My teaching philosophy is based on the premise that students of singing must be allowed to explore and discover the individual, instinctive experience of their own voice. The ultimate goal would be to become fully integrated as actors who sing very well, who embrace their individual vocal flaws, who seek to achieve excellence but do not pursue perfection, and who insist on serving the dramatic progression of the song at all times. Voice training for actors must be taught in a way that incorporates the technical, musical and dramatic demands at all steps of training. Though it is reasonable to isolate technical work at some moments, it is critical to incorporate that work into an integrated whole as soon as possible.
Coming to this work with a very serious background in vocal pedagogy, voice performance and acting, I also incorporate many years of stage experience into my teaching. I believe that the underlying philosophical and positive psychological state of performers is critical so that they may undertake the work of bringing a piece of music off the page and give it a creative life it otherwise would not have possessed. This requires extensive work on vocal technique, musical coaching and phrasing, acting technique, lyric analysis and thorough exploration of the physical life of a character on stage.
Following are some of my specific thoughts regarding the required work mentioned above.
Philosophy / Psychology
It is extremely important to be positive, energetic and joyful about the process of combining voice, music and drama. Most of your time will be spent figuring things out before the performance, so you had better enjoy the work. Equally important is that you pursue excellence, not perfection.
I often use the metaphor of the dartboard as it relates to stage performance: once in a while you get a bulls eye, which is great. If you’re a professional, the dart will always be on the board, as even the professional dart thrower doesn’t always get a bulls eye. But if you throw the dart and miss the board, there is still technical work to do. In the meantime, celebrate the times you got the dart on the board.
All voices are unique. There is no such thing as a perfect voice. The question is whether or not your voice is free, expressive, instinctive, honest and is serving the needs of the text. Voices have different ranges, timbres and flexibility and you should celebrate the individuality of your own talent.
The sounds of musical theatre voice are often very different than the sounds of classical voice. There’s no need to apply classical vocal technique to musical theatre singing as it is most often not needed. American musical theatre is a glorious, distinct art form, and though it owes a deep historical gratitude to opera and operetta, there is no need for apology.
Focus more on the story and less on your voice. Musical theatre singing should be conversational, in a lyrical context with a colloquial use of diction. It is speech-related, but it is not speaking. The more eventful your singing is to you, the less eventful it will be for the audience.
All performers get nervous. If your skill factor is high, then your nerve factor will be low. The most successful performers focus on the story of their song, put themselves in a safe performance zone and trust that they will be successful. Do not hope for the best or create in public. Practice all aspects of your performance and know exactly what you are doing.
A little good information goes a very long way. Most good singers teach themselves and don’t need to be micromanaged by their teachers. I believe that I give a lot of little bits of good information.
I teach voice performance utilizing a flexible pedagogical approach. All singers arrive with a unique instrument and a personal psychology that informs their ability to make sounds. My job is to help students discover their natural voices, figure out which sounds are their best sounds and then guide them toward making those sounds consistently. I find it most helpful to use the term “standard vocal technique” as opposed to “classical vocal technique”, which can be quite polarizing when working with actors. Obviously, a thorough understanding of registration and resonance is critical when teaching a diverse student population. If the voice is clear and functioning properly, your singing is probably pretty good.
Women must be taught how to move effortlessly from the chest to the middle to the head voice, without breaks or shifts in register. Once that is achieved, techniques of belt voice can usually be taught quite successfully without danger of damaging the voice. In fact, most often the development of the belt voice correlates directly to the improvement of the upper register. When teaching belt voice, it is most important to remember that all singers do not have the same capabilities and that high voice women belt higher than low voice women. Choice of repertoire is vital to the process as is a thorough knowledge of keys and an ability to transpose as needed.
Technical concerns in the male voice include a thorough knowledge of registration changes from falsetto to chest, thus building the voix-mixte or head voice. This lighter mechanism is extremely important for musical theatre men and is critical to master before addressing issues of male belt voice. Of particular interest is the occurrence of the bari-tenor voice, which is a voice that has tenor timbre but the range of a high baritone. These young men are often misclassified as tenors and sometimes the psychological damage done to them can be difficult to undo. Proper identification will send them on their way to a successful career.
Breathing techniques for musical theatre performance need to be taught in a naturalistic way so that the actor is never tense while singing. I teach a standard, commonsense approach to diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on the expansion of the back and the ribs, utilizing the intercostal muscles and the principles of muscular antagonism. Most important is that the singer find a healthy balance between the normal tension needed for serious vocal production and a relaxed naturalism to the breathing mechanism which appears easy, confident and stage-worthy.
The issues of musicianship and musicality are extremely important when training young singing actors. Intonation and rhythm are not negotiable in musical theatre performance, as is true of all professional musical pursuits. I am exacting in those requirements and am constantly reinforcing those details during regular lessons.
Once the young singer is confident of the pitch and rhythm, it is important to move quickly to address harmonic colors and a more relaxed conversational rhythmic interpretation of the text. The phrasing should come from the meaning of the lyric and the intention of the actor.
Musical theatre phrasing is open to enormous interpretation and must include detailed use of dynamics, tempo alterations and subtle tonal colorations. The consonants of the lyrics are an integral part of great musical theatre singing and are, in my opinion, critical to excellent registration and resonance occurrences as well.
In general, it is important to decrescendo to high notes, attack them softly, and then crescendo. Also, all repeated notes must grow, crescendo and expand into the phrase.
In musical theatre voice, the vibrato must be used expressively. You can often begin phrases with a calm, straight tone, then add air and let the vibrato flow through the end of the phrase.
Also, no glottal attacks. All words that begin with vowels must be started with an easy attack or use the consonant or glide that precedes the attack.
To achieve excellence in musical theatre, all singers must be trained as serious actors. Often known as terrific “performers”, musical theatre actors must pursue an even deeper understanding of their personal creative power and must excel at being honest, truthful and always in the moment of their story. This requires serious acting study as well as a concerted effort on the part of the voice teachers, musical directors and coaches to ensure that the actor’s singing never becomes an issue unto itself. Indeed, if it is, the student is most likely not ready for a professional career in musical theatre.
Voice lessons and coachings must constantly reinforce the dramatic aspects of the song. Though voice technique may be partially learned as a discipline unto itself, it would be best if the voice teacher was skilled at musical and dramatic coaching as well. Of course this requires that one have a voice faculty that is trained in acting, stage performance and musical coaching and is comfortable with piano proficiency.
One of the great challenges is to have voice students let go and really do a full performance in their voice lesson. Many times students have told me that they didn’t know they were allowed to do that in their lesson. Perhaps they were willing to give it their all in performance class or were waiting for an audience. Either way, students must learn to fully practice what they’re going to present. It is not reasonable to hope that it will all come together at the audition or on opening night. Yet this is precisely what many young performers do.
An important aspect of the dramatic presentation of a song is the physical life of the character. This is an area where many performers are most uncomfortable and often feel lost. Serious study of movement for the actor, physical awareness and dance are critical to a musical theatre performer’s success.
Some of the things I most often come across and address in masterclasses are the following:
- Gestures must be honest and natural. Tense hands and stiff arms are common sights with young performers. I have specific tools I use to help students find instinctive movements that would look and feel comfortable for them.
- Also common are reflexive eyebrows, which are constantly arching as either warnings that singing is about to commence or as emotional expressions of text. Neither are desirable. Once this habit has been broken, students often find it much easier to focus on the text and the real meaning of their story.
- The focus of the eyes is also critical in musical theatre performance. Most singing actors throw their gaze too widely around the room. The changes in focus, which are directly connected to acting beats, need to be subtle and small. The changes will seem uneventful and often boring to the young performer. But the results are often revealing and thrilling to the audience.
- It is also important that the actor not look down or away, especially when auditioning. The changes in focus must be visible to the audience so that the acting beats are shared with the viewers. Equally poor is when actors close their eyes at emotional moments. Eyes should be open as they are indeed the window into the actor’s thoughts.