As singers, most of us spend more time speaking than singing throughout a typical day. And yet, some methods of vocal instruction seem intent on keeping a performer’s ‘singing voice’ completely separate from their ‘speaking voice’. As you may surmise from this post’s title, I am not a proponent of that approach. Speech is our body’s default, natural state for vocal production. Assuming a singer’s speaking voice is healthy and free, speech-to-singing exercises can be extremely helpful for improving their overall singing ability. This is true for musical theatre, classical, pop, rock, R&B, etc. styles. You can think of vocal music styles as specific variations of normal, everyday vocal production. They all require physiological adjustments within a singer’s vocal mechanism, but those adjustments must be built upon a free and naturalistic default configuration. For most of us, that is normal speech and speech-based singing.

When developing musical theatre belt and mix singing behaviors, speech-to-singing exercises are integral for success. This is partially because theatre singing is rooted in speech production. In fact, you can think of musical theatre-style belting as a loud, brassy form of speech-like vocal production (with greater range). Below is a breakdown of how speech-to-singing exercises can be used to improve different aspects of the vocal mechanism during belt and mix singing:

  1. Breathing – Breathing for musical theatre singing is sometimes taught in a way that is not particularly connected to vocal function. There is a common notion that if a performer inhales as much air as possible prior to singing a song phrase, they will have all that air available to them if needed. While that may sound logical on paper, the reality is typically more complex. When a singer takes in more air than they actually need for a phrase, their body will often instinctively try to use that air. During belting, that can be problematic because the vocal folds press firmly together and allow relatively little air to escape through them. Thus, if a singer tries to force too much air through those thick folds, they will likely feel a considerable amount of unwanted pressure and tension across their entire vocal mechanism. The singer may even feel as if they do not have enough air– when in reality their breath is just getting trapped behind the vocal folds. Speech-to-singing exercises can greatly assist with optimizing breath pressure and flow coordination. Start by speaking the lyrics within a particular phrase of a song as a projected monologue first. Note how much breath you need to get through that phrase (probably not all that much). Now speak the same lyrics in rhythm, varying your spoken pitch range throughout so that it somewhat matches the song’s melody. Again, how much breath did you need to do this? Perhaps not as much as you thought you did. Finally, speak the phrase the same way then quickly sing it using roughly the same amount of air and breath pressure. If you get through the phrase and a puff of air comes out of your mouth at the end, you probably took in too much air and/or used too much breath pressure. Repeat speech exercises above. I sometimes even ask students to exhale a portion of their air prior to singing a phrase in order to prevent ‘overblowing’.
  2. Vocal Fold Coordination & Laryngeal Movement – When belting, the vocal folds behave in a manner that resembles sustained, projected speech for most of us. That means they become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a longer closed quotient phase (aka they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time). Speech-to-singing exercises allow a singer to begin with a vocal fold configuration that feels natural to them then transfer that general behavior to a more extended vocal range over time. This gradual and deliberate approach will help the singer develop optimal laryngeal muscle strength, flexibility and coordination for belt and mix singing (note: you will also need to develop your head register if it is weak). An added bonus is that these exercises aid in normalizing laryngeal movement. You can feel your larynx as a ‘bump’ in the front of your neck. During speech-to-singing exercises, it will naturally move up and down as needed. The larynx will likely be somewhat higher during belting than in classical singing. That is OK as long as extreme movements are avoided. If the larynx seems ‘stuck’ in a high or low position, adjust your vowel shapes as needed (see below). Raising your chin a bit can sometimes help to normalize laryngeal movement as well– as can breathing somewhat higher into your lower ribcage. Again, use these approaches in moderation and avoid extremes. They may seem antithetical to the ‘low breath, low larynx’ approach often advocated for classical singing, but remember: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to voice training. Strategies must be adjusted for different individuals and different types of singing. NOTE: Do NOT try to directly manipulate laryngeal height with your fingers during vocal production. It is dangerous if you are not a trained speech therapist.
  3. Vowel Shaping – Vowel shapes in musical theatre singing are generally wider, brighter and brassier sounding than they are in normal everyday speech (for many of us anyway). This is primarily because Broadway belting grew out of the brassy, trumpet-like New York City accent still used by many people in the North Eastern United States today. You can hear a great example of this type of speaking here. To quote Amy in the video, “Being in New York City is a bombardment of human experience. What are ya gonna do? You’re gonna carve out your territory. You’re gonna carve out your space. You’re gonna trumpet your sound. Your consonants are going to be very clear, very straightforward. This is me, this is my space, this is my territory.” Take some time familiarizing yourself with this accent then practice speaking a phrase of your song using it (it doesn’t have to be perfect– focus on keeping vowels bright and brassy). While doing this, look in a mirror and make note of your mouth shape in addition to your tongue, teeth and jaw position (it wouldn’t hurt to check on your soft palate as well). Next, using that same brassy New York accent, speak the lyrics in rhythm while varying your spoken pitch range throughout so that it somewhat matches the song’s melody (similar to the breathing exercise mentioned above). Again, note what your mouth, tongue, teeth and jaw are doing. Once this approach feels free in your throat, speak the text the same way you just did then quickly sing the phrase using the same general mouth/vowel shapes and breath pressure. You may need to adjust vowels a bit while singing, and that is fine. Speech shapes are only guidelines for singing. Always listen to your body and make adjustments as needed.

There are many speech-to-singing exercises a singer can do outside of repertoire as well. For example, try pretending like you’re hailing a cab in New York City. Using your best New York City accent, call out “Hey taxi!” You can then turn this into a speech-to-singing activity via the first exercise we included in this blog post (provided by my colleague Jared Trudeau). My colleague Christianne Roll included another great speech-to-singing exercise in this post. As mentioned in my previous post on belting, you should always find a knowledgeable voice teacher when learning a new vocal behavior. I hope this post has provided some food for thought!

P.S. Need help finding musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.

– Kevin Michael Jones

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