- by Trish Causey
Science and physiological study are bringing new techniques to learning proper vocalization
Ask a random selection of people “What is Broadway music?” and the answer might range from “Belting” or “Americana” to “Operatic” or “Rock Musical” and they would each be correct. Broadway music—musical theatre—can be any one of these genres, and they are often used concurrently within the scope of one show. Unlike opera, which is always classical, or jazz, which is always jazzy, musical theatre composers choose a song’s style of music based on that moment of the story. Traversing these styles with ease is a hard task for any singer, especially with the added exertion of vocal projection and dancing.
More and more vocal teachers are studying the science of the vocal system in addition to traditional vocal training techniques, using that extra knowledge to help singers achieve their full potential and keep performing at a high level, even under the unique demands of a musical theatre career.
Scientists and Vocalists
Jeannette LoVetri, who teaches in Manhattan, knows first-hand the rigors of classical and musical theatre performing, and has been teaching Broadway performers since 1980. “I created the term Contemporary Commercial Music in 2000 to replace the use of the pejorative term ‘non-classical,’” she explains. Shortened to “CCM,” this term has taken hold. “It has helped the academic world, particularly, see the CCM styles as being valid on their own terms, separate and different from classical styles, and equal in terms of importance to singers and singing training.”
Of particular interest to LoVetri is the burgeoning field of functional voice training (FVT). Revered by some and misunderstood by many, FVT serves to allow the voice to make healthy sound with relative freedom.
“Functional training allows an individual to discover what types of sounds human beings make and what happens while making them as comfortably as possible,” says LoVetri. “It implies that over a period of time anyone can learn to make and eventually sustain any kind of sound. It also implies that making any kind of sound should not involve over-tightening, squeezing or restriction in the throat, neck or body, either deliberately or unconsciously.”
As a pioneer in CCM, LoVetri has spent years dispelling myths associated with vocal training. “The traditional assumption has been that classical repertoire is a good preparation for singing in any style, but there is no basis for this assumption except personal experience and opinion. Rock ‘n’ roll vocal production is not at all the same as classical vocal production, particularly for women, and training for one will not necessarily prepare you for the other. In fact, classical training can actually interfere with healthy rock ‘n’ roll vocal production.”
Dr. Robert Sataloff, of Philadelphia, holds a medical degree as an Otolaryngologist as well as a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Voice. While bel canto is his preferred vocal approach, voice research is the bedrock of his teaching and medical practice. “Science informs my studio teaching primarily by giving me a better-than-average understanding of what traditional studio language and imaging are actually trying to accomplish, as well as an additional repertoire of alternate language and techniques for people who do not respond promptly to traditional studio interventions.”
Dr. Sataloff also notes that knowing the essence of the preferred song style is key to mapping a path to the end result. “What does matter is understanding the desired final product, and adapting quickly to the needs and responsiveness of each student, changing teaching approaches in order to do what each student needs to understand and reach his/her vocal goals. The underlying principle is artistic economy. A good singer should be able to create whatever sound he or she wants—opera, legit, belt or whatever—with no unnecessary muscular and physical effort.”
Musical theatre performer and voice pathologist Dr. Wendy LeBorgne also brings personal singing experience to her clinical practice in Ohio. She advises singers to “maintain a well-produced, resonant speaking voice. If you do not speak well, it will be difficult to sing well in musical theatre.” To ensure a healthy singing career, she adds, “Keep the voice flexible and agile throughout the frequency range and dynamic control despite the vocal or physical demands of any given role.”
Dr. Ingo Titze of The National Center for Voice and Speech is an engineer by trade, and he helped pioneer research into how the voice functions, earning him the moniker, the “Father of Vocology.” Focusing on vocal training that requires a scientific answer, Dr. Titze has studied belting. “The most important aspects of vocal technique for the theatre belt is to understand the importance of second harmonic energy in the sound and the vocal tract shapes that can be used to achieve it.”
Broadway’s Vocal Niche
LoVetri echoes the scientific nuances needed to fully understand phonation in musical theatre. “Traditional vocal training is generally connected to learning classical repertoire, sometimes in foreign languages, and to generating resonances in the range of 2800 to 3200 Hz, producing a ‘singer’s formant cluster’ response, as well as a high decibel level over a sustained amount of time. It may or may not be deliberately connected to knowledge of vocal production but is frequently connected to specific musical goals or behaviors.”
This scientific approach to singing is the most obvious difference to classical training, which often employs imagery to achieve the desired vocal effect. LoVetri explains why imagery-based training produces inconsistent results. “Imagery that is subjective and personal may stimulate changes in vocal response, but they will be unique to the person, to the moment, and to the particular response of the voice and body at any given time. They may or may not stimulate consistent vocal production behavior that is consistently replicable and they may take a very long time to have any effect at all on vocal production or musical style.”
The most important aspect of musical theatre and belting technique is to know what is being asked of the vocal instrument and its subsystems to produce the desired sound. Paramount to this practice, according to Dr. Sataloff, is “learning to use each part of the system efficiently and effectively. If the large muscles of the abdomen, back and thorax generate the power for the voice, and if the resonance system enhances not only quality but also audibility (ring) then the larynx and its related musculature can produce beautiful, agile singing safely.”
Addressing the needs of the commercial singer, LoVetri belives the most important ingredients in understanding vocal technique for CCM styles, including music theatre and belting are: 1) Register quality for its own sake, separate from “resonance;” 2) the various types of sounds that fall within the term “belting” (as well as the kinds of singers, called “belters”, who can produce those sounds); and 3) the ability of the body to remain aligned and available so that breathing can be strong, deliberate and controlled without struggle. Another ingredient is understanding the difference between style and vocal production, recognizing that classical parameters do not belong in CCM styles with the exception of the “legit” or classically-oriented production found only on Broadway in older music theatre shows.
Protection from Injuries and Composers
Singers who do not have adequate training for the stresses of Broadway or professional performing are more prone to vocal injury, which can be devastating to a singer’s career.
Dr. Sataloff sees these types of injuries all too often. “Many vocal injuries occur because people try too hard to be heard, without taking full advantage of efficient vocal technique and ancillary resources, such as acoustics, amplification, etc.
“Injuries also occur commonly because singers often do not take as good care of their bodies or voices as they should. The admirable tendency to always give one hundred percent can be problematic in a vigorous performance setting, particularly in the arduous rehearsals required when preparing a new show. Singers need to conserve their voices enough to be able to pace themselves for the long haul—in terms of a given production, as well as a career.”
In her Manhattan studio, LoVetri likewise counsels clients on a singer’s choices away from the stage. “Broadway performers must spend their free hours making sure to get adequate vocal and physical rest, eat a healthy diet, keep up with physical maintenance such as going to a gym or having massages, taking yoga classes or doing Alexander Technique sessions, and taking classes to maintain technique in singing, dancing and acting. Not doing this will take its toll and eventually lead to increased fatigue, illness, and even injury.”
Dr. Titze gets technical when discussing singing and injury. “The injuries in prolonged speaking and singing are related to overexposure of tissues to vibration. Every singer needs to know their own recovery process from overexposure, much like we need to learn how long we can expose our skin to sun rays.”
Seeing patients with vocal injuries both great and small is a daily occurrence for Dr. LeBorgne. Typical injuries include “acute injury often following illness or medication use, vocal fold hemorrhage; acute or infectious laryngitis; and muscle tension dysphonia and repetitive strain injuries.”
How else do singers come by these injuries? LoVetri once again points to the idiosyncrasies of the Broadway genre and the newer crop of composers writing for their own ears—not for singers’ voices. “Vocalists who are asked to sing music which is out of their comfortable range or that is continuously very loud are more likely to incur serious vocal injuries, particularly if they have not been trained to deal with these specific issues technically. Since there are now quite a few successful shows on Broadway that have been written by rock composers there is less emphasis on ‘trained’ vocal production than there was in decades past.
“Sometimes composers do not understand or study vocal capacity and write without regard to how easy or hard what they have composed will be for a vocalist to do eight times a week live. This puts most of the responsibility for staying healthy as a vocalist on the singer’s side of the equation.”
The one thing none of these experts mentioned as being unhealthy is the scary word, “belting.” Belting is the signature sound of musical theatre, and many a young girl has spent countless hours practicing her gravity defying notes.
Setting to rest the myth that belting is bad for the voice, Dr. Sataloff is adamant. “Belting is not yelling. If you want to learn to belt, study with an expert and listen to great belters, all of whom display extraordinary variation when singing. Vocal variation and flexibility in belting require good technique and are as essential to healthy singing during belt as they are during opera or lieder.”
Acquiring vocal flexibility can come in the form of interdisciplinary training. Dr. LeBorgne emphasizes the need to approach one’s singing career the way an athlete trains for a marathon. “Cross-train the voice, train like an athlete. Practice daily; practice smart. Allow for adequate rest and recovery following heavy voice use and physical exercise, and for overall body wellness! These tips are of course in addition to the general vocal health and hygiene recommendations.”
Putting the vocal technique into practice is easier said than done, as choosing a bevy of Broadway showtunes that suits an individual’s voice can stump the most ardent of performers. LoVetri recommends choosing songs and auditioning for roles that are right for your “type”—age, voice, size, etc. But remember that behind the vocal technique is an actor telling a story.
“Music for Broadway or musical theatre is geared to the lyrics and the story of the character singing,” LoVetri reminds us. “While stylistic things can also be important, they do not supersede the need to be a great singing actor who looks and sounds comfortable, believable, and who can give a compelling performance, even if it is only in just 16 bars.”