ATHE Panel Remarks

This post summarizes some remarks I made recently in a panel discussion entitled “Double Down or Diversity: the Musical Theatre Educator’s Dilemma” at the Association of Theatre in Higher Education 2014 conference in Scottsdale, AZ:

Panel Abstract:

Musical theater educators face a challenge in preparing students for an industry that traditionally relies on character type, while at the same time encouraging students to become versatile and well-rounded artists. How do we prepare our students to work in the industry as it is today while remaining adaptable for the future? How do students identify and focus on their strengths without pigeonholing themselves early in their careers? Conversely, how do we as teachers present a wide variety of performance techniques, idioms, and opportunities without sacrificing depth in our curricula?

This panel will address these questions from the standpoints of acting, dance, and singing training, touching on the pros and cons of varied skill-set acquisition versus specific character type pursuit in each performance arena and drawing on a broad array of experiences in higher education and professional theater in the United States and abroad.

Early-career musical theatre singers need to be able to sing in a variety of styles in order to maximize casting opportunities. Traditionally, the industry demand has been for a 2-way stylistic split: Legit and Belt. A recent paper in the Journal of Voice by Kathryn Green et al employed a frequency-count study of professional audition listings to reflect a more contemporary view of the industry. They describe a 4-way split: Legit(5%), Traditional (40%), Contemporary (30%), and Pop/Rock (25%). Three of these four categories (a whopping 95% of auditions) include some form of “non-classical” vocal production. It is clear that classical training alone is inadequate preparation for today’s musical theatre singer.

Even within the traditional legit category, distinctions can be made. The legit sound has evolved toward a more speech-based production in recent years, as evidenced by a comparison of recordings of golden-age musicals and their modern-day revivals. Still, in functional terms, we can describe the legit sound as crico-thyroid dominant with stylistic parameters flowing out of a classical/operetta tradition. The terminology we hear associated with this sound is variously: head voice, loft, light mechanism, etc.

Belt, on the other hand, can be described as thyro-arytenoid dominant and is associated with the terms chest voice, heavy mechanism, etc. But beyond a simple belt designation, various stylistic parameters make it apparent that this is not a monolithic vocal category. Within belt, we can describe traditional musical theatre belt, “contemporary” belt, pop/rock belt…the list is potentially as long as our ability to describe sounds.

At the same time as our two original categories of musical theatre style are subdividing into ever-finer distinctions, other musical styles are infiltrating the musical theatre world. We have rap musicals, jazz musicals, and folk musicals. We are moving away from a 2-way, or even a 4-way aesthetic into uncharted territory.

Singing teachers, then, face what seems like an impossible task: not only to train students in traditional legit, contemporary legit, traditional belt, contemporary belt, folk, jazz, pop, pop-rock, hard rock, rap– and the individual, specific variations on those styles to emulate specific artists in a plethora of current jukebox musicals– but also to anticipate what new stylistic idioms will emerge in the next 5, 10, or 15 years while these students work on establishing themselves. How can we possibly point these students toward multiple moving targets?

Several archaic or inadequate solutions come to mind. The first I will call the “ostrich strategy”: that is, to put our heads in the sand, ignore the problem, teach two ways of singing, and rest on the success of the few students who will find success in spite of our lazy instruction. The second is to try to teach 10-plus styles in the space of a 4-year curriculum (if we’re lucky enough to get that kind of timeline!) In this scenario, the student may end up with ten songs in her/his book without any stylistic consistency, leading agents to wonder, “Who is this actor?” Additionally, the student may not have a clear idea of where her/his strengths lie or the ability to extrapolate vocal skills to new material, since the focus has been on “getting it right” in so many specific pieces– aiming for specific sounds that may or may not be applicable in new contexts or as industry standards change. The third strategy might be to pigeonhole students early in an attempt to maximize training time. The problem here is that voices (especially college-age voices) will continue to change. Assigning a student to a vocal or character type early on is a true disservice, as it stifles creative thinking about self and career, and turns the student into a product. Artistic agency is dwindling for actors in the face of commercial theater, and we need to do what we can to slow the trend. Remember when we used to “create roles” rather than “fill tracks?”

The problem we’re identifying here relates to the concept of information literacy. In the so-called “information age” we can’t know all there is to know or all we might need to know over the course of a lifetime. So, in a modern classroom, the skill of information gathering is more important than the rote learning of facts.

Which leads us to The Big Idea: Vocal skills acquisition and ear training (i.e., critical listening skills, not music theory per se) are more useful than the learning of individual styles. That’s not to say that style is unimportant– it’s critical. However, vocal skills (from a physical standpoint) are the fundamentals that lay a groundwork for stylistic acquisition and must not be ignored.

There is no downside to vocal skills acquisition (or functional training,) especially at a young college level. Students with a high (even professional) level of proficiency will continue to develop in their preferred style– cross-training will only benefit those students, not harm them. Those with less expertise will best be served by training that opens many doors to them.

There is a resonance here with the idea of athletic cross-training. The New York Times reported in 2011 that the benefits of cross-training lie mostly in overall fitness, not in elite performance. But for vocalists at least, we might say that fitness (and thus longevity) is inseparable from elite performance. At a collegiate level, we are hoping to give our students a foundation of vocal health and coordination, not an end-product technique that’s ready at graduation but unable to sustain or adapt over the course of a career. Mid-career vocalists may choose to narrow their focus on one area of technique, but for students without a crystallized artistic persona or a foothold in the industry, vocal flexibility and adaptability are keys to both artistic and commercial success.

There is also a powerful resonance with the world of actor speech training. In this field, the “old school” approach required rote learning of a “standard” accent. This accent was often intended to replace the student’s own idiolect and was used as a sort of home base for learning other accents. In the singing world, one is reminded of a reactionary preference for classical training and the misguided idea that, “If you can sing classically, you can sing anything.” Both worlds reflect in their most conservative versions a “do as I do” oral pedagogy tradition, often imagery- (versus science-) based, with an explicit (and elitist) aesthetic bias.

The “new school” in the speech training world emphasizes skills acquisition, developing the student’s ear, and flexibility of production. These are worthy goals in the teaching of singing as well. To illustrate my point, I have replaced terms such as “actor” and “accent” with “singer” and “vocal style” in the following excerpt from an article by Dudley Knight in the Voice and Speech Review:

The ability to physically experience and isolate sound change in [singing] must precede learning any prescriptive pattern [vocal style]. If a [singer] learns the physical skills of [singing] production, if s/he gains flexibility of [vocal production] combined with muscularity of action, and if that [singer] can learn to perceive subtle gradations of sound change and feel where these are focused in the vocal tract and in the rest of the body, then the process of learning a… prescriptive pattern of any [vocal or musical style] will become very easy and take a relatively short period of instruction, thus obviating the need for lengthy rote drill on the “correct [anything…”placement,” etc.] Drill, to the degree that it needs to take place, should be focused on the muscular isolation of specific sounds.

Several of the guiding principles of Knight-Thompson Speechwork provide further guidance in articulating a modern approach to singing teaching. These principles state that the approach endeavors to separate inevitable individual aesthetic biases from the pedagogy itself and that the only “standard” that can be universally applied is intelligibility. Translating this concept to the world of singing, I would argue that the only constant standard we can apply is vocal health– aside from verifiably abusive behaviors, we must guard against limiting the vocal choices available to our students.

The cornerstone of the solution I’m proposing is skills-based functional training. In a recent position paper, the American Academy of Teachers of Singing labeled this kind of training “Twenty-First Century” pedagogy with its full endorsement. My understanding of this pedagogy includes the following characteristics: it’s fact-based pedagogy that demands that the instructor have knowledge of anatomy and physiology. It’s evidence-based, research-driven, and uses concrete, active language that provides achievable instruction.  This last point has a direct relationship with action-based acting. While emotion, imagery, aesthetic, and sensation have a place in the studio, they should be acknowledged as subjective experiences and flow generally from the student’s experience, not the teacher’s. This is the way to guard against aesthetic bias and maintain the student’s artistic agency. Other hallmarks of 21st-century pedagogy are a professional atmosphere of cooperation, dialogue, and investigation, and an interdisciplinary mindset.

Skills-based training uses an athletic model primarily– stylistic concerns, while vital, come second. A practice-based athletic model frees students from the burdensome idea of “vocal talent.” Discrete vocal skills can be taught, alongside critical listening skills, and as students gain more stylistic range and flexibility they learn to intimately understand and love their instrument in an experiential, concrete, kinesthetic way. Freedom from the prescriptivist “style police” early in training allows students to maintain a positive focus on their current strengths vs. getting caught in a deficit model of vocal study. It allows the teacher a positive experience also, as we can begin to acknowledge and appreciate what the student can do and expand from there– not only so they can imitate or recreate a broader range of styles later in training, but, more importantly, so they can be creative artists– possibly even pioneers. When we think of iconic voices, we need to remember that the most memorable and beloved vocalists were not taught to sound a certain way– they brought themselves fully to their vocal art. The bravery and humanity of that artistic impulse is what audiences are drawn to.