Picking meaningful repertoire

“Portret van een man005” by Gert Germeraad – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I often tell a student “If you don’t like this song, tell me. There are a few hundred other songs that would be perfectly fine to sing instead.” In singing, like other performing arts, we have the opportunity to try on other characters and enter other worlds. If we are going to explore something new, we need to feel that it is possible to enjoy the process, or else why do it? I don’t believe in forcing material that a student dislikes because “it is good for them.”

Singing needs to arise from the desire to express something. “It’s pretty” is nice, but when I ask for more information after they say “I really like that song”, they almost always say that the music and lyrics are appealing. If they connect to a reason for the existence of the song, they will sing better.

If a student desires, or is required, to sing in a foreign language, I drive home the point that they must understand the lyrics. Understanding the meaning is much more important than perfect pronunciation. They have to know what every word means and which words and syllables would be stressed in speech. That is a lot to take in, especially for monolingual Americans. Yes, Italian is a lovely language for singing, but it is not going to be productive to make a beginning singer form sounds for the sake of “diction” that are meaningless as a whole. Pushing multiple languages on young singers in order to fulfill a requirement can lead to a sterile distance between song and the singer. There is abundant evidence of this!

Making students sing things that they are not personally invested in is a major problem in much voice instruction and performance coaching. Unnecessary distance between singer and song, coupled with perfectionistic sound-making devoid of real inflection, stunts growth as a singing artist. It kills joy, and that kills the desire to say something with music.

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