Five Lessons Voice Teachers Can Take From the Last Decade of Popular Music // Kate Paradise

Ten years ago, Spotify had just launched its music streaming platform to the public, Adele was enjoying the success of her first album, Taylor Swift was considered a country singer, and Frozen, La La Land and Hamilton were still all living in the imaginations of their creators. Wow, what a decade! If you’re like me, you probably spend ample time and energy trying to stay current on popular music and the music industry. As we grapple with the close of a decade, I thought it might be helpful to outline a few changes that have impacted or could have an impact on us as commercial voice teachers. 

1. Streaming, Home Studios and Social Media – OH MY!

The last decade was marked by a dramatic fracturing of the music industry and, as a result, new opportunities and pitfalls opened up for artists and musicians. On the positive side, there was a rise in exposure to international music, most notably K-Pop. Also, the wide availability of home studio technology and more sophisticated use of social media have empowered artists to reach their audiences directly. As a result, there is a TON of great music being created and released. On the negative side, streaming services like Spotify have made making money from record sales, in the traditional sense, obsolete. Additionally, in a saturated music marketplace, getting your music to rise to the top can be a challenge. In short, the path to success as an artist has become wider but more complicated. 

Why this matters to voice teachers: 

  • The sheer volume of musical content available creates a challenge for teachers and students of music. As a result, we need to help curate meaningful listening experiences for our students.  
  • Students need to stop framing their popular music career in terms of “getting a record deal.” They can write, produce, record, market and profit from their music all by themselves, and they need the skills to do so. We can help them acquire these skills.
  • Releasing a record might not pay the bills, but having a song from that record placed in an ad campaign will. There might not be a local record store to promote your new release, but there is a website that will help pair you with a host for a house show. We need to help our students think in new ways about getting their music in front of people.

2. Black Girl Magic 

Let me begin with a list: Rihanna, Beyonce, Jazmine, Solange, Janelle and Lizzo (to name a few). Black women took the last decade by storm and we have ALL benefited. It is fitting too that approximately 100 years after black women essentially invented American popular music (See the blues-based Vaudeville performances of folks like Bessie Smith, and the forward-thinking rhythms of Sister Rosetta Tharpe if you have any doubts about this claim), that they would inject a new life into popular music again. Of course, the skill of women of color in the music industry has been ever-present throughout the history of American music BUT the list of women above is evidence that this tide of black female talent is also fully in charge. The success of women like Beyonce and Lizzo has as much to do with their agency and power as it does their singing ability. Who run the world? These women. And we are all winning as a result.

Why this matters to voice teachers: 

  • Avoiding the negative aspects of appropriation begins with education and a respect that gives credit where it is due. As educators, we have a major part to play in this.
  • It’s 2020. Women are allowed to run things. They are allowed to be loud. They are allowed to be big. They are allowed to demand credit. They are allowed to have boundaries. They use technology. They compose. They can choose to create outside of the confines of the “male gaze.” Be sure your teaching gives women and girls the space for this.
  • The last decade saw hip-hop based pop music overtake rock based pop music in sales. If you think you can be a commercial voice teacher and avoid hip-hop, you’re wrong. And also, why would you want to? 

3. A Cappella? You Cappella? ALL CAPPELLA!

One would assume a cappella singing has been around since the beginning of music itself, and, to be sure, its role in the collegiate world began over a century ago. In the last ten years, a cappella groups have been bolstered into mainstream popular music and media through movies like Pitch Perfect and television competitions like The Sing Off. The Pentatonix are a clear and direct example of this phenomenon but, more broadly, artists like Jacob Collier, and other multi-faceted vocal musicians with creative approaches to re-working popular music, have also been a part of this movement. 

Why this matters to voice teachers: 

  • A cappella groups are largely student-led. As a result, if you have students involved in one of these groups, they may need your support. A little information about vocal hygiene and vocal load can make a huge impact. 
  • No type of singing demonstrates the absolute miracle of the human voice like a cappella group singing. These singers need to have high stamina and versatility. Your teaching can help these students discover and strengthen all aspects of their instrument.
  • We must pause to appreciate the power of the “cool take” on a cover song performance. A cappella groups didn’t invent this but they supported its growth, particularly on social media. Encourage your students to join in on the fun by re-arranging a well-known song in a new way.

4. Vowel Breaking /“Indie Pop Voice”/Hip Singing

At the risk of blaming Adele and Great Britain for all of the problems our students have with keeping their vowels open, I will say, the struggle has been REAL! I am positive I am not alone in expressing frustration with this phenomenon. Whether you call it vowel breaking, “Indie Pop Voice” or Hip Singing, it IS a legitimate way of coloring and styling a word. As a jazz singer, I can attest to the fact that this practice occurs across genres, and can add nuance, feeling and individuality to a vocalist’s delivery. However, much like frosting on a cupcake, a little goes a long way, and, much like a Hawaiian shirt, there are places this works better than others.

Why this matters to voice teachers: 

  • Most of our students fall into the vowel breaking rut without even realizing it. The overuse becomes predictable and ear-numbing. We need to bring it to their attention and challenge them to be intentional music makers. What are some other stylistic choices that can be made? Is it possible the vowel breaking is being used to cover up a voice technique issue?
  • We can help our students use the vowel breaking effect well by educating them on the different acoustical demands of a low speech-like phrase versus a high, sustained, chest dominant note. 

5. Mainstreaming of Musicals

Yes, if you are a singer-type, you probably have spent EVERY decade tracking developments in musical theater, but over the last decade the general public has been bombarded with entertainment that has served to normalize and popularize musicals. Major motion picture releases of musicals, including jukebox type films and an overwhelming number of Disney movies (animated and live action), musicals performed live on television and the success of Broadway musicals like Hamilton have all contributed to the fray.

Why this matters to voice teachers:

  • Targeting populations of actors for singing lessons might make more sense now than ever. If you’re looking to build your private studio, try reaching out to this population!
  • Conversation around non-singers who take on singing roles can be complex. (The same goes for pop singers who take on roles outside their normal style!) Perhaps we can contribute meaningfully to the conversation by being both kind and constructive when evaluating singing voices in front of our colleagues and students. 
  • Young students might suddenly expand their definition of “cool” repertoire after a given musical movie is released. Use this as an opportunity to find new age and range appropriate gems for use in your studio!
  • Expanded enjoyment of musicals could mean more jobs for your students! Ensure they are audition/gig ready with a great book and the necessary dance and acting skills so they can capitalize on the opportunities. 

While this list barely scratches the surface of the changes occurring around us and in our field, I hope it at least inspired some reflection on how we can adapt to better serve our profession. What a time to look both backward and forward in our field! 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. You’ve articulated so many things perfectly. I have had a cursory awareness of these trends but by no means so well organized.

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  2. Great article, truly! I’d add a factor… that of an increase in vocal damage. The reason that’s important for voice teachers is of course that we need to be able to teach vocally healthy techniques to successfully sing in whatever style our student prefers, including rock, metal, big range contemporary genres of all kinds that require volume and passionate projection. I have come to believe vocal damage is NEVER unavoidable with good training and adherence to healthy techniques. Trickier in some genres than others, but all must be taught control of breath that spares the voice in dangerous passages:)

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