Who's afraid of a singing exam?
So...you’re a singer who loves music theatre and all it has to offer, yes?
You love performing with your friends? Tick!
And, singing is what sustains you, in the happy times and the sad, right?
Now, if I say the words singing exam, what happens to you physically?
Shortness of breath?
Desire to run for the hills?
It’s OK – I’m here to help.
Grab a glass of wine, go and sit in a comfy chair, and read on.
Thanks to the latest syllabus from the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB), you can now put your name in for a formal singing exam which will get you a certification that you can add to the CV you hand in at your next audition – and I don’t think it’ll stress you out.
I spoke with Steve Hodgson, Head of Publishing at AMEB, about how the new music theatre syllabus came into being. “We had reports from examiners and teachers that there was a critical mass of demand for a specific music theatre syllabus. It was felt that even just the vocal aspect of the triple threat performer has specific requirements, so a national program of study that covered the vocal techniques that are specific to music theatre was developed”, said Hodgson.
At AMEB, a brand new syllabus would usually take two years from initial discussion to launch of the syllabus, but thanks to a dedicated team, it was possible to unveil the music theatre program in a little over one year. According to Hodgson, “It was a very accelerated project for us. Syllabus consultant George Torbay headed up a very focused and dedicated team, and they all worked very well together”.
At initial meetings, the consulting panel unanimously decided that technical work was an imperative.
...I know what you’re thinking – “Oh lord, do I have to do scales?”
Well, initially? - no. You don’t.
If you’ve not tackled a singing exam in the past and you wish to start with one of the earlier music theatre grades, then your tech work will consist of short exercises which will gradually incorporate musical patterns found within the music theatre repertory. In the higher grades, the exercises will graduate through to the more traditional scales and arpeggios. “The technical work has been created to encourage the safe development of voices with a musical theatre style”, says Hodgson.
To complement these fundamental exercises, vocalises have been built from the technical work. Custom made by Australian composer Rachel Kelly, a wonderful writer based in Sydney, the vocalises featured all of the key elements of each grade’s technical requirements, sitting over the top of great accompaniments which are an immediate nod to the rhythms and chords of the genre we all love so well.
“Um - that’s all very well, Max, but what are we gonna do about songs?”, I hear you ask.
Syllabus consultant George Torbay, basically, gave up a year of his life to dedicate to this project. The syllabus contains over 1400 songs, and Torbay listened to almost every musical know to man in the pursuit of spot on repertoire to suit each level of vocal development. According to Hodgson, by the time Torbay was done with compiling the song lists that make up all of the exams, he could practically “see through ‘The Matrix’”. The works in the lists are from everywhere imaginable – from shows that are household names, to lesser known shows which may have flopped but contain one or two songs that are gems, all the way through to musicals which might not yet have been published.
In Level Two of the syllabus (Grades 5-8 and above), the songs lists have a focus that is derived from the chronology of the music theatre canon. In looking at the Level One (Grades 1-4), you won’t see the same delineation. Torbay wanted the early grades to have more of a technical focus, as opposed to a stylistic one. Logically, it’s an obvious progression. Lower grades will develop your vocal skills in order that you might be exposed to the many styles within music theatre. The higher grades demand that you have the technical mastery to be able to show the stylistic differences between, say, “Raise the Roof” from Lippa’s The Wild Party, and “If Love Were All” by Bitter sweet Noel Coward; or to highlight the distinctions between “First You Dream” from Steel Pier by Kander and Ebb and “I Love You” by Cole Porter.
One very exciting point of note - the Australian content of the syllabus should be celebrated. “We are really pleased about the amount of Australia material in this syllabus – in Grades 6-8, list D has a lot of Australian material. Some of the pieces may not be well known, but we have some very strong writers in this country, and I think the representation of Australian composers and their works within the syllabus is fantastic”, says Hodgson. “None of the songs were chosen just because they’re Australian. They’re really strong, pedagogically useful, and something to sink your teeth into”. Even the books for grades 1-4 all have Australian material to discover.
In exposing candidates and teachers to these Australian new works, it is genuinely hoped that interest will build in these composers, and that the Australian voice in music theatre will become that little bit stronger. How marvellous would it be to see some of these works staged as full productions?
In closing, Hodgson notes, “There is enough material in the syllabus that teachers can go away and build really involved study programs for their students. Come exam time, it allows the students to demonstrate their technical skills, in a kind of relaxed way”
If you’re a music theatre performer who may have shied away from taking an exam in the past because classical repertoire wasn’t you, and the Singing For Lesiure syllabus was too off the mark for your taste, 2016 may be the time to start working towards an exam. It is a snapshot of your progress through the year, a chance to receive constructive feedback on your technique and performance.
Hodgson’s advice? “Sign up to the exam with an idea of what you want to achieve and how you wish to progress throughout the year. Give yourself a goal and then give yourself the opportunity to celebrate your achievements”.
So, are you still shaky and short of breath at the thought of a singing exam, which trumpets all of your favourite Sondheim and Gershwin songs, and eases you into the world of tech work?
I didn’t think so.