Welcome to the first post in our Vocal Technique Tuesday blog post series here at Musical Theatre Resources! In this series, our contributors will share valuable voice training and vocal health tips with readers every week. This first post comes from MTR Founder & Editor, Kevin Michael Jones.
Every now and then, I decide to revisit a particular piece I haven’t sung in a decade or more. There are many possible reasons for this (i.e. preparation for a specific audition, role research, a general appreciation for the piece, etc.). However, regardless of the reason, the result is usually not stellar. Why, you may ask? This is largely due to a phenomenon called ‘muscle memory‘ (a term frequently used synonymously with ‘motor learning’). Simply put, my body almost always remembers how I sang a particular piece all those years ago. And folks– like most of us, my vocal technique wasn’t always the greatest. I have worked hard to get my voice to the point where it is today, and I’m not ashamed to admit it has been a LONG journey.
Now for a practical example of the above phenomenon: About a year ago, I sang a piece in an audition that I hadn’t performed or even looked at for many years. The second I opened my mouth to begin singing the selection, my throat tightened up, my body became stiff and rigid, and my breath support essentially went out the window. That can all be chalked up to sudden freak nerves, right? Well, not quite. You see, I performed three pieces in that audition. The first and third selections were newer pieces, and they both went well. My technique only suffered in that second, older piece. This was no coincidence, you see. Our bodies are extremely intelligent, and our muscles are capable of storing past memories, emotions, and even trauma for YEARS (whether we want them to or not). You bet this can have a negative effect on vocal development and overall physical health. In that particular audition, my body instinctively reverted back to poor vocal technique habits from my past when I tried singing the older piece.
What can we do to avoid a situation like the one I described above? It’s simple, really. We can sing repertoire that is in line with our current vocal technique, and we can assign students repertoire that matches their technical progress. The rep can still be challenging in certain ways (i.e. artistic expression, small technical work, etc.), but it should NOT be too far outside of the individual performer’s technical comfort zone. Assigning a piece to a student that he/she is not ready to sing is essentially setting the student up for failure. If the student learns to sing a piece with poor technique, there is a good chance he or she will struggle to sing it for years and years to come. Our bodies do not forget old habits easily (whether good or bad).
Please keep the above in mind when selecting vocal repertoire for yourself or for your students. In general, repertoire should serve the vocal technique– not the other way around. I strongly recommend only utilizing repertoire to reinforce technical work that has already occurred and/or for artistic development purposes.
P.S. Need help finding musical theatre repertoire to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.