A Commercial for Commercial – What’s the Objective? // Wendy Jones

A cursory glance at any reputable website or book on the history of American popular music and one can almost taste the creamy goodness of America’s music. From the mostly religious music of native Americans, to the folk music of immigrants from England, Spain, and France, to musical traditions and polyrhythms brought to American shores by enslaved Africans that laid the foundation for American popular music, to the Appalachian “hillbilly” music from Irish and Scottish immigrants, American music is as rich in its diversity and traditions as its citizens. This is our history; our rich music history wrapped up in beautiful packages of blues, rock, jazz, country, hip-hop and more. And yet, curiously, I don’t see concentrated commercial music studies incorporated into most collegiate vocal programs. There are numerous jazz programs but that is not what I address here. I’m talking about hard core, no apologies, embrace our history and include styles OTHER than jazz into the college curriculum.

And before I dig in, let me be very clear here: I have no beef with classical music. I went to school to learn to sing Broadway but it was not taught or even accepted as music worth studying at the collegiate level when I was a voice major. I was told by my first wonderful and well-meaning  teacher, “If you can sing classical, you can sing anything” so I went with it. And for the record, I loved learning about classical music. I developed a passion for French Art Song and the compositions of Debussy and Poulenc in particular. I sang some soubrette roles in opera, made some extra money around the holidays singing Messiah solos for which I rejoiced greatly, and I competed in competitions and won. I learned to love it and am thankful for that opportunity. However, that training did NOT prepare me for the singing career I wanted to have or ended up having. Let’s examine more in depth why I think commercial music should be part of every college music program.

One

How many singers leave colleges with diplomas in hand and high hopes only to find they don’t have all the pedagogical skills necessary to teach students that want lessons? How many prospective voice students inquire about lessons at independent studios hoping to sing classical music vs how many hoping to sing like Adele or Taylor Swift or Stevie Wonder? I haven’t done the math on this one for myself but I can count on one hand those that came seeking Mozart over Mariah over the past 20 years of my private teaching. When students leave your campus, are they equipped to teach those students that will want to sing Mozart, Monk, AND Metallica?  When I served as a mentor teacher at the NATS conference in 2020, the questions I got from new teachers were:

  • “How do you teach commercial technique?”
  • “What resources are there for teaching commercial music and keeping my voice students healthy?” 
  • “Do you know of any training programs where I can get more training on teaching commercial styles? My private teacher in high school did some with me but I didn’t get any at my college.”

Two

What happens when one graduates and wants to perform other styles and can’t get hired, or does get hired and doesn’t have the technique to sustain the contemporary style healthfully?  I can give you one scenario. 

I was fortunate enough to start getting hired to do musical theatre right after graduate school. It began with Golden Age musicals for which my voice was very suited. I soon found myself working in theme parks, on cruise ships as a production singer, and then working as a freelance singer singing backup for Elvis impersonators and a hip-hop group, and eventually gigging with my own band.  Along the way, I thought I had figured out a way to belt. Alas, it was not the healthy or sustainable way. I have lost track of the amount of money and time I spent in the offices of various ENT’s across the world and my personal experiences with vocal pathologies that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. 

At this point however, I wouldn’t change a thing. I found voice therapists who could help me heal once and for all and I found teachers and coaches who could teach me to sing commercial music healthfully and sustainably. My decade long struggle and experience being a full-time performer with almost full-time vocal fold pathologies inspired me to take up the case of advocating for commercial music instruction in academia. Ask yourself, do you want one of your students singing Patsy Cline, Reba McIntire, and k.d. Lang in a theme park show six times a day with nodes or singing the lead track in a disco show 7 days after a vocal fold hemorrhage? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Not too smart, but trying telling a young singer they need to give up these lucrative gigs because of vocal fold trauma. Not. Gonna. Happen. 

Three

What about those we train to be music educators in the public schools? Do I think they should have a background in classical music? You bet. But, shouldn’t those entrusted with teaching our children also be equipped to coach the singers cast in the high school musical or coach a vocalist for the school’s big band as well as teach traditional choir music? Most importantly, shouldn’t the public music teacher have the knowledge to incorporate America’s music history and culture into the music classroom? Beyond being musically diverse, would students not stand to learn tolerance and acceptance through the study of other American musics and traditions? 

I know it can be difficult because few, if any, of my generation were trained at the college level to teach commercial styles. It was largely believed that singing commercial music would be damaging to the voice so it made sense to a degree not to include this music in the curriculum. While I deeply value the instruction I was given in college by caring and motivated teachers, there has been far too much scientific research in the last 20+ years to confirm that popular music can be sung healthfully. As Maya Angelou said, “ Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”  Our teachers did their best in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s but it’s now time to do better since we know better. There are plenty of ways to learn these skills if you were not trained in college for this type of work. There is a lot to unpack there so perhaps that information is best saved for another post.

In the meantime, I want to encourage every collegiate voice teacher to seriously consider the benefits of CCM training at the college level. Please ask yourself, and then perhaps your voice chair and your dean, how the school can justify the high cost of tuition when they are only training students to expertly sing and teach one style of music. Then begin to explore ways to incorporate pop/rock/R&B/country/bluegrass/etc into your curriculum. Incorporating the study of commercial music will not only reflect a program of music and voice study that is as rich with tradition and diversity as your students, but will also prepare them for the world in which they will live and work after graduation. And after all, isn’t that the objective?

Related Reading

Expanding the Circle: CCM and Popular Music in Higher Ed // Kat Reinhert

Teaching CCM Styles, Finding Your Voice, and Appropriating Styles…and Yourself // Dr. Trineice Robinson-Martin

Commercial and Popular Music Degree Program Surveys

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