Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay

Some day, maybe 50 years from now, there may be no “classical” training left at colleges, except perhaps for “speciality courses” that keep “historic music” from disappearing.

Broadway is dominated by rock music now and that isn’t like to change. The songs are sometimes very challenging because they are badly written, uninteresting or just plain stupid, but sometimes very good interesting music does show up. The “form” of the songs could be formulaic, it could be repetitive and it could have little to do with “traditional” theatrical values. This is because so many of the composers are from the world of rock. They have no background at all in theater, and some have not much formal classical training, coming from jazz instead. If you also have directors who are barely in their 30s (and there are quite a few) who are not interested in “holding up the old ways”, you end up with shows that are flashy, splashy and often entertaining but not necessarily memorable.
Almost all shows rely on two things: stars (read that as celebrities from TV, recordings and film) and special effects (read that as flying people, objects or both). Some also have bells and whistles like theatrical smoke and unusual costumers (animals, superheroes). Audiences do not need to be musically sophisticated to enjoy shows like this, they just need to be entertained. It can end up making the show have an almost “circus-like” atmosphere, but it keeps audiences happy and seats filled.
These audiences are not “hard core” theater goers – the folks who are more likely to go to a straight play, frequently a drama or maybe also a comedy. You don’t get many people going to “experimental theater”. The only audiences who like and promote such are people in the industry who think it’s cool (and it can be) or people who are investors who think it shows good taste (and sometimes it does). Mostly they don’t last long and lose a lot of money.
It may take another lifetime, but sooner or later, if the schools are going to keep up with the real world, they are going to have to deal with music theater as being rock-based. For all the revivals of shows from the 40s, 50s and 60s, there are more and more shows that have been written in the last 40 years that are not in the style of Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Stephen Sondheim (and his second generation children, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel) not withstanding, the music that has had the greatest impact and the most commercial success has been written by Alan Mencken, Jonathan Larson, Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The gap between what is taught at colleges and what is sung on the stages of the Great White Way continues to widen in most places. Even in schools which have music theater degrees, there are very few teachers who have encountered rock in a way that allows them to teach it with any degree of reliability or confidence. (That doesn’t stop people from trying to teach it anyway, unfortunately). The younger teachers, many of whom were required to get a Master’s Degree or an Doctorate of Musical Arts in order to enter a tenure-track job in a good university program, are forced to study classical repertoire and pedagogy because that’s all that’s available (with the exception of Shendoah’s CCM Master’s), even if they know they want to teach rock styles. Therefore, for the most part, even this generation isn’t being prepared, pedagogically speaking, to go into teaching with a full, secure and wide ranging tool kit that deals with rock vocal production.
No one really knows what anyone can get away with in terms of CCM styles at their most extreme. It might be that being a dramatic voice with a body to match is a very important requisite. It might be that you can be small and wirey and still scream out high E, Fs and Gs as a female rock belter 8 shows a week. It is a “one person one voice at a time” equation.
Doesn’t bode well for the future of teaching. I always want to ask the finalists on American Idol or The Voice, how much classical training have you had? Did it help? In what way?
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One thought on “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”

  1. I was just thinking about the fact that the top choir in our high school is still called “The Zeeland High Madrigal Singers.” They still wear tuxes and “prom dresses.” I strongly feel that needs to change, but I’m not the HS director.

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