This past week was NYSSMA week as the students got ready for their final run-through of their NYSSMA solos for Saturday’s festival. I got to hear all of my former students in the next room running their song one more time with the accompanist. I am lucky enough to be in a 7-12 building so once my students leave me after 8th grade, I am still able to hear their progress through high school. On Thursday a 10th grade student came in and ran through his piece. Over the last 2 years he has seamlessly sang through his voice change and is excited about the new colors in his tone. He works incredibly hard, honing his talent and is always open to learning how he can be a better musician. After his run through he talked about wanting to sing She Cries from Songs for a New World next. This is a beautiful song, and yes, this student has a beautiful voice...but…
I have a tendency to compare repertoire to shoes. Some songs are a perfect fit - just like that perfect pair of shoes. Perfect shoes are supportive, comfy and contour to each curve and shape of your foot. Once in a while you might wear shoes that are painful, but they look pretty. And sometimes - especially when you are younger you try on a pair that are just too big. I remember being 6 or 7 clopping around the house in my mother’s black boots. My little feet, barely being able to stay inside the shoe as I tried to keep my balance while trying to look sophisticated like my mom. Sometimes songs are like that too...just a little too big. Not inaccessible, but just need some time so to grow into it.
So I told him this - explained that songs are like shoes. This song is a little too big and he just wasn’t ready yet - not old enough, not vocally mature enough. He’ll get there for sure, but just not right now. Some songs are too big for right now. But, being the typical teenager he is, he wasn’t interested in shoes and I could tell was a little disappointed by my reaction.
But, as vocal teachers, it’s our job to guide our students to make good musical choices to help them be independent in their musical decisions - especially about picking out repertoire. But on the other hand, looking back as a young singer myself, I was mindful about repertoire recommendations but I always sang what I wanted to anyway. I didn’t know it then, but in choosing the too-big song, I also needed to know that one day I would be able to sing it with the artistic integrity it deserved. Maybe teenagers can’t see the wisdom in that, but maybe they don’t have to. We should absolutely advise them for high stakes performances like auditions, solo festivals, etc., but other than that...does it matter what they sing if they just want to sing?
Believe it or not, when I got home from school that day, my 4 year old daughter was walking around wearing my shoes.