It’s been a busy summer (okay, a busy couple of years) but the website is back in action and packed with more information than ever. You can expect to see more posts on the blog coming up, but meanwhile, if you’re looking for a presenter for a workshop– for actors, singers, public speakers, yoga teachers, you name it– please check out the offerings under the “workshops” tab and get in touch. I want to help your group communicate with passion and presence.
I’ll be teaching speech courses at City College this fall and freelancing around the city. If you’re in New York, I’d love to see you. If not, drop me a line and let me know what you’re working on and what excites you about the world of voice, text, song, or speech. I’d love to hear from you.
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:
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.
Here’s my perspective to pass on to your friend. As you know, I have dealt with GERD on and off for years. I’ve tried all of the standard medical treatments, a bunch of home remedies and “alternative” treatments, and even had an experimental surgery performed on my stomach at one point. None of these things has proven to be effective in the long term. I have only found reliable relief from my GERD symptoms through effective stress management.
In my non-medical but informed opinion, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and its voice-disrupting partner laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) are caused by:
That’s really it in most cases. When the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the autonomic nervous system related to “rest and digest,” in opposition to the sympathetic “fight or flight” response) is chronically inhibited, lots of things go subtly wrong in the body. Nervous system pathways related to muscular effort are left in the “on” position, and those related to internal maintenance systems such as digestion are left off. Thus, the abdominal muscles may develop a slight chronic grip as we guard our soft parts from an imagined aggressor, putting upward pressure on the stomach contents and the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between stomach and esophagus.) Breathing may be affected, causing a subtle holding in the diaphragm, placing further downward pressure on the LES valve. At the same time, the digestive system is hampered– the acids and enzymes that digest food normally may be out of balance and the peristaltic movements of the smooth muscles that propel food along the alimentary canal can be weakened.
Many common treatments aim at the symptoms or mechanism of this problem without addressing the underlying cause– a chronic imbalance in the nervous system. For instance, the most common medical treatment involves proton pump inhibitor (PPI) medications, which shut down acid production in the stomach. We have to remember that the stomach is supposed to be a highly acidic environment– that is what breaks our food down into a digestible form and serves as a first line of defense against food-borne pathogens that can make us ill. PPI meds are a very temporary fix to the problem of GERD. Unfortunately, many people rely on these medications daily, for years. Without getting too political, I’ll point out that PPI meds are an ENORMOUS industry and people don’t seem to be suffering from GERD any less today than they were 20 years ago.
Another common treatment approach is to actually increase the acidity of the stomach, helping the digestive process along. This approach is embraced by many practitioners of alternative/”traditional” medicine. Some people hypothesize that the LES somehow “senses” the pH level of the stomach and closes tightly in response– when the pH level is not acidic enough, it relaxes, allowing the (still fairly caustic) stomach contents to travel upward. Again, treatments based on increasing acid with meals (incorporating coffee, wine, betaine HCl caplets available at health food stores, apple cider vinegar, etc.) can be a good temporary fix for some people, as it helps break down food and move it through the system. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t address the main issue– the digestive system has been thrown out of balance by the stress response in the brain.
Surgical interventions for GERD aim at tightening the LES or altering the angle between the LES and the stomach. Again, these solutions address the mechanism of reflux, but not the cause. I think it goes without saying that surgery should be a last resort.
The hardest solution of all (requiring even more discipline than typically-recommended lifestyle changes such as refraining from certain foods and raising the head of the bed)– but also the most practical solution in the long run– is to examine one’s lifestyle and find ways of introducing more “rest and digest” patterning into the mind on a behavioral and/or cognitive level. Activities that can be good for this might include:
Various forms of therapy
Time immersed in nature
…and the list goes on. Anything that gives one some perspective, joy, or serenity is a good starting place.
The breath is a good barometer and also a useful entry point to the psyche– three of the suggestions above deal directly with the breath. The others probably deal with breathing indirectly, and there are countless other examples.
My perspective has broadened slightly since I last visited this topic. I am no longer strongly “anti” any of the standard or non-standard treatments for GERD. They can all be useful stepping stones on the way to good health. But my interest is in a cure, not just treatment, and I’m convinced that real lasting relief from this decidedly modern epidemic can come through the mind in most cases.
Best wishes to you on your journey,
Addendum: I received this thoughtful response from Joanna Cazden, speech pathologist, voice specialist, Southern California:
Thanks for sending this, Jeremy.
I’m sorry that you had to get as far as surgery, but I generally agree with you that the causal factors — and best treatments/ repairs — are different for each person. PPI med’s are NOT free of side effects, but for people who are totally out of touch, and unwilling to do anything for themselves except take a pill, often the voice does benefit.
The only thing I’d add to your list of recommendations–for-most-people-to-consider: Probiotics.
In some cases the back ribs are misaligned, tweaking nerves and chem messengers so that gastric system is over-stimulated; I think there are genetic vulnerabilities too.
The general state of Conventional Medicine — and even alternative/complementary/integrative — reminds me of a story about Gandhi.
He was reportedly asked what he thought of western “civilization.” He said “I think it would be a good idea.”
So would reasonable health care — and we’re a long way from that.
My response to a NATS survey about belt/high belt singing:
My view is that belt/high belt/chest mix/head mix are not fundamentally different, but differ in their ratio of CT to TA and open/closed quotient– there are grey areas where these registers may overlap depending on the aesthetic of the singer and/or listener, which is one reason there is so much disagreement and controversy on the topic of registration. Throw in resonance variables and the confusion is compounded– how can we verifiably separate, in our ears, components of the sound that are truly due to registration– at the level of the vocal folds– and which are resonance– timbre components added after the phonatory event? The answer, of course, is that we can’t, especially in view of recent findings that suggest that vocal tract configuration affects phonation in complex ways. Nevertheless, I continue to teach from a functional standpoint, under the assumption that training the vocal musculature (strength, flexibility, balance, stamina) is more fundamental (and also more tangible) than endless resonance work. I also find that students respond to athletic analogies of practice and training better when we work with the muscles, and too much resonance work encourages many students’ mistaken idea that it’s possible to forgo rigorous practice in favor of a “magic button” vocal tract shape. That’s not to say that resonance doesn’t have an important place in the studio– simply that it should come after the voice is fairly well balanced in terms of registers.
Addendum: I should probably add that breath work is even more fundamental than phonatory function. So, the order of training follows a logical progression: excitor, vibrator, resonator.