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Choosing a song: Making Mistakes Part 1

I have had at least 5 different conversations with 5 different people in the last month on the multi-layered topic of choosing repertoire, for young singers in particular. This is a subject near and dear to my heart as both a singer and a teacher because I know first-hand how incredibly important it is; song choice can make or break an audition or a performance, or a voice for that matter. A well-chosen piece can transform a singer; it can make a beginning singer sound like they’ve been doing it all their life, a brilliant singer transcendent and even a bad singer look decent! The power of carefully and thoughtfully selected repertoire should never be underestimated.

Before I start my inevitable rant against those who get it wrong, let me begin by enumerating the times I personally have failed miserably to choose well for both myself and for my students.

In graduate school I was often guilty of choosing badly. I would fall in love with a piece that was too hard or too big or just not right for me and instead of listening to that inner voice of reason, I went right ahead and programmed the piece on my recital anyway. I have to admit, I often got away with it through sheer force of will and acting the heck out of it, but I ultimately lived to regret it and have not sung those pieces since. Live and learn.

And oh my goodness, my first semester at AMDA was quite the learning experience on this subject. I mistakenly thought that any student brave enough to come to New York City to study Musical Theatre would be, well, musically inclined and informed (read “musician”). Oh how wrong I was! A large percentage of my first group of students didn’t even know what a quarter note was or where middle C was on the piano. And part of my job was to teach them a classical art song in either Italian or English from roughly 1600-1820. Well, in over my head is an understatement. All I knew about that repertoire was the much maligned (wrongly so, I might add) 24 Italian Songs and Arias of the 17th and 18th Century (the dreaded yellow book) and the music I personally had sung like Bellini, Mozart and Purcell. So I plunged in and assigned songs as best I could. But my best was not good enough. They didn’t do badly at their singing final but they certainly didn’t do as well as they should have and that was my fault. At the tender age of 25, right out of grad school, I did not yet know the fine art of fitting the song to the student, let alone how to lead them through the learning process step by step. (It is now one of my greatest pleasures to find the perfect song for someone and a joy to introduce students to the art of learning and crafting a song.) Thankfully I had the most amazing boss who sat me down after the end of that first exhausting, terrifying semester and gave me invaluable pointers on how to choose repertoire for these kids. She introduced me to an entire new world of songs from the time period that might suit these beginning singers better. (Enter the English folk song!) She also wisely advised me to almost always give them something slightly easier than they are capable of- they will not have to worry so much in general, allowing them to focus more on new and basic concepts of singing and music-making. She reminded me to remember back to when I was first learning this stuff:  take them through the piece slowly and methodically and NEVER assume anything. Oh the difference it made! My second semester with these kids was infinitely more successful than the first. The simplicity (“directness of expression”*) of the repertoire let them focus on good vocal technique, legato, diction and performing the song with sincerity and purpose. It changed my life as a teacher. Thank you, Anne Cotton!

But alas, not everyone has learned these lessons. I am constantly confronted with young people being given wildly inappropriate music to sing and it makes me crazy! And sad too, since it can sabotage their growth, confidence and even potentially erode their talents!

*Thank you Merriam-Webster.


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