Classical/Choral/Broadway Vocal TechniqueAugust 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.