Many singing teachers agree that one of the most alarming things today is tuning in to television talent competitions and seeing nine-year-olds singing opera. Not only are the arias generally age-inappropriate, but they make vocal demands on the singer that often requires a training period longer than the child has been alive!
Less publicly, but equally common, are singers who wrong-foot themselves with inappropriate repertoire at local singing competitions and music festivals. They might pick flashy, famous arias that are beyond their capabilities, instead of choosing the best songs to sing to show off their voice and their current stage of development.
Choosing the Best Songs to Sing
It can be difficult to have patience at first, but think of it like learning to walk before you can run. It’s not just a case of not having the range or the vocal security to sing a particular aria – reaching for notes outside of your normal compass, or trying to make a false “operatic” sound that comes naturally from years of training, can actually cause you vocal damage that can take months of rest, or even surgery, to recover from. A sprinter wouldn’t go and run a marathon without training; you should view your vocal development with the same care. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t choose music that challenges you, but make your “difficulty” choices in terms of musical complexity rather than vocal acrobatics.
Extending Your Vocal Range
If your range is relatively short, you may find choosing songs tricky – but don’t despair; extending your vocal range takes time, and shouldn’t be rushed. Even if you only currently have an octave at your disposal, you could consider working on something like English composer Benjamin Britten’s setting of “Oliver Cromwell”, sung here by tenor Peter Pears with Britten at the piano.
Good exercises to extend your vocal range include humming gently through a fifth, then extending the scale up to the sixth before descending. Also practice this on open vowel sounds. Make sure you don’t stop the air as you sing, or strain for high notes – if you feel any tension or discomfort, stop!
Finding the Best Songs to Sing – Women
Why limit your vocal development to singing in English? If you know other languages, you might want to explore song repertoire in French, German, or even Czech or Russian. Composers to look out for are Schubert, Wolf, and Schumann for German songs (or lieder); Fauré, Hahn, and Chausson for French songs (or chanson); and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky for Russian songs.
A fairly simple choice in the French repertoire is “Le Secret” by Gabriel Fauré, sung here by American soprano Barbara Bonney. Although not exclusively the preserve of female singers, it suits a high-lying voice with bright colors beautifully.
Robert Schumann’s “Du Ring an meinem Finger”, from his song cycle “Frauenliebe und -Leben”, is another song suited to a medium-high female voice, as heard in this performance by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier.
Finding the Best Songs to Sing – Men
Although the great German song cycles may seem daunting, it’s worth it for aspiring male singers to choose the musically less complex numbers, as they encourage your safe vocal development without you feeling like you’re in singing kindergarten.
Some of the best songs to sing for a young male singer, however, are back in the English repertoire. Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ glorious “Silent Noon” will test your skills at changing keys, and hearing what may seem to you to be strange harmonies at first. This wonderful 1976 recording by British baritone John Shirley-Quirk with Martin Isepp at the piano may tempt you into the right kind of pushing your abilities.
An often-unexplored area of vocal repertoire for men is Neapolitan song. Leoncavallo’s wonderful “Mattinata” should be in the repertoire of every keen tenor, as this recording with the wonderful Lawrence Brownlee shows.
The Best Songs to Sing – A Checklist for Beginners
Choosing the best songs to sing can be something of a minefield, and when you’re starting to move into more demanding repertoire, the guidance of a good teacher and regular voice lessons is essential. However, singing through lots of repertoire is the most fun you can ever have with your voice, so when armed with books full of beautiful songs, bear these tips in mind when you’re putting together a recital program, or even just some fun pieces to sing:
Is it available in the right key for me? – You will notice if you listen to other recordings of some of the YouTube links above that they may be in different keys; if a song feels too high, or too low, check to see whether it’s available in a key that’s more comfortable for you to sing in.
Is it comfortable? – Even if you’ve found the right key, you still may find the song stretches you uncomfortably, and in a way that even with practice, you aren’t going to be able to overcome. Put it aside for a few months, then come back to it.
It can be very tempting to sing pieces that don’t quite fit your voice, so keep all the above advice in mind. Exploring the wealth of vocal repertoire out there can be a lifelong quest. Good teaching, steady development, and the right repertoire are the essentials for any singer to make the most of their vocal abilities!
Photo by David Martyn Hunt