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

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Adding Theory into the Mix

How does a voice teacher incorporate music theory training into lessons? It may seem simple and straightforward: Just do a few minutes of music theory at the beginning of a lesson. However, theory is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the package that most voice teachers offer their students. Along with working on the basic technical skills of singing comes an expectation that teachers will offer many more things:

music theory voice lessons
  • Sight reading

  • Ear training

  • Foreign language diction

  • Pop style coaching

  • Jazz style coaching (especially for teens in the high school jazz choir)

  • Coaching in other contemporary commercial music styles

  • Belting

  • Mixing

  • Riffing/Scatting/Ornamentation

  • Microphone technique

  • Introduction to acoustics

  • Basic physiology instruction

  • Managing psychological barriers that affect the voice

  • Breathing technique for multiple genres

  • Resonance for multiple genres

  • Contest/competition 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 express concerns that students entering their programs don’t know enough theory. According to Dr. Natalie Lerch, Voice Instructor at Cornish College of the Arts, “We expect too much. [Students] 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 musical instruments 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 - when perhaps the teacher stood at a chalkboard, grand staff permanently painted on the board, and pointing with a long stick at each note the class should sing - is no longer being taught. Instead the kids are handed photocopies of lyrics sheets and many times the teacher uses a recording so the students learn the song by ear. The former expectation that most kids would learn piano or another instrument has been lost. 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 choir’s time, such as mastering multiple genres of singing and an increased number of concerts.

Dr. Lerch goes on to say, “For me, learning to play the 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 heads before they can produce it, that physicality is really critical.”

How Does the Student Benefit from Music Theory in Voice Training?

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

Dr. Lerch further explains 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 a multi-genre singer is often the best way to stand a chance at earning a living as a musician. Mastering multiple genres extends beyond learning the breathing, resonance, vocalization patterns, and style of the genre. It also involves 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.

Michael Parsons, in his NAFME blog post Commercial Music – A Paradigm Shift in Music Education , explains the unprecedented need for theory for all musicians: “… [C]omposition, orchestration, improvisation, musical analysis, and the world of 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 the studio.”

As Michael points out, the demands of modern music creation and performance require that all music training, including voice training, up their game when it comes to theory. It isn’t just about the sum of the parts for the singer: It’s 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 just being 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. When it comes to getting work, instrumentalists who can sing have a competitive advantage over singers who don’t play an instrument and aren’t musicians. The ideal is to be a singer and a musician.

How Do We Add Theory to Voice Training?

One option is to give theory assignments to be worked on 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 the program is available for free on its website. For more information about TheoryWorks, listen to my interview with the program’s creator, Amy Stewart, on Every Sing Podcast, episode #27 [external/internal link depending on where you want the reader to listen from]. Amy is offering 25% off of TheoryWorks to my readers and students. The discount code is NANCYBOS. (Easy to remember, right?)

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, such as The Full Voice Workbook Series , are fun, and the way it progresses is natural for skill building that is painless.

Alfred Publishing has an excellent book of basic theory quizzes (compiled by Jay Althouse) that includes the right to photocopy. It’s called 60 Music Quizzes for Theory & Reading: One-Page Reproducible Tests to Evaluate Student Musical Skills.

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

Nancy Bos