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Singer Training and Repertoire Assignment
In medical school, students take classes for the first two years then do rotations, during which they get to experience different specializations. This introduction to a wide variety of medical divisions is what helps students clarify where their individual talents lie. A young medical student would rarely choose their specialty in those first years to then remain in that field for his or her entire career. This is because they may have certain preferences and or talents that they simply haven't explored yet in their youth. Medicine is a huge field, so one has to explore and "date around" so to speak in order to discover the best match.
Music is similarly an overwhelmingly large subject. Even after choosing vocal performance as a major -- or even more specifically "classical" or "musical theater," a young student is facing an extremely broad range of possibilities. While training, it should be expected — just as it is for medical students — that singers explore a wide variety of music in order to develop a correspondingly varied repertoire and skill set. Learning an abundance of repertoire can introduce and develop technical skills involved in vocal production, but also certainly can build general musicianship, language and diction proficiency, and dramatic preparation and insight. The student therefore becomes familiar with many genres, styles, time periods and composers, which can only make a student a more informed performer. Perhaps a previously unknown niche in this new repertoire assortment is waiting to be discovered.
A bored singer is an uninspired singer and therefore an unproductive student, so of course by assigning an abundance of repertoire the student always has a choice of what to work on and can select based on what they are interested in singing. However, knowing that the voice is an instrument given one-per-person, a bit of conservatism in the assignments is called for in order for longevity of career. It is the teacher's job to assign this repertoire thoughtfully and appropriately so that it all suits the young singer's developing vocal habits. If all of the assigned literature is assisting the technical foundation of a singer, then allowing for a variety only enhances the overall experience of learning.
There are certain aspects of a song that can be matched to singers in order to support functional habits and musical growth. Considering the age, gender and emotional maturity of the student, songs should be assigned which can be dramatically and contextually grasped. There is definitely something to be said for choosing a piece that can potentially stretch the student dramatically, but one must build a foundation of basic skills and comprehension on available literature before growth. Clearly the voice type, timbre and current technical facility should be considered when looking at a song's range and tessitura; tempo (specifically how sustained the vocal lines are); melodic shape (descending, ascending or static phrases); phrase lengths; dynamic range; harmonic, rhythmic and melodic complexity; as well as the size and texture of the piece and any support given from the accompaniment. In addition, the singer's language and diction skills should be kept in mind when assigning a piece; this is also a category with great potential for growth, but as stated earlier, fundamental skills must first be built.i
Tempting as it may be, a teacher should remember not to assign repertoire to a student simply because he or she (the teacher) has performed it. This is dangerous when one realizes the student may not have the same capabilities that the teacher did, may have different vocal habits of dysfunction that a certain piece might encourage and certainly the student may not have the same preferences. John Nix, renowned pedagogue and vocologist, states clearly the role of repertoire and its potential pitfalls if inappropriately assigned:
"No matter how talented and knowledgeable we are in assisting a student to establish a technical foundation through vocalises, we can retard our students' development or even tear down the technique we helped our students acquire by assigning inappropriate literature. It is our task as teachers to carefully choose repertoire that insures success and progress while challenging (but not defeating) the student."ii
Barbara Clements agrees, saying:
"By assigning inappropriate repertoire to a student who is not ready vocally, musically or emotionally for a particular piece, one creates a potential risk of harm not only to the student's instrument, but also to his ego. A teacher should choose songs that will provide initial success for the student, but should not be afraid eventually to challenge a student's skills in order to promote growth."iii
There are definite technical disadvantages to assigning a singer too much repertoire, but how does one know when the level of too much has been reached? It would make life much easier if there were a specific number of songs and arias for all students that would guarantee motivation without inviting an unhealthy amount of stress. Unfortunately, not all singers are created equal and neither are all pieces of music. Each singer has a threshold that the teacher must identify and closely monitor. This threshold depends upon the current technical facility of the student, i.e. the level of vocal stability or instability in the voice; the temperament and intellect of the student; his or her age and length of study; expressivity, or given ability to emotionally connect with the content; language and diction skills; and musicianship skills, or the level of his or her ability to navigate complex music. This is a challenging threshold to assess and will vary from student to student; the number also depends on the length and difficulty of each piece assigned. One unfortunate effect however is that once too much repertoire is assigned, technical foundation and artistry degrade.
It has been studied that while sight-reading and in the beginning stages of learning a new song, many singers spend most of that time below REL (Resting Expiratory Level).iv Although there are many different teaching methodologies, I think they all agree that there is nothing "resting" about the breath energy required for singing, much less below resting level. Therefore, when a singer is overwhelmed with new repertoire and attempts to learn it all quickly, a majority of his or her practice time is spent singing on this insufficient lung capacity. Moving from piece to piece in this manner, vocal fatigue will set in fairly quickly due to prolonged exposure to pressed phonation and a lack of air flow: the singer is setting in habits of excess pressure that can be difficult to reverse and potentially damaging. Furthermore, if the singer is doing everything possible merely to learn the notes, rhythms and words quickly, it is unlikely that he or she will truly be able to take musical or artistic direction and process it in order to contribute expressively. If, however, the repertoire load were more manageable, the singer could spend less time learning new music and balance his or her time with older pieces on established, efficient technique thus infusing the new music with healthy habits. Through this solid foundation of technique, the student would be able to achieve musical and dramatic expression on any new repertoire.
A challenge to the traditional four-year educational setting is an inherently short-term view. One does not consider his or her training as a singer complete after receiving a diploma. The need for a long-term view has been discussed among vocal pedagogues for centuries, notably including Francesco Lamperti who believed there had been a decline in the art of singing because singers were performing onstage before being thoroughly prepared.v Upperclassmen and certainly graduates from a university may comparatively seem more vocally mature and ready to handle increasingly challenging and demanding repertoire. Since many singers are inherently driven to succeed and shine, these students naturally strive to sing the most interesting, mature repertoire they can at any given time. There is also pressure to be ready for the professional world by the time graduation comes around. Students scramble to keep building progressively more impressive repertoire and audition lists, and due to their comparative stability, teachers often entertain or encourage these aspirations. However, these singers are still relatively young and are just beginning their careers. Although a young voice may be resilient, it is always heartbreaking to hear of singers hitting the proverbial wall or worse developing pathologies on the vocal folds within the first 10 years of their career.
As we send the next generation of professional singers out into the world from training programs, I hope that we do so thoughtfully and with a long-term vision for their careers. Singers are high-functioning models of voice use and as such should have lifetime careers filled with appropriate, diverse repertoire that consistently both showcases their unique voices and furthers their professional growth. Too many singers know the feeling of taking a step backwards due to inappropriate repertoire, whether it is the selection or the volume, but this is avoidable when the training program instills a conservative awareness in the singer.
Doscher, Barbara, and John Nix. From Studio to Stage: Repertoire for the Voice. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002. Print.
Coffin, Berton. Historical Vocal Pedagogy Classics. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 1989. Print.
iDoscher, Barbara, From Studio to Stage: Repertoire for the Voice, ed. John Nix, Scarecrow Press, 2002, Lanham MD
iiNix, John, Canadian Voice Care Foundation, Voice Talk, Volume 8, Issue 1, Spring 2004, "How Vocology Makes Better Voice Teachers"
iiiClements, Barbara, "A Practical Guide for First-Year Graduate Teaching Assistants in Voice", Dissertation from Florida State University, 2005, p.25-30
ivWatson, P.J. and Hixon, T J. "Respiratory behavior during the learning of a novel aria by a highly trained classical singer" in Vocal Fold Physiology, Controlling Complexity and Chaos, Ch. 22, (Singular Publishing Group, San Diego, 1996).
vCoffin, Berton, Historical Vocal Pedagogy Classics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 1989
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