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Classical/Choral/Broadway Vocal Technique

August 30, 2010

This is an area where there is already a lot of fiery talk, unfortunately mostly heat and very little light. There’s almost nothing I can say about this topic that will not anger some constituency, but I’ll try and keep my comments from being inflammatory and hopefully something of importance can be said about the elephant in the room.

If you got a degree in choral conducting or in Music Ed with an emphasis in choral conducting, or if your background is in choral singing, you hopefully got a very strong grounding in choral vocal technique. There are, of course, many schools of choral singing, and without picking too many fights, I think it’s safe to say that most choral singing technique is geared toward qualities that are not as valued in musical theatre. Women’s voices tend to be encouraged toward a mostly head voice registration, and belting is discouraged. Men’s voices also tend not to carry much chest weight into the passagio and higher registers, except under rare occasions. Tenors sometimes cultivate a boyish sound, and basses and baritones are also coached into a warm, open sound. Books and books of exercises and warm-ups are carefully and methodically arranged to free the midrange from tension, and tall vowels shape a warm, round sound, with just enough focus to provide a tone that carries. Blend is very important in choral singing, and the beauty of the sound is, for the most part, the primary concern, followed by accurate and uniform consonant production. Expressivity, of course, is important in choral singing, but not individual expressivity; programmed group expressivity. As a choral conductor myself, I heartily endorse all these goals, and I am dismayed when I encounter choral singing that doesn’t strive for these qualities.

If you are a classically trained singer, or vocal instructor, if you have an opera background, as I do, you will have been trained in one of the many schools of classical singing, again, far too numerous to get into here. Many of the qualities choral directors seek are also present for the opera or lieder singer; an even tone throughout the range, beauty and uniformity of the vowel, clarity of diction, breath support, release of tension, and so forth. Classical singing is far more individually expressive than choral singing, and there is a stronger emphasis on squillo, or the singer’s formant, the ringing tone one hopes to hear from a solo singer, and which one is often trying to remove from choral singing. Opera technique has been honed over hundreds of years, and is passed from teacher to student as a true art form. As in the old days, many teachers are viewed by their students as the keepers of a great and vast magical knowledge which they slowly impart to them. If you’ve never studied with a great classical voice instructor, you don’t know the amazing depth of knowledge these artists have, both of the repertoire and its problems, and the voice itself, with its various problems and possibilities.

Neither of these backgrounds truly prepares the vocal director for what he or she will encounter in music directing today’s musical theatre. In my experience, the training you receive in the breathing mechanism and support is still extremely useful from both camps in your support of the singers in a musical. Beyond that, many if not most of the techniques and skills most sought after and prized in the choral and classical worlds are ineffective and actually out of place on the musical theatre stage.

There was a time when Broadway technique was so similar to classical technique that people could go back and forth without too much difficulty. The golden age of musical theatre has many soprano, tenor, and baritone roles that should really be sung with a strong classical sense of registration and line, although today’s tastes tend to run in a less mannered direction. The trend in professional musical theatre now seems to be to revive a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and have everyone sing all the big songs (arias, really) parlando style without a sense of line and tone, which is the opposite of what those pieces really were meant to do, because they are the direct descendants of operetta.

There have been belters for a long time in musical theatre, (Ethel Merman, anyone?) existing side by side with classical style singers, but when more popular styles began to find their way into the musical theatre in the 1960s, similarities of technique between classical singing and musical theatre quickly began to disappear, and in their place came a very exciting, very American style of singing, which tends to be very bright, tends to have a mix of head and chest registrations, generally bringing much more of the exciting chest register into the high-middle range of both genders. The difficult practice of doing this without straining or sounding forced is the true art of singing in this style, and the practitioners of this style of singing are artists in every sense. So many of them have found a way to sing in this exciting, chest heavy style for decades without vocal injury that we must concede that there is a way to do it that is healthy.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves pedagogically in a very sticky situation, particularly if our ideals about singing choral music conflict with our tastes in choosing musicals. Most choral directors I know love Broadway musicals. It’s really the same demographic; people who like music, like group activities, people who are a little dramatic. These young choral directors are teaching their students all day about singing with a round, beautiful tone like a boy soprano, and then when school is out, these same children are expected to perform in a musical which was written to employ the kinds of vocal technique that are in some ways exactly and diametrically opposed to the techniques they were being taught in their choir class. And it puts these kids in a quandary. Telling kids to sing louder, louder, louder so that they can be exciting and audible in the back row is a mixed message against the admonition that they remain constantly in a pretty head voice. The two things don’t go together. And when the kids bring home the cast recording, as we know they will, they will be hearing and internalizing the greatest practitioners of the new art form singing the music stylistically correctly, and not the way you’ve been telling them to sing in choir class.

But it must also be said; there is a real chance of vocal injury if the vocal quality of these skilled belters is imitated without great care. Furthermore, some people just do not have the natural instruments to be able to belt healthily. Add to that the complications of a voice in transition from child to young adult, and you have a very complicated situation indeed!

If you choose to do Annie as your school show, you will hear some sounds in “It’s a Hard Knock Life” that will peel the paint off the walls of your choral room. You will have to be okay with this. That song is, God help us all, designed to sound like that. Girls are perfectly capable of singing that way, because they make those sounds all day to one another. If you ‘fix’ the song and make them sound like the American Boychoir, you will have saved their voices for your upcoming choral concert, maybe, but you will have destroyed the number, and the kids will not trust your judgment quite as much as they might have before, because they know perfectly well what that song is supposed to sound like. Oliver is a little better in this regard, somehow you can sing those numbers in a boy-choir voice, but don’t do Anne if high-belting little girls go against your vocal principles.

That also goes for most of the shows being written now, or even for the last 20-30 years. Millie? Belter. Les Miz? The girl parts especially are Belt Central. Hairspray? High School Musical? 13? These are all belt heavy shows. The numbers sound goofy in head voice. Oklahoma? The Sound Of Music? My Fair Lady? Now you can use some of the techniques you picked up singing Lieder and Arias. And please do!

There is a healthy way to belt, and an unhealthy way. I am of the opinion that to belt well, you’re going to lose some of the qualities you would need to be a great opera singer, and perhaps a great choral singer too, and vice versa. You can’t do everything equally well, especially such different things as these. This is not going to be the forum for that discussion, and already now, I think I will have made some teachers angry. But my opinion is that to sing contemporary musical theatre well and healthily, you’re going to have to come to grips with the new techniques, and you can’t pretend that they don’t exist. Make yourself aware of good and healthy belting techniques and employ them where appropriate, always keeping the vocal health of your young charges in the forefront of your mind. And if you are truly opposed to kids belting, give them shows where they don’t have to.

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6 comments

  1. Regarding your last paragraph, there are select few who are able to switch between the “classical” and “belting” genres with seeming ease… the freaks!

    Check out Morgan James:

    belting out some TV themes….

    or auditioning for Master Class….


    • Wow, I gotta admit, Stu, that’s pretty impressive. She’s freakishly good. Maybe I’m wrong on this point, but I still prefer her ‘classical’ instrument. I prefer Audra’s ‘musical theatre’ instrument too, even though she can sing Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine very well. I know she was classically trained, but do either of us really want to hear La Chenoweth sing Mozart? Glitter and Be Gay, The Girl in 14 G, and maybe Art is Calling for Me are the end of my interest in her ‘opera voice’, and they aren’t really opera.

      The other point is pedagogical. The fact that this woman can do these two things is an anomaly. Most people trying to sing those two things, especially one right after the other, are going to run into some serious difficulties that your average teacher is not going to be able to guide them through. She has Juilliard AND Deric Rosenblatt under her belt. (no pun intended)


  2. Ah, you did not offend, you are absolutely correct. But the balance is tricky. And SOME girls can handle the belt, while many many many do not know the limit and will push themselves to vocal fatigue and injury, while setting up bad habits for the future. If you can employ what the young people know well (and are drilled into them in chorus) in certain appropriate places in the score, you can not only help them stay safe, but perhaps give them a safety net.
    In a 6-8th grade production of Annie, we had them sing full chest for most of Hard Knock Life. When it came to the higher notes, we taught them a really nasally hooty head voice and it worked. Not what you would hear in chorus class, but way safer than trying to belt up there.
    So if you see a kid trying to belt but headed off the cliff, best to have some tricks in your pocket….


  3. as a singer and vocal coach myself, having sung thru various genre, i also agree to EVERYTHING you said. i teach a university choir, and it took me a lot of years training the group in choral technique of harmony and blending; and while i told them beforehand that different songs WILL require different singing techniques and vocal placement, there are numerous occasions that the production director will require the group to sing something different, and that’s the time when it gets difficult. I, myself, for an instance, is a classically-trained singer, but most of the time, friends will want to hear me sing during weddings and such, and I’ll have to sing Broadway/Pop/Ballad songs–and I have to ‘switch’ techniques! I can do so, but always with much preparation. Maybe the point you’re saying is, you cannot be a total ‘perfect 10′ expert on BOTH singing styles; at one point you will have to choose which you want to keep as your main instrument (in my case it’s classical) and try to go the nearest to ‘perfect 10′ (in my case, it’s 7 or 8) in other styles or genre. Of course, there will always be exemptions to the rule, again, as you said, all with the right, naturally born instrument, experience, and training.

    Very well said, excellent point-of-view. I may as well spread your word around the teaching circles =)


  4. Just once, I’d love for anyone who professes that there is such a thing as a healthy belt to teach how a “healthy belt technique” physically varies from classical technique, taking into consideration that language and how you speak/sing/pronounce vowels is not a matter of technique, but rather that of stylization.

    Healthy singing is healthy singing. Full stop. I don’t have any fancy degrees, nor am I any sort of a teacher. I am a singer who has studied and worked for many years. In my experience, when I’ve been told to “really belt that note out,” all the MD really wants is more volume. And thankfully I’ve been schooled in good habits and technique and am able to produce that without screaming.

    Classical technique has kept me employed in musical theater, contemporary/pop music, choir ensembles, and opera. I’ve never had to re-learn how to do anything.


    • JennyLeah-
      I think reasonable people can disagree about vocal technique. Whatever is working for you, keep doing it! I will say that as an MD, when I ask for something to be belted, I don’t just want volume, I want a totally different kind of singing than legit production. And on the other side, when I ask for ‘legit’ production in the mid-range, I am not asking for something to be quieter necessarily, either. This video is interesting: http://www.playbill.com/multimedia/video/4976/OBSESSED-Godspells-Morgan-James-and-a-Mariah-Carey-Coloratura Whatever you think about her voice, I think you’d be hard pressed to say that the two different kinds of singing she’s doing here do not represent two different techniques of singing. If you prefer to think of them as different stylistic approaches to using the same instrument, I suppose you can, but to me, they represent so many physical production differences that they amount to being in two different categories of production. They share elements like support, body alignment, and ease, but they also have very different ideas about registration (which is a physical, scientifically observable reality), and about ideal tone, which amounts to a whole host of minor changes in the vocal tract during sound production. But again, if what you’re doing is healthy and making your MD happy, there’s no point in messing with a good thing! Best of luck to you, and happy singing!



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