Music Education: When A Student Only Wants to Sing Songs by [Insert Artist]

I’ve been teaching for more than 10 years now. I am perpetually learning how to teach, and lately I’ve been learning how to mentor other teachers. Teaching teachers has been super meta, and I’m enjoying the challenge of articulating the themes which arise in vocal music and the processes I’ve developed for addressing them. I’ll be sharing some of these insights and inquiries with you here:

From a fellow private voice instructor:

“What to do about a student who only wants to sing songs by [insert artist].”

This can be some voice teacher’s nightmare. Vocal cords, particularly young ones, can be delicate and mightn’t survive repeated mimicking of some artist’s vocal styles. The thing is, the student has agency with that music and they’re going to sing it anyway. Steering them away from the music they love could backfire and turn them away from you and singing for life.

Here’s what I do: Develop the student’s trust in you by helping them to sing the song they want to sing. Even if you know it’s not a great song choice for them, this is a process of learning and discovery that can massively benefit them and their relationship with you as their teacher. Gently stress to your student that their instrument is unique, therefore they don’t sound like anyone else and shouldn’t want to anyway because they will be a second rate version of someone else when they could be a first rate version of themselves. Part of their homework is to listen to lots of covers of the song. It helps dilute the original “soundtrack” in their head and demonstrates variations of how it can be sung. Discuss what the student likes and dislikes about others’ interpretations. Getting into specifics here helps students to recognize and verbalize what is and isn’t essential to the song, preferences in musical qualities, and opens the door to discussion about adaptations including but not limited to changing the key, embellishments, etc. DO NOT try to steer student preferences. Encourage the student to develop a new internal “soundtrack” by imagining what the best version of their own voice singing the song sounds like. Their version = their instrument + their interpretation.

An exercise to help:

“In The Style Of”

Record the student singing the song “in the style of” their favorite artists (2-3 versions for comparison). Then record them singing it “like themselves”. Play back and discuss the differences. The version of themselves is nearly always the best. Even when it’s not, the student usually has some kind of an “aha” moment and becomes motivated to develop their unique voice. Through trial, error, and discussion students work out what sounds best and is accessible for their voice relative to the songs they want to sing.

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