The Thing About Repertoire

One of the most frequent questions I get from voice teachers asking me advice about teaching in popular music spaces is: “What repertoire should I use?”

The first time someone asked me this question, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t actually understand what they were asking – or even WHY they were asking it. But, after thinking for a minute – I said: 

WHATEVER THE STUDENT WANTS TO SING.

Because, really, that’s the answer.

I find a lot of people don’t like that answer. I think it’s because it seems scary. No rules? Anything goes? How am I (as the teacher) supposed to know all the repertoire and all the styles? I don’t know them. I don’t know how to rap. I can’t do runs. I don’t really understand what belting is…and the imposter syndrome goes on. 

It also means that the teacher needs to let go of control. Not hang on to the illusion of control. As Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and philosopher says in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty: “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This non-knowing is part of the adventure. It’s also what makes us afraid” (2010).

So, instead, I encourage you to be FEARLESS. Go on the ADVENTURE. Because really, it’s not about YOU. It’s about THEM.

I know the first time I came across this idea of student-centered learning I was getting my PhD and I was reading this article by a very smart scholar and educator from Australia, Don Lebler. He wrote a paper called ‘Student as Master’ and honestly, it totally shook the foundations of my pedagogical approach. As did most of popular music education research for a while. Which, if you’re not hip to it – DO check it out. The history of this research goes back over TWENTY FIVE YEARS…Yeah…That’s right…over TWENTY FIVE years of qualitative and quantitative research on how popular musicians learn, best practices for teaching these kinds of students and innovative ideas about culture, politics and interactions. (Reading recommendations are at the end of this post) 

Ok, that’s all great, but what does that mean (because I know you probably don’t have time to go and read all the books on this today) It means that you, as the voice teacher, need to put what the student wants to learn at the forefront of your teaching – and especially when considering repertoire. Teachers have to do their homework. They need to be able to understand what genres and styles ask of a voice. They need to LISTEN to their STUDENTS. And they need to know how and when to say: 

“I don’t know. Let me do a little research and get back to you and we can go on this journey of discovery together.”

Because, really, that’s what it’s about. A CURIOSITY JOURNEY. 

If you’re a voice teacher coming from the classical, musical theatre or jazz traditions, it’s ALL ABOUT THE REPERTOIRE. I know. I had to learn hundreds of tunes – memorized and ready to call a key – when I moved through jazz school. Original music? Nope. Don’t do that. Music from other spaces? Nope. Don’t do that. You only have time to learn this jazz thing. Which, in hindsight, didn’t actually ask me about my own musicianship – because what I’ve discovered on this journey as a musician is that I don’t want to sing other people’s music. I want to sing my own original music. And I wasn’t prepared to for that. Nor was it celebrated or even given as an option. This isn’t everyone’s story – but at least in the formal spaces where I learned music, original music just wasn’t something that was given as an option. To this day, that makes me sad. 

But this isn’t about those genres. And it certainly isn’t about me. This is about POPULAR MUSIC (the stuff that isn’t jazz, classical or musical theatre in nature).

Repertoire replication is problematic.

Repertoire replication is problematic. It can also be hegemonic. (Hegemonic is related to the successful manipulation of cultural and social institutions to shape the limits of economic and political opportunities for citizens (in this case, students). Yeah…I know it’s heavy. But it’s true. A lot of what we often ask students to sing in these spaces that are considered ‘popular music standards’ was made by white men and women. That’s something to chew on.)

Here’s why set repertoire selection is problematic:

  • There is the risk of ‘canonizing’ popular music in academic settings, thus making these programs and studios irrelevant to the students that move through them. 
  • It doesn’t have student centered or informal learning practices at its core, which is hallmark of popular music education (and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to go and read Lucy Green’s seminal book on popular music education published in 2002. Yup folks. Almost 20 YEARS ago.)
  • Too often, repertoire lists pull from a small subset of popular music that very often do not include ALL the genres within popular music such as: metal, rap, hip-hop, punk, funk, r&b, techno, thus not actually exposing the student to all the genres. Hegemony at its finest. 
  • It can be detrimental to a voice. No one in their right mind in the classical community would ever make a lyric soprano sing Verdi. So why on earth are we asking the people who sing like Billie Eillish to learn Beyonce songs? It’s GOOD FOR THEM? WHAT? Give me a BREAK. It’s NOT good for them. In fact, it could be damaging.

I honestly have no idea where the thought that all singers should be able to sing everything comes from. Since when? I mean, sure, if you’re a club date/wedding band kind of a singer, you probably need to have that flexibility – but that is such a small portion of the singers in the world – and in the popular realm of music work. Additionally, those kinds of gigs are usually the gigs that pay the bills – a means to an end – but generally, not the end game. 

I mean, let’s just imagine the voices of two singers: Norah Jones and Aretha Franklin. Does anyone feel that one should be able to sing in the other’s shoes? Nope. I want to listen to Norah because she’s Norah. And Aretha because she’s Aretha. Bringing it to the present, I want to listen to Billie Eillish because she’s Billie and Beyonce because she’s Beyonce. 

And that’s the way the popular music industry works. It’s about ORIGINALITY. About original music written by the singer – not covers. Covers might get you noticed on YouTube or TikTok, but then it’s all about the original songs. It’s about who you are as an artist. Which means, singers need to either start writing or find a partner to write with or a producer they can topline for if they’re not ready to start making all the parts of the music and production themselves (but they . Additionally, from a financial point of view, covers are going to make the SONGWRITER of the music money – not the singer. Mechanical licensing, anyone? 

I understand that voice teachers want to prepare their students for whatever comes – and that’s great, but it can do some serious emotional and physical damage to ask a voice and a mind to sing something they don’t want to or physically cannot master. Additionally, by asking all students to sing in “all” styles, students aren’t actually moving towards mastery of anything – because the person who is spending all their time honing their artistry and craft in THEIR LANE is going to be so good they can’t be ignored – while arguably, the student who had to learn everything is now master of really, well, nothing except repertoire, and maybe some technique. 

The student chooses.

Instead, there is an opportunity to focus on the individual and what they want to sing, what serves their goals and their voice type, and how they plan to make their way in the music industry. Instead of the teacher always assigning what they think would be “good” for the student, each student can instead be given autonomy over their learning and what they choose to sing. 

This means the STUDENT CHOOSES.

This way of teaching demands an openness and curiosity from both the teacher and the student. In lieu of the teacher assigning all the repertoire, students choose repertoire they are interested in learning and share why they want to learn that song. 

One of the things I try to do is assume that if the student brings in the song, something inside of them thinks that they can sing it. It’s my job to help them figure out how to do that. If I do think it might be a bit out of their wheelhouse (and it’s not something they wrote) I might suggest a different song from the same artist or genre – and simply say: let’s wait on that song for now and we can come back to it in a little while. Or just change the key – because remember – whatever song they’re bringing in was made famous by the singer that either wrote it or for whom it was written. There’s no shame in changing a key to fit a voice. It’s NORMAL.

For a lot of teachers, this might mean a reimagining of how repertoire can be used and what it can provide for a specific student. This definitely requires extensive knowledge by the teacher in regards to all genres of popular music. Repertoire – or even parts of repertoire – can be used to help students discover new styles and techniques, new sounds and even help students discover themselves and what kind of artist they want to be. But learning the song doesn’t have to be the goal. Did you get that? Learning the song does not have to be the goal. 

Repertoire can also include original music written by the student – and in some cases this may be the only focus. With original music by the student, there isn’t road-map for how the song ‘should be sung’. Instead, both teacher and student can engage in a journey of discovery to create the road-map using the vocal skills that are being developed. At the core of this work is exploration, curiosity, and a keen desire to explore authenticity and identity without moving too soon towards a safe-haven of crystallizing sound (Simos, 2017). 

Teacher as Guide

As I’m guessing you’ve noticed, throughout this pedagogical practice, the teacher is more of guide. Which for many may require reassessment of the role of the teacher. Which is SO MUCH FUN! Guess what? You get to be a GUIDE. A MENTOR. You get to help them learn all about their voice and help them explore all the sounds it can make. What happens when we try signing high? Loud? Soft? Breathy? With some attack? What are all the sounds – good, bad, ugly, beautiful, silly…etc that the voice can make to express itself? How can those sound help the student grow and discover their voice and their artistry? How can it help you as the teacher develop and hone your skills as a mentor and guide? 

Because what if the goal of voice lessons is to have the student NOT NEED us? To have them learn how to learn and to teach themselves more than we ever could. To develop a deep curiosity about their voice and what it can do?  I want that. I don’t want my students to need me. I want them to WANT to work with me. Because it’s fun. Because it gives them a purpose. Because we’re always curious TOGETHER. 

I know – this is probably scary for some people reading this. But this collaborative way of working within the voice studio aligns with informal learning and student-centered learning, hallmarks of popular music and popular music education. It can also engender autonomy and personal agency over the students’ learning, which can help them continue their growth when the bumpers of a program or teacher are no longer keeping them accountable. 

All this to say…

Be curious about what your students want to sing.

Be curious about who your students are.

Help your students to be curious about all the things their voice can do.

Repertoire is a means to an end. Not the end. 

Knowing lots of songs is great – but the student (and the teacher) should have a reason that they’re singing them. Maybe that’s because they want to? Maybe they want to work on a specific sound through imitation? Maybe they just like the song? Maybe they wrote the song and they now need to figure out how to actually sing and perform it? Maybe they want to be a voice teacher someday and they want to learn all that they can to help their future students? Maybe they’re preparing for a club date gig or band? 

Ask and address the questions. 

Rethink repertoire. It just might change everything. And that’s pretty darn amazing. 

References

Chodron, P. (2010) Comfortable with uncertainty. E.H. Sell, Ed. Shambhala, Boston & London.

Lebler, D. (2007). Student-as-master? Reflections on a learning innovation in popular music pedagogy. International Journal of Music Education, 25(3), 205–221. doi:10.1177/0255761407083575

Simos, M. (2017). The performing songwriter’s dliemna: Principles and practices. In The Singer-Songwriter Handbook. Justin A Williams & Katherine Williams, Eds. Bloomsbury, New York.

Reading Recommendations

Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Lebler, D. (2007). Student-as-master? Reflections on a learning innovation in popular music pedagogy. International Journal of Music Education, 25(3), 205–221. doi:10.1177/0255761407083575

Moir, Z., Powell, B, and Smith, G.D. (2109). The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices. Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Reinhert, K. (2019). Singers in higher education: Teaching popular music vocalists. In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices Zack 

Moir, Bryan Powell, and Gareth Dylan Smith, eds., Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Smith, G.D., Moir, Z., Brennan, M., Rambarran, S. & Kirkman, P. (2017), The Routledge research companion to popular music education. Abigdon, New York: Routledge. 

Smith, G., & Shafighian, A. (2014). Creative space and the ‘silent power of traditions’ in popular music performance education. In P. Burnard (Ed.), Developing creativities in higher music education: International perspectives and practices  (pp. 256–267). London, UK: Routledge. 

3 thoughts on “The Thing About Repertoire

  1. Hi Jess & Kat, It’s very interesting. As a popular music teacher I usually do teach what the dtudent wants to learn, occasionally recommending songs if they ask… but then I started studying in a Musical theatre masters program and it seems expected that I have all the right repertoire in my back pocket to work on every different vocal skill. It is certainly a different perspective. Julie

    Sent from my iPhone

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