SongHelix: A Tool Every Singer Needs

SongHelix, a digital database created by Seth Keeton, DMA, is a valuable tool for singers and voice teachers in recital and concert planning, featuring a uniquely organized catalog with search parameters that help build thematic programming.

 

The goal of Song Helix (www.songhelix.com) is inclusion, intersectionality, and a deeper understanding of cultural relevance of art song, as well as aspirations in assisting both students and professionals in attaining the perfect repertoire for art song performance. In this interview, Director Seth Keeton, DMA, gives us further insight on Song Helix and its importance for artists of all backgrounds.

 

How did Song Helix come about? Who came up with the idea?

Having sung opera throughout the states and as a Fest singer in Bremen, Germany, I realized that opera was not the life and career that I wanted. My wife and I moved back to Minneapolis, the place that felt most like home to us both. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into teaching, but after taking a year of singing detox, I applied to do my DMA at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It turns out that I have always loved school, and getting to teach and learn is the perfect fit for me! 

The school was somewhat art song centered, with Adriana Zabala and Tim Lovelace there, and the long history of song from Minneapolis (Dominick Argento, Libby Larsen, and many more). We were required to give five song recitals for the DMA. This was fine with me because I love art song and recital programming.

Coming back to school with the perspective of an older person with experience and with clearer goals, I relished the opportunity to do a bunch of recitals. I love thematic and interesting programming. One of the programs I did as a student there was “Parties and Drinking Songs.” It was in four sections: Anticipation, Formal Parties, Drinking Songs, and Aftermath. It was the first time I had really experimented with a program, entertaining any idea that came to mind. There was a sing-along for the audience, there was a switcheroo in the program where I sang “Tomorrow” from Annie but titled it “Morgen” in the program. Each set had songs in any language and style. 

The recital was really fun and a success. In a post mortem with Adriana, who was one of my mentors there, I expressed how much fun I had had, but how hard it was to find the right repertoire. Together, she and I wished that a tool like SongHelix existed. “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

I went on to do other recitals and keep lists of songs that would fit themes that interested me. Doing that work of programming, wishing, and research—and with the financial support of the University of Utah—I was in a good position to make SongHelix a reality.

 

How have students and professionals alike benefitted from this tool?

I think SongHelix can be useful to lots of people from students to teachers to professionals to the wider humanities community. Students benefit mainly in two ways. First, SongHelix makes it possible to search by so many criteria. If a student wants to fill out their Schubert set, they can search by Schubert and a theme like water. It could help them find a French set by a composer who identifies as female written between 1920 and 1960. The fact that the site is richly internally and externally linked means that the user can start with criteria and then jump around within the site and/or click external links for the score or a recording or IPA or translation. So it’s a one-stop shop. 

The second way is that anyone can contribute a song record. If they know a song and it isn’t in our dataset yet, they can send it in. Cataloging a song is a great way to become intimate with the song. It requires a bit of research, then a close reading of the poem to illuminate the keywords and features including poetic themes.

Teachers benefit by having a quick resource at hand when looking for repertoire. Many teachers also make it an assignment for their song lit students to make song submissions. A colleague and friend of mine, Marquese Carter made a terrific assignment where the students had to find and submit songs by composers from underrepresented groups. I will also say, as a user, it’s really fun to use. You can find all the songs about salamanders or forbidden love, or songs with a metaphor for clouds.

A friend of mine, Dane Suarez, was contracted to sing a recital for Memphis Opera during COVID-19. He played with the theme of Rodolfo’s life after Mimì. He was able to make a great program about poets and the process of moving on after a trauma. Another friend, Michael Womack, created a cool program wherein he and his recital partner split Frauenliebe und Leben into one set per song and found complementary pieces for each of the sets. SongHelix has such detailed cataloging that it makes things like these much quicker.

 

Do you think that SongHelix’s catalog has continued to grow with the times? 

Yes, I think it has. Our absurdly ambitious goal is to be comprehensive of all recital-appropriate vocal repertoire. The first few years of cataloging, we tried to get most of the major composers’ works in there. We also made it possible to contribute songs from the beginning. We have received lots of submissions from modern composers who want to be featured. The project has a great democratizing effect, because there’s no particular priority given to any composer (beyond alphabetical). This means that a modern composer who writes about roses will come up in the results alongside Brahms or whoever.

Now that the bases are covered, we can put our attention into subgroups of composers. Right now, we’re in the process of incorporating all of the songs from Dr. Louise Toppin’s African Diaspora Music Project. Once these are all richly cataloged and linked, we’ll move on to another subgroup. Since we do all of the cataloging by hand, it takes a while to make gains in growing the dataset.

Another way that we are able to stay with the times is that this is a digital resource, not print. This means we are able to move relatively quickly to incorporate songs to reflect current users’ wishes.

 

How is SongHelix relevant to the classical world at large when we have things like IMSLP, Music Note, and University Catalogs?

I would think of SongHelix as a hub for art song discovery. From SongHelix, the user is exposed to new repertoire that they can then track down through our external links to places like IMSLP. It’s really the place to start. When someone says to the music librarian, “My teacher told me to find a song in Spanish. Where should I look?” SongHelix is the answer to the question. SongHelix leads you to the resources that you need. The way that we have made SongHelix searchable, and that the keywords and features are human created, makes the search both broad and deep.

 

As someone who works in education, do you believe that SongHelix is undervalued?

 

Maybe so. Truly, I think we just haven’t been around long enough to have made a huge impact. We also have put $0 into advertising, putting all of our resources into growing the dataset and making the website work well. Whenever I’m on Facebook, and someone asks for song recommendations, I send them to SongHelix—but it’s not really a unified marketing campaign! I hope more and more people will use it and recommend it to their friends.

I do hope to make the site a bit more user centric with the ability to create a profile, to bookmark songs, to upload programs, maybe performances (or at least links). These kinds of changes won’t be for a while, but they are in the works. 

 

There are a lot of conversations happening about inclusion and diversity. Has SongHelix  been a part of those conversations and, if so, how have those connected to this project grown and implemented the idea brought up?

Among our staff and in consultation with Drs. Louise Toppin and Darryl Taylor, we have discussed SongHelix’s role with inclusion. Luckily, we have accounted for searches like these from the outset. When cataloging a song, we note the composer and poet/author’s identified ethnicity and gender. This way, a user can search for songs by those identifying as female, persons of color, LGBTQ+, Black, disabled, Hispanic, Latinx, Jewish, and Asian in addition to all the other searchable criteria.

I admit that coming to this project as a cis, white male, there have been a few speed bumps and many conversations with my younger and more aware assistants. The biggest mistake was that at the very first we didn’t account for intersectionality. So, you couldn’t be female and Jewish, for example. This was pointed out when the site launched, and we fixed it right away.

As I noted above, we are currently working to incorporate all of the songs in Dr. Toppin’s database. We are also actively thinking about how we can invite more people of color to help us with cataloging. Finally, we have an Editorial Board who review 20 of our song records per month. This puts a third set of eyes on all of our songs. We try for the highest quality, most accurate and inclusive song records possible.

 

A large percentage of opera singers see only operatic performances as the most viable way to have a lasting career. How do you think we can change that, and how can SongHelix play a part in that movement? 

I wish I knew the answer to your question! I don’t know how singers expect to make a lasting career with singing only. Of course, there will be the 0.1% that will be able to sustain a career without work on the side, but I think everyone needs to be equipped with the skills for a correlating career. 

Through this lens, knowing what regional and smaller companies pay, it seems to me that creating paid art song events is just as realistic and viable a career path. Trying to do this would definitely require a lot of legwork, ingenuity, and strong partnerships with venue managers. I would argue that this expectation of legwork and ingenuity are what we should be guiding our students toward, whether opera or art song.

I guess you mean “How should we change their perception that opera is the only way forward?” I’m not sure about that either. A few thoughts are one, we have to show them our love for art song and its potential, not just keep it an academic requirement. Art song is so rich and deep, it’s about connecting the student to those pieces that they will love. Two, we have to be honest with our students that we don’t know what the future brings, but a career based solely on opera is very, very unlikely. And three, we can share the reality that per opera role within a contract, you will be stuck in one character’s head and heart for 6–8 weeks. This can be a rich experience, but it can also become a bit boring, especially if you repeat the role frequently. Art song gives the singer variety and infinite expressions and facets to explore.

I believe the way forward for art song is what we’ve been seeing for the last several years—recitals in intimate, interesting performance spaces outside of concert halls and creative, relevant programming that audiences connect with. 

With interesting programming pairing new and old works, works by underrepresented composers, and sometimes pointed delivery of a particular message, I believe art song will continue to thrive. SongHelix allows for the discovery of unknown repertoire by the canonic composers as well as pieces by relatively unknown composers.

 

Where do you think the SongHelix will be 10 years from now?

I haven’t thought that far ahead! For me, 10 years feels like a long time. By then I hope to have met certain dataset goals and functionality goals. My hope is that by then we could become the central hub for art song discovery. To me, this would mean we would have incorporated the art songs by all the composers represented in all of the widely available resources (Oxford Music Online, Lieder.net, Naxos Music Library, etc.). This way, the additions to the dataset would be new composers or new discoveries of older composers. 

It would also be great if SongHelix were pervasive enough that checking to see that the songs of a student’s recital were all cataloged was part of all students’ recital-planning process.

Functionality-wise, as I mentioned earlier, I would like to make the site more user centric through profiles, etc. We would like to have an app for mobile. The site works OK on mobile devices, but a dedicated app would be better.

 

What I’m really excited about is the inclusion of more and more cross-disciplinary search information. For example, in our most recent update to the site, we included this fun feature where if a user searches for a particular plant, they get those results, but they can also opt in to getting suggestions based on the plants’ traditional symbolism. So if a person searches for Primroses, they get the 16 songs that contain Primroses that we have cataloged, but also get the 1000+ songs that are about primroses’ symbolisms: sorrow, innocence, youth, young love, etc.

The next one of these I plan to incorporate is mythological figures and their associations. A dream of mine is to incorporate the vast digital catalogs of visual art that is out there so that a search for Daphne would result in those songs with Daphne, laurels, Apollo, nymphs, pursuit, transformations, desire, Cupid, the Apollo and Daphne statue by Bernini, appropriate paintings, etc. These kinds of associations would give us a framing of a broader cultural and historical context for our art song research and performance.

Victoria Davis

Victoria Davis is a soprano and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory, BA, and Mannes College of Music, MM. Currently, Victoria is the Director of Education with Opera on Tap. To learn more, please visit her website, sopranovictoriadavis.com or find her on Instagram @victoriouslyhuman.