Music Theater and Classical Singing: At Odds Personally and Professionally

By Hall, Karen | Journal of Singing, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Music Theater and Classical Singing: At Odds Personally and Professionally


Hall, Karen, Journal of Singing


As A CHILD, I DEVELOPED A LOVE for music, especially voice and piano, because of the music I heard in church, secular music events, and music theater productions I attended with my mother. My positive response to these events played a large role in why my mother enrolled me in private piano lessons at the age of eight. After a few years of piano instruction, I asked to take singing lessons. Again, she enrolled me in lessons. In high school, I began singing in the school chorus, continued taking private voice and piano, and studied selections from music theater and classical repertoire. Because of these experiences, I decided upon voice as a major in college. At the university level, only lessons in classical voice production were offered, so I left behind my music theater roots. After graduating, I did perform professionally in several music theater productions, but most of my performance experience has been in classical genres.

In 1991, when I began teaching at the university level, I taught applied classical voice. Several years later, I was hired to teach at The Boston Conservatory and, as a new teacher, I was required to teach all music theater majors. This was a crossroads experience. These students were using terms and making sounds outside of my teaching and performing experience. They also had a different personal energy than the classical students I was used to teaching. Intrigued, I resisted my impulse to impose a classical technique; I decided to pay attention and learn from them. For the most part, the sounds they were making were healthy, but they were certainly not sounds I was used to hearing in classical singing. These young women and men were singing in the mix/belt style. They told me they had learned this technique from a teacher in high school or, in most cases, had figured it out on their own.

While teaching the music theater students at The Boston Conservatory, I found that I needed to adapt my teaching methods. Clearly, classical vocal technique, vocabulary, and repertoire were, in most instances, not appropriate for these students. Furthermore, there were few instructional materials available to assist me in transitioning from teaching classical to music theater singing. As I taught these students, I developed strategies for teaching music theater vocal techniques, figured out appropriate repertoire for the multitude of styles that these students needed to master, and developed a vocabulary to teach music theater singing and styles. During my second year at The Boston Conservatory, I began to pursue a doctoral degree in education. As I was thinking about a dissertation topic, the idea for an introductory guide for teaching music theater voice pedagogy and styles, designed for experienced classical teachers, began to germinate. Research for my dissertation accentuated the need for such a guide.

A 2003 survey conducted by LoVetri and Weekly reveals that singing teachers' understanding of music theater pedagogy and styles is sketchy at best.1 The survey results show a lack of teacher training, confusion over the use and application of music theater terms, and deficiencies in auditory output, that is, the ability to recognize and hear the music theater sounds.

In the LoVetri and Weekly survey, results show that only 56 (45%) of the 124 respondents who teach music theater singing had any training in the genre.2 Since most voice pedagogy training centers on classical voice production and falls under the jurisdiction of classical music departments, most teachers have little training in nonclassical singing pedagogy and styles.3 As mentioned before, the voice pedagogy necessary to sing in these styles, while rooted in the classical tradition, is significantly different from classical production in both pedagogy and style.

In regard to terminology, thirty-three percent of teachers in the survey reported they used music theater terms when teaching but declined to define these same terms. …

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