Yes, But Can You Do That 8 Shows a Week?

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Teaching Singing in the Twenty First Century

Excerpt from: A Brief Overview of Approaches to Teaching the Musical Theatre Song

Springer Publishers, Australia, fall 2013

Yes, But Can You Do That Eight Shows a Week?

By Mary Saunders-Barton

The arrival of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening in 2007 created excitement because it seemed to bring with it the possibility of a new “relevance” for the musical and the promise of a younger, hipper audience. Whether this trend is actually borne out in ticket purchases over the long term remains to be seen but the rock genre is the style of choice for many young composers today.

Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote an excellent analysis of the rock musical in 2010 concluding that "Broadway may be the final place in America, if not the known universe, where rock still registers as rebellious.” Whether that is true, it is apparent that rock music seems somehow more “dangerous” in a traditional theatre setting. Nevertheless, it doesn’t approach the excitement of the real thing.

Pareles went on to say, “Two nights after the official opening of American Idiot, Green Day itself played an unannounced encore. The show had poured on its razzle-dazzle. .... But Green Day set off pandemonium. ... Green Day’s members may not be able to act or execute choreography ... but they also hold rock’s wild card: the potential, realized or not, for spontaneity."

Rock singing challenges most musical theatre voice teachers precisely because of the qualities that make it so exciting. The great appeal of rock singing is its gritty, edgy, spontaneous and above all, youthful abandon; in a word, its “untrained” quality. We’ve heard Randy on American Idol bemoan a sound that’s “too Broadway.” The clarity and freedom of the well-trained musical theatre singer seems to be at odds with this aesthetic, and voice teachers concerned for the longevity of young voices under unpredictable circumstances, are understandably befuddled.

In 2010, all four Tony contenders for best musical were rock musicals. The genre will offer for the foreseeable future the promise of considerable employment for young performers.  It is critical for voice teachers to understand the vocal requirements of these shows and how to guide singers constructively so that when they finish the American Idiot tour, they will be in good shape to go out with Oklahoma!

What exactly are we talking about here? Musical theatre performers today are vocal and physical athletes. Everybody sings, dances and acts. The sheer punishment of Elphaba’s “No Good Deed” which requires racing around a raked stage and up through a trap, screaming and ranting while metamorphosing into evil incarnate, is a huge physical and emotional challenge for a young singer regardless of talent and skill. To do this eight times a week seems almost impossible. The popular expression today, ”leave it all on the floor” suggests that you don’t have to come back in a few hours, pick up all those pieces and do it all over again!

When auditioning for shows like American Idiot, singers are asked to bring in an “authentic” rock song. Much is made of “authenticity” in this regard, as if the distinction between a theatrical production and a concert event were being intentionally blurred somehow. Here I sense the undeniable influence of American Idol. New pop musicals make the same request. Teachers and performers alike need to familiarize themselves with the different eras and styles and take advantage of the help offered by specialists in this genre so that they can find ways to win with the style without compromising their voices.

The audition process may feel style-driven at least initially. But I am inclined to put this in a different context and remind my students they are not rock singers but actors playing rock singers. A certain “persona” is required. The qualities hoped for at a rock audition are spontaneity, abandon and risk; “leaving it all on the floor”. The qualities needed to hang on to your instrument during a long run are just the opposite; skill, discipline and complete understanding of the instrument. In other words, “the art that conceals art.” In other words, zero risk. Nothing can be left to chance, although the actor needs to be able to make you believe he is doing just that, throwing caution to the wind. The character can be completely out of control: the actor must be completely in control.

Our main responsibility as voice teachers is the healthy function of the voice, whatever the style. Young professionals today should not feel threatened by extreme use of the voice provided they understand what they are doing physically. Access to a fully integrated and balanced speaking voice is critical to singing musical theatre. Speech pathologists warn of the three l’s, “too long, too low, too loud.” This is an issue of balance. Like any muscle, the vocal muscle needs to be exercised completely. If a woman is performing in a show that requires intense and extended use of her belt and chest quality she will want to re-balance by vocalizing her treble range. The same applies to a male singer.

The advent of individual stage mikes in the 80’s on Broadway paved the way for the fully amplified rock band. The sheer decibel level is challenging psychologically and the tendency even with monitors is to “blow” the voice to create the excitement of the style. A skilled performer needs to feel the difference between physical fatigue and physical injury, body or voice. It seems unfortunate to me that producers do not routinely provide voice teachers and physical therapists “on call” to monitor singers and dancers on Broadway, particularly in shows with extreme physical and vocal demands. The Public Theatre’s Joseph Papp provided a voice teacher for all of his shows and I have known of numerous producers providing this service for their stars as part of their contract. Can you imagine a college football team or the NFL without trainers and medical staff?

I think the Broadway community is behind the curve on this matter because the challenges of musical theatre performance have risen exponentially in the last ten years.

I have been working with a young woman who came to me as a classical soprano with excellent acting and dancing skills. The task was to integrate speech into her middle voice to eliminate the register break and make it possible for her to audition successfully for belt roles and contemporary rock and pop rock shows. The studio work has involved a careful and conscious knitting together of the middle range, between D4 and D5 so that the speech quality (chest dominant quality) has a train track to run on from the lowest to the highest note. The so-called “high belt” in women which creates such excitement (between E flat 5 and A flat 5 or higher) is easier for most young women than the transitional notes between C5 and E flat 5 where they feel a natural impulse to move to head voice/soprano. The trick is to help develop optional balancings in registration so that the transitional ranges become effortless but maintain the desired color. Eventually this young woman found the flexibility to belt in all ranges, notably as Mimi in Rent, without sacrificing the bloom in her soprano sound. For a recent American Idiot audition, she chose Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen. She was able to sing it with power and energy, and as of this writing, has earned a final callback. Maintaining a straight tone to the point of release was new for her. I encounter occasional difficulty helping singers achieve a straight tone quality without pushing the voice, which can lead to problems reinstating vibrato and returning to flow phonation. Pitch sometimes suffers. My only advice is to keep balancing back and forth, straight-tone to vibrato. The appearance of effort is part of a rock style but the production must be energized, not effortful.

 What this young woman has achieved is what I would hope for with any singer moving into the contemporary world of musical theatre. Being afraid of an unfamiliar use of the voice can be as much of a problem as having no concept of the possibility of harm.

We need to encourage our students to know their limits but not limit themselves.

I have a young hugely talented student who came to me with the opposite issue from the girl mentioned above. He had a powerful chest voice, baritone to F, then pushed above that with no mixed quality, i.e. not enough treble. The repertoire today kills a male voice that does not make the transition above F 4 easily. The belt quality can occur above that, bright and strong, if the register balance is correct. The first thing I address is the mixed or classical quality to bring treble into the upper tones. Mixing ensures range and flexibility and overall health of the instrument. This young man succeeded in developing his upper range and has recently been cast in Book of Mormon.

The popular “reinforced falsetto” or pop falsetto (as in Jersey Boys) is comparable to the woman’s head-dominant or soprano mix. I encourage all of these qualities in male singers just as I would in women, so that no matter what style they are singing in, they have somewhere reliable to be vocally. However, it is important that any type of falsetto use be kept as a special stylistic spice in male voices and not encroach upon the chest dominant sound as a “substitute.” The contra-tenor and the R and B falsettist are very special types. For musical theatre, there is limited work for this voice quality although men love to use it because it because it feels so easy.

No singer is immune to vocal trouble. All of us in the trenches working with musical theatre voices are responsible for understanding the requirements and the technical demands of the shows currently being cast. We can’t be frightened ourselves or we will convey that anxiety and get nowhere.  We need to encourage singers to monitor themselves, especially when they are away on tour. Young performers want to please. They might be inclined to do anything they are asked without checking in with their self-monitor. This might not be a problem at an audition (musical directors can ask for some crazy things) but if they are cast, it will be important for them to understand how they will survive a long run and still come out swinging.