back in Milwaukee, and it was extremely well-received. It’s nearly a week later and I’m still re-living moments that I felt went particularly well and not moments that went badly (this never happens).

There was one friend who had planned to come but didn’t because he said he had a hard time getting his fiancée to go to concerts on Friday night, which is their date night. I was surprised that he said that, because he’s a musician and actor as well. He thought that the performance was going to be something along the lines of a recital, rather than – well, what it was.

So I’ve done some more musings on exactly what cabaret is. And the title of this article is from something that was said to me by Amanda McBroom at a cabaret workshop I attended in Brookfield, Wisconsin, when she was asked to define cabaret. She thought a bit and said, “Cabaret is personal musical theater.” It’s taking pieces that mean something to you and developing a narrative from those pieces. It might be that you have a theme in mind, or it might be that a theme comes from the pieces you’ve selected.

In the case of this week’s show, my theme was movies and movie stars, and the songs I chose reflected that. And more important, what movies have meant in my own life.

Another definition that I came up with was that creating a cabaret was like writing a script for a jukebox musical. A jukebox musical is a bunch of songs by one artist or composer around which an often-lame script is written. Now, I generally hate that genre. My own personal idea of hell would be sitting through endless productions of Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, and Pump Boys and Dinettes. But a cabaret is picking songs – perhaps by the same composer, perhaps based on a theme or an era – and putting them together with a narrative of some kind.

However, in a musical, there’s a full cast of characters. In cabaret, all the characters are played by a single performer (or a small group of performers) who might have some specific lines that she wants to say to introduce a song, but the songs are the script. They are what tell the story, through the singer’s interpretation.

In Oh! To Be a Movie Star!, Ryan and I told stories of wanna-be actors, both from a humorous and a tragic perspective, of fans who admire and obsess over the object of their affection, of up-and-coming stars and those fading into obscurity. It wasn’t a single narrative following one person from beginning to end. That’s a different kind of show. And maybe it’s one I’ll do someday.

All I can say right now is that cabaret continues to be one of the most rewarding and creative outlets I have as an artist these days. It’s not the only outlet, which it was in Milwaukee (and why not having an audience was so demoralizing to me), but it’s the one that makes me feel the most like myself. It’s personal. It’s musical. And it’s theater.