The Truth About Repertoire

What is the truth about repertoire, folks?

Is it magic? If you give a beginning student an opera aria to “challenge” her, is that a good idea? (Yes, I’ve had someone come to me with less than six months of lessons as a rank beginner who was assigned such by a previous teacher.) Does learning Italian art songs or German lieder help you sing virtually anything?

For long decades students of singing have been required to learn foreign language arts songs and other classical material (including songs in English, by both American and other English-speaking countries), originally with the goal of preparing students to perform in classical performance. The practice of assigning classical songs to students of CCM styles, however, has carried over, mostly for no good reason, because, like eating your spinach and an apple a day, this is supposed to somehow be “good for you”. Well, is it?

If you are hoping to sing “Mimi” in Rent, and not “Mimi” in La Boheme, you had better sing songs that take you in one direction and not the other. If you are hoping to do R&B and gospel or country music and you are trying to do songs by Fauré to assist you in those styles, you are going to waste a lot of time.

Classical Literature Has Great Value

Of course, learning classical song literature has great value. It teaches you cultural and historic material that enriches your appreciation of all that classical singing has to offer. It teaches you about the composers and the times in which they lived and about styles and their parameters. Learning the great classical music from all eras and places in an excellent endeavor. It is NOT, however, connected with being a better rock singer. NOT.

Most college programs still require “juries” (vocal music tests) that include classical repertoire which is supposed to show that you have been properly and correctly trained, vocally. Even Berklee expects you to learn that rep. Of course, if you don’t sing it too well, that isn’t going to concern anyone much… long as you were exposed to it. I think. Maybe. ???????

What if things were reversed? What if all classical vocalists — those who really do want to go out into the world after college and become opera and concert singers — were first forced to learn songs by Billy Joel and James Taylor, by Cole Porter and Carole King,  before they could sing one piece by Schubert or Fauré? Seems silly considered that way, right? But it is just as silly the other way around.

I, too, was taught to think that classical music was necessary “first” and the other music could come later but that was because hardly any of my extensive vocal training (with noted classical singers and coaches) was based on function. I learned “breath support” and “resonance” and the rest was up to me. Repertoire was given to me “just because” and I learned it in the best way that I could. Even though I really wanted to be a music theater singer, (there were no music theater degrees when I was young) I learned classical rep because that’s all that was available in institutions or private lessons up until very recently.

It’s time we broke the link between “classical training” (that undefined something  everyone agrees exists but no one can codify), “classical repertoire” and functional vocal training. Singing songs in the style you want to do, even if they are very simple, makes sense, when you are ready to do songs. Remember, songs do not, in themselves, teach function any more than random syllables on various pitches do. You have to have some “chops” (capability) functionally in order to do repertoire and get something out of learning it. That is the purpose of “vocal technique” lessons.

Question Everything!

The truth about repertoire is that there is no magic in it any more than there is magic in vocal exercises. You can learn to sing any song very badly and what you will have learned will be of  no use to you and certainly not to anyone who should hear you! The next time you encounter someone who says, “I teach all my students to sing classical first” ask her why that is so? Is she not capable of instructing singers to learn whatever it is she thinks classical rep will give them without the rep? And, if she is trying to generate operatic resonance in a jazz singer, by teaching her classical songs, why would she do that? Remember, conscious awareness begins with questioning things.

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