Missouri Music Teachers Association, Spring 2020 NOTES
Singing Contemporary Commercial Music in Face-to-Face and Online Lessons
Paul Hindemith, DMA
If you have never incorporated the singing of popular or contemporary commercial music (CCM) into your teaching, the mere idea can seem daunting. Since private teachers are all looking at innovative approaches that adapt well to online teaching, now might just be the time to experiment. 

As a diligent teacher, your first inclination might be to purchase a “hits of the (X decade)” volume, but that may be unnecessary (and possibly counterproductive) in our digital age. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is identify music your student enjoys, then look for a “karaoke” or “accompaniment” track of the selected song on YouTube or Spotify. Practice, and then both you and your student sing it at the next lesson.

Yes, both try to sing it. If you let the student become the teacher, you will very likely gain a fresh perspective into the student’s musical world. Do not be afraid to take risks or to look silly. Ask what the student likes in your performance. Ask what the student thinks you could do differently. Have the student compare your performance with the recording, identifying specific ways you sound like the original singer and other ways you might not. What the student observes and how the student expresses thoughts may teach you new things about the student’s learning styles and musical inclinations. 

When the student sings, remain positive. Remember that students often are quite connected to music they think of as “theirs” and may feel especially intimidated or vulnerable to share that music with you. Even if you can’t stand the song (let alone the genre), identify something the student does well. Praise the student’s musicality, for example, or some ways in which the student has stayed true to the artist’s original message and intent. Avoid critiquing the choice of music, or choices the student makes because of the style itself. 

Acknowledge that most CCM genres require the communication of feelings, thoughts, ideas in the moment; in most cases, the music exists before the notation. Use other performances or transcriptions to help in this manner. Compare the most familiar recorded version of the song (which you might even ask your student to transcribe) to a live performance, a cover of the song, and/or a printed edition. Consider elements like ornamentation and phrase-weighting -- starting a phrase or part of a phrase late (back phrasing) or early (forward phrasing). Then, ask the student what the non-weighted, non-ornamented version would look and sound like. Finally, ask why the artist or the student weighted phrases and improvised as they did. Bear in mind, no version can truly be considered “right” and always must be considered in the context of its performance.

Singers who seek lessons for contemporary styles may be weak music readers. All the strategies presented so far don’t require any reading ability, but they can absolutely be adapted to a “rote to note” learning technique. This is where the “Greatest hits” volumes and especially lead sheets can be useful. You will also want to find some music theory and music reading resources. Andrew Gerle’s Music Essentials for Singers & Actors (Hal Leonard, 2018) is a good guide. Don’t be afraid to use classical vocalises like Concone and Vaccai -- you can find them on IMSLP and Appcompanist; they work wonders for interval recognition, breath control, register smoothness, and musicality.

With contemporary styles, don’t forget that microphones, amplification, and post-production are always involved. Teaching these styles requires you to imagine what the voice sounds like before it goes into the signal chain. You are not listening for the same kind of resonance and volume you would be in unamplified repertoire. Mostly, listen for excess vocal effort, harsh glottal attacks, and unnecessary throat constriction. 

Of course, educating yourself on the current evidence-based pedagogies around contemporary singing styles is imperative. Donna Soto-Morettini’s Popular Singing and Style and Matt Edwards’ So You Want to Sing Rock ‘n’ Roll are excellent books. Matt Edward’s blog, Cathrine Sadoline’s “Complete Vocal Technique” website, and Melissa Cross’ The Zen of Scream DVDs are also worth your time. Online and in-person seminars (like the Shenandoah University CCM Workshop) are invaluable.

If you are teaching remotely, bear in mind that lag time makes it impossible to accompany students via your favorite videoconferencing app (Facetime, Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc.). If YouTube isn’t an option, and if you have difficulty locating an accompaniment track and are not comfortable creating one, you may want to use an iOS, Android, or desktop app. For jazz in particular, the iOS app iReal Pro is helpful. The software comes preloaded with basic chord progressions in a variety of styles, but users can also download progressions for many other songs from the app’s website. Once you’ve locked in the key, tempo, instrumentation, and style, you can export an audio file for use for rehearsal and performance. 

For students who are interested in singing musical theatre and classical music, the app Appcompanist (available on iOS and Android) is a game changer. Users can set the tempi and keys of songs; play melody, accompaniment, or both; hold for cadenzas; and make marks and cuts. The fact that the app is intended to be used with sheet music can be helpful for music reading skills, but at least in the Musical Theatre side, encourage your students not to be slavishly tied to the music. Encourage them to explore the different improvisatory elements of music: onset of tone, sustain (and vibrato), cutoff, register choices, etc. 

The face of music lessons is changing in the twenty-first century, to be sure. On the plus side, we have a support network that is bigger and more readily accessible than ever, and we have tools we could scarcely imagine even twenty years ago. That said, some things never change, and I believe there is a lesson to be learned from my vocal pedagogy students, whose fears have remained remarkably consistent over the years: they think they don’t know what they’re doing and they fear they’ll somehow hurt their students. I reassure them that they know more than they think they do, and that unless they ask their students to do acutely or chronically strenuous things, everyone will be fine. As long as we are putting our students’ needs and health first, we shouldn’t fear trying new things and taking risks, even if we’re scared.

Paul Hindemith is the coordinator of voice, music director for musical theatre, and co-director of the Light Opera Workshop at Missouri Western State University in Saint Joseph, Mo. He regularly presents on the intersection of classical and CCM vocal pedagogies.