Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Legit Vocal Training Matters

Alice Ripley: fierce, fierce actress.  But that voice of hers is a little wonky lately.

Happy fall, everyone!  Now that the weather here in NYC has gotten a little brisk, it’s time to end my impromptu summer vacation from blogging and get back to talking about the theatre.
This is a blog I meant to write a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across this video on  In the midst of interviewing/goofing off with Broadway’s Stephanie J. Block, musician and internet personality Seth Rudetsky asks Block how familiar she was with the score of her next gig, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, before being cast in the show.  Block admits she’d only heard the soprano ballad “Moonfall,” and sings a few bars before Rudetsky cuts her off and jokingly tells her to “never sing like that again.”
The joke is that Block actually sounds fabulous singing with a legit soprano, but should only belt because that is what she is known for (having been a high profile replacement for roles like Elphaba and Reno Sweeney).  Sky high belting is what’s currently in vogue on Broadway, and Block bemoans the fact that she never gets to sing “Moonfall” at auditions because no one wants to hear her do it.  And the implications of that statement worry me.
If you are an up and coming actor who wants to be on Broadway these days, you have to be able to belt.  Contemporary musicals are almost invariably written as marathon belting sessions, and many classic shows are revived with a more pop-influenced sound.  This isn’t bad in and of itself, and I enjoy a good belt show as much as the next guy.  I lost track of how many times I listened to Rent when it first came out, and one of my biggest complaints about the current Evita revival is the distinct lack of belting done by its leading lady.  BUT legit singing is equally valuable, and should be a major part of any young singer’s training.
When someone learns how to sing in the classical/legit style, two of the most important things they learn are proper placement and breath support.  These form the basis of healthy singing in any genre, and are essential to anyone who wants to have a long career in the industry.  Without them, it is simply a matter of time before nodules or some other type of vocal damage renders a singer unable to manage the demands of doing eight shows a week. 
I would argue the reason someone like Block is able to consistently belt into the rafters is because her background in legit singing taught her proper placement and healthy vocal production.  These principles can be adapted into the contemporary/pop musical vein, but are much easier to practice and learn in classical singing.  The problem with belting and pop-influenced scores is that many of the hallmarks of the style can be achieved through strain and poor technique.  This may work in the short term, but over time it will absolutely destroy someone’s voice (see: Side Show Alice Ripley vs. Next to Normal Alice Ripley, or to use an example from pop music Songs in A Minor Alicia Keys vs. Element of Freedom Alicia Keys).
But since nobody is interested in hearing legit singing, it isn’t being taught as much.  We won’t have proof for another ten years or so, but I fear this is producing a generation of Broadway singers who are using poor technique to wail to the rafters now, but will be unable to sing much of anything by their mid-30s due to all the vocal damage they’ve sustained.  Resilient young voices can handle a fair amount of poor technique, but it will always catch up with you in the end.  Unless something changes, we’re looking at a future where catching that Tony-nominated performance will be a matter of luck, because the actor giving it doesn’t have the vocal stamina to do eight shows a week.  And nobody wants that

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