In 1985, I was teaching singing and music theory in New York City, heading a music school on the East Side, and tutoring models from Zoli in speech. Then I began to be asked to work with actors on voice, and suddenly I was out of my book. I didn't know what I was doing. Yet, I had acted professionally in a range of venues, and had a Masters in vocal performance and a doctorate in education. None of that, however, prepared me to work with actors on voice. And so began my journey - and career change!
In 1986, a series of events led me to the other coast, where I met and studied with Rowena Balos - who opened my eyes and ears and heart to voice and text. Later that year, I met Catherine Fitzmaurice, whose work immediately became the core of my teaching and my personal practice. Catherine also pointed me in the direction of the Central School of Speech and Drama, London, and in 1989, I went back to school.
In Singing in Musical Theatre (2007), Gillyanne Kayes speaks of having to teach classes for eight hours straight when she first went to Rose Bruford, and about winding up in a voice clinic - not because of the way she was singing, but because of the way she was speaking. Her expertise in one area of voice training did not equate to expertise in another. Thus began her journey along a path that changed the direction of her career.
Although there are many common denominators between the training of singers and the voice training of actors, there are at least as many uncommon and unique skills that must be understood and mastered before attempting to teach in either area (See sample curricula).
In 2002, at a conference in Salzburg, Austria, I presented a workshop entitled, "Speaking and Singing with the Same Voice." Johan Sundberg was a participant, and almost immediately asked me a very pointed question. He said (paraphrased) "Are you suggesting that anyone who can speak well can also sing well?" I said, "No, of course not" and continued with a discussion of common denominators among techniques - ONE VOICE was still a year away from publication.
Dr. Sundberg's question was exceedingly well taken, and I've thought about it many times since that day. Classical singers spend years of painstaking training and practice to develop the technical skills and artistry required for a career in opera, as a Lieder singer, or as a specialist in New Music. Likewise, musical theatre singers spend a thoroughly focused period of time developing the skills to sing a wide range of material and styles. Jazz singers go through an amazing training process at conservatories, and pop/rock singers learn to handle vocally challenging material in ways that are technically sound and physiologically healthful. So, to suggest that someone who speaks well might automatically have some kind of singing expertise would indeed be absurd.
Nevertheless, what is generally overlooked outside the theatre community is that actors - who speak, laugh, cry, scream, shout, wail, and even sing - also go through an extensive training process. "Speaking" to the general public, and even to other vocal performers, is frequently taken for granted as a necessary, mundane communicative vocal activity, hardly worthy of consideration in the same sentence as "singing." To illustrate, at a national conference of singers several years ago, I attended a workshop in which the presenter said, "The 'speaking voice' has a range of approximately a fifth." And I thought, "Whose speaking voice? Certainly not the speaking voice of a trained actor!"
So there are blind spots even in professional circles. There are singing teachers who have never been inside a theatre voice class who will tell you they work with the "speaking voice." And there are - fewer of these, I think - voice teachers for actors who have never had a singing lesson in their lives, who will tell people to "Just sing!" Would you go into a class and tell students to "Just scream!" In some situations, either of those directives might be acceptable and appropriate. However, in Western culture generally, singing has become such a hothouse plant that emotional traumas often surround the activity, and misuse and abuse are rampant. Regardless of the situation, singing is an aerobic vocal activity, and the teacher who uses it had better know what s/he is doing!
There are teachers who advertise methods that have you "sing like you speak, naturally and easily." For some people, this will work; for others it will be confusing. "Sing like you speak" is helpful only if you speak well. And, to confuse matters further, you can speak in as many different ways as you can sing - which is news to anyone stuck in the "speaking voice" trap! We can change the shape of the vocal tract, speaking or singing. We can change the thickness of the vocal folds; we can manipulate the positions of the laryngeal cartilages; we can use more or less twang - indeed, the possible combinations of variables are over 5,000, according to Jo Estill. And we all have a pitch range, potentially, if not immediately available, of at least three octaves - singing, speaking, whining, crying, laughing, whimpering, calling.
Over the past few years I have focused on integrating the disciplines and seeing the connective links among trainings. However, as I observe well - meaning teachers stepping over into territory they do not know, without bothering to train - or even realizing they need to train - I am concerned. By all means, integrate singing techniques into theatre voice classes, and coach monologues as well as songs - if you know what you're doing. But do not attempt to work out of your book. The human voice is a precious, though resilient instrument, and particularly vulnerable in its role as singer. It can be injured, harmed and even destroyed by a teacher who does not thoroughly understand the dynamics of the particular performance medium.
Sample curricula for singers and singing teachers:
- Music Theory - focusing on styles periods from Renaissance to Contemporary
- Music History and Literature
- Italian, German and French diction (classical training)
- Art Song, Opera, and/or other Genres
- Improvisation - for jazz majors
- Piano - including a proficiency exam
- Electronic music, ethnomusicology, and/or performance practices
- Vocal Pedagogy - including a survey of major singing styles and approaches to teaching
- Acting for Singers - in some programs
- Alexander Technique - in some programs
- Individual singing lessons at least weekly; coaching for recitals and for roles in productions.
Sample curricula for actors and theatre voice specialists:
- Speech, phonetics, accents and dialects
- Movement training, e.g., Laban, Suzuki, yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Viewpoints
- Practical work in voice from a variety of perspectives, e.g., Fitzmaurice, Linklater, Lessac, Rodenburg
- Period Styles
- Singing for the Actor - in some programs
- Stage Combat - in some programs
- Microphone techniques - in some programs
- Acting - from a variety of major approaches
- Theatre History
- Text Analysis
- Performance classes in:
- Poetic text
- Prose text
- Dramatic text
- Acting for film - in some programs
- Playwriting and/or directing
Individual coaching for roles in productions.
Rowena Balos, www.rowenabalos.com
Jo Estill, www.evts.com.
Catherine Fitzmaurice, www.fitzmauricevoice.com.
Melton, J. & Tom, K. 2003. ONE VOICE: Integrating Singing Technique and Theatre Voice Training. Portsmouth: Heinemann. www.onevoicebook.com.
Melton, J. 2007. Singing in Musical Theatre: The Training of Singers and Actors. New York: Allworth.