Who picks the repertoire, teacher or student?

Here are some typical students who come to me:

  • Adult beginner, age 50, who has never sung in public but would like to learn to sing better for her community theatre or choral groups.
  • Grade 8 student, age 14, sings in his school chorus, voice recently changed, who wants to stay competitive for school musicals and talent shows.
  • Community college student, age 20, huge belt voice but can also mix, who wants to explore competitions and singing in a band. She has come from four years of study with a teacher who made her sing soprano art songs, and who she says “hated my voice”.
  • White collar professional, age 40 who plays guitar in a cover band on the weekends, is getting asked to do more and more of the vocals.

The above students are all real examples, and I have had multiple students with very similar profiles over the years. This kind of variety is my normal, and I love it. It’s a very different teaching environment that that in which a university professor works. The uni students are generally in a voice program that has as its goal an acquisition of classical technique and a beginning familiarity with the classical repertoire suitable for one’s voice. Uni vocal pedagogy courses and programs generally prepare students to teach the “standard” classical repertoire.

The problem is that a lot of private teachers out in the communities like me are trying to funnel their students through a classical program of study, using repertoire that they learned to teach with. Then the students go out from these studios and sing shows like “Anything Goes” or “Into the Woods”, sing in bar bands or praise bands, and compete in various pop music competitions. It’s a disconnect.

I base the decision on which repertoire to work on looking at a combination of age, experience, and current musical projects that the students are involved in.

A young student with no prior study will be best served by exploring different genres of music. Once they see what they can do well, that tends to influence their taste or distaste for particular genres. I always ask students who are about 12 or older what kind of music they like, and what kind of music they like to sing. These are not always the same, by the way! Variety is a good idea with these young ones, and developing chest and head voice so that they have options for how their voice functions as they explore. I tend to pick most of the rep for these students, often giving them a choice between this or that. But I am the one writing the menu. Classical and musical theatre are parts of the mix for these students.

The older teen student with specific goals gets more say in what we work on. I often assign a song that I think is good for them, and invite them to pick anything additional that they would like to work on. With popular styles, we have an opportunity to talk about how we can make the song best fit them, rather than recreating someone else’s performance. If a student is age 16 or older with significant experience, I do not try to get them to sing Italian arias if they are already doing well out in the real world of musical theatre or folk-rock, and do not sing in a classically-oriented ensemble. Flexible, strong vocal function is never ignored. We all need to work on chest and head and vowel choices and good use of the body to support the singing, but the repertoire to which it applies can be increasingly selected by the student.

The college student coming to me with a specific agenda usually has repertoire in mind that they need help with, but sometimes they come to me because they are still trying to figure out what they are good at, or their training has not been a good match with their vocal potential.

All students with experience should bring to me what it is they are actually singing. Exercises are for building the voice and increasing its functional capabilities. Repertoire is for performance, not for building the voice. I do not believe in using pieces to “teach technique” for older students, especially if work on a song takes time from repertoire they are actually performing. It wastes time.

The adult beginner who comes to me with a strong desire to learn how to sing, but not knowing what they are good at, is much fun to teach. They have usually heard a huge variety of music and are eager to see what is involved with trying to sing some of it. As the voice develops, I make suggestions about things that I think they would sound good with, and if it clicks with the singer, I guide them to more repertoire in that genre.

My primary role in “working on songs” is to help them apply better technique to their music, so that they can express what they are trying to express more clearly. If they are singing in styles that I am not good with, I focus on functional issues and let them work with other people on the style issues, if they choose to.

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