By Maddie Pelkey
The voice is an instrument, just like a trumpet, a violin, or a piano. There are certain technicalities that every vocalist has to master in order to control their instrument. But in order to be a good musician, not just a good singer, there are many concepts you need to be familiar with. These are just a few of the concepts I’ve found it’s important to understand in my first semester as a freshman vocalist.
1. Know your terms.
Hopefully your high school teacher taught you solfège — which, by the way, is totally underrated in high school. But you also need to know the more complex terms that pertain to your craft, like “passagio” and “tessitura.” And you also might want to start familiarizing yourself with Italian words that describe the mood of music, like “grazioso” and “pesante.”
I know that learning vocabulary like this sounds boring, but your college professors will throw these around in lectures, lessons, and rehearsals and expect you to know what they mean. Of course it’s okay to ask if you don’t know a term, but it’s nice to have the background knowledge beforehand so you understand the context of what you’re working on that much faster.
2. IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)
My high school chorus teacher taught our chamber chorus, and later his entire program, the basics of IPA. At the time, I thought it was cool, but I wasn’t really sure when I would use it besides writing the pronunciations of words in my music — which is handy, but not really ground-breaking.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that the first semester of my English/Italian diction class was literally learning the basics of IPA. Thanks to my high school teacher, that class is a breeze. I’m so grateful he taught me IPA before I came to college, because now I’m just getting reinforcement of what I already know. Thus the IPA will stick with me longer, and the prior knowledge certainly helps my grades, too. Learn basic vowels and consonants before you come to college — you’ll be glad you did.
3. Know the notes on the piano.
When I signed up for Piano 1, I was expecting to be able to play all my scales and a few songs by Thanksgiving break. Instead, I was assigned scales and a few songs in the first week. Knowing the notes on the piano is probably the most important thing you can do before you go to college for music: not only will it refine your theory skills, it will also make sure you don’t cry in the practice room every time you try to do your piano homework.
In all seriousness, learn which note is where. Knowing where middle C is and finding everything from that just doesn’t cut it. If your teacher is expecting you to play major scales with both hands in your first week, you need to know every single note. Flash cards are a beautiful thing.
4. Be familiar with the Circle of Fifths.
Again, knowing the circle of fifths is great for piano class, but you’ll really want it so you can pass theory with flying colors. Theory revolves around intervals, scales, and key signatures. When it comes down to it, that’s all Theory 1 really is: arranging intervals in succession in a way that doesn’t break the all-important (but sometimes malleable) rules of composition. If you know your circle of fifths, then you’ll start your first weeks of theory strong, which is super important in understanding the rest of the course.
The unfortunate tendency for high school vocalists is to think of yourself as solely a vocalist, not a musician. Avoid this pitfall by studying up on these things before college: take a theory class at your high school, or learn some basic scales on the piano. And if your music teacher goes off on a tangent during class about theory or the International Phonetic Alphabet, take note of what they’re saying. You never know how it’ll help you in the future.
About the author: Maddie Pelkey is currently a first-year vocal music education major at the State University of New York at Fredonia. In addition to her interests in music, she is an avid writer and loves the French language. She is a regular guest blogger @ stanpelkey.com.