My Hangups With Repertoire

I have a major hangup with repertoire.

Maybe I shouldn’t. But I do.

Why do I have this hangup?

Because I see repeatedly the unspoken belief that repertoire is some kind of ‘proof’ of a singer’s worth and abilities. The logic runs: “If I can sing this piece (be it an aria, musical theater song, song – whatever) – then I will know that I am a good singer or that I have a good technique.”

Not necessarily, Blanche.

People sing VERY challenging music poorly on the DAILY. You’ve already shared these performances on YouTube to your friends so you know what I’m talking about. 

The instrument combined with the musician’s expressive ability is what makes the music good, not the other way around. The music just LIES there. No pianist or violinist would play Bach on a deeply compromised instrument. Just ask – “Would you like to play on this badly tuned piano that is missing the middle octave, and the hammers don’t work?” They’d look at you like you had 3 heads.

Yet why is this so unblinkingly accepted in singing?

Instrumentalists wouldn’t accept it – why should we?

My second issue with repertoire is this:

Teachers are ALWAYS on voice teacher discussion boards and forums asking for repertoire. ALWAYS. Go to one now. How many posts in did you get before you found someone asking for repertoire? 1 post? 2? 3? I’ll wait here.

I could make room for the occasional inquiry but it’s become an epidemic. I often wonder if teachers are spending any time LOOKING at the repertoire on which their singers work. A voice teacher’s job should be to consistently look for repertoire that will suit the student. If you have to farm out the search to other teachers, it really just looks like you are outsourcing your own homework. Annoying.

My third issue with repertoire:

When teachers offer repertoire to each other, they are offering it to an instrument that THEY HAVE NOT HEARD. Some of the selections offered (especially those offered for auditions) are on DO NOT SING or OVERDONE lists. Voice teachers should know about this. An artist shouldn’t walk into an audition with crappy repertoire. Why are teachers offering each other such generally poor repertoire selections?

My fourth issue:

Repertoire selection is a FINELY NUANCED process. It’s a poor musical world indeed if we’re just passing out songs willy-nilly with no thought of the intricacies of the language, the poetry, and the sentiments expressed.

Just because the notes of a song/aria fall within the scope of the singer’s voice means DIDDLY if the linguistic, musical, and vocal parameters are out of whack with the human being and their throat. Two songs might have an appropriate range for soprano, but the same soprano may grapple with one or both of these selections, depending on her TECHNICAL development.

My fifth issue:

Repertoire EXPRESSES something.  An emotional state. Singers should not have to deal with the grandiose COSMIC revelations of anger, hatred, betrayal, heartbreak, and loss found in difficult emotional repertoire before the PSYCHE and SOMA are prepared. Songs that express emotions that have not been yet ‘built into’ the voice will pull the singer out of vocal balance and lead to overwrought, histrionic performances devoid of musical nuance and skill.

Teachers should tread with caution when picking repertoire and consider its emotional content. Ask questions like: What emotion does this song express? Is this content APPROPRIATE for my student? Is this song too emotional? Can my student process these big emotions? Will it support their technical growth or hinder it?

I have a STRONG belief that an artist’s temperament can also be built, maintained, and controlled by the REPERTOIRE THAT THEY SING. Artists that sing the most showy “LOOK AT ME” rep tend to develop personalities that express that – even when not onstage. Yikes. Inversely, singers that only sing subdued, quiet music never get the chance to SING OUT and develop more “LOOK AT ME” qualities. REPERTOIRE HELPS this process, people.

If a singer walked in with a very neurotic, showy personality – do I want to give them repertoire that will reinforce this, or might I go the opposite direction? (Take a guess what I’d do.) An ARTIST needs to be able have the gamut of emotional expression as found in repertoire. Singers singing operatic, anxious music might need an opposing diet of joyous, uplifting, and exalted music for a while to balance out the emotional content of these complicated compositions.

No one is talking about these aspects of repertoire selection. 

Perhaps we need to.

What we’re doing isn’t really working.

Understand and HONOR the process of repertoire selection.

It’s NOT easy. And if it is – you’re doing it wrong.


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