When selecting vocal repertoire, it’s important to understand that you are not only learning a song that you can sing to yourself or your friends. It is just as much a vehicle to understand how the voice works. Just because the part of the lesson with warm-ups and vocal exercises has ended, doesn’t mean that you should stop focusing on technique. Many students may want to sing a newly released pop song, a popular country ballad, or a famous opera aria. Their passion for the music is all well-and-good, but choosing challenging material means that any time that would be spent on understanding breath management, core engagement, or proper vowel formation is instead spent on trying to execute challenging ornaments without vocal agility, hit high notes without having the support to do it, or sing rhythmically challenging passages without a deeper understanding of rhythm.
In order to ensure that you stay focused on fundamental technique in your first lessons, it is important to select songs that don’t pose too many musical challenges, while still being enjoyable to sing. Additionally, it is a good idea to pick songs that have one specific musical challenge that you can focus on. Fortunately, there are many different songs out there that fulfill these parameters, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find something that you enjoy.
The first (and always reliable) option would be a traditional folk song. Songs by artists such as Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or Peter, Paul, and Mary are excellent for building familiarity with basic rhythm and melody. Another excellent choice for new singers is the Great American Songbook - especially the songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. These songs are simple, straightforward, and accessible, yet are very popular, highly versatile, and completely captivating. One of the best features of these songs is the way in which they can be set in different styles - making them perfect for jazz singers, Broadway singers, and even rock or pop singers.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias (the bible of vocal study). Although it is grounded in the classical tradition, every voice student should be familiar with this book. The songs and arias are all selected to explore a variety of basic technical challenges such as melismas, sustained notes, shifts in register, and proper diction. Even though you may not be interested in performing this repertoire, it is indispensable for building elementary technique and can be very helpful when paired with other songs.
Once you have spent some time with these songs, you may be prepared to move on to the more challenging material. Of course, even the most advanced vocal students will return to this repertoire to check their technique. Even as you move past this repertoire, it is important to make sure that the various things you’ve learned carry over from one song to the next.