Finding The Right Learning Songs For Your Students

Weekly Teaching Teaching Tip – June 17, 2013
by John Henny

Which Song?

There may be a number of songs a student is working on. These can fall into different categories: audition songs, songs they are currently performing or songs they simply enjoy singing.

There is another extremely important category – songs that will build and appropriately challenge their voice.

Often, these songs will not be what a student would choose for themselves or even be in their chosen genre, but working on the correct material can help their voice immensely.

Not Too Hard or Too Simple

The book “The Talent Code,” by Daniel Coyle, talks about a magic sweet spot for learning, where we are challenged just enough that the brain is able to start making new connections, creating new skill sets. If the task is too hard or too simple, these connections will not occur at the same rate.

The key is to find material that will be in the student’s sweet spot.

I’m sure every voice teacher was inundated with students wanting to sing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” I know I was. The problem with this song, for most students, is that it never quite sits in this learning sweet spot. All of the verses and pre-choruses sit squarely in the chest voice, which is relatively easy for most students, but then the chorus suddenly leaps to a C5 on the wide AH vowel (ALL).

The combination of the sudden jump, the need to expertly mix and the problematic vowel combine to create a condition that is now too hard for many advancing students.

Adele then flips on the next C5 (DEEP), only to get aggressive on the next one (inSIDE). We then go back to chest for a number of measures.

This is a great song that just is not a great learning tool. It never quite sits in the sweet spot for learning.

Eliminating Cheats

There are genres such as pop, R&B and especially jazz, where the singer can use style to cover up flaws in vocal technique. Cutting short a sustain, riffing away from problem notes, flipping – these can all be done without violating the fundamental style.

This is one of the reasons I often work students in contemporary musical theatre, especially ballads. These songs are written in a basic pop style, so they can be sung using contemporary vocal sounds, but the style insists on long sustains, legato and often have melodies that build into the mix, rather than quickly jumping in and out.

Jekyll and Hyde, with music by Frank Wildhorn, is a great example of these types of ballads. “Someone Like You” or “A New Life” work great for the advancing female singer.

These songs feature melodic sequences that build (rather than jump) into the mix area and require longer sustains than a lot of pop music. I find even just focusing on small parts of this type of material (perhaps just a couple of lines from a chorus) can bring about rapid results for the singer. These songs are often able to create that sweet spot students need for rapid learning.

Of course, these songs may be too much for the beginning singer. The key is to break down what the singer needs to work on and then to find material that challenges them in the right way, for the quickest and most effective learning.

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