Musical Theater and More in the Voice Studio
Paul Hindemith, DMA
I once auditioned for a major young artist program that required a musical theatre piece and recall being sneered at for bringing in “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s
I felt the choice was defensible enough -- it was in a “legit” style from what I considered to be a concert musical. I also had the mantra “If you haven’t sung it in public, don’t sing it at an audition” planted firmly in my brain. And, truth be told, other than “You’ll find me at Maxim’s” from
The Merry Widow
, it was the only thing I had in my book at that time that came close to actual musical theatre. Needless to say, I did not land the gig.
Given the amount of operetta and musical theatre I have ended up performing, I wish I had studied at least some musical theatre repertoire in school. I am sympathetic to my teachers, though, given what they were expected to do: provide a strong technical and musical foundation; encourage mastery of languages; explore a variety of repertoire including art song, oratorio, and opera; and develop performing skills in these genres. The “Musical Theatre is something you can learn on your own” approach that I encountered certainly seems defensible, given these constraints.
Unfortunately, job prospects for exclusively classical performers are fewer than ever, while opportunities in contemporary commercial music (CCM) genres including musical theatre are plentiful and lucrative. Opera companies have noticed the trend, and many now include musicals in their seasons. In the twenty-first century, the inclusion of musical theatre (let alone other CCM styles) in vocal study is no longer optional.
If that is not reason enough to change our thinking about the repertoire and styles we teach, consider the students who sense their teachers are not open to musical theatre and other CCM styles; they begin to compartmentalize their singing. I recall one young student who sang her classical repertoire fairly well, but who exhibited early signs of vocal pathology which perplexed me because her technique was good in general. Once we established rapport, I asked her about other singing and learned she participated in a lot of musical theatre and belted quite a bit. Due to a prior teacher who essentially had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about CCM styles, this young woman thought it was best not to tell me.
Something crystallized for me once I understood this young woman: I am my students’ vocal caretaker, regardless of genre or style. Despite being uncomfortable with belting in general at that point, I knew I was the only person in the small town I taught in who could help this young woman. I had her bring in some non-classical repertoire and immediately noticed the extreme vocal pressure she exerted when she belted; her voice began to improve once she started to trust me and find a less strenuous mode of production. On a side note, her classical performance improved markedly because she began to bring more character, honesty, freedom, and sense of self to her music.
In the end, I have decided it is not my place to judge someone’s musical tastes or goals but to help them become the artist they want to become. Furthermore, as a vocal pedagogue, I know it should be possible to comprehend the underlying technique of CCM styles and to pass that along to my students, given the existence of CCM performers who have had long careers while maintaining good vocal health. I allow them to bring repertoire to me that they feel fits them, and I am able to find even better-fitting repertoire going forward since I get to know them more authentically.
For those of us whose training was exclusively classical (as mine was), we have an opportunity to broaden our perspective. As vocal professionals and to some extent outsiders, we can bring the passion and knowledge we have gained from years of experience as artists and teachers to genres that may not be within our comfort zone. I won’t go so far as to say everyone must become an expert in CCM vocal technique, but at the very least, we owe it to our students to widen our musical and pedagogical views. We must honor our students’ musical tastes and goals, acknowledge the legitimacy of non-classical vocal styles, and help our students -- all our unique students -- grow into the artists they are destined to become.
Paul Hindemith is the coordinator of voice, music director for musical theatre, and co-director of the Light Opera Workshop at Missouri Western State University in Saint Joseph, Mo. He is Level 3 certified in Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method and regularly presents on the intersection of classical and CCM vocal pedagogies.