Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
If you are a regular reader of the blog, you already know that I love exploring multiple viewpoints on a single topic in order to expand my own approach in the studio. Last week an amazing new book was released in the NATS “So you want to sing” series. This one is called “So You Want to Sing CCM” and it is excellent! Today I am going to give you a taste of the book by giving six pedagogues’ answers to the question “How do you teach style to students who don’t have a strong background in a given genre?”
Robert Edwin (Cinnaminson, NJ)
“If a student comes into my studio and says ‘I’d like to be a rock singer, but I don’t know much about it,’ my first response is this: ‘listen to singers who are good at the style you want to sing and then copy, within your own vocal limitations, what you hear.’ Imitation and repetition can eventually lead one to finding his or her own voice and individuality. I have no problems with stylistic novices playing a musical game of ‘follow the leader’ to get them started in a new genre, be it Bach or rock or whatever.” Page 128
Elisabeth Howard (Chicago, IL)
“My pedagogical approach is very simple. I give the student vocal exercises that are appropriate to the new style. We choose a song in the desired style – either on a CD from my library or on YouTube – sung by a recognized recording artist. We listen to the entire song first to absorb the overall feel of the style. Then I take them phrase by phrase, methodically and in slow motion, carefully copying every nuance. The ear guides the voice. The voice experiences muscle memory, and the ear and voice work together and are being trained to listen and copy – yes, copy – every nuance in that new style. Being authentic is in the details. I have a system in place for elements of style, which I touched on earlier:
“There are so many styles out there, and they really can’t be grouped into broad categories anymore. When you say ‘classical singing,’ do you mean Puccini or Mozart? Or ‘nonclassical singing,’ do you mean Ella Fitzgerald or Eric Clapton? You can’t even say ‘music theater style’ anymore – are you speaking of Rent or Phantom of the Opera? I remember when I had a new student come into my studio and I asked him, ‘what kind of music do you like to?’ He said ‘I listen to the classics.’ I was surprised because he looked so ‘hip.’ I remarked, ‘really like who?’ He said, ‘Yeah, like the Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Grateful Dead.’ It made me laugh!” (p. 140)
Joan Lader (New York, NY)
“This happens all the time! First, I need to know what it is that they do regularly and where their normal comfort zone is. We then try to make it playful so that they feel comfortable stepping out of their box. We also discuss anatomical differences between what they usually do versus what they need to do to sing the new style successfully; the shape of the vocal tract, the position of the larynx and tongue, and so forth might be different. Basically, we just play! Sometimes I’ll have them imitate animals or different types of sound so that they can experience new ideas. It’s really an individual thing since every student is different. However, it’s rare that a singer will refuse to work in an unfamiliar genre. I cross train with all of my students. It’s fun to hear opera singer spell and to hear rocks in your singing Italian art songs.” (p. 153-154)
Mark Meylan (London, United Kingdom)
“Listening first, then describing and discussing. I usually start off by listening to a recording with my client in my studio and asking them to identify (a) what they think they’re hearing, and (b) how different it is from the way they normally sing in both quality and style. I will also ask them if they have any ideas as to how they might achieve this new genre, so they can start to understand the nuances of the musical stylings of all the colors that are required.
If they are an established client who has a working knowledge of my work in language, we may well discuss and explore some ideas straightaway. Otherwise, I will look at the areas of their voice that may need to be developed or refined, and I am there to guide and help them reorganize the vocal tract or whatever other aspect of their singing that needs work for them to access the sounds and styles that they seek.
It all depends on the needs of the individual. Most of my solo artists are seeking vocal technique, whereas the music theater performers have to be able to access the sounds and style as set by the existing show or by the needs of the musical supervisor on a new work. The final decision about style is never mine. For my solo artists, it rests with them and their management, and for music theater singers, at rest with the musical director and musical supervisor. (p. 176-177)
Cathrine Sadolin (Copenhagen, Denmark)
“I never use the word ‘student’ because that generally implies that the singer is on a lower level than the teacher, which I do not believe they are. A singer can and should be able to sing whatever he or she wants to sing. The human voice is capable of amazing flexibility, and too often that is not acknowledged. No one would suggest that just because a hand is used for writing that it can’t also play piano! It is the same with the voice. I think all singers should be encouraged to cross-train. A singer who is trained classically can absolutely learn how to sing rock. So, when a singer comes to me wishing to explore a new style, I am always encouraging. I say, ‘great! Let’s get to work.’ However, they have to jump in with both feet and really understand the style. I never tell a singer how they should sound – that is their job. If I start changing their style, then it is not their style anymore. I don’t impose my personal taste on them. A singer’s uniqueness is what makes him or her special. My job is to listen and help the singer achieve the sounds, techniques, expressions, and improvisations that they want.” (p. 214)
Daniel Zangger Borch (Stockholm, Sweden)
“To sing popular styles well, you have to be genuine. Your singing needs to be an extension of who you are. It has to match your personality. A student will never be able to sing authentically unless he or she loves the music and thoroughly understands the style inside and out. They also have to sing material that shows their voice to best advantage and doesn’t exceed their abilities or technical facility. Students should never try to guess what someone wants to hear – they should sing authentically with a unique and personal style that they have developed themselves. Try not to copy someone else’s style. Be great – don’t imitate!” (p. 244)
These are only six responses of the twelve teachers profiled in the book. The others not included today are Katie Agresta (New York, NY), Irene Bartlett (Brisbane, Australia), Jeannette LoVetri (New York, NY), Lisa Popeil (Los Angeles, CA), David Sabella (New York, NY), and Mary Saunders Barton (New York, NY). At just over 300 pages, this book is PACKED full of valuable information, including three chapters by myself addressing the differences between musical theatre and commercial music, audio enhancement technology, and why it is time to add CCM to your voice studio. If you haven’t already ordered your copy, click here to order via Amazon.
If you would like to expand your knowledge of how to teach style in musical theatre and commercial genres, I would like to encourage you to consider joining me this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. In the first two sessions we explore how the voice works and how to teach based on our current knowledge of anatomy and function. In the third session, you will learn a system for analyzing and teaching all styles while also exploring how to communicate the human experience through song. We have also recently added a special three-day session with Edrie Means-Weekly on Musical Theatre Styles that is open to all performers and teachers, whether or not they have attended the institute in the past. Throughout the nine days, we present information from multiple viewpoints and approaches so you can find your way of teaching using the most current information available.
As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching! ~ Matt