There are many myths about musical theatre singing floating around today. Up until the last decade or so, musical theatre voice training was a topic that few in the voice science and academic communities seemed to have much interest in addressing directly. It was believed that classical singing technique should be the basis for all types of singing (some still believe this). In my opinion, one of the main issues with this assertion is that classical singing technique in itself is quite a debatable topic. Ask 100 different voice teachers to define ‘classical technique’, and you could get 100 different responses.
The tides have been shifting in recent years. Shenandoah Conservatory and Penn State University now offer graduate programs in Contemporary Commercial Music Voice Pedagogy and Voice Pedagogy for Musical Theatre, respectively. As one of the first graduates from the former program, I spent quite a bit of time researching musical theatre and pop/rock voice training methods. I also heard and read many, many myths about musical theatre singing. To clear up some of these false assertions, I will address them directly in a series of blog posts here at Musical Theatre Resources. Below is my first installment. If you would like me to tackle a specific musical theatre singing myth in my next post, please feel free to message me directly.
1. Belting requires more air and ‘support’ than classical/legit musical theatre singing.
Firstly, it is important to note that there are different types of belting just as there are different types of classical singing. In general, though, telling students to utilize ‘more breath’, ‘more support’, etc. will often not help them develop better belt technique. Why is this the case? When belting, the vocal folds become thick/short and stay pressed together for longer periods of time than they do when singing in head voice (for voice nerds- this means there is a longer ‘closed quotient phase’). As a result, less air is able to escape through the space between the folds (aka the glottis). Even if the student attempts to force more air through the folds while belting, there is nowhere for that air to go. Doing so can actually create a tremendous amount of subglottic air pressure and back-up (some SG pressure is actually necessary for belting, but I’m talking about extremes here). Broadway voice teacher and vocal pedagogue Jeannette LoVetri explains further:
“The vocal folds control the airflow. Belt = long closed phase, low airflow. Defaulting to changes in “breath support” before the vocal folds can correctly create the desired vocal quality will only confuse the vocalist and inhibit the learning process… [While belting] the singer wouldn’t experience “singing on the breath” as a classical vocalist does because the volume generated produces a longer closed phase in the vocal folds therefore not a lot of air escapes as the vocalist is singing.”
2. Because of body microphones, musical theatre singing is easier today than it was fifty-plus years ago.
There are multiple reasons why this statement is false. Chief among them, Golden Age singer-actors frequently only needed to specialize in one type of singing in order to remain marketable back in the 1940s-60s (i.e. Julie Andrews was primarily a legit/head voice singer, and Carol Burnett was primarily a belter). This does not mean they couldn’t sing in other ways (they sometimes did), but they rarely had any reason to. The audience demand simply wasn’t there. In most cases, audiences expected a singer like Julie Andrews to sound like, well… Julie Andrews. Today, Broadway singer-actors need to be able to sing almost EVERYTHING to remain marketable. Via Broadway voice teacher Joan Lader:
“The field has changed so much since my time. In the sixties, we were separated into two categories in auditions: dancers who sang or singers who danced. If you were lucky, you got to sing sixteen bars of an uptempo and possibly a ballad. The standard questions were, “Can you belt?” and “Can you sing legit?” and the gold standard for belting was sounding like Ethel Merman. Today, you may be singing Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie one day and Maria in West Side Story the next. Besides this, we have a new generation of composers who mix styles that are extremely demanding vocally. One character may have to produce a “pop” belt sound, which I differentiate from a musical theatre belt sound, as well as producing high Cs over heavy orchestration with sustained classical lines, for example Dracula. A healthy singer should be able to move from one style of music to another.”
There is an issue of muscular flexibility and stamina here as well. Two laryngeal muscles are primarily responsible for vocal fold function: the cricothyroid (CT) and the thyroarytenoid (TA). When singing in head voice (think Julie Andrews), the CT muscle contracts and becomes the dominant of the two muscles (the TA remains involved passively). When singing in chest voice/belt, the TA becomes dominant. This means Broadway singers today are constantly stretching and contracting laryngeal muscles in ways that their Golden Age counterparts simply did not have to do on a regular basis. The vocal ranges for musical theatre parts today are often much more extreme than they were fifty-plus years ago as well. For example, women were rarely asked to belt above C5 in the Golden Age, but they are asked to do so much more frequently today.
Finally, there’s the dance factor. Many musicals today are full-out visual and audio spectacles. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘triple threat’, it certainly applies here. In order to be competitive in professional musical theatre today, performers need to be very proficient actors, dancers, and singers (usually in that order of importance, frankly). Imagine having to sing while running around the stage, jumping in the air, doing cartwheels, etc. This is the world Broadway performers live in today, and it is certainly a much more physically demanding environment that it was during the Golden Age (with a few possible exceptions).
3. Men can’t actually belt.
I actually wrote an entire post on this topic last year, so check it out if you’re interested. In short, yes, men can and do belt… with one major stipulation (it depends how you choose to define belting). It is a somewhat debatable topic, and there are multiple ways of looking at it. Check out the linked post for my take.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for part 2 in this series, and please feel free to comment below with questions or concerns!