Picking appropriate repertoire

The prof Kurt met with at Throatwreck University wants him to get rid of the Quilter and do Every Valley from the Handel Requiem. Do you have that music for you and Kurt to look at this week? It seems a little ridiculous for a high schooler, but the prof said that the competition will be steep for the scholarship Kurt is interested in and thinks he will have a better shot if he comes in with this.

The student and school are fictitious but the rest is a real message I got this week. This kind of thing happens all the time.

The Quilter song mentioned above, which the professor wanted to ditch, is “Where Be You Going?”, a song of great subtlety, charm, and detail, set to a classic poem by John Keats. One can perform that song dozens of times and find new things to do with it, and “Kurt” likes it. There is no reason to replace it with something “impressive” that he will not do well or feel connected to.

In this case, we are talking about replacing an art song with a modest range and technical requirements, with a major aria from an oratorio (i.e., full blown opera style singing), that makes huge technical demands on a young voice. I have not yet taught a 17 year old tenor who should be singing “Ev’ry Valley”. I have had some who were almost there, but this is not a starter aria.

16 year old girls should not be singing “Defying Gravity” or “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”. A 20 year old soprano singing in an early music ensemble should not dabble with “Rose’s Turn” or “Stride la vampa”. High school baritones should not under any circumstances be singing solos from “Carmen” or “Il Trovatore”.

Young singers need to be guided to sing repertoire that they can handle, and that will not build faulty muscle memory. If a young woman learns one of the Dalila arias at age 16, and she later does become a mature contralto, the muscle memory she learned at 16 will be very hard to override at age 35. That is a practical professional reason for such caution.

Another reason is the risk of physical injury. The actual structure of the larynx changes in subtle ways after puberty for many years, gradually (in the 20s and the 30s) becoming more ossified (cartilage turning into bone), and the folds themselves thickening somewhat. A well-trained voice will handle heavier vocal demands much better at age 30 than at age 18. We cannot rush this growth.

There is so much great material out there for singers at any level of development. To push them to sing “hard” things is foolish. To sing a simple song beautifully is never easy. The skills of musicianship and interpretation can be learned, in a proper sequence, at any time, but the physical skills must have both a proper sequence AND be in harmony with the physical development of the person’s body.

Young people trying to sound older will make adaptations to the way they use their throats that can do great harm. This is why Jackie Evancho should not sing opera YET, and why my student should not sing oratorio YET, and why elementary school pageant competitors should not sing cabaret-style belt songs YET. These things can hurt them, and ruin their future singing. I don’t say so, Nature says so!

11 Replies to “Picking appropriate repertoire”

  1. Re: “This is why Jackie Evancho should not sing opera YET.”

    If you mean she should not sing OPERATICALLY yet, of course she shouldn’t. And doesn’t. And never has. And most likely never will, since she has never expressed an interest in becoming an opera singer.

    If you mean she shouldn’t sing any aria from any opera in any way under any circumstances, that seems like hyperbole.

    It’s one thing to sing Nessun Dorma five nights a week, loud enough to be heard over the pit orchestra, all the way to the nosebleed seats. It’s a radically different thing to sing it in public four times over the space of three years, always using a microphone, transposing it to fit the singer’s range, with half an octave to spare. Surely you don’t equate the two.

    In fact children and teens shouldn’t sing songs operatically regardless of whether they come from the opera repertoire or not. And opera is not the sole repository of potentially dangerous songs to sing.

    Fortunately for Jackie Evancho, her mother is a nurse who has publicly stated that her first priority is to make sure Jackie reaches adulthood with her instrument intact and with no bad musical habits developed, and has made sure Jackie gets the periodic coaching and laryngeal inspections needed to achieve these goals.

    In concert her performances and interspersed with orchestral interludss to make sure she doesn’t strain her voice within a given concert, and she only performs a limited number of concerts in a given month.

    And right now, during her 13th year–an important transitional period for a singer–the only opera arias she performs in public are Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Xerxes and Puccinin’s O mio babbino caro. Neither is anything like the Queen of the Night’s aria or Wagnerian songspiel.

    Perhaps you’ve heard she sings opera but didn’t know that she does not sing operatically. Hopefully this will allay your fears.

    This is a recording I made of her singing Ombra mai fu a month ago, using a Canon G11 in standard def. The nine bar intro is missing from my recording but was performed of course.

    You’ll see that she isn’t singing operatically at all, but instead in the style of her genre, classical crossover. Hence the absence of the trills you hear when a fine operatic singer like Cecilia Bartoli does it.


    There are much higher-quality recordings of her singing this but they were made before she had turned 13. And this captures her performance live, unedited and unmodified.

    1. Yes, this is great that she is singing these with her own youthful voice. She should stick to very few classical pieces so that she doesn’t have to relearn them with her mature voice later. The muscle memory that you learn a song with can stick with you forever. People call her an “opera singer” but her actually trying to sing “operatically” is not a good idea yet. Thanks for the clip showing that she is not overreaching in the way she did with her first “O mio babbino” in which she was using all kinds of throat tension to try to sound older. She is such a talented young person who I hope will have much success.

  2. Jackie Evancho does NOT sing “opera”. She sings a handful of selected arias from operas (which vary from performance to performance) in her own style, always with a microphone, and always within her limits. She never “belts”.

    1. And that is a good strategy. I wish people who are less informed than you would not call her “an opera singer”. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Mr Lee,

    You make several very good points. Young singers should clearly pay attention to them. However, then you make a gratuitous Jackie Evancho comment at the end, which cries out for a couple of points in response.

    1. Jackie Evancho doesn’t sing opera. Among other things, she always uses amplification.

    2. Furthermore, of her entire ~60-80 song output, only 3 (count ’em, three) are operatic arias. One of those, Nessun Dorma, she only performed 6 times in public, & hasn’t done so for more than 2 years, a long time for a young person.

    3. In her recent shows she hasn’t even been singing O Mio Babbino Caro. That leaves only the 2nd, familiar half of Ombra Mai Fu (AKA “Largo”) by Händel. She omits the trills & other ornaments, & it just isn’t that much more difficult or demanding than non-operatic music.

    4. Jackie sings a limited concert schedule, perhaps ~4-5 dates per month, staying home roughly half the time. This allows her plenty of rest, & time to do schoolwork & just be a teenager.

    5. As I’m sure you know, most young people who injure their voices do so by roaring, growling, screaming or just belting in the upper modal register. Jackie NEVER does these things. Jackie is risking her voice considerably less than thousands & thousands of young people singing in school plays, cheering at football games or even just imitating their favorite rock singers in front of the mirror.

    So with all due respect, if you’re worried about Jackie Evancho, you’re worried about the wrong young singer. As expected, she’s struggled a bit going thru adolescence, but recently has shown marked improvement in breath support, register blending, pitch control & other technical areas.

    She’s been a professional for more than 3 years & has yet to show any detriment from the way she sings. Her voice has become even richer & more beautiful.

    1. As many young voices have been screwed up trying to sing classical beyond their years as have been messed up by belting.

      1. Mr Lee,

        “As many young voices have been screwed up trying to sing classical beyond their years as have been messed up by belting.”

        Seriously??? Have you ever been to an otolaryngologist’s office on Monday after a football game, or a performance of “Annie” (or some other musical where the kids belt)? Or any day, for that matter?

        There are WAY more kids who injure their voices in those ways than even WANT to sing classical music, let alone those who sing classical improperly. Many of those kids may not even be seeing a singing teacher like yourself.

        I’m not trying to minimize your point, or saying that singing classical music improperly isn’t dangerous. I’m just asking you to put it in perspective. There are lots of dangers to kids’ voices; it’s just that in the real world, singing the wrong classical repertoire is down the list.

      2. I mean by percentages. A terribly high percentage of those who try classical repertoire do it in ways that harm their vocal ability. I do not mean that more people are singing classical than cheering at football games. Your point is well taken.

  4. Re: Young singers risking their voices

    If you want to worry about young singers, worry about Jacquie Lee, one of the 5 finalists on The Voice this year. She’s mentored (which they do for all contestants, with different judges) on the show by Christina Aguilera


    She doesn’t roar or scream, but she certainly belts in the upper modal register. She’s risking vocal fold damage IYAM.

    This is the kind of thing Jackie Evancho never does.

  5. Mr Lee,

    On another forum, a singing teacher experienced with young singers recommended that Jackie E try the Alexander Technique to help her with tension in some of her facial & neck muscles. Do you have a comment on this technique?

    1. Yes, I worked with an Alexander teacher one summer and it was very helpful for me in releasing interfering tensions and learning how to move, sit, and stand more easily. It’s a real thing and not too woo-woo. Some people like Feldenkrais for similar beneficial effects as well.

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