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IRL, my undergraduate degree is a dusty BFA in Musical Theater. Since graduating, I’ve Kondo’d my tap shoes and leotards, and I’ve been on an indefinite singing-in-public hiatus since 2012. I’d been toying with the idea of getting back into singing, so when ads for MasterClass started targeting me like Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, I was intrigued.
MasterClass is an "online education platform making it possible for everyone to learn directly from the world’s best." Since last year, they’ve launched an impressive slate of streaming video courses from Dustin Hoffman (Acting), Kevin Spacey (Acting), James Patterson (Writing), Usher (The Art Of Performance), and Serena Williams (Tennis). This month, MasterClass added a new instructor to their faculty: Christina Aguilera.
Regardless of where you fell on the early aughts Mandy-Jessica-Britney-Christina fan spectrum, it was always irrefutable: Christina could sing. I stanned pretty hard for Christina as a teen; I remember begging my mom for tickets to the Justified/Stripped tour, and even from our nosebleed seats, Christina’s voice was stunning.
So I signed up for her MasterClass, with two major reservations: First, exploiting artists’ dreams is a bustling industry — see the rise of pay-for-play auditions — and with it’s $90 price tag, I was skeptical MasterClass could deliver a product that didn’t feel like a scam wrapped in celebrity platitudes. Second, learning to sing is such an intimate and tactile process that I doubted a streaming program could compare to in-person voice lessons.
Still, I was curious to see what made MasterClass different. I’ve watched plenty of Inside The Actor’s Studio, and I own the DVD of Acting In Film, Michael Caine’s deliciously 80’s BBC special (which I highly recommend, if only for this bonkers lesson on blinking,) but those skew more towards entertainment than education. MasterClass courses have workbooks and online "office hours." They want you to learn.
I was skeptical MasterClass could deliver a product that didn’t feel like a scam wrapped in celebrity platitudes.
Christina’s course is broken up into 23 Lessons, each consisting of a roughly 10-minute video, and a corresponding 47 page (!) PDF with assignments and links to extra resources; MasterClass suggests pacing it out over six weeks. "Technique is only a quarter of it. Passion and drive is like, 100% of it," says Christina in the course trailer. I decide not to hold the math against her.
Perfectly coiffed and wearing a fedora — the hat you can only pull off after years of success in the music industry — Christina walks me through her origin story, her inspirations, her influences. I learn all sorts of fun Christina facts. Did you know that "Beautiful," is a one-take vocal? Or that Christina has been using the same vocal warm-up cassette tape (she still owns a boombox) since her first album?
I also learn that Christina Aguilera is not a voice teacher. In my experience, good vocal technique is rooted in understanding your own anatomy, and there's no mention of diaphragms or pelvic floors or vocal folds at all. Her blasé attitude towards diction would've made my high school choir teacher shit a brick, and her music theory comprehension comes off as minimal. "What's this in?" she asks her accompanist, legendary music producer Rick James. "Six eight," he replies, referring to the time signature of the song she’s demonstrating. Christina laughs, "See, I don't know what that means."
At first, I was mortified. I wanted to report her to the Singing Police and watch her go Singing Court and get sent to Singing Jail without possibility of Singing Parole. And then, after watching her discuss the ins-and-outs of her process for almost three hours, I realized: pouting about Christina’s lack of vocal vocabulary was like whining about LeBron James not being a dunking physicist. It doesn’t matter.
Christina Aguilera is a Professional Pop Vocalist, which means her two main jobs are Recording Artist and Live Performer. And she is really, really, really good at those two (very different!) jobs. Throughout the MasterClass she is poised and professional; she speaks with the authority of someone who’s had a microphone in their hand their entire life — because she has. Her talents have brought her celebrity, but her confidence comes from being a virtuoso of her own instrument.
I watched most of Christina’s MasterClass munching Trader Joe’s snacks and wearing workout clothes I didn’t end up working out in.
In Lesson 10, Christina recommended that I "practice with the greats, and see where you stand," i.e. sing along with Mariah & Co. and see how far I had to go. While I’ve never been "in the studio," the acoustics in my bathroom are good and my elderly neighbors can’t hear much. Listening to my voice bounce off my shower tile, I realize there’s an ocean of difference between singing it and selling it. There’s no room for am-I-really-doing-this karaoke bashfulness in "I Have Nothing" — sounded more like "I Have Anxiety." Trying to ooze the confidence of a VH1 Diva made me sound better, and it definitely made me feel more like a Fighter than a Genie In a Bottle, which was great considering I watched most of Christina’s MasterClass munching Trader Joe’s snacks and wearing workout clothes I didn’t end up working out in.
Christina is admirably blunt about the tools she needs to execute a performance that meets her standards. "Preparation is key," she insists as she lays out her must-haves. She needs water — room temperature and ice cold. She needs coffee and tea. She needs Oasis throat spray. She needs pre-opened honey packets, on a plate, with a spoon. A handful of Ricola lozenges must also be unwrapped. They’re diva requests, but she has diva receipts. I make a mental note to forget being "so good they can’t ignore you." Be so good they’ll unwrap your candy for you.
MasterClass’ interface is beautiful and intuitive, and for a streaming product, the production value is exceptionally high. There’s even a nifty range-finder tool that lets you compare your vocal wingspan to Christina’s 4.1 octaves. Another nice feature: after you complete a MasterClass, the videos are still available to you at any time. (Imagine how much more college you’d have retained if you could've gone back and binge-watched your classes!)
To give things a classroom-y feel, students are prompted to contribute to message boards and join the members-only Facebook group. I usually avoid comments at all costs, but behind the MasterClass paywall, things are different:
"I was always too scared to pursue singing, but I’m ready to take that leap of faith."
"I’m surprising my husband with a song on our anniversary."
"I am retired and ready to focus on me. I love singing. I just want to sound good!"’
Practically every entry was bursting with hopeful anxiety, met with encouragement and praise. On Facebook, classmates posted singing selfies with Smule Sing!, an app best described as karaoke-meets-ChatRoulette, and cheered each other on. It’s one of the kindest corners of the internet I’ve ever seen.
At one point, Christina describes her process as "I do my thing, I feel my thing, and it becomes what it is."
At one point, Christina describes her process as "I do my thing, I feel my thing, and it becomes what it is." For most of us, "feeling the thing" is what makes singing so cathartic — and so terrifying. Singing is heightened. Singing is vulnerable. Singing is being brave enough to demand that everyone shut the fuck up, please, because you are a human being who is feeling something and you need to express it.
Christina always seems a heartbeat away from bursting into song. The synapses between her emotions and her singing voice are firing constantly, she practically punctuates her sentences with perfectly pitched ad-libs and mmhmms and ohhh yeahs. If she hesitates or makes a mistake, she laughs it off and powers through. Her raw talent, technical savvy, and emotional willingness are what make her a Master, and while I'm by no means arena-ready, her class reminded me why I love singing, which I’ll continue to do, even if it’s just in my bathroom, into the mic on the earbuds I bought at Duane Reade.
Overall, I enjoyed the MasterClass experience, so if you’re not a singer, hold out to see who else joins the faculty. Upcoming professors include Annie Leibowitz and Werner Herzog, and I’m excited to see what other A-Listers they can persuade.
If you're daydreaming about auditioning for The Voice — especially if your sights are set on Team Christina — then this class was made for you. If you're a novice singer choosing between MasterClass and in-person lessons, I'd choose the latter just to make sure you’re getting off to a healthy start. If you’re somewhere in between, like me, then I’d say go for it! If the class will catalyze or galvanize your relationship to your own singing voice, it’s money well spent.