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Observing and being a lifelong learner as a singing teacher

LOVE Sheri Sanders! Her Rock the Performance classes are a must for anyone seriously into CCM Music Theatre styles!

I’ve been back to teaching and researching after my trip to  the US in January. This morning I observed an online class with New York music theatre coach, Sheri Sanders. I believe observation is an incredibly valuable learning tool, which is just as well since it is a major part of my doctoral research!

I have been so lucky to be able to observe wonderful teaching and singers in lessons in the US over the last few years. It is such an act of generosity, allowing another teacher to watch you teach. I have watched teachers work with a student in a way that is maybe the opposite way of how I might teach but get the same end result – there are MANY ways to teach singing, and it is not about right or wrong.  I find the sharing of information challenges and strengthens my teaching.

In the past you might have become a singing teacher through the master-apprentice method. You studied with one teacher for many years, watched them teach and were taught by that teacher yourself, and then went on to teach yourself. This method of training no longer really exists, we are trained in conservatoires, or through private pedagogical courses, or both. Teaching singing is of course completely unregulated, and many teachers come to the professional without any formal qualifications but with years of performance background and teach what they know through experience. Although I had an undergraduate degree, I certainly started out that way, and quickly realised I didn’t know enough to meet the needs of my students. My Masters degree in vocal pedagogy gave me a wonderful training in lots of areas relative to singing teaching, especially voice physiology and acoustics, and was a launch pad (NOT an ending) to my ongoing quest to learn about the singing voice and voice teaching. There were gaps in the degree (you don’t learn EVERYTHING in academia, right!), which meant I needed to continue seeking out the knowledge and skills to teach to the best of my abilities. The observation of other teachers has been invaluable in filling some of these gaps. I especially like it when we can have long discussions about the lessons too!

Just some of the teachers who have generously allowed me to observe their teaching over the last three years include Jeanette LoVetri, Mary Saunders-Barton, Raymond Sage, Pat Linhart, Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne, Sheri Sanders, Elizabeth Benson and Timm Adams. Sometimes I have things pop up in my brain from lessons I observed, or when I’m researching, I might recognise how a teacher applied a certain principle. Sometimes I have watched, or participated, and been a little confused, but after a period of time, an understanding of what the teacher was doing drops into my brain. It’s like things stew around up there for a bit, and then an understanding appears. Sometimes I observe and just soak in the wonderful teaching and singing. What a privilege! Knowing not just the theory of voice pedagogy, but the application of it when seeing others teach is truly valuable.

The Diva herself – the wonderful Pat Linhart!

I learn new skills, and return to my teaching humbled by the incredible number of highly skilled voice teachers out there in the big wide world. I messaged the wonderful Pat Linhart after watching her teach and being back in my studio, pinching some of her ideas. She responded “isn’t stealing the only way!” I LOVE this attitude! We all have something to learn (steal) from one another, especially if we decide to be lifelong learners. I do think it is important to recognise and acknowledge those who have so generously sown into your skills! I am excited to be presenting on mature voices this Sunday at the ANATS Building Blocks training day. I will get to observe my Queensland colleagues teaching and presenting on the different ages of the voice. Very cool!

Observing is great, but then it’s time to go apply what you observe, so I’m off to warm up and sing! Thank you to all the singing teachers I’ve been able to watch over the years. You have all contributed to who I am as a teacher!

Some thoughts on Contemporary and Commercial Music (CCM) singing (part 1)

Dale works with singers one on one for strong healthy CCM voice function and performance skills

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to be the adjudicator for the Queensland vocal competition run by the Music Teacher’s Association of Queensland. I was to adjudicate the Music Theatre and Contemporary sections, otherwise known as CCM sections.

There was some lovely singing and overall it was a wonderful day. However there were some interesting trends.

  • A whole section of musical theatre singing where every song was in legit style. No contemporary music theatre singing styles to be found.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Firstly, legit style is a completely appropriate singing style for music theatre. I absolutely love legit singing, which has strong articulation, a bright clear sound and legato lines (although NOT as legato as classical – to my ear there is a BIG difference). The sounds in legit are more speech-like than we hear in classical. I don’t hear much covering in contemporary legit music theatre. Perhaps in some older performances and performers, but the legit sound we hear now is VERY different to the legit sound heard forty or fifty years ago.

The important thing to remember with legit singing is that it is only PART of music theatre (MT)  singing. Traditionally the two singing sounds heard in MT are legit AND belt. If you don’t know how to belt, and can only sing in legit style, your music theatre options may be limited, whether you are a community theatre singer or professional. A study by Green, Freeman, Edwards and Meyer in 2013 observed that over a six month period only 5% of audition notices (for the American market – they looked at notices in Backstage.com) were for legit style singing. A further 40% of audition notices asked for traditional music theatre singing, which would include both belt and legit styles. The remaining 55% of auditions were for pop / rock (25%) and contemporary singing (30%). And there is more to being a contemporary singer than just belting. That is a  LOT of opportunities you may be missing out on because you only sing legit.

  • A section of contemporary singing where no-one sang with a a microphone, even though one was on offer.

Why do you need a  microphone when singing contemporary music? Have you EVER seen  contemporary singer NOT use a microphone? CCM singers are not AS interested in producing the resonance to sing over an orchestra that is a very important part of classical singing. We have expressiveness which may ONLY be picked up by a good microphone. A microphone is quite simply part of being a CCM singer. If you don’t know how to use one, or don’t know what you sound like with a microphone, you need to find out. And practice with one. Play with it. It is the other part of your voice in CCM. EQ and effects can have a major impact on CCM sounds. That is NOT CHEATING. That is the way it is. That is the market. I have three mics in my studio set up at all times. We may not use them every lesson, but they are in fairly constant use. At least everyday one of my students will be on the mic.

  • A section of contemporary singing where the only thing that was contemporary was the repertoire.

There are some contemporary songs which use classical style and function, I’m sure, but NOT MANY! I’ve been teaching CCM for 18 years and singing and performing it for 37. I’m having trouble thinking of one. I’m sure someone will send me some ideas. CCM style and FUNCTION is different to classical. If you don’t think these styles are different and require different teaching methods, check out what the American Academy of Teachers of Singing says about CCM voice teaching.

In males we need a LOT more falsetto/ head / mix happening. There is a lot more going on at the top. It is brighter. It is NOT covered. The airflow is different.

In women there is (usually) a LOT more chest register (or M1 – or lower register, or whether term you like to use here) and it is strong. There are a LOT of sounds that women need to make in CCM that require a super strong chest register that is capable of going higher than you might expect if you are a classical singer. I’m not just talking about belting here. However, the range of style and function in CCM music is incredibly diverse. There aren’t necessarily hard and fast “rules”. Some folk songs, some indie and pop singers use more head registration than other styles. the ideal is to have chest and head registers working and strong, to be able to move between these registers and on a whole series of notes in the middle choose what “weighting” you give to which register according to the style being performed. And that is just talking about the vocal sound source – I haven’t even started on the shaping of the vocal tract (vowels and the various sounds we can make with vowels) and airflow (more / less) or volume (loud / soft / medium) and how that can impact on the sound.

The lack of prescription about what the voice MUST do in CCM singing is precisely because there is so much diversity in CCM. There are many ways to make these sounds.

We know what is CCM sound when we hear it. We know what a classical singing sound is when we hear it. And we all know what a classical singer singing CCM without changing some of their function and style sounds like. It is embarrassing for the singer, I think, if they know it. Certainly when I pointed this out in my adjudication  of the competition section , a lot of the singers in the competition were nodding their heads. They were young people who KNEW they weren’t making the right sounds.

Well trained ears will help determine what part of the sound needed comes down to source (vocal folds, registration) and what comes down to filter (the shaping of the vocal tract and how this can be changed to help boost the appropriate sound). If that sounds technical, it is. If that sounds like a bit of training, well it is.

A well trained CCM voice takes time – as does a well trained classical voice. I love classical singing – it is beautiful. I love opera – in my undergraduate degree  we students went to the Opera House in Sydney very often on student rush tickets. I have had classical lessons so I know exactly how different it feels in my own voice. It is like the other side of the moon, to me. I played with it for a while, but it was changing more voice too much and I was losing my top belt notes. So I stopped, because I need to be able to sing and demonstrate my own speciality. It would take years and years of cross training for me to be able to switch from one to another. Right now I can switch from belt to legit and back, I can sing most CCM styles and that is useful for my teaching work. Do I admire classical voice? Absolutely. Those singers who study hard are incredible vocal athletes with the most amazing instruments. And so are the contemporary singers who are at the top of their field. It is extremely rare to be at the highest levels in both fields at once.

CCM and classical. One is not better than the other. they are just different styles with different functions and requirements.

References

American Academy of Teachers of Singing. (2008). In support of contemporary commercial music (nonclassical) voice pedagogy2008. Retrieved from http://www.americanacademyofteachersofsinging.org/assets/articles/CCMVoicePedagogy.pdf

Green, K., Freeman, W., Edwards, M., & Meyer, D. (2014). Trends in musical theatre voice: an analysis of audition requirements for singers. J Voice, 28(3), 324-327.

 

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