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Teaching Musical Theatre Vocalization

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Scott McLeod and his students discuss vocal technique as they prepare for a presentation of Hansel and Gretel.

Scott McLeod and his students discuss vocal technique as they prepare for a presentation of Hansel and Gretel.

By Lisa Mulcahy

Introducing your choral students to musical theatre is both exciting and challenging. A musical theatre score is quite precise in its structure, and highly traditional in its atmospheric presentation, yet at the same time packed with emotion that requires accurate interpretation – a perfect training opportunity for any vocal music student. Are you considering how to tackle this art form with your group? Read on to gain teaching insights from four accomplished instructors.

Strategic Thinking

First things first: what overall approach should a teacher take when it comes to familiarizing student singers new to the musical theatre with the genre’s style, musically? “It starts with listening – the students must have a broad understanding of not only musical theatre in general, but also the subgenre,” says J.D. Frizzell, director of fine arts and vocal music at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tennessee. “For example, if they are preparing for Oklahoma, I would have them listen to great recordings of other Golden Age musicals like Show Boat, South Pacific, Carousel, and The Sound Of Music. Similarly, a review of musicals like Shrek, Rent, Hairspray, and Wicked would better prepare them for the more pop-like Grease. As students listen, I have them list style characteristics of the singing and music: tone, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, diction, vibrato, and so on.”

It’s key, however, to make certain your students are listening to quality examples. “Whatever you do, never just tell them to go to YouTube and start listening to recordings!” urges Frizzell. “The quality of these recordings runs the gambit, from professional Broadway casts to eight-year-olds singing with a karaoke track.”

Getting a feel for the show you’re preparing is also a vital piece of the strategy. “It’s important to take the style of the theatrical production into consideration,” says Michael Schwartzkopf, former music education department chair and professor at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It’s essential to focus your students on points like the time period in which any given musical takes place. For example, Oklahoma differs greatly in terms of the time frame of its score from Les Miserables, of course. That sense of period influences the underlying story of the piece, and the way your students will perform it.”

It’s also important to find out exactly what your students already know about musical theatre, both in general and specifically. “I actually find that it’s rare to encounter students in the U.S. who are not familiar with musical theatre at some level – it is so pervasive in our culture that almost everyone has some relationship to the genre,” says Scott McLeod, professor of music at Highpoint University in Highpoint, North Carolina. “But when compared to classical repertoire, I think one of the main distinctions is that the music in musical theatre productions is largely subservient to lyrics, especially in shows composed in the last 30 years. Often when we explore the meaning of these words and phrases, and the relationship of character to situation, we find vocal colors and nuances that enhance the sense of style. Consider an ensemble number such as ‘One Day More’ from Les Miserables, and how a sense of context and theatrical motivation, especially from opposing characters, influences the way that we hear the vocal lines. The music is beautiful, but the excitement and passion comes from a sense of dramatic urgency in the lyrics.

At the same time, keep in mind that the fundamentals shouldn’t necessarily change. “Good vocal technique is good vocal technique, whether it’s a chamber ensemble singing madrigals or a show choir or a musical cast,” says Sally Schneider, a vocal director with over 31 years of experience teaching in the Akron, Ohio public school system. “Kids of all ages need to understand the mechanics of singing and respect that one ‘delivery style’ is no better than another. Once those walls are broken down, they always seem more receptive to trying something new. I always call attention to the physics of singing and good technique. The musical theatre singer must be heard and understood or the message and character development is lost. With that said, many younger singers want to focus on quantity of sound rather than adjusting the quality of their tone and vocal placement. While quantity might seem effective at first, by the second rehearsal, their energy is spent and their chords are swollen and hoarse. I encourage the practice of imitating different character voices to awaken the more nasal/focused timbres that are needed to cut through a large auditorium.”

Teaching the Technique

When it comes to a technical approach for encouraging your students to become comfortable with vocal styles such as jazz, gospel, and rock, as they fit into many musical theatre scores and productions, it’s important to break things down into small detail. “Because time is precious for most high school musical rehearsals (unlike an in-depth collegiate class covering musical styles), I encourage students to listen to and imitate models of musical styles that fit the show,” says Schneider. “We do talk about rhythm patterns and emphasis. Rock music typically emphasizes beats 1 and 3 while gospel commits to beats 2 and 4. Once the choreography has been added, the students begin to ‘feel’ the rhythmic structure of what they’ve been singing.”

Training by ear is another element. “For familiarization with any particular genre, there is no better substitute than listening to representative examples,” says McLeod. “It is important to listen to a variety of voices, though, and to avoid imitation. Young students often get a voice in their heads – say, Idina Menzel or Sutton Foster – and try to imitate that voice. This is unoriginal at best, and may potentially lead to vocal injury. So, I often ask my students to set aside style when initially learning a piece. Once they have learned the piece in their voice, I incorporate elements specific to musical theatre interpretation. For example, vowel approach needs to be a bit more lateral, with less cover through the passaggio. Some would argue that musical theatre requires a high larynx; instead, I teach a comfortable low larynx with a wider vowel space. This generally achieves a suitable effect with a more sustainable technique. Pitch relationships are specific to style, as well: it is often appropriate to slide or bend pitch for dramatic effect. These styles can also be enhanced with creative use of vibrato, sometimes withholding vibrato on final notes and building to a vibrant climax. In choirs and ensembles, the key is the unity of these characteristics, just as in classical repertoire.”

“Again, it starts with listening,” agrees Frizzell. “Students must be intimately familiar with what great performances of these styles sound like. If I am preparing students for a show like Hairspray, I’m probably not going to have them listen to other rock musicals. Rather, we will listen to Buddy Holly, Elvis, Motown, and so on. Go back to the original sources and the people who best embody the style traits. Informal ‘recitals’ during which students just sing one verse and a chorus from a song of the particular style you’re preparing are always fun and helpful. Immediate feedback from the director can help students improve from that performance, so they can better understand how closely they are singing with the proper style characteristics.”

In musical theatre, as in any genre your students are vocalizing, proper diction is of the utmost concern. “Good diction spans every musical genre,” says Schwartzkopf. “Dipthongs, consonants – these elements are always crucial to stress to students. As is always communicating to the back row! I feel, too, that if you are working with a student who is unfamiliar with not just musical theatre, but these basic elements of vocalization, you have to take the time and effort to work one-on-one with that student to familiarize him or her, and also provide encouragement at the same time.”

When approaching these kinds of intensive lesson sessions, either one-on-one or in a class setting, vocal clarity can be best achieved with an equally clear teaching technique. “Because musical theatre is a dramatic art, it is important that lyrics are clear at all times,” says McLeod. “ While art song and classical music are typically vowel-dominant, musical theatre diction is reliant on a liberal use of consonants. Sometimes the solution is as easy as over-emphasizing consonants, especially voiced, sustainable consonants (l, m, n, v, z, and so on). Consonants should generally be formed in the front of the mouth, often with a smile or showing of teeth. Musical theatre pieces are usually written in a tessitura that is conducive to good articulation. Composers are aware of the need to portray text clearly. I sometimes suggest that singers deliver text as if they were singing to a group of small children or to an audience with limited English comprehension. When a singer is overemphasizing diction, it is usually just enough. In ensemble numbers, clean attacks and cut-offs, along with vowel unification, are basic but useful strategies to ensure clear diction.”

Creating Emotional Resonance

You also don’t want to overlook the importance of text interpretation as a diction tool – and of course, as a way to convey the emotional meaning of the play itself. “Script analysis really helps here,” says Schneider. “Isolating the subject and the action verb, putting it to movement helps convey a phrase. Understanding the character is vital. Imagining how the character would feel or speak the phrase can help give it definition. Depending on the composer’s skill for writing an expressive line, analyzing each musical phrase to find the highest pitch, the longest pitch can help a singer define and execute a phrase with authenticity and clarity.”

To help your students experience the full impact of a musical theatre score both physically and emotionally, it’s a great idea to put the concepts you’ve gone over with their students into practice. “One easy exercise is for each student to sing one of their songs in front of a group of students who don’t know the lyrics,” says Frizzell. “Have students in the audience write down as much of the lyrics as they can understand from the performance. This will help glean which words are being well articulated, and which are not. I always push my students to ‘overdo’ everything, especially diction, when rehearsing. It is easy to pull that back to seem more natural as you approach the performances. It is much harder to add it in if it hasn’t been habitual.”

The end result of your students’ hard work on a musical theatre project can be incredibly meaningful, both educationally and personally. “My students inspire me daily,” says Macleod. “I enjoy the process of discovery, and the fresh perspective that they bring to musical interpretation. I’m fortunate to work with a creative and energetic population of students, in an environment that supports artistic exploration and fosters a love of learning.”

“All kids want to be valuable and valued,” adds Sally Schneider. “When a cast is able to provoke the audience to ‘feel,’ that unspoken moment of validity is priceless. Helping students discriminate between a scene that is orchestrated to one that is researched, genuine, and authentic is a daunting task, but by far the most rewarding!”

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