Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Tin Pan Alley is a term used to describe the style of music that was produced by music publishers along NYC’s 28th street from around 1880 to 1950. Tin Pan Alley composers were eager to create songs that merged European traditions with American styles. They were especially fascinated by African-American influenced styles, particularly ragtime. For example: The Entertainer and the Maple Leaf Rag
Musical theatre composers of this era combined rhythmic and harmonic tools from African-American styles and speech-like vocal production to write hit after hit. When picking up a song that is either from the Tin Pan Alley era or is a throwback to that time (i.e. Thoroughly Modern Millie), there are a few basic phrasing concepts that can help your students drastically improve their delivery.
First have the student examine the rhythmic structure of the vocal line. Have them look for anticipations (notes that come in before the beat), backphrasing (notes that come in after the beat), syncopations (extended sections where the vocal line is off-beat), and triplets. There are also several common patterns such as short-long-short that you will begin to notice.
Have the student mark their music as follows:
First have them identify anticipations and backphrasing (not included in this example). Then have them look for common patterns such as the one found on “Walking Dear.” Next have them identify triplets and underline the first beat. Finally, have them identify any strong downbeats after an anticipation, backphrase, syncopation, or triplets. Each of these elements will need emphasis when performing the song. Emphasizing these notes will bring out the rhythmic nuances that made Ragtime influenced Tin Pan Alley era songs so catchy. The verse is usually delivered in a speech-like manner (no legato) and the chorus is sung more fully (still no legato, but usually longer phrases). You will also want to look for wordplay in the text, which I will cover in a future post.
For more style tips on Tin Pan Alley inspired musicals (often called Musical Comedy) see Acting in Musical Theatre: A comprehensive course by Joe Deer and Rocco Dal Vera.
Do you have other tips for singing songs from this era? If you do, please comment below. If you are not already following the blog, please sign-up on the bottom right hand side of this page. As always, thank you for reading and sharing!
Enjoy the week! ~ Matt