The Limitations of Voice Building Through Repertoire

Students want to work on songs.  SONGS (the story goes) are the ultimate test of the singer’s ability and technique.

I’d like to proffer an alternative view – one rarely discussed on message boards or forums: the over-reliance on repertoire as the means of training the singing voice.

In academia, NASM guidelines require certain amounts and types of repertoire to be studied. Therefore, we get semesters of studying X amount of songs in X amounts of languages as validation of the singer’s technique. Voice teacher boards are replete with teachers begging others for repertoire. “I need a song for a singer that is (8, 16, 21) and is a (fill in the vocal category) that can’t (sing high, loud, fast, slow). Does anyone have any suggestions?”

Rather than realizing the voice is limited by its faults, repertoire is chosen which disguises these faults, sometimes very elegantly.

When a teacher’s pedagogy is geared toward the learning of repertoire to the exclusion of the technique and physical skills of singing, you can be sure that the singer is going use ‘band aids.’

‘Band aids’ are short term solutions for an immediate problem, usually having to do with some element presented in a song. These band aids take hundreds of forms: squeezing the glutes, pressing out the lower inguinal area for a high note, vowel shaping in a certain way to gain resonance on a particularly challenging or dull note, lifting certain parts of the vocal mechanism to ‘tune’ the pitch. The list of band aids goes on and on.

When these band aids no longer work,  students merely seek out the assistance of other band aids. “A drowning man will grab anything that floats.” When those band aids fail, the student might even look for another teacher – one with a different repertoire of band aids.

What we get as an audience is a voice that has been LITERALLY patched together – and SOUNDS it – from a plethora of band aid techniques. This is merely so the singer can ‘survive.’ Putting a band aid on a voice in need of major surgery is one one of the most common and tragic elements in vocal pedagogy today. Band aids are a poor substitute for a failing technique.

Our current Zeitgeist does little to disabuse the security of these types of quick fixes. When hundreds of YouTube videos are offered for any number of ‘tips,’ or websites offer “5 simple steps to a better voice!” – we have reduced the experience of singing into ready-made McDonaldized answers.

The alternative to the ‘repertoire centric’ approach is a less-popular, glamorous, or exciting road. It is also a rarer to find among teachers of today. This is the path of acquiring skill of function first – prior to the acquisition of a performance or audition repertoire. This way of working is not in vogue, precisely because it is not exciting nor flashy. Vocal skills are acquired through a slow process of work and an unlocking of the instrument over time.

What good does it do a singer to know all about the intricacies of the melodies of Fauré, or the Lieder of Schubert if they sing so poorly? Who cares if a student knows the entirety of Winterreise but cannot sing it in a way that releases the MUSIC? Singing in Italian, French, German, or Spanish is not a guarantee that you will learn to sing better at all.

It is very common for someone to be intensely MUSICAL, yet not be able to sing. However, a RELEASED and UNLOCKED voice becomes INHERENTLY musical. Music is released by the proper function of the instrument! So you see – it’s a backwards way of going about the work of voice training! Also, and this point is rarely understood: the unlocking of a voice allows it to sing MORE repertoire, rather than LESS. This last point is worth extensive consideration. 

So, what are teachers in academia to do? Perhaps a re-evaluation of the process needs to occur at the highest levels in our country? Those in power should be encouraged to understand the acquisition of vocal technique is simply not the same as learning to play the piano, violin, or flute. Those instruments are already BUILT. 

Perhaps students could take daily time with their teacher, coming in to merely vocalize for 10-15 minutes a day? A teacher could develop ‘vocal office hours’ where students come at their leisure to merely be exercised and vocally ‘worked out.’ This protocol would come closer to the training methods used in the schola cantorum, where singers worked daily with a master.

It would also lessen the student’s need to practice extensively and would also prevent the voice from ‘backsliding’ in the 6 days between lessons, when a young singer may have NO idea of HOW to practice correctly. What good does practice do, if the practice is POOR?

Also, the inclusion of vocalization material that is modest and moderate can become required in juries. Freed from the linguistic demands of classical music, the singer can sing on varying vowels on works of Concone, Panofka, Sieber, or any other thousands of collections available. These can function as gateways to repertoire for the student under development. Additionally, why not give students 8 bars of an aria or song, instead of the whole thing? Those desperate for a song can get the easiest portions, and feel a sense of accomplishment while building the voice? Then repertoire CAN service the building of the instrument.

Of course, all of these changes would have to occur because of a shift in the ETHICS and VALUES of voice teaching. If you only see repertoire as the goal of vocal training, then a paradigm shift might be alarming. However, I’m reminded of a powerful part of Daniel Coyne’s book “The Talent Code,” which I am excerpting below.

We need to re-evaluate our thinking about vocal training and what that means. Repertoire is merely ‘the game.’ If a vocal athlete is not able to play the game because their training is not complete, can there be any other result but a broken voice or a broken heart? Band aids are no substitute for the singer who truly wishes to SING from the heart.

Some of the most fruitful imitation I saw took place at Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a freezing junkpile that has produced a volcano of talent: Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Mikhail Youzhny, and Dmitry Tursunov. All in all, the club produced more top-twenty-ranked women than the United States did from 2005 to 2007, as well as half of the men’s team that won the 2006 Davis Cup, and it’s done all that with one indoor court. When I visited in December 2006, the club resembled a set for a Mad Max movie: shotgun shacks, diesel-shimmering puddles, and a surrounding forest filled with large, hungry, and disconcertingly speedy dogs. An abandoned eighteen-wheeler was parked out front. Walking up, I could see shapes moving behind clouded plastic windows, but I didn’t hear that distinctive thwacking of tennis racquets and balls. When I walked in, the reason became evident: they were swinging all right. But they weren’t using balls.

At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya—rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. Their coach, a twinkly, weathered seventy-seven-year-old woman named Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine. She grasped arms and piloted small limbs slowly through the stroke. When they finally hit balls—one by one, in a line (there are no private lessons at Spartak), Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them in their tracks and had them go through the motion again slowly then once more. And again. And perhaps one more time.

It looked like a ballet class: a choreography of slow, simple, precise motions with an emphasis on tekhnika—technique. Preobrazhenskaya enforced this approach with an iron decree: none of her students was permitted to play in a tournament for the first three years of their study. It’s a notion that I don’t imagine would fly with American parents, but none of the Russian parents questioned it for a second. “Technique is everything,” Preobrazhenskaya told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and speedily reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. “If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”

Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Random House, 2010.

4 thoughts on “The Limitations of Voice Building Through Repertoire

  1. Thank you for writing this. Seeing this concept articulated somewhere outside of my own head is encouraging as I continue on the path of building vocal skill in order to sing repertoire properly, rather than figuring out ways to cover up my flaws in order to just make it through. It’s a more long term and ultimately more rewarding way to be engaged with the art form, and to life really.

  2. When I started singing lessons, I found singing uncomfortable and cumbersome. It was (and still is) extremely frustrating not to have a well made instrument to express myself with. I had requested just working on technique and not doing any songs, and I was denied. Songs were a “critical part of voice building”. I have since stopped taking lessons (I had only taken a handful). I dedicated myself to researching the Old Italian methods and have been mostly sustaining notes and some scales in the middle voice (including messa di voce exercises). Finding a teacher who agrees with this basic principle is surprising difficult (proven impossible in my region). So in my case, it is the student that wanted to forgo the songs and focus on basic voice building technique, and the teacher that was denying it! This isn’t a case of the teacher succumbing to the demands of her paycheck.

    A few observations:

    1) The voice must improve linearly (there is no room for transitory sounds). The shrillness of the (developing) Pharyngeal voice is in no way accepted or encouraged (especially in men).
    2) Immediate results are necessary. No one seems to recognize that it takes many years to build the voice.
    3) The (often airy) dark barking I hear other men singing with is deemed beautiful singing and “the Italian method”.
    4) If a teacher uses Italian vowels, it seems to qualify as an “old Italian Technique”. It amazes me that these teachers have Master degrees in music, and yet it doesn’t seem like they read any of the old teacher manuals. What do they study in university?
    5) Any tone production that is remotely feminine is unacceptable, unless one is singing the piece countertenor. In that case it is acceptable, but still weird, and usually pinched. In any case, mixing the head voice with the chest voice is the right path for women, but not for men. Though, I have met plenty of teachers who don’t even mix female voices.
    6) I often wonder if the degeneration of the voice is linked to the university path of building voices. How many of the great singers of the past learned to sing in university? If it took many 5 or more years to build a voice (even the recent Pavarotti said he spent something like 6 years perfecting his passaggio), and in those years sustained tones on varying dynamics was their primary diet. How could you apply the same thing to a university setting in which they must perform for grades? I don’t think you can. You therefore must apply band-aids in order to pass. Fast forward a few generations and teachers don’t even know what a good voice sounds like.

    1. How beautifully and eloquently you have expressed the overwhelming issues facing the student who wishes to sing well, yet is handed repertoire as the solution. Your points are all well taken, and I can’t thank you enough for your comments. Best to you! JP

  3. Justin,

    Your post, combined with Steve’s comment above, clearly exposes some of the intractable problems with the current university/conservatory model of voice study. We must continue speaking out on this. We don’t have to throw out the BM degree, but the way we teach and treat voice majors has to change radically within those programs to really get it right.


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