By Anne Paynter
“The results have been posted!” Fluttering teenagers dash to the back hall of the music building to get a peek at the rankings for today’s vocal competition. As nervous as they are, the students don’t realize that it is also a pit-in-the-stomach moment for the teachers following behind them. “What if my students didn’t do well? Could I have better prepared them for this day? Why do the same teachers’ students always seem to come out on top?”
As voice teachers (or as choral directors doing our best to cultivate our students’ individual voices), we are constantly challenged with helping our students to become the best musicians and performers that they can be. There are many facets to this job and obviously, good basic breath support and vocal technique come first. However, there are other layers: language, interpretation, stage presentation, etc. And one of the biggest challenges for the music teacher is simply choosing the right material for each student.
Being music educators, we typically lean towards choosing music that will stretch and challenge our students. But there are other things to be taken into consideration when selecting music for a contest or competition. Let’s further examine how to discern which type of music is best for an individual student when faced with being judged on their performance.
What is the purpose of a vocal contest or competition for high school students? It is likely either to provide financial scholarship, encouragement, or simply a learning experience for the student. In any case, it is of the utmost importance to select material at an attainable level that will showcase a student’s strengths. There is nothing more traumatic for a 15-year-old girl than to walk into an adjudication to perform a song that she knows is not ready. It is our job as educators to determine which music will be manageable for a student to perform well, in regards to range and technical ability, while demonstrating to the judges the unique exceptional qualities of that particular individual.
By way of example, let’s begin with a 14-year-old soprano with an undeveloped, breathy tone quality and limited range. If she has just begun to study, her breath capacity may be small, so songs with short phrases and few long sustained notes would be comfortable. If the student is not the dramatic sort, and you think that just getting through the contest without falling apart will be an accomplishment, try something simple, like Mozart’s “Die Zufriedenheit” (Mozart 12 Songs) in English—or in German if the student is smart and has a good ear for language. Another nice option would be “Billy Boy” arranged by Mark Hayes (10 Folk Songs for Solo Voice). Or, if the student is a little more on the dramatic side, use this to her advantage! The Spanish folksong “I Don’t Wish to Marry” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 3) in either English or Spanish is an excellent choice for a budding actress. Sometimes the ability to interpret and act will outweigh a lack of vocal technique. Finding a song that a student will connect with emotionally enhances their performance—and encourages them to practice! Other favorites for young sopranos are Carol Kelley’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” and Marcy Pyrtle’s “Pie Jesu” (Ye Shall Have a Song).
A young baritone with an “exuberant” voice can be a challenge. Use his enthusiasm to his advantage in a sea chantey type song, such as, “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone” by Sherri Porterfield or ‘Break, Break, Break” by Ruth Morris Gray (Sing Me a Song). Pairing this with a folk song such as “Star of the County Down” arranged by Douglas Wagner (12 Folk Songs for Solo Singers), or “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” arranged by Jay Althouse (Folk Songs for Solo Singers, Vol. 2), makes for a great contrasting program. Or, if he is capable of singing controlled lines and has an ear for language, try Beethoven’s “Ich Liebe Dich” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 2).
As students progress, the options really open up. Singers with an aptitude for language should definitely explore the options in Italian, French, and German. It is imperative that the student not only be able to pronounce the sounds; in order to interpret and communicate to the audience, students should have a good, working translation of any foreign language song they sing. Italian is the obvious starting point when introducing languages, because the vowels are simple and pure. 26 Italian Songs and Arias offers a wide variety of songs from which to choose, all with background information, translations, and IPA pronunciation guides. Again, play to your student’s strengths! A young actress will love “Nel cor più non mi sento” by Paisiello. Light, flexible voices will flourish in songs such as Caldara’s “Alma del core,” Scarlatti’s “Già il sole dal Gange,” or (for females) Parisotti’s “Se tu m’ami.” A voice with more control might attempt “O del mio dolce ardor” by von Gluck. Remember, when choosing these more frequently performed songs, it is even more important that the student be able to conquer the song and sing it well—the judges have heard them many times!
German can be a great next step when exploring languages. The prominence of consonants in the language helps to bring the placement of the voice forward. Haydn’s “Die Landlust” (Pathways of Song, Vol. 1) or Mozart’s “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge” (Mozart 12 Songs) is a great choice for a younger, lighter voice. Mendelssohn’s “Auf flügeln des Gesanges” (Classics for Solo Singers) is a standing favorite of judges everywhere. For the more developed voice, choices abound in Mendelssohn 24 Songs (a personal favorite being “Hexenlied” for the student with a dramatic bent) and Mozart 12 Songs.
French is usually the most difficult. There are very few high school students who can sing French convincingly; therefore, it tends to impress the judges when done right! Recruit a French-speaking parent or colleague to help if you are not confident in your ability to get all of the sounds right. Songs like Mozart’s “Oiseaux, si tous les ans” and “Dans un bois solitaire” (Mozart 12 Songs) are excellent French choices for older high school students whose breath support has developed to the point where the tone is beautiful and flexible. For the student with excellent musical skills and interpretive ability, try something like “Il pleure dans mon couer” by Debussy (Pathways of Song, Vol. 3).
In general, it is important to know your student’s voice well before selecting contest music. Never choose a song for competition that includes notes outside of your student’s current comfortable range or phrases longer than he can comfortably sing. Remember, in an adjudication situation, we want the student to walk in feeling confident and competent, not worried about whether or not his voice will crack or if he will pass out from lack of oxygen! Also, pay special attention to the unique gifts of your student—whether that is dramatic prowess, the ability to “float” a tone, sheer size and magnitude, language skills, or exceptional musicality. Each student has something special to show off, and that is what we want the judges to see! Taking the time to research and discover the best song for your student will pay off in the long run, giving him or her a positive performance experience and the encouragement to keep on singing!