In the song “Hard Work” from the musical Fame, the students of the High School for the Performing Arts vow that they’ll “show the world that I can make it… by doing hard work.”
Virtually no one will deny that the path to becoming a musical theatre professional requires lots of hard work. To support this reality, many philosophies exist regarding the training of pre-professional musical theatre performers in preparation for the industry, as well as the continued training of professional performers as they maintain previously gained skills and develop new ones
Whether you’re looking for a training program, teacher/coach, and/or ways to continue developing skills on your own, here are five tenants fundamental to my own approach that I believe contribute to solid philosophies of industry-geared training in general:
- The training of professional musical theatre performers is a fully integrated endeavor.
Richard Rodgers once observed that “In a great musical, the orchestrations sound the way the costumes look.” Just as Rodgers believed that a quality orchestrator becomes engrossed in the costumer’s renderings (and all aspects of a production’s creation), so too must the musical theatre educator view the training of students in a holistic way. Acting and voice meld to become one entity, as do voice and body. Acting tactics and their expression through the voice and body synergize to form something entirely new, unique and colorful.
Musical theatre trainers should seek not only to approach their work in a highly collaborative way, but even more importantly to inspire and actively encourage student performers to do the same. The more a musical theatre performer is able to synergize — both philosophically and practically — the multiple aspects inherent to his or her work, the more prepared he or she will be for success in the industry.
- Song work begins with — and centers on — the action.
I believe that a foundational tenant of solid training philosophies is to approach songs in musicals from an acting perspective first. Through my years of experience as both vocal coach and technician, I’ve come to find that establishing the specifics of a song’s action (via given circumstances, objectives and tactics) lays a groundwork that later proves critical to technical concerns for vocalizing the piece.
At one time my process was to begin work on a song — whether solo or ensemble number — from the vocal side of things. I’d first work on vowel modifications, issues of placement and timbre, navigating the song’s tessitura, addressing passaggio concerns, and similar parameters regarding the song’s vocal delivery. But as my work as a coach-technician and musical director continued to develop, I began to notice that when I approached songs from an acting perspective initially, many of the decisions to be made regarding their vocal execution started to fall much more naturally into place.
Not only had I found a more efficient way to utilize precious time on a student’s song; I’d also realized that high-quality musical theatre songs are made with a multi-ingredient recipe. A well-made song, like its interpretation, begins with acting at its core, then stirs in the voice as a conduit for expressing those specific acting choices.
- Voice = Body.
I always tell students that if I could leave them with just one thought about the voice, it would be that the voice is not the larynx alone. It is the body itself; the two are inextricable from one another. From the legs to the crown of the head, the pelvis to each cervical vertebra, the slightest adjustment to even the most seemingly unconnected part of the body results in greatly nuanced results with regard to vocal production.
Students must be taught to “play the instrument” that is the body in optimal ways according to its design. In my view, awareness is everything to the musical theatre performer. She must be aware of the specific tactics driving her characterization; he must be aware of the variety of ways to express these tactics through both body and voice.
First, one must develop fundamental skills that promote healthy, sustainable use of the voice in the vocally acrobatic pursuits of our industry. Second, the natural colors, shadings, and parameters particular to the individual student’s instrument are honed, so that the performer retains his or her versatility while also possessing the ability to craft unique, exciting interpretations.
- Teaching a student “to fish” is key to his or her success in the industry.
Throughout a student’s training, one must learn to navigate the passaggio, mix with clarity, and act with conviction. One must learn to know one’s body as an instrument, be a gracious and collaborative scene partner, and access the chest register. These and countless other skills are crucially important to the student. What is just as critical, however, is to train the pre-professional musical theatre performer to be able to function independently as a member of the profession — “to fish so she’ll eat for a lifetime.” Students must learn how to identify outstanding audition cuts for their books, say, or diagnose the reasons that a particular note might be coming out under-pitch, or to hear when their sound is being overproduced (and on and on). Of course, continuous and consistent instruction throughout a performer’s career is the ideal pursuit, but one should be able to address basic concerns on one’s own during those times when access to formal training is not a possibility.
While learning to function independently, students must also be made aware of resources available to them in the professional arena, and to be able to find success in seeking out resources on their own. Similar to the ways in which a researcher is taught to identify potential resources within his or her discipline during doctoral research training, it is critical that the musical theatre performer regularly receives — in tandem with skill building — active direction from the teacher on ways in which to continue developing professionally in addition to lessons, classes and coaching sessions.
An especially important component of teaching the student “to fish” is the teacher’s ability to educate him or her on the signs of vocal misuse that could, if left unaddressed, lead to pathology. With the vocal demands of the musical theatre industry requiring ever-higher ranges and increasingly versatile stylistic abilities, it behooves the student to become his or her own first line of defense where vocal health is concerned — and to know when to seek medical attention if necessary.
- Excellent trainers of musical theatre performers model passion, dedication, work ethic and fun — and expect the same of their students.
In today’s increasingly competitive musical theatre market, performers-in-training must learn both past and present, Golden Age and contemporary. They must have exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan, Bock and Harnick, and Bono and the Edge alike if they are to thrive professionally. Students must develop as artists honing their crafts while at once becoming savvy strategists, knowing their core types while at the same time demonstrating versatility and flexibility.
Just as the musical theatre industry is not for the faint of heart, the training ground for musical theatre performers must mirror to a degree the environment into which students will be introduced upon graduation. Students can only be expected to be as dedicated as those who teach them. Their work ethic can not be expected to exceed that of their mentors, and the passion of those who instruct and guide them must be evident to each student as an individual. Trainers must be invested in their students’ professional success beyond the immediate halls of the institutions in which they work together.
But in addition to all of the blood, sweat and tears that is the training arena of budding pre-professionals, it is the distinct responsibility of the musical theatre educator to establish an environment rich with fun, inspiration and excitement. After all, no one would choose to pursue a career in the field of the performing arts if the vocation didn’t offer such rewards. As educators of pre-professionals and professionals alike, we as trainers of the musical theatre performer are charged with embodying for our students all of the joys and vitality that musical theatre holds. And that, perhaps, is one of the greatest privileges of sharing our knowledge with the next generation of artists to take the musical stage.