My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

Is American music as good as European music? Do the Chinese sound good singing rock songs? Is classical music better than rock and roll? Is country music better than rap? Are these questions ridiculous?

The history of many of the styles of CCM are rooted in America. While every country has folk music of some kind, jazz, rock and roll, country/western, rap/hip hop, soul, R&B, gospel and the “book” musical began here. Certainly other countries have made contributions over the years to every style, but the emergence of what we used to call “pop” music (it’s now CCM) can be traced to various locations and times in the US of A.

Do the music schools honor this? Is our American music regarded as a topic worthy of scholarly study and investigation? Only jazz has achieved some of that status in schools, with music theater now catching up, largely because the students are pressing to study it. There are true masters of instrumental jazz, but there are no masters of vocal jazz pedagogy. If you study singing in a jazz college, you are going to study it with a classical teacher. Did you know that 34% of the people teaching music theater in colleges and universities have NEITHER professional experience nor training in music theater but teach it anyway? That is from our study in 2003 published in the Journal of Voice. Can you think of any other subject wherein institutions of higher learning could get away with hiring people with no experience and no training as teachers?

I attended the International Association of Jazz Educators conference in January. I went to the exhibitors area where there were several schools offering programs and queried the directors of those programs about vocal training for their jazz singers. NYU’s chair was honest enough to tell me that he had no interest in singers unless they came in to train as pianists. That is true at Manhattan School of Music, too, where they accept masters students into the program, but only if they are good instrumental musicians in the first place. At Long Island University they told me that only classical vocal training was given because that was all that was necessary. For jazz. Oh really.

When I went to the NATS Belt Workshop #1 in Miami, held at the University of Miami, which has a music theater training program run entirely by opera singers who have never set foot on an music theater stage anywhere, no one, and I mean NO ONE knew where the term belting originated. One of the teachers there (with a PhD) said it was created in the 60s to sing “over rock bands”. I was choking in my seat. Just ask the other people who were there, as they will confirm that I was sitting there turning blue. What is one to do when an organization that is nationally based presents a workshop on a topic where the “experts” have no expertise and the audience doesn’t know that they don’t know. Isn’t that about as low as standards can get? That wasn’t in 1985, it was in 2000.

I remember teaching in Stockholm in a school where all the kids studied “popular” singing (CCM). One of the young women was singing “God Bless The Child” by Billie Holliday. This beautiful blonde Swede with a sweet voice was singing with true sincerity but she didn’t know a thing about the song, the composer, the idea behind the song, the style, the phrasing or anything other than the words and the melody. When I was in Sydney kids were singing American songs, as they were in Sao Paulo, and in Denmark and Amsterdam. What they did, they had taught themselves, as they had no one to ask. That is understandable. The music didn’t arise there. What’s sad is that WE have no one to ask. We, all of us, every single American vocalist, should know everything about these styles like the backs of our hands, and what do we know instead? Schubert, Scarlatti, and Debussy.

Sweet Land of Liberty, of THEE I sing.

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2 thoughts on “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”

  1. flabbergasted…
    I am totally flabbergasted with such pedagogical idiots, and how the hell they get a way with teaching what they have no clue about??!! Oh of course I forget..! Classical Technique is the fundamentals of EVERY vocal technique. How stupid of me! “One technique to rule them all” right? And slap me down for even challenging any other notion.
    When Christina Aguilera can still sing the same CCM songs (sounding the same), with the traditional ‘Classical Laryngeal Posture’… get back to me, cause I’d LOVE to hear it!

  2. Ah, the humor of the voice teacher! No one at my office would even find that first comment funny – but it made me chuckle evilly sitting here at my computer!

    Part of the reason I’ve given up (for now) on teaching in local universities is 1) the lack of any CCM programs, and 2) the thought that any CCM student should study years of classical voice! I’ve got a lovely young singer/songwriter who wants to go to college and study voice. I told her that unless she found a school with a contemporary music program to forget about it!

    At this point in time, I’m working on my DMA research having to deal with the female belt voice. I’m concentrating on the non-musical theater, CCM genres, which is a lot of fun. However, in a world which has a decided lack of written pedagogical for CCM teachers, there is an even greater lack for those who want to teach CCM to non-musical theater singers!

    Anyone tune into The Search for the Next Doll? Anyone wonder what kind of certification their “vocal coach” had? I’m not talking about Ron Fair, but about the guy who worked with the girls on their vocals. Never once did I hear any good advice about how a singer-dancer should breathe and support, even though Ron was constantly (and fairly) criticizing intonation on many of the young singers. Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was teaching these things when the camera was turned off? Or maybe it wasn’t interesting enough for viewers?

    Enough venting! Back to my research!

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