Should Learning Music Theory Be Part of Voice Training for Youth?

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Theory In the Mix of All the Ingredients That Go Into Voice Training

It may seem simple – just do a few minutes of theory at the beginning of a lesson. However, adding theory to voice training is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the package that many modern voice teachers offer students. Along with working on the basic technical skills of singing well in general, comes an expectation that teachers offer many more things:

  • Sight reading
  • Ear training
  • Foreign language diction
  • Pop style coaching
  • Other contemporary commercial music style coaching
  • Jazz style coaching (especially for kids in the high school jazz choir)
  • Belting
  • Mixing
  • Riffing/Scatting/Ornamentation
  • Microphone technique
  • Introduction to acoustics
  • Basic physiology instruction
  • Managing psychological barriers that affect the voice
  • Breathing for multiple genres
  • Resonance for multiple genres
  • Contest prep
  • Performance coaching/acting
  • Career coaching
  • Theater Audition prep
  • College Audition prep

One key to discovering how important theory is in voice training for youth is to talk with college voice teachers. Many have expressed concern that students don’t know enough theory before entering college.  According to Dr. Natalie Lerch, Voice Instructor at Cornish College of the Arts, “We expect too much. They are not getting the fundamentals of reading music in elementary and middle school music classes, or high school choirs, that previous generations got. There is a difference between what singers get and what instrumentalists get. The physicality of learning a physical instrument provides an understanding of theory and intervals that singers don’t get. And reading music – it’s all tied in.”

Dr. Lerch makes a good point. What used to be taught in elementary music classes, where the teacher stood at a chalkboard with a grand staff permanently painted on the board, pointing with a long stick at each note the class should sing, is no longer taught. Instead the kids are handed photocopies or lyrics sheets, and many time the teacher uses a recording so the students learn the song by ear. The old expectation that most kids would learn piano or another instrument is no longer true. And the old model of high school choirs taking time for theory, ear training, and sight reading has largely been supplanted by other demands on the choirs’ time, such as mastering multiple genres of singing and an increased number of concerts.

Dr. Lerch went on to say, “For me, learning to play flute first meant that I learned how to play an F to an A; what that interval looked like on the page, and what it sounded like, before I ever had to sing it by sight. Since singers have to hear the interval in their head before they can produce it, that physicality is really critical.”

 

How Does the Student Benefit from Theory in Voice Training?

It is clear that there is a gap in musicianship which used to be filled by the schools and cultural expectations. But is it the job of the voice teacher, as part of voice training, to fill that gap? I believe it is.

Dr. Lerch went on to explain that students struggle to combine knowledge obtained in different modules of their lives and I’ve certainly seen that to be true in my studio. The most advanced piano players often struggle with sight reading as singers. Diction for a Latin song learned in choir doesn’t often translate to excellent Latin diction in a different song as a solo. And theory learned in a guitar lesson needs to be bridged into voice training in order for the student to take full advantage of the knowledge. As we say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Modern singers are expected to be fluent in a variety of genres, in fact being multi-genre is often the best way to stand a chance of earning a living as a musician. Mastering multiple genres is more than learning the breathing, resonance, vocalization patterns, and style of the genre. It also includes being able to talk to the other musicians in their language; the language of chords, song structure, and rhythms. It requires an understanding by the singer of their place in the acoustic spectrum of the ensemble for various sections of each composition. That is, the singer needs to know things like whether they should rise over the ensemble for a verse and then blend in for the bridge. These are all facets of music theory.

Put another way, by Michael Parsons in his NAFME blog post Commercial Music – a Paradigm Shift in Music Education, Michael explains the need for theory for all musicians like never before. “…composition, orchestration, improvisation, musical analysis, and the world or recording technology are naturally woven into commercial music education pedagogy. Very few times, if ever, do my traditional ensembles spend time composing, orchestrating parts, playing by ear, analyzing the harmonic structure and form of a piece, or recording in a studio.”

As Michael points out, the demands of modern music creation and performance require that all music training, including voice training, up their game for theory. It isn’t just about the sum of the parts for the singer, it is about the sum of the musicians for the ensemble. The entire ensemble benefits if everyone in the group is able to communicate in the same language of music theory; the language used in composition, orchestration, improvisation, and musical analysis.

In my book, The Teen Girl’s Singing Guide, I advise teen girls that not only is it their responsibility to become musicians by learning music theory (rather than being just singers), it also gives them a competitive advantage. In some cases knowing theory is more important than singing training, and will give a big win to someone who has never studied voice. Instrumentalists who can sing have a competitive advantage when it comes to getting work, over singers who don’t play an instrument and aren’t musicians. The best thing is to be a singer and a musician.

 

How Do We Add Theory to Voice Training?

One option is to give theory assignments outside of the lesson. A great resource is TheoryWorks online training. Especially geared toward musical theater performers, TheoryWorks starts at the very beginning – the ground level, and respectfully teaches each person in an entertaining, relevant, and creative way. The first module of TheoryWorks is available for free on its website. For more information about TheoryWorks listen to my interview with the program creator, Amy Stewart, on Every Sing Podcast, episode 27. Amy is offering 25% off of TheoryWorks to my readers and students. The discount code word is NANCYBOS.

For in-lesson theory, the resources provided by the team at The Full Voice can’t be beat. Books and activities to do together during a solo or group lesson, like The Full Voice Workbook Series, are fun, and the way it progresses is natural for skill building that is painless.

And finally, there is the good old fashioned advice; learn an instrument. Students should be taking piano, guitar, or another instrument where they can self-accompany as singers. Care should be taken to transfer the lessons learned for the instrument to the singer’s toolbox. And once that bridge is built it can never be torn down.

Nancy Bos
Nancy Bos
Bos, a singer, voice actor, and voice teacher, has introduced the joy of singing to people all over the world with her lessons, books, and podcast. “It’s been an amazing journey, and so meaningful. I feel like voice teachers and voice actors are the luckiest people alive. We get to live our passion every day and experience the joy of transformation every minute we are working.” Bos has loved singing since she grew up in South Dakota and later in Iowa and New Mexico.

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