Song Choice in the Contemporary Studio // Julie Dean

All of my singers want to sing commercial music, or popular songs. I encourage them to sing what they want to sing. When I first began taking voice lessons myself over 20 years ago, I was assigned an Italian art song. Learning Italian as a beginning voice student was very common, and at the Academic level, is still how it’s done (few exceptions). Occasionally, a teen will come to me needing help to learn some audition songs where these are still required. Other than that, rarely does a foreign language come up in my studio. I have loved those songs, but if a student isn’t interested in the music, I find they lose interest. I can teach all singers at all levels about the purity of vowels, even in English!

Voice teachers who have spent much of their training and teaching years in classical and/or music theater music often ask me how to choose songs for their students who are wanting to sing contemporary music. The easy answer is to let them pick their own songs, and automatically an education in popular contemporary genres begins for us teachers! I ask students what music they are listening to, what artists they’re singing along with in the car/at home. That’s a good way to get started.

In choosing contemporary songs for students of any age, especially the young kids, I find the potential obstacles we’re steering around are Language/content, possible Electronic music, and Imitation. My studio population is in constant flux, and generally consists of singers 8 to 80 years old. I have quarterly studio concerts where a good mix of all ages perform. Therefore, I’m considering language/content of songs in mixed aged company, how I will be able to support them musically in performance (where Electronic music can give me fits), and then interested in guiding them to find their own voice in the song, rather than direct Imitation of the artist.

To keep a sharp ear/eye on language I need to see the lyrics as I listen. There are a lot of adult-themes or adult-language in popular songs that I think sound a little weird (i.e. creepy) coming out of the mouths of younger singers. So, when it comes to picking a song for public performances, like open-mics and my studio concerts, I’m okay playing the role of censor. I’ll always let singers of all ages sing through what they like in the studio, and if I consider something inappropriate language (which is relative, and I’m using my own judgement) for a young person, we have a conversation about it, and why I’d prefer they pick another song for a public concert. They are always cool with that. I try to avoid saying “no”. Exploring the meaning of lyrics with a student and their parent(s) often results in them picking another song. Most kids and adults may not be paying attention to the words of songs they listen to and sing along with in the car.

A few examples:

  • An 8-yr old came in with Dad handing me the lyric sheet to Sia’s “Chandelier”. While I knew it was a hit song, I never paid any attention to it. After one sing through (she sang with Sia while we watched the video and read the lyrics) I told Dad what I thought the lyrics meant and they were quick to pick a different song.

  • Several years ago, a 10-yr old boy noticed that there is talk of drugs and prostitution in Ed Sheeran’s “A-Team” as I had him read the lyrics as he sang along.  We moved on, quickly at his insistence!

  • Multiple accounts of kids’ favorite songs being passed over once they read the lyrics while they sing it in front of me.

I certainly remember the day I realized some of the lyrics from the Grease soundtrack, and was shocked at what I was singing as a kid (loud and proud) and didn’t know it!

I am teaching my singers to be mindful about their words, their bodies and their emotions as they sing. So, what they sing is important if they can’t relate.

There is a flip side. If I’m working with adults on their own material, or with someone who has a goal to kill it at karaoke with Def Leopard’s “Pour some sugar on me”, that’s perfectly appropriate in my world too. Just not at one of my mixed aged studio sponsored concerts.  One young woman came to me initially to learn to sing Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” after a bad break-up. Right on! I steered her towards a local late-night open mic with a house band to rock out with her; not a song to be sung with kids around on a studio concert.

With so many pop songs being heavily electronically produced, sometimes we avoid picking songs where I can’t imagine how I’m going to support the singer with live music on stage. I usually can find a karaoke recording on YouTube to support them trying it out. Then, I explain that at best we’ll have a keyboard, guitar and drums at our concerts (and not always all three), so we need to see if the song still works acoustically. I’ll hunt down a chord chart and have them sing while I play the piano or guitar (it can make a difference to have the appropriate instrument). I also listen again to the original to get the tempo and hopefully I’ve found a decent chord chart that can give us enough musical context. Sometimes it works out well. Maybe the singer even likes the song better acoustically. Or, sometimes they realize that the song is repetitive and a little boring without the bells and whistles of the electronics, so they pick something else.   

While I believe that it pays to be a good mimic in order to learn a song quickly, imitation can sometimes get one’s voice tied up technically and then may hide the singer’s true natural voice.

The popular artists on the radio are often the most frequent song requests, especially for younger singers. I started focusing mainly on contemporary commercial music in 2009. That was also the year I started getting many requests to sing songs written and recorded by Adele. Her first album (19) came out in 2008. Every year she puts out an album, singers clamour for those songs, of all ages. I believe her soulful singing and heart wrenching songs draw people to her sound, her songs, and when a young person asks to sing one of these songs, we sing through it. I’m listening for two things: Is it believable? Is she trying to imitating Adele’s voice/sound?

We discuss what the song is about and if it’s relatable. Usually it’s not for the kids since many of Adele’s songs are about heartbreak. Occasionally, if a kid is in touch enough with their emotions and have an adventurous, interpretive mind (if they’re a good enough actor), they might find a convincing connection to the message of the song, and I’ll allow it on a studio concert.

If we’re going ahead with the song, then we talk about finding their own voice for it. I  reason that even though Adele sounds amazing, trying to sound like Adele is not as interesting as hearing what they’d sound like. Then, we need to see if the singer’s muscles are strong enough to support the louder, higher sounds they want to be able to sing, like Adele does.

Most of the time, the real young ones can’t get the power and volume that Adele produces. If they are trying to imitate Adele, and it sounds like yelling (not healthy belting), we talk about the need to build the throat muscles to be able to achieve that powerful sound, and that takes time. I also find that the range of many Adele songs is quite low for a younger singer, and when I encourage a key change up a step or two, that almost always requires the singer to flip to their falsetto voice on the higher notes. The kids are usually ready to move on to another more accessible song when this happens. Or, they’re impatient about muscle building and want to pick another song. Students’ self-learning, realization and awareness is the best teacher!

Side note: Whatever the song/whoever the artist, I always explore finding the right key for each singer. Changing the key makes many songs accessible to most voices. A new key can also quickly get a singer away from imitation as well.

I hope these tips are helpful in guiding your singers (or yourself!) around picking popular songs to sing.

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