twenty-first century bel canto

As I continue my journey as a private voice teacher (and seriously, I still catch myself wondering what the hell I’m doing in this gig…), I’ve made a fun and rather liberating discovery.

I’ll back up a little.

As usual, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.  This has become something of a leit-motif for me, I know.  I’m hoping that will change as time goes on.  Or maybe not.

Anyway, whereas I’ve had years of experience as an accompanist and vocal coach, suddenly having complete and sole responsibility for the development of a young singer’s technical and artistic development is entirely new.  And terrifying.  I mean, I’ve observed a lot of pedagogy over the years — I think, at last count, I’d played for every  voice professor employed by the Jacobs School of Music between 2001 and 2014 (with the exception of Carlos Montané, which I don’t count as a loss) — so I used to feel pretty confident that I knew what good teaching looked like.  That is, until I was responsible for executing it myself.  And in the case of this particular gig, I had to take a collection of adolescent female voices, halfway through the fall term, get acquainted with their instruments, fix whatever damage had been done by previous instructors, and, hopefully, set them on a clear path to a lifelong pursuit of healthy, joyful music-making.  Guided, theoretically, by a coherent teaching philosophy of my own.

I did have one major advantage, in that I’d spent a semester studying with Andreas Poulimenos in Bloomington.  Not enough time to do wonders with my own voice, regrettably, but enough to have my entire perspective of vocal production turned upside-down (in a good way!) by his pedagogy.  Thus, much of my early lessons with my new students consisted of repeating what Poulimenos had shared with me at the start (“INHALATORY MUSCLES ONLY!!!”).  But beyond correcting their approach to breathing (I had underestimated just how fixated young singers still are on their diaphragm…) and vowel formation, I had a real mental block when it came to selecting teaching material.

Complicating matters was that all of my voice students are, to a person, musical-theatre-inclined.  And, let’s face it, the Broadway show-tune doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of pedagogical repertoire.

Or does it?

I’m getting ahead of myself…

I’ve been trying to figure out what sort of repertoire to give my students for study.  Preferably pieces that will get them actually singing “on their voice” (please tell me I’m not alone in the struggle to help teenage girls discover the miracle that is resonance…).  I’m a firm believer in the virtues of  bel canto, but, as I said above, these are theatre kids.  I don’t see any of them caring to spend the next year or two on Marchesi exercises.  So what to do?

And then, an answer came that was so obvious I’m embarrassed it took me so long to recognize:  the American songbook.

No, seriously, bear with me.  Take a look at the melody of “Stardust,” or “All the Things You Are.” “Misty,” even.  Long, sustained phrases, facilitating both technical and artistic development.  Challenging leaps across a wide compass, with abundant opportunities for crossing the passaggio.  You’ve got at least two months’ worth of lessons just navigating a single tune on each the of primary vowels.

Additionally, it creates a perfect opportunity to make sure their lessons are about more than just “how to sing.”  I require them to look up the composers and lyricists, as well as a variety of performances online, and so forth.  And this aspect of their education can’t be discounted — I gave a Rogers and Hammerstein tune to a child last Saturday, and she had no idea who they were.  I’d be failing her — all of my students — if, as their teacher, I wasn’t sharing with them the rich musical tradition on which their current fads and favorites are founded.

At any rate, I don’t pretend that what I’m doing is particularly profound, at least as far as pedagogy is concerned.  But it has given me much greater focus as an instructor, which I have to believe will only make me more effective as the current term goes on.

We’ll see what happens…