From Top-Notch Technique to Stellar Storytelling: Build Your Skills Through the Mini Masterclass Series for Solo Singers


As Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti once said, “The better voice doesn’t mean being a better singer.” Renowned vocal coach and teacher James R. Wigginton doubles down on this sentiment throughout the new Mini Masterclass Series for Solo Singers.

Jamie, a full-time professor of commercial voice at Belmont University, has trained and coached voices for more than three decades, serving as a vocal coach for noted vocal artists such as Luke Combs, Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, Brett Eldredge, and many others.

Organized by Jubilate Music Group President and CEO Mark Cabaniss and presented by Jubilate Music and J.W. Pepper, this mini masterclass series features five episodes led by Jamie, who highlights a variety of universal tips and tricks for soloists through coaching singers Robert Vincent Montano and Tucker Bruinsma.

These educational and entertaining sessions each tackle and break down moving excerpts of selections from the best-selling Mark Hayes Vocal Solo Collection series, including The Huron Carol, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Safe Within Your Arms, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Aura Lee. Many of these pieces may be found in a variety of collections, including 10 Spirituals for Solo Voice, 10 Hymns and Gospel Songs for Solo Voice, and more.

Through each of these emotional, important works, Jamie assists the soloists with finding the best approach to their performances. His keen insights and guidance will help singers near and far crack the code and alleviate the guesswork on how to start and where to focus on any given piece. Here’s a hint: Do your homework!

After all, as Jamie notes, if you don’t take the time to research the history of a given song and truly understand and connect with its meaning, you might end up making some really nice sounds – but much like expensive wallpaper, you’ll never be in the center of the room.

Want to sing along? Read on, check out each episode of the series, and join Jamie, Robert, and Tucker to improve your art.

Mini Masterclass for Solo Singers #1: The Huron Carol

Jamie chose The Huron Carol for the first episode of the series to “bring awareness to this beautiful work and the brilliant setting that Mark Hayes has created for it,” he says.

Jamie believes some folks may shy away from the song because of some of its lyrics, such as “Gitchi Manitou,” he says in the episode. Perhaps they’d think otherwise if they knew Gitchi Manitou is the traditional Algonquin name for the Mighty God. This is one of the many reasons why it is crucial, as with any historical work, that you, the artist, dig into a piece’s origins before you even consider performing it.

Who composed the piece? What challenges, hardships, and deep devotion led to the lyrics you intend to sing? When you have a solid grasp of that, Jamie says, you can get to work on the technical and musical aspects.

In a strophic song like this, the success of your performance relies on your ability to engage the listener with your phrasing, attention to tempo alterations and dynamics, and even body language, Jamie says.

To improve in these areas:

  • Use a metronome to reference the arranger’s intentions and mark every change.
  • Maintain a beautiful line with the accompanist. This is surprisingly challenging in a simple melody like this because it can easily become stagnant and uninteresting without emotion.
  • Stay on beat. There is freedom within the groove, Jamie says.
  • Maintain equal resonance. To help you do so, put your knuckles into the tops of your cheeks to exaggerate the control of your face shape. Then, give yourself some space within the sound. Jamie points to the first line, “’Twas in the moon of winter-time,” to illustrate. Stringing together the sounds, Jamie sings it a bit more like, “’Twas in the moon-huv-winter-time.”

Shop 10 Christmas Songs for Solo Voice, Vol. 2


Mini Masterclass for Solo Singers #2: Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho

African American spirituals may be performed by people of any race, color, or creed, Jamie says in this episode, so long as you are eager to understand the song’s roots and appreciate the deep emotions embedded within the lyrics and melodies.

So, how do you approach spirituals as a vocalist, especially if you are not of African American descent? Jamie offers a few things to keep in mind:

  • If the spiritual has a story – it does! – know it, Jamie says. If it has a lineage – it does! – trace it. This will make you an informed artist, which will influence your tones, textures, and gestures, which will help you develop a personal connection.
  • Do not shy away from singing in the correct dialect. An informed singer will be able to do this without crossing into caricature.

To get you started, you can drop some consonants and tap into phonetic decay. Words such as “crumbling” and “tumbling” become “crumblin’” and “tumblin’,” Jamie says.

Next, soften some sounds, such as “th” and “vuh,” which are not present in many dialects and languages. To do so, words like “the” become almost “duh,” and “heaven” becomes “hebbin,” Jamie says.

Dr. Jeffery Ames, Jamie’s colleague and friend, advises singers to approach this style very much as you would to sing Brahms: with a full, round, and strong tone that retains a pleasant sweetness.

  • Pay attention to the tempo and feel. There are a couple of places in this arrangement where Hayes has instructed the singer to shout. This takes a lot of courage for performers, Jamie says, but he encourages vocalists to shout it to honor the arranger’s wishes.

Shop 10 Spirituals for Solo Voice

Mini Masterclass for Solo Singers #3: Safe Within Your Arms

This soul-stirring crossover ballad reflects the human condition carried perfectly on an intently crafted melody, Jamie says in this episode. The singer and the accompanist must perform from a perspective of deep personal experience.

But where do you start? Sit with the lyrics, Jamie says. Read the lines as though they are coming straight from you and break them down. In the second verse, for instance, you’ll read: “Whether I’m walking in the light or whether I’m stumbling through the night.”

The phrase “stumbling through the night” doesn’t mean “when bad things are happening to me,” Jamie says. Instead, it’s more likely to mean, “I’m not on the right path, and I know it.” Think of how this line applies to you. Listeners need to hear through your artistic choices, dynamics, phrasing, tones, and textures – that you get it, Jamie says.

Then, watch your technique. The verses are intentionally conversational, so regardless of the style in which you choose to sing, spend some time working on monologuing a lyric. Deliver the lines as though you are talking with a friend or delivering a speech. You can even physically write them out as Jamie likes to do. Using a natural speech pattern as you say the lyrics will help you discover how to set them into the phrase.

Shop 10 Hymns and Gospel Songs for Solo Voice

Mini Masterclass for Solo Singers #4: Battle Hymn of the Republic

Hayes’ arrangement of this selection is a rush for the singer, the accompanist, and the listeners alike. But to pull it off, Jamie says in this episode, the performers must address two crucial elements: technical and artistic challenges and understanding the historical significance.

Who was Julia Ward Howe, Jamie asks, and under what circumstance did she pen the words “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”? Where did the melody come from? Jamie challenges you not to sing the song until you know.

Your job as an artist is not to merely sing correct notes and rhythms, he says. You must also infuse those notes, rhythms, and lyrics with their history, the author’s intention, and your experience.

To tackle the technical in this piece, Jamie says to:

  • Keep that metronome handy.
  • Keep the beat with your hands against your legs or chest as you practice.  
  • Carefully choose your tone and manage your range. To help you do so, Jamie offers a series of vocal exercises that will train your voice to move horizontally without increasing volume or changing tone.

Begin with your fingers against your cheeks and make a dopey sound like your larynx is on the floor, Jamie says. Blow air through your lips into a lip trill and focus on vocalizing a scale without changing your tone.

After you do this a few times, going up and down in key, go through the same exercise with the same dopey sound but using the word “mum.” This will help cancel the tendency for your larynx to grab at the high notes, Jamie says.

Then, complete the exercise using a silly “nay” sound.  

  • Apply pressure as you descend so your voice stays in control and doesn’t pop out of line. 

Shop 10 Hymns and Gospel Songs for Solo Voice

Mini Masterclass for Solo Singers #5: Aura Lee

Aura Lee is a Civil War song about a beautiful girl, sung by men from the South and the North alike. The melody has been adopted and adapted many times over the years, Jamie says, ranging from the United States Military Academy to Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender.

As with any other art song, Jamie says, do your research. Understand the lyrics and discover how the song tells a story – from your own experience. The words are very old-fashioned – and that’s awesome, Jamie says – so embrace it. Make listeners believe that you are on the battlefield dreaming of a beautiful girl named Aura Lee.

Then, you can move to more technical aspects of the song. Jamie highlights the importance of conveying appropriate emotion in a legato line. To do so, he encourages his artists not to separate technique from emotion but rather to work on them together.

Take, for instance, the opening phrase. Sing it with a neutral vowel shape, such as “you, deux-deux.” Work with your emotional pressure and shape every phrase, using your tone to convey your emotion rather than your words. Jamie instructs singers to be consistent with their resonance, vibrato, and shape throughout the lines while allowing one note to pour into the next.

Then, keep that same feeling but put the words to it. Now, if you’re not careful, you’ll notice certain syllables will jump out of line, Jamie says.

The song comes to a close like the end of an old black-and-white movie where the lovers kiss. Make it feel weightless and buoyant, Jamie says – like you’re lifting right off the ground. But how do you do that? Be real; be a whole person, Jamie says, and believe what you are putting out there.

Shop 10 Folk Songs for Solo Voice

Singing is only one part of becoming a great singer, Jamie reminds us. While we all want to improve our technique, range, pitch, and the like, our expression, understanding, and artistic choices are equally valuable.

Pepper has served musicians since 1876. We hope you find our blog posts informative and a wonderful gateway to news in the world of music.


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