The topic of vocal ‘cross-training’ remains somewhat controversial within the music and theatre worlds (though far less so today than even a decade ago). Frankly, this should not be the case. While cross-training is sometimes defined as simply ‘singing different styles of music’, there is a much broader, interdisciplinary definition that frequently applies:
cross-training – exercising muscles differently than how they are normally used in order to promote optimal performance levels and mitigate against injuries.
Again, this should not be a foreign concept to performers and teachers today. Professional athletes cross-train different muscles in their bodies all the time, and singers are vocal athletes. To that end, musical theatre actors and actresses are more like triathletes– those who do several sports at once– rather than those who do just one. Among other reasons, this is because the vocal folds are primarily driven by two sets of laryngeal muscles: the thyroarytenoids (TA) and the cricothyroids (CT). In order to produce marketable vocal sounds for specific styles, musical theatre performers must stretch and utilize these muscles in various ways. This makes them unique from many other types of performers. Musical theatre singer-actors are truly vocal chameleons who must adapt to the technical and stylistic demands placed on them for each role they’re cast in.
When singing in TA-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘chest register’, ‘belt’, or ‘chest-mix’), the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time. When singing in CT-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘head register’, ‘head-mix’, or ‘falsetto’ for men), the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and they remain touching for a shorter period of time. CT-dominant production generally requires more air-flow than TA-dominant production due to a greater amount of air escaping through the folds (the latter can typically be characterized as high pressure + low flow).
This delicate balance act between the TA and CT laryngeal muscles has a massive effect on the voice overall. Hence, a female soprano who has never belted a day in her life often cannot just wake up one day and decide to do so. In most cases, that singer’s voice would tire very quickly due to having not built up the proper laryngeal muscle strength, flexibility, and co-ordination for such a specific, high-endurance vocal behavior. Now, with the right teacher, a singer could certainly learn to belt healthily. However, just like weight-lifting, vocal cross-training takes time and dedication. We are talking about anatomical musculature here– it’s not just a matter of ‘placing’ the sound differently. The same goes for vice versa: a belter who has never sung in ‘head voice’ would need to develop the proper muscular strength and co-ordination to do so. Either way, this can be a very drawn out and involved process.
The above information is a long way of getting to the main point of this post. Below, I have compiled contrasting performance examples of six female Broadway vocalists. In each of these examples, the actresses are singing with different laryngeal muscle configurations. Yes, they are singing in different styles, but it goes beyond that. In order to sing these contrasting styles in marketable ways, these actresses have clearly strengthened and developed both sets of laryngeal muscles through various exercises and techniques. It’s not magic– it’s pure dedication to cross-training on their part (and on the part of their teachers). These women are high-level vocal athletes.
1. JESSIE MUELLER (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Waitress, Carousel)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Mister Snow” from Carousel
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Beautiful” from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
2. SAMANTHA MASSELL (Fiddler on the Roof, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “A Place Called Home” from A Christmas Carol
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “But the World Goes Round” from New York, New York
3. LAURA OSNES (Bonnie & Clyde, Cinderella, Anything Goes)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “If I Loved You” from Carousel
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” from Bonnie & Clyde
4. KATE BALDWIN (Big Fish, Wonderful Town, Finian’s Rainbow)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Bill” from Show Boat
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “Country Bird” from Songbird
5. ASHLEY BROWN (Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “A Change in Me” from Beauty and the Beast
6. SIERRA BOGGESS (Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, School of Rock)
Legit/Head Voice/Head-Mix Example: “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera
Belt/Chest Voice/Chest-Mix Example: “I Don’t Care” from The Good Old Summertime