CHOOSING WHAT TO SING (REPERTOIRE)
It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? The fact that what you like singing isn’t always what you should be singing. By that I mean that what you like singing doesn’t always suit your voice (obviously I’m not referring here to just “singing along” to something on the radio etc). I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s much like going into a clothes shop and seeing a top you like, but when you try it on, it looks awful on you! I had always loved “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan (yes, we’re going back quite a way on this one, but it’s somehow always been a sore point!) and although I can of course sing it, it just never feels really comfortable or sounds great. I have, therefore, never sung it in public – and, more importantly, I never will. This is because I want to sing songs in public that are a real showcase for my voice – why would I want to sing something that felt uncomfortable and which didn’t make my voice sound great?!
With students, I find that the majority have no idea about what suits their voices when they come to lessons. They work only on the basis of what they like, regardless of whether or not it suits them – even if those songs don’t sound good when they sing them. As part of what I teach, I help students to learn how to choose repertoire for themselves more effectively/appropriately and when they “get it”, it’s a very liberating experience. Most people I teach have voices which tend to suit only a couple of different genres of music. For example, if you’ve got a great deal of natural vibrato (the wobbly bit in your voice that’s often applied at the ends of sung lines) then it’s going to be difficult for you to sound good singing less formal styles of music. Likewise, if you’ve really got no natural vibrato then it’s going to be difficult for you to sound good singing formal styles of music – and so on.
I use the following criteria both for myself, and with students:
• By all means start with a song you like, but also think about whether your voice sounds “right” singing it. If you’ve got the sort of voice which always sounds like you’re in the church choir, then a jazz song is unlikely to be for you and it’s my experience that most (not all) cannot replicate lots of different styles of music. As such, work with your strengths not with your weaknesses;
• If the song feels uncomfortable insofar as it’s too low or high, try it first in a different key. There are some brilliant free pitch changers you can download onto phones and tablets these days which will take the key up or down in semitones (half notes) so that you can see if you can find a comfortable key. If you can, great – you can work with this song. If you can’t find a comfortable key no matter what key the song is in, my advice is: dump it – don’t sing it – it’s just not for you. I am ruthless about this when choosing songs for myself;
• If you’ve managed to meet the above criteria with a song, then you can start “working” on it, that is, preparing it properly, involving breathing pattern, dynamics, glottal stops, expression etc etc.
I have had, over the years, many students who are in bands. More often than not, the poor singer has come to lessons because he/she is struggling to sing repertoire which has been chosen by the instrumentalists and is being played in the original key, without any thought for how the singer might cope with this, let alone any understanding of the singer’s vocal range. Let’s be clear about this – ALL band repertoire needs to be in keys comfortable for the singer and needs to be chosen around the singer, that is, based on what makes the singer’s voice sound good and doesn’t strain the singer’s voice. The audience will be looking at the singer, judging the band largely on what the singer can or cannot do etc. It’s not worth damaging your voice for – the effects can be permanent or worse, you can lose your voice completely – and for good.
As for those singing in choirs, again I’ve had many students over the years struggling with challenging repertoire. Mostly these students are from choirs where the repertoire has been either imposed by choral competitions or where the repertoire has been chosen by the committee running the choir. Given that the latter are unlikely to be trained singers, it’s no wonder than many of the singers end up struggling. My advice here is to mime any difficult bits because again, it’s not worth damaging your voice for.
Ultimately, choosing repertoire is an art form in itself and one that’s well worth deveoping!