Popular Music in Vocal Teaching

Music That Is Popular, in the True Sense of the Word, Will Add Interest to the Lessons, Without Lowering Their Artistic Standard

by Nannie Joseph

It is necessary to explain what is meant by "popular," before we start. I am, of course, using popular as the opposite of classic, but even that doesn't quite interpret the term fully. The word, has unfortunately, deteriorated in general use, so that many people believe it to mean the kind of music that we have come to associate with vaudeville and the cheaper grades of music,--jazz and ragtime, for instance. However, it doesn't seem to me that that's a correct interpretation of "popular." Anything is popular that reaches the masses. Under this interpretation we might call such things as the "Jewel Song" from "Faust," or the "Soldiers Chorus," or the "Donna e Mobile" Aria, popular music, since this has certainly reached the masses, and the applause with which even the opening chords are greeted at a concert, show their popularity. I hardly need say that it is necessary for all artists, no matter who they are, to use this type of popular music.

Though in some circles it is the fashion to look down on popular music, it is the axle on which the whole musical world turns, and teachers, naturally, are catering not to a very few, but to the great masses. Otherwise how would they get enough pupils to keep their studios going? The people with real musical appreciation and training, are either the big artists, or the teachers themselves. For their pupils teachers must have things that please.

To go a little more into detail--younger pupils are always anxious to "show off." How can they do that unless they have songs that are simple enough for the home circle to enjoy, and for this, of course, they must have popular songs. Surely every teacher will grant that it's necessary to keep pupils interested, and one can't keep them on exercises all the time. A simple, singable song will often prove equally good, for teaching purposes.

Just for example, there's nothing better than some simple lullaby, such as Vanderpool's "Ma Little Sunflower" for teaching legato singing.

At the same time, the pupil is interested because she is learning a song that she can use for her friends. This makes her realize that she is making progress with the teacher. Of course, I am not considering here the fact that it is often very much more difficult to interpret a ballad, properly, than it is a big operatic aria.

There is another point: Repetition is what makes popularity, but no song becomes popular unless it has the divine spark, and all of the forcing and publicity in the world won't make a song "go," unless there is something in the song that makes it worthy. Those songs of the type that is erroneously termed "popular" die within a week. This proves conclusively that they aren't really popular,--really popular songs must have personality or they would drop by the roadside.

Unless pupils are interested, they naturally will not feel that they are getting much from their teachers. Their interest can be kept best, as a general thing, by giving them popular songs, for most pupils aren't attempting to become professionals,--they are studying just to have an accomplishment. They want to be able to sing well in the home if they are planning to make their living out of it, a very small percentage expect to become great concert singers or operatic stars, and though it has been said that money and art wouldn't mix, still, the commercial standpoint must be considered if a teacher is to become truly successful. When a pupil loses interest, naturally the family will cease financing the lessons, and then there's a pupil lost. Teaching is a business just like any other and a teacher may be a great teacher, but those who fail to realize that it's necessary to please the pupils as well as to teach them, are likely to lose the greater percentage of their clientele. When the pupils rave about their teacher, that teacher is truly successful and "popular."

No teacher will refuse to be successful as well as artistic, and therefore it will be agreed, I think, that good singable songs that can be used in explaining the various details of vocal work, will be much more helpful in making for success, than sticking to out-worn classics that arc beyond the musical development of the average pupil, since many a good voice has no musical background. Of course, nobody can become a great artist without that musical background, but how big a percentage of your pupils is planning big things?

I don't know just whether it is the war or the awakened interest in the brotherhood of man just now, but whatever it is, there seems to be a decidedly better trend in popular taste. Jazz and rag, or what I heard Richard Henry Warren call "jag-time" seems to be fading a good deal, and ballads that almost approach the so-called "art ballads" are being used more and more. This better understanding seems to be helping music and at the same time in many ways I think we may say that it is caused through music, for music is a universal thing. As such, we want to foster the very best that we can, but the American teacher should give the American composers a chance, and except in a few rare cases, the American composer writes what can justifiably be called "popular" songs. Help them all you can and you'll find that your use of their songs will help you too.