Tag: opinion

A Letter to Youtube: On Monetization

I recently uploaded some original compositions to youtube. Monetization (the non-soul-selling kind**) of my blog and youtube channel supports my Starbucks habit, albeit poorly, but any number is larger than zero (except the negative and imaginary kind, but let’s not go there….)

The little dollar sign on my video manager taunted me and sang siren songs, so I clicked it to enable monetization.  Youtube chose not to believe me, though, which was unfortunate, silly…and wildly inappropriate.

So I submitted an appeal. Here is what it looked like:

On 02/07/15 20:08:13 *******@gmail.com wrote:
full_name: Robin Anderson
email_prefill: ***************
artist: Robin Anderson
song: Songs on Teaching: Principal’s Perspective
composer: Robin Anderson
lyricist: Robin Anderson
publisher: Unpublished
music_label: independent
label_relationship: artistislabel
comm_use_rights_details: I allow myself commercial use rights for my
static_subject_line: YouTube Partner Support – Monetization Claim
video_id: jqoORI_iQGk

Here is what I SHOULD have said:

Dear Youtube. Dear, foolish youtube. I wrote this music of my own accord, by myself, in the privacy of my home studio. The melodies and harmonies are a result of six years of higher education, seven years of teaching, and two degrees in music. The witty, ironic ideas in these songs emerged from the depths of my torrid soul after two traumatizing, tumultuous years in public education that left me scarred for life. I penned my thoughts, willingly committed myself to an exposed state of vulnerability so that I can perpetuate my art. I contribute to society by creating something completely original, by reaching out musically in whatever small yet crucial way I can so that I can satisfy our base, instinctual need to connect with other humans, and so that someone, somewhere will know they are not alone. It is apparent, based on the sheer number of monetized material available on your platform, that your intents are honorable. I’m sure you mean well by allowing “meme-o-holic1998” to run ads on a top-forty hit that clearly has not been ripped off the radio. Or by letting “amateurphotogal4eva” run a poorly-timed slideshow to God Bless America using images that have clearly NOT been plucked off of google. Not at all. In fact, I’m sure you don’t mean to crush the spirit of every well-meaning original artist out there when you prohibit them from cashing in on their 1.70 a month for work they willingly submit for free so that the world can be a better place.

However, do not be mistaken. Every time you restrict a composer from monetizing their original music, a music teacher dies. DIES. Don’t be a douche. Save the music.


…..There wasn’t a field for that, though.

Their response:

Hello Robin,
Thank you for confirming that you own the rights to commercially use all video material. Your video has been approved for monetization.

We look forward to the next video you submit for monetization.


The YouTube Team


Thanks, Youtube. Maybe my “next video for monetization” won’t involve the sacrifice of a music teacher’s life so that your neighborhood starving* artist can pay for half a cup of coffee. Oh, and you’re welcome for the original art.


A Disgruntled Music Maven, listening to a monetized Wicked playlist and chanting the personal mantra “Nothing’s Gonna Bring. Me. DOOWWWNNN!” (ah-hahahahaaaa)


** I’m wondering now if there is such a thing…
* I’m not really starving, but the sentiment still stands…

8 True Stories I Did Not Make Up to Make You Feel Better

This is a follow-up to my most recent series, “Lessons in Drama,” in which I dutifully recount ways to think about and deal with drama whilst avoiding the urge to slap people in the face. THE FACE.

In case you missed them, go do yourself a favor…

Part 1: Don’t Discrimin-hate
Part 2: Better, Not Bitter
Part 3: Five Reasons It’s Not You
Part 4: It Never Ends (and how to deal)


If that advice wasn’t satisfying, I’m going to finish off with a list of painfully true performing stories to drive the point home (as promised). Consider yourself epilogue-d…

1. I didn’t get a lead role until I was 28 years old.

2. The first two shows I ever auditioned for were Oliver and The Music Man. I was 8 and 9, respectively. Did not make it in.

3. In high school, it was tradition for the directors to come up with all these individualized awards for each cast member and deliver them at the cast party. It was a sort of kitschy ritual, and the awards were usually based off of the real-life rehearsal and performance shenanigans (the “you had to have been there” sort of goings-on). The poor souls who didn’t do enough to stand out would end up with a “super trooper” award for being good. I got the trooper badge two years in a row. My senior year, I was finally recognized for my bit role as a stripper in Singin’ in the Rain. My fame as a stripper was short-lived.

4. I was confident that my high-school drama director had no idea I existed until the last month of high school. She passed me in the hallway without a glance, then stopped and turned to tell me what an outstanding job I was doing in the show. The Me from ten years ago died of happiness; the Me today would deliver a sassy hair-flip and saunter off with an over-confident, facetious “I know…”

5. Performing never came naturally. I always had to work at it. It takes every fiber of my being not to writhe with jealousy at the people who don’t have to work as hard. Unfortunately, there’s no check-box on audition forms that says “did you work really hard for this role?” So I take comfort in the fact that I am better (than I used to be, not than other people) for this.

6. One of my friends just auditioned for a show. She was a shoo-in for the lead, but it went to a weaker singer / actress who had “put in her time” in the chorus. So my friend respectfully turned down a chorus role for a myriad of reasons, but also to show them what’s what. That’s self-respect.

7. I have debilitating performance anxiety, deeply rooted from a long history of attempting to please people and falsely associating my personhood with my abilities. Until I was 24 years old, I don’t think I actually ever gave a performance that lived up to my true potential.

8. …when I finally did, it was my first performance on beta-blockers. I was the understudy for this  piece, for which I was ridiculously well-suited:

P.S. You haven’t lived until you’ve reached 4:05…

8. Almost none of the kids who got lead roles when I was in high school continued on as professional musicians.

::last laugh::

I’m sane and healthy, I promise. I am a self-actualized adult.

::repeats to self, calmly strokes cat on lap in evil-genius manner::

Lessons in Drama, Part 4: It Never Ends (and how to deal)

Welcome back to the trenches. The long-awaited finale to my series, “Lessons in Drama” is HERE.

In case you missed it, here are the other parts:

Part 1: Don’t Discrimin-hate
Part 2: Better, Not Bitter
Part 3: Five Reasons It’s Not You

A ten-word recap: drama can be ridiculous / toxic. Let’s work through it together.

This next part is hard, but short (that’s what she said)…

The Drama will NEVER End.

Yes, the lessons we learn in the high-school / community / professional drama world will chase us (with knives) forever. I so wish I could end this series with “be impervious to drama and you’ll win forever!” The reality is that it will never go away. I think it’s because on some level, people thrive on it. They want conflict so there can be resolution, because with resolution comes peace and purpose. Is it how we are truly built? Like the elusive tootsie roll pop, the world may never know.

I’m yelling because I’m mad.

Think about your life. Consider all its facets: work, school (where applicable), family, friends. If you can’t think of one instance where drama and pettiness has occurred, congratulations, for you are officially a part of the world’s first cyborg community (and we all know that they actually do develop feelings later on…)

So how do we deal? How do we balance our need for conflict with things we must have in order to be better, like love, contentedness, and calmness?

Gravitate Towards the Cool Folk

I don’t mean the popular crowd. I mean the handful of level-headed people who are relaxed and chill. They do exist (outside the pot-smoking crowd) and they avoid drama like the plague. Go ask them if you can be their friend. Chances are high that they will accept you and love you. For some, these people may be people you already know, but never thought to hang out with. Others may find these people in other unexpected places, like family. Either way, be near the people that will provide you a sense of calm and purpose.

Take a Break

The business of drama can be a soul-sucking, heartless enterprise. Taking a break will be easier for the introverts. Sometimes I need serious recovery time after interaction, and even more so if those interactions are high-strung. In the throes of a show / audition / other drama-influenced situation, that need for recovery can be impossible to appease. Here’s how I manage: take a walk, find a quiet place, meditate (I have to do this with my eyes open because I’m 28 and still care what other people think about me…). Pick one activity that has absolutely nothing to do with drama and get to it. For me, it’s hooping. For others, it’s running, painting, or yard work (all equally productive, though it doesn’t have to be). Just take a break and recharge.

Deeply Reflective Practice 

One of the questions that surprises new students and people who have not worked with me is “how did that feel?” When I ask that, I mean that question multi-dimensionally, as in “how did that feel…in mind? Body? Spirit?” It always catches people off guard because they weren’t actually thinking about answering those questions a second ago. They were just going through the motions and accepting my directions as fact. Inevitably, discovering the answer involves another go-around, one in which they are denying their inner cyborg and actively thinking about what they are doing. That, at the heart of it, is practice, an art that is second nature to musicians but elusive to so many others. When the questions turn inward, the drama reduces. It doesn’t dissipate altogether, but become much more manageable. When you’re frustrated that a lead role is behaving egotistically, the questions “how did he/she get to be that way” and “how can I not be like that” will lead you down the ridiculous-free path of enlightenment. Think on that.

To drive this point home, one of my next posts will be a List of True Stories I Did Not Make Up to Make You Feel Better (which should be the second tagline of this whole blog). Look for it soon.


In the meantime…

Drama-free love and peace,


Lessons in Drama, Part 3: Five Reasons it’s Not You

Several years ago, I got a call for my first musical theater directing gig: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The girl we cast as one of the lead females, Kaitlin, was quite possibly one of the sweetest, intelligent, most humble people I’ve ever worked with. She ended up touring the country and performing professionally in musicals as a dancer and singer.

When I think back to our interactions, I consider her thick skin to be the thing that sets her apart from the masses who succumb to everyday drama. Yes, there’s somewhat of a twisted, wretched guessing game involved when auditioning for a show; the ultimate round of Get Inside the Director’s Head and attempt futilely to figure out what they’re thinking.

It’s all for naught, though. Because the final decision could be based on something completely out of your control. Like a bad breakup, it really isn’t you. 

is your head on YOUR shoulders?
is your head on YOUR shoulders?


Here are just some real-life examples to drive this point home, some of which I’ve been a part, others I’ve only heard of or witnessed:

It’s not you, it’s…The Budget

Picture this: two candidates for the lead role who equal each other in acting / dancing / singing ability. The role may go to the girl whose main costume (which is already available to the company and is ridiculously intricate and high-maintenance) wouldn’t have to be taken in, costing a significant portion of the costume budget. If the truth fits…

It’s not you, it’s…The Other Guy’s Height

I’ve heard tell of an instance where the male lead had likely already been cast, and so subsequent decisions for female opposites were made by lining all the candidates up by height. The award went to the one whose height paired best with the male opposite. Damn you, genetic sequencing.

It’s not you, it’s…Precast

The seedy underbelly of the drama world. Yes, pre-casting happens, sometimes directly (as in, only specific roles are even open to the public), other times indirectly (the director won’t even look at other candidates if he or she already knows who they want in the role). See my previous post that refers to “Director’s Favorites.” It’s not really about favoritism. It’s about vision and risk, and unless you are the most fantastic dark horse candidate in the history of candidates, there’s not a lot you can do to change this except give a memorable audition (preferably one that doesn’t involve showing up naked).

It’s not you, it’s…A Totally Arbitrary Professional Factor

I’ve been in the lucky situation of having multiple awesome candidates for a role. Sometimes the decision came down to a combination of totally unrelated professional things: who was early, who had a performance resume, who attended a second round of auditions (even if it was unnecessary), who had the right shoes for the dance audition, who said “thank you” afterwards…the little things really do matter, and if a toss-up situation occurs, it’s likely that we’ll go with the person with the “it” factor. So get “it” together if you want to measure up.

It’s not you, it’s…Someone Else

This one seems the most obvious, but is the least controllable. Sometimes someone else just has it, and you are not there yet. Other times, you may actually be better, but the role might go to someone else because the director is willing to take a chance on one who has “put in their time” and appears ready for the challenge. Try not to cry yourself to sleep. It’s not you.

It’s not you, it’s…well, it might be you

Notorious drama-inducers do not please me. I’ve purposefully avoided casting someone who was a strong candidate (up against other equally as strong candidates) because of their history with the company. I was even approached by two other people during auditions that professed they did not want to be in the show if she was the lead. This is just the type of drama I try to avoid like mad, but at the same time, I couldn’t blame them, and all they did was vocalize what I was already thinking. Survey your contributions to any creative project – are you helping or hurting? If it’s the latter, it might be you. Read my previous posts and consider being better.

The moral of the story: make like Kaitlin, grow your skin, and don’t take it personally. It’s probably not you.

Lessons in Drama, Part 2: Better, not Bitter

I’m back and still spewing brain matter onto my computer keyboard. Yesterday’s post ended up turning into a much lengthier matter and I didn’t feel comfortable slapping my thoughts together in one hit. Lesson One: Don’t Discrimin-hate. The Competition is Fierce can be summed up in one word:


There’s a lot of it, and I get tired of it. I wish I were immune to it, and in many ways, I believe I’ve set up my life so that I’m better distanced from that sick stressor.

Yet, it still exists.

Let the Maven’s School of Hard-Knocks continue…

Lesson Two: Be Better, Not Bitter

a wise woman once said: Let It Go
a wise woman once said: Let It Go

Let me be the first to admit that I am still a work-in-progress in this regard. A few years ago, I made a conscious decision not to return to a public school music teaching job because I wasn’t happy and found it increasingly difficult to live with the knowledge that I couldn’t even nick a seriously flawed system in my given situation. I decided my abilities were better utilized independently and elsewhere. I live 2.6 miles from the school where I used to work and can’t say I don’t drive by sometimes and give the building a lengthy, gangster-esque staredown, which is sort of ridiculous coming from a 28-year-old white woman. I try to wear the right sunglasses for the occasion so as to appear more menacing.

The “better, not bitter” reaction is usually brought about by the following instances:
“I could have done a better job at that song/dance/monologue than he/she did”
“they don’t even appreciate what they’ve been given,” which is sometimes disguised as “they’re not taking that role nearly seriously enough”
and, finally:
“He/she doesn’t deserve that role,” which is used interchangeably with “I deserve a bigger / better role”

Let’s pick these apart.

I could have done a better job at that song/dance/monologue than he/she did

As humans, we are built to defend at the first sign of threat. When you perceive that someone else is doing better than you, it is likely because…well, they are are, and your thought process is a reaction to that. Maybe you can do a better job;  triple threats are hard to come by, so chances are you probably are better than someone else in any one of the singer / dancer / actor categories. Consider surveying the room when you give your audition in your strongest area and peruse the reactions. Now imagine you are in their shoes…because you are, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be questioning someone else’s abilities. Voila: this is called perspective.

So the proper reaction, instead of bringing down others, is to be self-aware. Know your strengths and weaknesses and know those of your competition. Work to make yourself better so when it you are on-par with someone else, someone vying for your role, and both of you are strong singers but you move (or sing / act) better, the role will (in an ideal world) go to you. Then when the role doesn’t go to you, you can’t say you haven’t done everything you can to be better. 

They don’t even appreciate what they’ve been given
They’re not taking that role nearly seriously enough

This is a hard one, and you may just once see a side of the Maven that you rarely get to see. It’s easy to assume we know people’s thought processes based on how they act in rehearsal and real life (I just tried to make a list of three things, but what is there besides rehearsal and real life?). The only thing I can liken this to is bullying. Bullies are usually the ones who need more and demand those things in socially unapproving ways. Egotistical actors/singers/dancers really aren’t any different. They’re just insecure.

I’ve come to understand that if someone gets a role and you don’t, some universal force has created an alignment of events that caused someone else to get the role you want, which on some level means things are supposed to be that way. This thought used to frighten me, but now I find that thought comforting. Unless you’re behind closed doors, you may never see what a lead does for someone else, how it shapes them as a person or creates their future. If others appear nonchalant or unappreciative, take solace in the fact that their behavior will probably only contribute negatively to their future.

Consider yourself on your own path, where your lack of lead role is creating your person. It may be that you are supposed to take the chorus role because…the universe wants something else for you (that’s about as psychedelic-religious as I will ever get. Enjoy it while it lasts). No amount of bitterness, frustration, or wine can change that fact, so you may as well just enjoy the wine.

“He/she doesn’t deserve that role”
“I deserve / want / need a bigger / better role”

Call me an idealist, but the last I checked, everyone deserved the same thing as everyone else. By that logic, you don’t actually deserve a role more than anyone else, even if you have never had a solo, or you really need that role for your resume / portfolio. Nobody owes you anything. Organizations do not owe you lead roles, institutions do not owe you raises, and the further you move away from that mentality, the happier you will be (and, as my own history has proven, the more opportunities you will receive). For me, this was and continues to be the most difficult issue I face: how not to resent people / organizations / groups / etc. When you work your ass off, It’s hard not to expect (or, in some instances, demand) that the universe somehow compensate you.

If you are “promised” something, like a role, promotion, or raise, and you don’t receive it, the alternative is simple: go somewhere else or choose to be better. Go where you are appreciated, where you are wanted, where you are needed. You do not have to accept a chorus role if you don’t want it; your time is precious. If you go into a project choosing not to be better, you are actively contributing to a poisonous, toxic environment. Nobody wants that (despite what “reality” TV or a scorned chorus may lead you to believe). There is something to be said for holding out for better, which is not a copout, and usually pretty difficult to do in high school (peer pressure is a volatile, unforgiving thing), but also as an adult. It would be better to appreciate what you’ve been given and emote positive support for those who have been given what you want. Besides, It’s better in the chorus, anyway...


Stay tuned for parts 3 and 4:
“It’s Not You, it’s Me” and “The Drama Never Ends.”


Until next time…


Lessons in Drama, Part 1: Don’t Discrimin-hate

High School: The Trenches.

Wretchedly deep, sometimes un-navigable, the stench of broken dreams and lost souls wafting hopelessly amidst tear-soaked books. I only wish I were exaggerating.

Sometimes students arrive to their lesson awash in exasperation and proceed to re-live their most recent woes for me, so many of which have occurred as a result of one thing:



scary mask man say NO MORE DRAMA
scary mask man say NO MORE DRAMA

If only I were talking about Commedia Dell’arte. If only. Sometimes I envision my high school girls and boys dressed up, prancing around in those freakish masks of yore. Sadly, the behavior of too many high schoolers wouldn’t actually deviate far from the distorted, anti-human tendencies of this antiquated art form. Listening to some of my high schoolers’ stories makes me slow-blink repeatedly…

Yes, the struggle in the trenches is real. I wish I could say I was impervious to it when I was alive in it, but because I’m not a saint, I remember it all too well. Here are the things I keep hearing (the shit I lived, the shit we all lived and continue to live), and here’s my advice…

(High schoolers…listen up)

Drama Category 1: Competition is Fierce

Most notable in phrases such as:
“He / she isn’t really a very strong (vocalist / dancer / actor / actress)”
“He / she is the director’s favorite, so I don’t stand a chance.”
and my personal favorite:
“He / she didn’t even want that role”

Let’s dissect.

“He / she isn’t really a very strong (vocalist / dancer / actor / actress)”
There is a small chance that your personal judgment on things like character, vocal analysis, and ability to piourette may be a teensy bit clouded because you are an unwilling vessel for jealousy and contempt. I only know this to be true because 99% of the females in my senior musical were teeming with annoyance that the only lead female role was given to a girl that was not in choir, had zero vocal or dance training, and whose only redeeming stage quality (at least it seemed at the time) was her characterization of her role. In other words, she was an “actress / singer / dancer,” in that order, not a “singer / dancer / actress.” Halfway through the run, I distinctly remember looming backstage before an entrance, watching the lead do her song and dance and, in a moment of stunning clarity, I realized she didn’t sound half-bad. Did I want to admit it? Of course not; doing so would admit weakness, but the moment existed nonetheless. Was she as strong as say, someone with years of voice and musical training? Probably not. That’s drama. Welcome to it.

“He / she is the director’s favorite, so I don’t stand a chance.”
Directors have favorites. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Are you done throwing your kid-fit? If so, proceed to the next statement and prepare to have your mind blown.

You could probably replace the word “favorites” with the words “anchor,” “rock,” or “non-liability” and be none the wiser. Yes, “favorites” exist not because directors are evil, satanic, opportunity-hoarders. I promise you this is not the case (not always, at least). The alternative reality is far more likely: directors, teachers, bosses, and humans appear to favor certain people because they depend on them, despite their vocal background, tap ability, weight, height and hair color. They know they won’t falter onstage. They know they can hand a script / score / some choreography to a person and they’ll get it done (whether they have to work at it or not, which is a whole other can of worms). Could they take the risk on someone else? Sure. Does that always happen? No. Casting decisions are like a gamble, and not every director wants to take the risk. Is that your fault? Absolutely not. Does it mess with people’s psyche 100% of the time and scar them for life? You bet. It’s a tough business. Best to just go in knowing that and develop your thick skin ahead of time.

“He / she didn’t even want that role”

What people say and what they mean can be two very different things. I wish I could say that as you grow older, you will come to only interact with self-actualized adults who say what they mean and mean what they say. Alas, those people are the unicorns of people: elusive and quite possibly not real.

If someone says they “don’t really want the lead role,” what they probably mean (if the words were even spoken out loud at all) is “I won’t allow myself to want that role,” or “the logistics of receiving that role are too frightening for me to think about.” DO NOT BE MISTAKEN. Just because someone did not openly profess to want” a role does NOT mean they don’t deserve it, shouldn’t get it, or won’t do well with it. Remember that, kind folks.

If you DO find yourself thinking the words “they don’t deserve that role,” consider this instead: do you see all the work they may or may not be putting into a role? Are you there with them, in their lives, surveying their thoughts, habits, and patterns? Until you are, you really don’t have a perspective on the work they are doing. You probably have no idea what is going through their heads, and everyone handles lead roles differently. So in theory, until that happens, you shouldn’t discrimin-hate.


This turned into something much larger than intended. Thanks, brain, for vomiting all over my computer screen.

With that image, stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this series…
“Better, not Bitter”
“It’s Not You, it’s Me”
“The Drama Never Ends”

…coming soon to a blog near you.

The Problem With High School Programs: Are You Doing These 3 Things?

Last weekend, one of my colleagues attended a collegiate NATS competition. NATS stands for National Association of Teachers of Singing, an organization in which I have only recently become active. I didn’t register any of my students this year; most of them are in their first year of voice, have never had lessons, come from conservative / small / developing high school music programs, and are not really ready for the technical challenge, not to mention the indirect psychological ramifications.

Yesterday, this friend came into my office in a tizzy, and recounted for me the events of the competition, which mainly included a lot of highly-prepared, overly-careful singers who sang accurate notes, but didn’t really sing. So few of the competitors from the larger area universities, he said, performed with real freedom, openness, and musicality.

…which is a damn shame.

I wasn’t there, of course, so it’s hard to assess the actual situation having listened to only one person’s perspective. This friend said there were good performances, but at the end of the day, the quality of selections from the winning candidates just didn’t hold a candle to those from previous years. The whole event prompted a long-winded discussion on how an entire state of college vocalists are being trained to perform technically complex foreign-language arias in which all the notes are present and accurate, the dynamics are mechanically executed, and the musical effect is void of real emotion and expression.

The conversation turned to potential sources: changes in administration, budget deficits and economic downturn, limited resources and the like. In our particular school of music, we’ve had to re-braid the musical habits and training of so many of our incoming freshman that it’s kind of ridiculous. Some of the musical “truths” these singers come into college “knowing” are either vague assumptions of trivial knowledge or are totally inaccurate, and I can’t help but try to fathom what some high-school directors are teaching in their programs.

I would like to point out that there are some really great programs in my immediate community (and state) that are doing awesome work, and I think that most students in my local public and private school system would enter a college music program at an advantage. I’m also not saying I’m the perfect educator. I’m fully aware that most directors do the best they can with the resources they have, and that their concerns and issues will vary drastically even within one school district. But the issues are still real.

Teachers: Know Your Limits and ADVOCATE

The very first full-time job offer I got was for a rural K-12 school in which I would have taught choir and band. I turned it down because I didn’t know jack squat about directing a band (unless it would have been entirely made up of pianos, gongs, recorders, and kazoos). I was certified vocal, not instrumental. The district insisted that they would support me in the learning process and that they would pay for my instrumental certification and give me a year’s grace to do so.

Even as a fresh-out-of-college newbie,  my response to them (other than flipping them the bird, which I wanted to do, but I didn’t) was something along the lines of “very few people are actually qualified to teach both choir and band, and despite what you may want, I am not one of them.” I didn’t care how cushy (ha!) or demanding the job was, how much support I may have had, how much I needed the job, or how desperate they were to fill the position. I knew what I should and shouldn’t be teaching, and accepting that job would have done a disservice to the instrumental program there.

Sadly, this scenario is not uncommon, and the only way to fix it is to advocate for our profession. It is unacceptable to consolidate two seemingly yet totally unrelated positions because times are hard and budgets are low. Unfortunately, that’s the reality, but it is up to us as teachers whether or not we acquiesce. Part of any person’s job is to explain to the uninformed why you should or shouldn’t be running a program in which you have little or no knowledge of the content area. If you’re an “instrumentalist” leading a choir, and you choose not to give as much focus to your singers as you do to your instrumentalists, your singers will likely leave your program with little knowledge about how to sing properly, which should be obvious and certainly is problematicOf course, in order to address this issue, one must…

Know Your Instrument(s)!

One of my female private voice students just was cast as a male in her junior high musical. This isn’t unheard of, and I totally support this kind of thing if done correctly (like a stepsister in drag, a la Cinderella). However, this student has come to her lessons desperately seeking some sound instruction because she doesn’t know how to sing “like a guy.” She’s confused on the octaves, the placement, and the mechanics; things her choir director (who cast her) are not addressing because he probably doesn’t know how to. Apparently, her choir director, who is an instrumentalist, told this fourteen-year-old female to sing more “in the back of the throat” so that she would sound “more like a man.”

…. I stifled a scream and tried to avoid hurling my music stand at the mirror.

This type of instruction is NOT OKAY. In this case, this choir director’s advice was totally inaccurate and would actually set her back if she didn’t have the means to take voice privately (and many don’t). When my pianists get to be a certain level, I start the “it’s time to consider a more accomplished teacher if you’re going the classical route” dialog, because my strengths are in collaborative work and “combat” accompanying, not necessarily advanced classical literature and technique.

This isn’t to say that there are instrumentalists out there who are very good choral directors, and vice versa. One of my good friends is a pianist in a tenured choral position at a high school. What he lacks in vocal know-how he makes up for in other areas: his choirs are top-notch sight-readers and are usually tuned to perfection, and he regularly and consistently has choir directors and vocalists come in to work with his singers and himself. He knows exactly what literature he can and can’t teach his choirs and singers, what musicals to choose, and the limitations of his abilities as a choral director. That’s how it’s done. As a singer directing a pit of instrumentalists, the first thing I do is profess that I cannot help them technically. I can’t show them how to play their instrument. I can show them articulation and try to arrange the most musical version of what we’re playing. I attempt to collaborate with instrumentalists who know what they are doing and are gracious enough to lend their talents, but it would be more ideal to know my limits and not put myself in the position of having to make up information and screw up someone’s musical learning in the process. Teaching is burdensome; you’re holding someone’s future in your hands. The least we can do is make sure we know what we’re talking about!

Encourage Your Musicians to Be Ensemble Members AND Soloists
(if you’re not sure how, be your own pedagogue!)

It astounds me how few choir directors are actually part of NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing). I know, I know. We’re not all made of money, and we have to pick and choose our professional organizations. I get it. But how many choral directors are in the lucky position of not having to teach anything outside their training and/or comfort zone, like musicals, show choirs, or vocal jazz ensembles (or driver’s ed)? How many choral directors are choosing not to address or are totally ignoring things like mechanical and anatomical changes when singing musical theater, opera, jazz, pop, world music, or show choir lit? You know what does address all these things? The Journal of Singing, a NATS publication. It’s my on my nightstand, and if you direct singers, it should be on yours, too.

Alternately, the well-being of the choral voice and the individual voice is so rarely addressed in high school choirs, as evidenced by the fact that most female college freshman don’t even know what the terms “head,” “chest,” and “mixed” resonance really mean or feel like, despite having participated in musicals and show choirs where they were encouraged to sing “as loudly as possible” (hint: this shouldn’t entail actual scream-yell-singing). I had a 19-year-old private singer who was essentially told all through high school to sing entirely in a straight-tone voice, and had never even heard the word vibrato. It’s up to directors to choose a variety of literature that encourages all manners of singing, and when we don’t know how to teach those styles, we need to be our own pedagogues. I’m not an expert in operatic literature, but I still give well-selected and researched arias and recitatives to my students, and I learn right alongside them. When they try to use their “pop” voice in those pieces, I don’t let them, but I also say “here’s how,” which is a type of instruction that many students just don’t receive in high school, where the pressure is to compete, perform, earn a “1” rating, sing loudly over a combo, “belt,” or sound the same as the singer next to them in choir. If you’re a choir director, know your performance practice and apply accordingly to Eric Whitacre and Brahms. The struggle is real, but it’s your responsibility.

I’d argue that in order to teach this way, one must actually know what to teach, and in order to know, they need the experience. I’m not the epitome of perfection, okay? But I have made every attempt to explore all sides of vocal pedagogy, especially in college. I played piano in a jazz ensemble, sang in a jazz choir, sang in an elite traditional choir, participated in the opera program, took traditional piano and voice lessons, took part in musicals, directed musicals, and even did things like ballroom dancing and tap dance to garner the most basic skills of rhythm and movement (which I’d say is necessary for any show choir or barbershop director). The trait of self-awareness and reflection is not innate to a lot of educators; evolutionarily, we are creatures of habit and comfort, which is why we have to be our own teachers. At the very least, we should never tell our singers to try to sound like something they aren’t and can’t be, and we certainly shouldn’t be doing so if we’re not sure that our instruction is sound (see what I did there?)

::puts away soapbox::