When I was a kid, I remember my Mom taking me shoe shopping. They’d put my foot on that sizing device that looked like a cross between a scale, a vice, and a skateboard, and tell me how big my foot was. Then my Mom would go grab a pair of shoes one size larger. Wait… what? Why? The skateboard just said I’m a 7 and you grab an 8? What’s that about? So I stuck my foot into the size 8 shoe and my Mom knelt down by my feet. You know the drill: she turned her thumb sideways and mashed it down, trying to gauge how much space was between my big toe and the end of the shoe. Seeing that there was about as much space as the width of her thumb, she smiled. “It’s OK; you’ll grow into it.” Almost everything I ever wore started out as something that was just a bit too big so it lasted longer while I was growing.
So what does this have to do with singing?
I will suggest that we as singers, teachers, directors often go for what “fits” now. And that’s a shame, because it feels good in the short term, but is limiting in the long term. Let’s look at this mindset from several angles.
As a Singer
Younger singers often struggle with some of what trained vocalists consider “the basics,” such as dropping the jaw, raising the soft palate, and shaping the mouth to create pure vowels. In the beginning, singers tend to sing like they talk. That leads to wide, bright, compressed singing at best, or soft, under-supported singing at worst. I once heard a great phrase: “You don’t sing like you talk, and you don’t dance like you walk.”
Inexperienced singers sing with “their voice.” Many of them even think “Rachel sounds good because she has a good voice. I don’t have a good voice like Rachel.” They don’t consider that singing even HAS a technique. They just sing with “their voice.” I challenge that notion. I say, “Don’t sing with your voice. Sing with the voice you plan to have in the future.”
Collegiate runners and high school track teams sprint. So does the middle school team. Every runner at every level is striving to develop an efficient gait, striving towards a personal best at every run. In my experience, singers don’t do that. If runners were like the singers I encounter, then Olympians would sprint, and collegiate runners would run. The high school team would jog and the middle school team would walk. When pushed to start running faster, they would say “I’ll run faster when I know the course better,” or “I’ll run when everyone else runs with me,” or even “I just don’t have fast legs.”
So how do we fix this? Instead of singing with the voice we have, we should sing with our future voice. We should push on our technique to do things we haven’t done before, understanding that while it is new and unusual, we will grow into it.
As a Professional
What are you doing with your program or in your own career to stretch and grow? You have to create an environment where growth is not only possible but desired. Put a goldfish in a larger bowl and what happens? It grows proportionately. It grows after it gets a bigger bowl, not before. It makes sense. Growing when there’s no room only makes for one uncomfortable fish! When is the last time you started swimming in a larger bowl? You must engineer the environment you need to stretch and grow.
This year, 70 groups from 12 states converged on Kettering National A Cappella Festival. Nine years prior it was a mere buddy concert with one other local group and an inexpensive, visiting headliner. We had been hosting a professional group for years on our own. We wondered how we could improve, so we added a “buddy” group from a neighboring school. Then we invited five groups and made a small festival eventually growing to 70 groups. Every year, there were those who said we should keep doing the same size festival every year. I’m not quite wired that way, though. Whether you’re working on a festival, a competition, a musical, whatever – you must consider stretching out. Make plans AS IF you are operating on a higher level, and give yourself (and your students) little choice but to grow into it.
I had a guideline for my Symphonic Chorale that illustrates the “grow into it” philosophy. Whenever we qualified for State Contest and earned the highest score, I immediately told the choir that next year we would be in the next-highest class. We went from B to A to AA and then onto the OMEA State Conference in three years with this plan. Never mind that the feeders were the same. Forget that the level of singers each year, with turnover, was roughly the same. They knew my philosophy: better to reach for new heights than cover the same ground. They had no option; they would simply have to grow into it.
None of this is to say, however, that you should take risks that could be potentially damaging. If you wear a size 7 shoe, you can’t try to make a size 12 work. Too much too soon can be disastrous! We should condition ourselves and our students to focus on staying one step ahead of ourselves. Achievable challenge keeps complacency at bay. We need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. That person should be our future, better self and those shoes should be one size too big. It’s OK; we’ll grow into it.
Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style. For more information, please visit campacappella.com.